A Politics of the Senses: The Political Role of the Kings Evil in Richard Wiseman’s “Severall Chirurgicall Treatises”

Article Summary by Adam S. Komorowski

Tuberculosis is a disease that comes in many forms: prior to the advent of modern medicine, one of the more common forms of tuberculosis was found in the lymph nodes in the neck. This form, especially within England and France, was known as “the King’s-Evil”. Thought to only be cured by the touch of the monarch in those countries—and linked to the monarchy’s hold on power and legitimacy during times of political upheaval—many people depended on the miraculous hope of cure. In the 17th century in England, when King Charles II was looking to restore his hold on power after the collapse of the English Commonwealth, he co-opted the ritual of curing the King’s-Evil for his political benefit. Charles II’s sergeant-surgeon Richard Wiseman was an integral part of screening potential patients for the King to cure. In his little-known work Severall Chirurgicall Treatises (1676), Richard Wiseman presents a case series of 91 patients who he has cured of the King’s-Evil by surgical and medical means. As a member of the King’s court, this was something daring: to suggest that a miraculous power of cure reserved in the majesty of the monarch’s touch was somehow shared by medicine was dangerous. In our paper, we analyze the treatise on the King’s-Evil, and contrast it to Wiseman’s folk-healer contemporaries: in so doing, we show that Wiseman was unique and deftly navigated his role as a member of the King’s Court, while also assuming the language and syntax of the kingly ritual in order to appropriate the kingly power to heal for medicine.

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