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Dr Johnson's touch-piece
English, AD 1711
For many centuries it was believed that the touch of a king or queen would cure an individual suffering from scrofula, a disease of the lymphatic system also known as the king's evil. Ceremonies at which British monarchs 'touched' sufferers continued from the time of Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-66) to Queen Anne (reigned 1702-14).
By the sixteenth century 'touching' involved hanging a gold coin around the neck of the sufferer. The coin was usually an angel, a denomination introduced in 1464 and named after the figure of the archangel St Michael which appeared on it. After production of the coin had ceased in the mid-seventeenth century, small medals of a similar design were produced specifically for the ceremonies. The inscription that appears around the saint on these pieces translates as 'To God alone the glory', indicating the ultimate source of the cure. This example is said to be the medal with which Queen Anne 'touched' Samuel Johnson (1709-84) in 1711, when the future writer and compiler of the celebrated Dictionary of the English Language was a sickly two-year old baby.