Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Daniel Fusch: "The Unmiraculous Miracle"

Daniel Fusch
Editor, Dante’s Heart
Director of Research, Academic Impressions

The Discourse of the Unmiraculous Miracle: Touching for the King’s Evil in Stuart England

1> Almost immediately upon his coronation, James I revived the ritual of “touching” to cure scrofula, or the King’s Evil, a healing rite that James’ predecessor had used only sparingly during her reign. In this rite, the monarch touches a coin to a diseased subject’s eyes or forehead, or lays hands on the subject and then hangs a coin about the subject’s neck like a pendant. The subject is then presumed to be marvelously cured, and retains the coin as a sign of the cure. In England the ritual dated back almost to the time of the Norman Conquest, but had fallen into some disuse after the Reformation. However, James performed this ceremony frequently—frequently enough, in fact, to draw comment from Shakespeare in Macbeth 4.3.

2> This paper will consider Shakespeare’s ambivalence concerning the ritual in that passage within the context of contemporaneous cultural discourses—including medical texts, monarchic edicts, and public prayer. In doing so, this paper will challenge the prevailing critical assumption that the Stuart monarchy continued the rite of touching with great hesitancy, arguing instead that James I reinstated and promoted the rite actively. By applying public prayer as both the primary form of discourse in which to present his views on the ritual and the form in which to enact the rite, James was able to strip from the ritual any explicit claim of a miraculous occurrence, while at the same time asserting the efficacy of the miracle. James implicitly defended the ethical benefit of the ceremony while revising the form and public definition of the ritual for an early modern and skeptical audience.

3> First, consider the concerns of James’ contemporaries that made such a revision necessary. Shakespeare’s description of the rite distills much of the contemporary debate over both the ethical import and efficacy of the ceremony. In Macbeth 4.3, Macduff, visiting England, hears of the ritual and then asks Malcolm to explain it:

"Doct. Ay, sir; there are a crew of wretched souls
That stay his cure. Their malady convinces
The great assay of art; but at his touch,
Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand,
That presently amend.

Mal. I thank you, doctor. Exit [Doctor].

Macd. What’s the disease he means?

Mal. ‘Tis call’d the evil:
A most miraculous work in this good King,
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits Heaven,
Himself best knows; but strangely-visited people,
All swoll’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures;
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers, and ‘tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
And sundry blessings hang about his throne
That speak him full of grace."

4> On the one hand, Shakespeare’s description of the rite is lavish in its praise of the monarch and in its affirmation that the ritual is a sacred and holy matter, “a healing benediction” and one of various “heavenly gifts” that the king has brought to his realm. Yet, as Deborah Willis notes in her study of the “touching” rite, Malcolm’s explanation “registers even the moments of uneasiness” about the ritual, such as the uncertainty as to what agency (monarchical, divine, or diabolical) provides the cure.
[ii] The unease in the scene is a counter-reaction to the Doctor’s unequivocal statement, “Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand.” After the Doctor’s exit, Malcolm betrays his unease with this unqualified interpretation of the rite when he comments, “How he solicits Heaven, / Himself best knows.” The remark both raises and dismisses that anxiety.

5> James himself was careful to avoid any mention of the “touching” rite being either magical or marvelous, though Shakespeare or others of his subjects were free to decide that it was “a most miraculous work.” James even had the traditional touchpieces altered, so that the coins’ inscription, formerly A Domino factum est istud et est mirabile (“This is done by God and it is marvelous”), was shortened to A Domino factum est istud (“This is done by God”), an inscription which remained in use for the rest of the century.
[iii] The new inscription, like the old, attributes the healing to divine power, so that the king is merely the ceremonial vessel or vehicle for that power and not its source, but the new inscription places no emphasis on the marvelous nature of the cure. The word “mirabile,” and with it any verbal suggestion of wonder or ritual magic, has been excised from the language of the ritual. We could also recall James’ public and often-quoted insistence, at his first observance of the rite, that “neither he nor any other King can in truth have the power to heal the disease called the Evil, the age of miracles being past.”[iv] At this occasion James must have realized that the divided factions of England were watching his ritual intently and with urgent concerns as to what his rhetoric would imply for the church and the spiritual health of his people.

