As often as we may try and manage and control our experience of the world around us, we cannot avoid reality breaking into our lives from time to time. Our secular age orients itself almost entirely around making our day to day lives workable and enjoyable on a strictly horizontal level. We have long since abandoned ultimate “vertical” questions as unwieldy and unhelpful towards this end. But then, the fact of death itself strikes us occasionally with great force. As we have no common liturgies surrounding death, and no common way to experience loss, death lingers among us like a fog. So too, the 2016 election in some ways exposed the thin veneer of our “horizontal” happiness, and ever since we have had to try and deal with the unconscious, sometimes darker Jungian aspects of our selves and our body politic.
Like life, history sometimes breaks in on us with sudden and unusual force.
One begins Henry of Huntingdon’s History of the English People:1000-1154 like any other medieval history book, and it reads similarly to other works in this genre. Henry was nobleman with a good education in the Latin classics and knew Scripture well, and it shows. He describes the political scene of his time with care and skill, and dances around enough hot-button issues of the day to make scholars wonder about his motives from time to time. All of this falls well within the range of “normal” history.
But then . . .
On page 48 (Oxford Classics Edition) he drops in this comment when discussing the abrupt death of the rogue King William:
In the year 1100 King William ended his cruel life in a wretched death. For when he had gloriously, and with historic pomp, held his court at Gloucester at Christmas, at Winchester at Easter [April 1], and in London on Whitsun [Pentecost], he went to hunt in the New Forest on 2 August. There Walter Tirel, aiming at a stag, accidentally hit the king with an arrow. The king was struck in the heart, and fell without uttering a word. A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up from the ground in Berkshire.
William was rightly cut off in the midst of his injustice. For in himself, and because of the counsels of wicked men, whom he invariably chose, he was more evil to his people than any man, and most evil to himself . . .
“A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up . . . ” What are we to make of this? Yes, Henry wants to make a theological point, and some may feel the temptation to explain it away as allegorizing. But he also carefully mentions specific dates and specific places, and he does not write in a “Once upon a time,” fashion. Well, perhaps we could sweep this oddity under the rug as scribal error or flight of fancy. The casual, offhand nature of his remark, however, makes this an unlikely choice.
And then, a bit later in the book (p. 83):
In this year , Earl Geoffrey de Mandeville harassed the king exceedingly, and in everything he did basked in vainglory. But in the month of August the splendor of God showed forth a miracle worthy of His justice. For He inflicted similar punishments on men who forcibly removed two monks and turned God’s churches into castles. Robert Marmion–a warlike and evil man–had carried this out in the church of Coventry, and Geoffrey, as I have already said, perpetrated the same crime in Ramsey. Robert Marmion, attacking his enemies in front of the monastery itself, was the only man killed, although he stood in the midst of a huge squadron. As an excommunicate, he is being devoured by eternal death.
In the same way Earl Geoffrey, among the ranks of his own . . . was struck by an arrow from a foot-soldier. He scoffed at the wound, but after a few days died of this injury, excommunicate. See how the vengeance of God . . . is made known throughout the ages, and is executed in the same way for the same crime! While the church in Ramsey was being held as a castle [by the Earl] blood bubbled out of the walls of the church and the adjoining cloister, clearly demonstrating the divine wrath and prophesying the destruction of the wrong-doers. Many witnessed this, and I myself saw it with my own eyes.
Though Henry has theological points to make, this in no way should blunt the force of his report. He mentions himself along with others as eyewitnesses to this additional sighting of blood. Unless we wish to say he lied outright twice, we must consider whether our conception of how God, man, and nature interact needs abruptly altered.
Marc Bloch rightly deserves his reputation as one of the great scholars of the feudal era. He has a rare knack for simply dealing with the texts before him without much evident preconception. His book, The Royal Touch offers just such another slap of cold water, as he reminds us of the copious textual evidence for the power medieval kings possessed, at least at certain times, to heal their subjects. Bloch’s Wikipedia page describes him as a “thoroughly modern” historian in outlook, and as he was Jewish, we would assume he has no particular theological axe to grind. This makes his presentation all the more striking.
