Thursday, April 24, 2008

"'Twas the most dangerous sickness that ever I had."

{Engravings from Chambers' Book of Days (1869) of touch-pieces given by the sovereign to subjects whom he or she touched for the King's Evil.}

Yesterday I featured a passage from John Aubrey's Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects (1696) about a man, Arise Evans, whom Aubrey had been informed had cured his "fungous nose" by rubbing it on the hand of King Charles II.

Perhaps Aubrey's parents should have availed themselves of that remedy when he was a boy; according to his own sketchy biographical notes that open my edition of the Miscellanies, he was born "very weak and like to Dye" and was "therefore christned that morning before Prayer," just in case. Christening may I suppose have healed his soul, but it did nothing for his general infirmity:
About three or four years old I had a grievous ague, I can remember it. I got not health till eleven or twelve, but had sickness of Vomiting every 12 hours every fortnight for years, then it came monthly for then quarterly then half yearly, the last was in June 1642.
After that litany of suffering--which, in its odd regularity sounds more like a haunting than an infection--Aubrey hardly needs to add, "This sickness nipt my strength in the bud." Unexpectedly, he survived and grew to manhood--at which point, if his account is to be believed, he immediately replaced the specter of fatal illness with the dangers of drowning, spills from horses, and violent death. But those are details for another day.

A full century after Aubrey's boyhood, Samuel Johnson's parents did carry him into the royal presence in search of a healing touch. In his case, the ailment was scrofula, commonly known as "the King's Evil," as it was thought to be amenable to the royal touch. In his Life of Johnson, James Boswell records,
His mother, yielding to the superstitious notion, which it is wonderful to think, prevailed so long in this country, as to the virtue of the regal touch; a notion, which our kings encouraged, and to which a man of such inquiry and such judgement as Carte could give credit; carried him to London, where he was actually touched by Queen Anne. Mrs. Johnson indeed, as Mr. Hector informed me, acted by the advice of the celebrated Sir John Floyer, then a physician in Lichfield. Johnson used to talk of this very frankly, and Mrs. Piozzi has preserved his very picturesque description of the scene, as it remained upon his fancy. Being asked if he could remember Queen Anne, "He had (he said) a confused, but somehow a sort of solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds, and a long black hood." This touch, however, was without any effect.
More remarkable by far than the belief in royal healing is Aubrey's tale of a physician, Dr. Richard Nepier, "a person of great abstinence, innocence, and piety." Drawing on an account by Ashmolean Museum founder Elias Ashmole, the gloriously credulous Aubrey tells of Nepier's suprising--and apparently foolproof--method of predicting his patients' fates:
When a patient or querent came to him, he presently went to his closet to pray: and told to admiration the recovery, or death of the patient. It appears by his papers, that he did converse with the angel Raphael, who gave him the responses.
I'm guessing the admiration was considerably lessened when the angelic prognosis was negative. Ashmole's study of Dr. Nepier's papers seems to show that Raphael went so far as to prescribe medicines for his patients; he also was kind enough to answer questions such as whether there are more good or more bad spirits. Raphael assured Dr. Nepier that the good outnumbered the bad; whether that remains true nearly four hundred years later I leave to your imagination.

From our vantage, it's hard not to be smile a bit condescendingly at Dr. Nepier and his visions, but it's worth noting what Aubrey is careful to point: that he "did practice physic, but gave most to the poor that he got by it." Count one for the good spirits.

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