6> In reference to such monarchic statements, Deborah Willis remarks that “James’ qualms are well documented”
[v]; similarly, Crawfurd concludes that James was “anxious to discontinue the practice of touching, expressing disbelief,” and that he was reluctant to support that “superstition.”[vi] Marc Bloch, in his study The Royal Touch, even goes so far as to claim that James’ succession “came near to dealing it [the touching rite] a mortal blow.”[vii] These critics point to the evidence of James’ spoken skepticism about the miraculous nature of the rite, as well as the monarch’s removal of et est mirabile from the coins. Crawfurd also notes that the written Service of Healing as used by James I “contains no instruction at all as to the actual touching of the sore place, so that the abandoning of this detail of the ritual may presumably referred to James.”[viii] Crawfurd also quotes Heylyn’s 1659 Animadversions of Fuller’s Church History to the effect that James may have replaced the traditional gesture of the physical touching of the diseased with “gently drawing both his hands over the sore at the reading of the first Gospel.” [ix] Yet later in his argument Crawfurd ascribes the possible omission of the physical touch not to James’ religious aversion for the miracle but instead to his personal aversion for physical contact with “the outward manifestations of disease.”[x]

7> I contend that James’ public “qualms” do not reflect the reality of his policy concerning ritual, and that his replacement of a traditionally Catholic gesture (i.e., touching the supplicant’s brow, or perhaps making the Sign of the Cross over the sore) with a Protestant one (i.e., the gentle drawing of the hands over the sore after a scriptural reading) within the ceremony does not indicate a distaste for the ritual itself. Consider that the performance of this ritual was one of James’ first royal actions in England. Far from doing away with the ceremony, with this rite James initiated an extensive program of reviving and preserving ceremonies while simultaneously divesting them of the language of magic and wonder (The Book of Sports was a later part of this same program). James attempted to perform visible miracles while insisting that nothing miraculous was occurring.

8> Though James’ insistence that the age of miracles was past appears to indicate a more skeptical attitude toward ritual wonder, one might note several pieces of evidence to the contrary. For one, James I was the first English monarch to have touchpieces minted purely for the purpose of ritual healing, separate from the angels minted as coin of the realm. As Crawfurd himself notes:

"A document in the Public Record Office, dated April 10, 1611, is a warrant to the Treasurer and Under Treasurer of the Exchequer, and shows that ‘healing Angels’ were specially minted to his order. A similar warrant, dated Sept. 16, 1624, commands the provision of fine gold for the making."

9> James’ order for touchpieces that have no purpose other than a ritual one indicates a desire to emphasize the sanctity of the rite. The new coins did not function as currency, but only as ritual and marvelous artifacts—“as a talisman possessing its own intrinsic medicinal power.”
[xii] By the end of James’ reign, there was even a thriving black market in which these angels were assigned value not as currency but as holy relics, or even as cures themselves:

". . . there was a considerable trade in these talismans. Sick people who were unable, for one reason or another, to visit the court in person, or were perhaps frightened by the expense of the journey, used to buy these coins, with the idea of thus acquiring—no doubt at a reduced cost—some share in the miraculous benefits distributed by the sacred hand of the sovereign."

10> The existence of such a market indicates a popular faith in the sanctity of the ritual and its efficacy for healing; the angels were widely sought and even purchased, and the ceremonies themselves were well attended under both James I and Charles I. There were also a number of popular stories about relapses after disposal of the coins.

11> A further evidence that James (and his successor) had no desire of discontinuing this ritual is the frequency with which he observed it. In fact, specific times of the year were prescribed for the ceremony; later, under Charles I, James’ successor, there were even specific days reserved, so that “fixed times were prescribed for healing, fourteen days before and after Easter and Michaelmas respectively.”
[xv] The establishing of ceremonial times indicates that despite stated anxieties James and his successor found the ritual not only appealing but necessary, and that so many supplicants were arriving at the court on a regular basis that it became necessary to set specific times for the observance of the ritual, to have any order. The fact that Charles I issued repeated proclamations—in 1626, 1628, 1629, 1630, 1631, 1634, and 1635[xvi]—to insist on the observance of these dates, and not others, also attests the enduring appeal of the ritual to the populace, who kept arriving at court regardless of the appointed dates.