We may surmise that the medievals lived in an “age of faith” which made them credulous.* Bloch will not allow this. Medieval people may have had different standards of what constituted proof, but they argued over the evidence. He cites William of Malmsbury’s (a respected historian in his own right) account of the miracles of St. Edward the Confessor:
But now to speak of the miracles of St. Edward. A young woman had married a man but had no children, and the humors gathered about her neck, she contracted a sore disorder. Admonished in a dream to the have the affected parts washed by King Edward himself, she entered the palace and the king did as she wished. Joyous health followed his healing hand–the lurid skin opened so that worms flowed out with the putrid matter, so that the tumor subsided. Nothing of the original wound could be found after many weeks, and she soon gave birth to twins. She increased the admiration of Edward’s holiness.
A certain man, blind, persisted in walking around the palace, certain that he should be cured if he could touch his eyes with water in which Edward had washed. This was related to Edward, who looked angrily upon the man, confessing himself sinner, and that the works of holy men did not belong to him.
But his servants tried the experiment when he was ignorant of it, praying in church. They gave some water to the blind man, upon which the darkness fled from him and his eyes filled with light.
That you may know the perfect virtue of this prince, I will excite your wonder still more. Wulwin, surnamed Spillecorn, one day cut wood and fell blind as a result, perhaps because of his excessive sleep after his labors. He was admonished in a dream to go round to 87 churches, and earnestly entreat relief from his blindness from the saints.
At last he came to the king’s court, where he remained for a long time, being held back by the king’s men. Finally he received admittance, whom after he had heard the dream, answered mildly, “By my lady St. Mary, I shall be truly grateful, if God, through my means, shall choose to take pity upon you.” Though with no confidence in himself with respect to miracles, yet he placed his hand, dipped in water, on the blind man.
In a moment blood flowed from his eyes and the man restored to sight, cried, “I see you O king, I see you!” In this recovered state he was given charge of the royal castle at Windsor, for that is where his cure was effected. He held this job many years, having outlived his restorer.
In our day, some have used the miracles of King Edward to support a false idea. They have claimed that the king possessed this power to heal illness, not by virtue of his holiness, but by hereditary title, as a privilege of the royal line.
Bloch comments, that
This is a doubly valuable observation, because it informs us of both William’s ideas and of the very different ones held by his contemporaries. They disagreed about why he had power to heal, but not about the fact that he did heal.
So this text (and there are others like it) will not leave us the “out” they lacked critical thought.
Eyewitness accounts to miracles like this date back many centuries, with Gregory of Tours (another respected historian) perhaps with the first written account of this phenomena in ca. A.D. 540:
It was commonly related among the faithful that a certain woman whose son lay stretched out upon a bed of pain, suffering from fever, made her way through the crowd from behind the king, and without his noticing it, managed to pull off part of the fringe of the royal cloak. She soaked it in water, and then gave this water to her son to drink.
The fever immediately abated, and the disease was cured.
For my part, I do not doubt this matter. For indeed I have often seen demons who inhabit the bodies of those possessed cry out in the name of the king, and being unmasked by the virtue proceeding from him, confess their crimes.
Bloch considers many important questions in the book. One major topic of discussion and disagreement among medieval chroniclers had to do with whether or not
- The power to heal came exclusively from the dignity and chrism of the office itself, or
- If such grace to heal required personal sanctity in addition to the chrism of kingship.
But again, no debate existed as to whether or not such healings in fact took place.
Bloch also wonders why such miracles seem confined the French and English monarchies. Perhaps it happened elsewhere, but we have little to no textual evidence to support it. We might also plausibly wonder why it reports of such miracles slowed considerably during the 17th century and cease practically altogether in the 18th.
For that matter, we not see blood bubble up from the ground anymore either.
Such questions are certainly uncomfortable, but we should not ignore them. Amidst its sometime “one thing after another” tedium, History can occasionally wake us up and show us a different world.
*”Stupid” is a less polite, but more accurate description of what those that use this word really mean in such contexts.