Scrofula

There’s a short section in Act 4 of Macbeth where Malcolm and Macduff, having fled Scotland, are standing around a church waiting for the English King to finish his service, unaware that part of his duties include touching sufferers of “the King’s Evil”. This was a popular name for a very nasty disease called scrofula, which is a form of tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes in the neck (although some very rare cases are non-tubercular, over 95% of cases are).

It starts as a chronic, painless mass in the neck that gradually grows bigger and turns bluish-purple. It’s known as a “cold abscess” because there is no localised reddening or heat that one usually gets with an inflammation. It may also be accompanied by fever, lethargy and weight loss if it is tubercular in origin. It will also be quite infectious, especially if the lesions rupture and become an open wound. These days it is usually treated with high doses of antibiotics (surgical treatment carries a great risk of spreading the disease to other organs) but for many hundreds of years, a trip to the Royal Palace would have been the thing to do.

The idea that the touch of the monarch would cure the disease stemmed from the Middle Ages, and is a direct effect of the divine right of kings. It was believed that the anointed monarch was God’s representative on earth and, as such, the touch of the monarch bestowed the same grace and benefits as a divine blessing. The 1633 Book of Common Prayer even contained a ceremony for sufferers to be touched by the monarch, although it is reported that some kings and queens found it offensive to do so. Still, duty called, and the tradition continued until George I decided it was “too Catholic” and put a stop to it. Part of the ceremony included the gift of an “angel”, a gold coin valued at about 8 shillings – a lot of money for peasants to have at any one time.

Anyway, it’s interesting that this scene, although short – and leading up to a key moment for Macduff – illustrates so much about the nature of Macbeth’s reign. We spend next to no time in the English Court – I think this one scene is it – and yet these throwaway comments demonstrate that the English king had a divine right to be on the throne, unlike the murderous and usurping Macbeth. What would James I have made of this, being also James VI of Scotland? Well, he would have agreed with it since tradition had it that the monarchs of Scotland were descended from Banquo (Shakespeare also alludes to this in Act 4, with the third apparition produced by the witches), whom Macbeth has also murdered. Macbeth is never shown with any form of divine grace at all; and it’s strongly implied that if Macbeth had tried to cure scrofula with the Royal Touch, he would have caught it as well.

With the increase in immunocompromised persons – those suffering from cancer, HIV and so on – there has been a recent increase in cases of tuberculosis, so I suspect it will only be a matter of time before we see a resurgence in cases of scrofula. Should you, the reader, be so unlucky please do not bother to go to Buckingham Palace on the off-chance. A trip to the doctors would be much better for you in the long run.

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