12> After his initial revival of the rite in 1603, James continued the ritual for curing the king’s evil in the face of growing skepticism. This skepticism took several forms. Notably, there were those who doubted that the healing took place at all, and thought it a scam, a ceremony designed to delude the people, rather on a level with the Catholic Church’s invention of purgatory; Bloch cites a case of public skepticism in England as early as 1547, voiced by one Nicholas Ridley, which prompted an immediate rebuke from a bishop, who insisted that the healing was “a gift from God.”
[xvii] Later, Elizabeth’s chaplain published a book that denounced “touching” as a “popular superstition.”[xviii] By James’ time, Willis notes that there were at least three disparate views of the ritual, what she calls “a promiscuous mix of beliefs” (though “troubled” might be a better word here than “promiscuous”). First, touching might be a secular miracle, in which the healing is “the product of a supernatural power inhering in the king’s person”; second, it might be a religious rite, in which the monarch serves as intercessor between the afflicted and God; or third, it might be mere spectacle, as one of James’ own contemporaries insisted, calling the rite “a device to aggrandize the virtue of kings when miracles were in fashion.”[xix] This discordant variety of opinion shows the anxiety that the ritual could provoke. From popular “miracle” tracts to medical treatises, contemporary literature on the touching wrestled with the possible definitions of the ritual. For example, William Clowes’ Right fruitful and approved treatise, for the artificial cure of that malady called in Latin Struma, and in English, the evil (1602) acknowledges that this “disease repugnant to nature” is cured by the monarch’s “sacred hands,” yet insists on a study of what he calls “artificial” (rather than divine) gifts, medicinal and magical cures handed down by the ancients.[xx] Clowes manages to evade concerns that such a chirurgical study may be inappropriate for a Protestant scholar by remarking, as doctors even in the seventeenth century frequently did (one might compare Sir Thomas Browne’s tolerance of the ceremonies of disparate spiritual traditions, in Religio Medici[xxi]), “if I find…anything that may be to the good of the patients, and better increase of my knowledge & skill in the art of chirurgery, be it either in Galen or Paracelsus; yea, Turk, Jew, or any other infidel: I will not refuse it, but be thankful to God for the same” (Clowes, EEBO, image 3).[xxii] James I, in a more public position, could not take such a cavalier attitude toward the anxieties of his audience.

13> Deborah Willis interprets the ritual, via Greenblatt, as a “Protestant ‘evacuation’ of a medieval belief, in which the magical content of the belief is emptied out, while its form is made available for a new, metaphorical use.”
[xxiii] However, when we review the actual changes to the rite, we find the opposite: that the magic and the belief in a miraculous transformation remained, while the form and rhetoric of the rite changed. For James, it was all right to do the magic, so long as he called it something else. By remarkable fortune, we have a description of James’ public prayer at his first observance of the ritual, which makes this point clear. The description is in a letter dated October 8, 1603, discovered in the Archives of the Vatican by Crawfurd. This letter to the holy See is primarily concerned with judging James’ religious affiliations and his treatment of the various religious factions in England. In reference to the touching rite, the letter reports:

". . . when some of these patients were presented to him in his ante-chamber, he first had a prayer offered by a Calvinist minister, and then remarked that he was puzzled as to how to act. From one point of view he did not see how the patient could be cured without a miracle, and nowadays miracles had ceased and no longer happened: so he was afraid of committing a superstitious act. From another point of view, however, inasmuch as it was an ancient usage and for the good of his subjects, he resolved to give it a trial, but only by way of prayer, in which he begged all present to join him, and then he touched the sick folk."

14> James was probably “puzzled” in fact, not merely in show: he had recently been presented with the Millenary Petition by the more radical reformers, and the bishops were at his side insisting that he drive those reformers out of England. The letter to the Vatican shows James caught between opposing viewpoints and making a public show of reluctance, a type of momentary hedging of bets that would later be belied by his frequent observance of the ritual and by his proclamations—such as the Book of Sports—in support of other ceremonies that had been declared superstitious by factions in the Church.

