King's Evil And Cut Of The Stone
June 25, 2014

King’s Evil And Cut Of The Stone

Just for a change, here’s a bit of a quiz question. The following are all connected. Not many people would know immediately what the connection might be. I certainly didn’t. I didn’t even recognize some of the words. Can you see the links?

Bleach, Blasted, Bloody Flux, Calenture, Cut of the Stone, the King’s Evil, Meagrom, Mother Rising of the Lights, Wolf, and Wen.

Well, if you thought they might all be diseases of some sort, you would be pretty close. I came across this lot while visiting London recently. Needing somewhere to shelter from the rain, I ducked into the British Library to kill an hour until my train was due. There was a small but excellent temporary free exhibition — Beautiful Science — and one exhibit caught my eye. It was a book from 1662, Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality by John Graunt. It may not be the most “read-me-quick” title I know, but when I began to read the pages that were open in the display case, I was immediately intrigued.

The Bills of Mortality were records of deaths in London parishes. They began in 1532, but were only intermittent until the 17th century. From 1629 onwards they became far more interesting to historians, as they started to include the cause of death. All the odd words and phrases I quoted above are given in the book as causes of death between 1629 and 1660. Reading between the lines, one can almost imagine the world of 17th century London coming alive — and dying.

This period included outbreaks of plague and there were 16,384 plague deaths. The most common cause of death, though, was “Ague and Fever” with 23,784 deaths. It was the strangeness of some of the causes of mortality that struck me. I was surprised to see that eight people were killed by wolves, two died from cramp, 74 from “Falling Sickness,” 10,576 from “Flox and Smallpox,” 392 from “French Pox,” 243 were “Found Dead in the Streets,” and one “Fainted in a Bath.”

Other causes were “Frighted” (21), the enigmatic “Killed by Several Accidents” (1,021), “Livergrown Spleen and Rickets” (1,421), “Lunatique” (158), “Overlay’d and Starved at Nurse” (529), “Smothered and Stifled” (26), and “Worms” (830). One poor soul died of “Stitch.” 827 were drowned. 384 were executed, and surprisingly only two deaths were put down to “excessive drinking.”

I looked up some of the more obscure causes later. I had no idea, for example what “the King’s Evil” might be. It turns out that this was the medieval name for a skin disease known as scrofula, characterized by a swelling of lymph nodes in the neck and caused by tuberculosis. The Royal connection comes in because there was a common belief in Middle Ages England and France that the touch of a king could cure the scrofula. The practice started with Edward the Confessor in the 11th century and was still in vogue up to 1825 when Charles X of France was still applying the magic touch. The whole thing became something of an industry, with some kings like Henry IV and Loius XV of France touching thousands of people. Often great “touching” ceremonies were held and the scrofula sufferers were given gold coins known as “touchpieces.” By the 15th century, it was believed that a cure could be had by touching an “Angel,” a coin touched and blessed by a King.

As for Calenture, this was a form of delirium and fever contracted by sailors in the tropics. The victims of Calenture recorded here must have been sailors returned from the sea, perhaps too ill to sail again. At any rate, 13 deaths were attributed to Calenture. London in those days was, after all, a busy port. Wen (15 deaths) was a benign tumour, a type of sebacious cyst, and usually found on the scalp. Death probably resulted from an infected cyst — in those days infection could be a real killer. “Meagrom” I am not sure about, but is probably an old spelling of migraine.

“Cut of the Stone” had me puzzled at first, but then I realized it almost certainly referred to deaths that occurred during surgery to remove stones. Indeed, the technical name for this type of surgery is llithotomy from the Greek word lithos (stone) and tomos (cut). There were 38 deaths from this cause.

Somehow 15 Londoners were killed by bleach. 7,818 died of “Bloody Flux,” which was another name for dysentery.

For those who want to know more, please check out the website where there are some great stories of life and death in old London.

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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