Posts tagged scrofula

A sufferer of scrofula receiving the “Royal Touch” from Queen Mary I of England, 16th century.

A sufferer of scrofula receiving the “Royal Touch” from Queen Mary I of England, 16th century.

Cauterization of Scrofula
Cauterization of scrofula is actually a very effective way to prevent recurrence after excision of the lymph nodes themselves. Arabic and Middle-Eastern medicine was worlds ahead of Middle-Ages Europe, and was the last bastion of the classical medicine known to the Greeks and Romans (such as what Galen taught). The knowledge that they preserved provided a foundation for Europe to once again explore medicine when the middle-age mentality of “Church only/science is not important” finally began to recede.

Cauterization of Scrofula

Cauterization of scrofula is actually a very effective way to prevent recurrence after excision of the lymph nodes themselves. Arabic and Middle-Eastern medicine was worlds ahead of Middle-Ages Europe, and was the last bastion of the classical medicine known to the Greeks and Romans (such as what Galen taught). The knowledge that they preserved provided a foundation for Europe to once again explore medicine when the middle-age mentality of “Church only/science is not important” finally began to recede.

Those afflicted with “king’s evil” gather ‘round the king to receive the Royal Touch in hopes of a cure.

Those afflicted with “king’s evil” gather ‘round the king to receive the Royal Touch in hopes of a cure.

Behind the Terminology: “King’s Evil”

One of the terms in my first post on archaic terminology was something called “scrofula”, which is (or was) also called “King’s Evil”.

This condition is simply a tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes of the neck*. Technically, it’s called “tuberculous cervical lymphadeniasis”. If you look at the second two words in that name, it tells you a lot about the condition itself: cervical means that it pertains to a neck. Lymphadeniasis means three things: lymph- is the lymph in the body, obviously, but the etymology of the term brings us back to Latin, and lympha, meaning a clear water. -aden- comes from the Latin term adenoideus, meaning a gland. Finally, -iasis is a Latin/Greek suffix that means a process or morbid condition.

Knowing all of that, it’s easy to determine that tuberculous cervical lymphadeniasis is a tubercular condition of the lymph nodes of the neck.

Etyology of Scrofula

The term scrofula has a pretty interesting history of its own without even invoking the monarchy, so let’s start there. Scrofula is actually a diminutive form of the Latin term “scrofa" - a breeding sow! Etymologists aren’t sure the exact reason it was given that name, but there are two theories:

The first is that pigs were thought to be prone to the disease - swine do get tuberculosis, so that would make sense. The other theory is that it comes from the thought that people looked like a sow due to the extreme swelling of the lymph nodes - this seems ridiculous on the surface, but it makes a lot more sense once you see people who are afflicted.

History of King’s Evil

Scrofula being known as King’s Evil is a tradition going back to the High Middle Ages, with Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) in England, and Phillip I (1052-1108) in France. 

The monarchy of those two countries was believed to have the “royal touch”, which could cure diseases and bless people, due to the divine right of sovereigns. Given that Edward the Confessor was supposed to have received this right straight from God by way of Saint Regimius, it was seen as a blood right - and thus, something that was passed to all those who succeeded Edward (with his bloodline). 

The fact that the monarchy was seen as having this “royal touch” also gave them the civic responsibility to make themselves available to lay on hands to members of the public. From the time of Edward the Confessor all the way to Queen Anne (d. 1714) in England and Louis XV (ceased practice in mid 18th century) in France, the monarchy of those two countries continued to receive the infected public, often with great pomp and ceremony.

From the late 1400s on, it was also believed that you could be cured by touching a special coin or embossed medallion blessed by the monarchy. In 1633, the Book of Common Prayer (Anglican) contained an official ceremony for laying on of hands and presentation of “touchpieces" (the blessed coins and medallions). Even with the ceremony in an Anglican holy book, King George I of England called the practice “too Catholic”, and declined to continue it after Queen Anne died in 1714.

In the nearly 700 years of the use of the royal touch, there were countless numbers of people who presented their King’s Evil (and sometimes a couple other afflictions) to the monarchy. Charles II alone is said to have touched 90,000 people between 1660 and 1682. That’s a LOT of swollen necks hanging around the country.

*Generally. However, some cases of “scrofula” were simply skin or general conditions that could resemble TB of the lymph nodes, such as syphilis or mumps.

Sources/Further Reading:

Science Museum UK: King’s Evil

Encyclopedia Britannica: King’s Evil

Medscape Reference: Scrofula

Gobbet o’ Pus: The Kings Evil  (5-minute MP3 case study of clinical presentation of scrofula by Dr. Mark Crislip - written and presented for medical students learning about Infectious Diseases - if you have a base knowledge of medicine and like ID, I highly recommend the podcast, despite a few issues with pacing/editing.)

"Endemic Scrofula"
Descriptions des maladies de la peau. Baron Jean Louis Alibert, 1755.

"Endemic Scrofula"

Descriptions des maladies de la peau. Baron Jean Louis Alibert, 1755.