15> At the first performance of the touching rite, James had to decide what to do with a complex issue, apparently at the spur of the moment. James acknowledges and even sympathizes with the anxieties about the rite; additionally, he voices the concern that the ritual may not actually work. Because the age of miracles is past, the ritual may not actually achieve a healing or reformation of the sick; the matter must be put to trial. However, once the prayer has been offered and the subject has been “touched,” the ritual is presumed to have in fact cured the subject, and therefore the observance of the ritual does enact a miracle, putting the lie to James’ statement that the age of miracles is past. In fact, each time that he performs this rite, a miracle officially takes place. The one stipulation is that it not be called a miracle (thus, et est mirabile must be stricken from the coins).

16> Despite his stated concerns, then, James defends the ceremony by declaring it to be “for the good of his subjects” (a comment which echoes his stance on ritual in Basilokon Doron
[xxv]), and he refashions the form of the medieval ceremony for a contemporary, Protestant audience. For this audience, the marvel will be achieved “only by way of prayer.” By including everyone present in that prayer—“he begged all present to join him”—James calls them all, courtiers, representatives of the Church, and suppliants alike, to be participants in the ceremony. He implicates them in both the perils and the possibilities of the ritual, and then unites them in their observance of the ritual and in their experience of the magical healing. The prayer prepares them for a wonder and attempts to disarm their anxieties.

17> For all these reasons, James probably had fewer qualms about reinstating the ritual than has been suggested, though he maintained a rhetoric of skepticism in order to conciliate the prevailing religious anxieties about the ceremony. For James, the rite must have affirmed the sanctity of the monarch and of his relationship to the nation, and promoted the health of the realm in two senses: 1) it was meant to cure a physical ailment and a disfigurement that was widespread in England (i.e., scrofula); 2) it was meant to cure spiritual divisions, which are the spiritual disfigurements of church and nation – and James attempted such a cure by inviting and including dissenters in the ritual via the opening prayer. This position—that ritual offers occasion for spiritual health and the fashioning of unity for the realm—would become a central and controversial tenet in James’ asystematic but vigorous royal policy.


[i] Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 4.3.141-59.

[ii] Willis, Deborah. “The Monarch and the Sacred: Shakespeare and the Ceremony for the Healing of the King’s Evil.” True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, eds. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992. 147-168. 158.

[iii] Crawfurd, Raymond. The King’s Evil. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911. 88.

[iv] qtd. in Willis, 149.

[v] Willis, 167. Note 5.

[vi] Crawfurd, 82.

[vii] Bloch, Marc. The Royal Touch: Monarchy and Miracles in France and England. J. E. Anderson, trans. 1961. New York: Dorset Press, 1989. 191.

[viii] Crawfurd, 87.

[ix] Ibid., 88.

[x] Ibid, 87.

[xi] Ibid, 89.

[xii] Bloch, 182.

[xiii] Ibid., 183.

[xiv] Ibid., 183.

[xv] Crawfurd, 89-90, 93.

[xvi] Charles I. “By the King. A proclamation for the better direction of those who desire to repaire to the court, for the cure of their disease, called, the Kings euill.” Imprinted by Robert Barker, printer to the king, in 1626, 1628, 1629, 1630, 1631, 1634, and 1635. EEBO, British Library, STC (2nd ed.) / 8829; STC (2nd ed.) / 8895; STC (2nd ed.) / 8928; STC (2nd ed.) / 8942; STC (2nd ed.) / 8973; STC (2nd ed.) / 9013; STC (2nd ed.) / 9040.

[xvii] Bloch, 189.

[xviii] Ibid., 182.

[xix] qtd. in Willis, 150.

[xx] Clowes, William. “A right frutefull and approoued treatise, for the artificiall cure of that malady called in Latin Struma, and in English, the evill . . . .” EEBO, British Library, 879:12.

[xxi] Browne, Sir Thomas. “Religio Medici.” Religio Medici, Hydrotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus. Robin Robbins, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 18-34.

[xxii] Clowes, EEBO, image 3.

[xxiii] Willis, 151.

[xxiv] qtd. in Crawfurd, 83.

[xxv] James I. “Basilokon Doron.” James I: The Works. A Series of Reprints Selected by Bernard Fabian, Edgar Mertner, Karl Schneider, and Marvin Spevack. New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1971.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

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