by Kristof Smeyers
First things first: to everyone belated but sincere best wishes for 2019 from the Stigmatics team! This is promising to be a most fruitful year for our project. The Stigmatics team has made a few resolutions for 2019 which will be realised even if only because we are contractually obliged to do so. Many exciting things are about to happen: publications are scheduled, and we will be presenting the wide-ranging aspects of our research across Europe. Behind the scenes preparations are made: our database is itching to go live, dissertations are being written on Italian and British stigmata, and our newest team member has set off to examine pain and suffering through the lens of stigmatics in Austria-Hungary. Other exhilarating, enigmatic and presently unnamed things are in the pipeline, and will be announced with the appropriate fanfare in the following months. As ‘Between Saints and Celebrities’ enters its final stage, new offshoots branch out, into the unknown.
This first blogpost of the new year is about the future. That future is not fixed. The ideas that shaped this project years ago have outgrown the project proposal, perhaps even turned into a wholly different kind of beast. That is a very healthy evolution: research requires an openness and willingness to adjust, revise, and reject assumptions and hypotheses in favour of new findings. As the future unfolds, some paths overgrow and others appear—unlooked for, maybe unasked for. They have led us into the courtrooms and the Inquisitions, into the intimacy of the convent cell and the doctor’s office, into the editorial pages of the yellow press and a vibrant folk culture. ‘Our’ stigmatics have grown along with this research over the past years. New angles and perspectives and different (types of) sources created a clearer, fuller image of the people at the core of our project. But there is so much we cannot know, even when records seem to suggest a complete picture. Ultimately, they remain out of reach; the past, too, is not fixed.
Halley’s Comet approaches, 1910. © The Yerkes Observatory / Wikipedia.
Many stigmatics were preoccupied with the future and claimed some events were indeed fixed points in time; some of them were, in fact, more widely known as prophets than as partakers in Christ’s Passion. Maria Luisa Firrao in our last blogpost foretold the future from within the convent of Sant’Ambrogio della Massima in the first half of the nineteenth century. Others were more prolific prophesiers. On 18 May 1910 the seventeen-year-old Timothy Cekwane stood atop Ekukhanyeni, a holy mountain in Natal (now South Africa). The passing of Halley’s Comet over the mountain signified Cekwane’s rebirth as a charismatic leader of a religious mission (its members do not consider themselves a church, but rather as existing outside all churches) called Ukukhanya or Ibandla loku Kanya, both names referring to the importance of light. As in other, similar origin stories of independent religious movements in early twentieth-century Africa, Cekwane’s mission was not only profoundly mystical. Ukukhanya was founded on light, but first and foremost on blood; followers wore red robes, and their leader’s life had begun when a drop of blood fell from Heaven and was inserted into his mother’s womb. When the comet passed over the mountain, its cosmic power—so claimed Cekwane—granted him the ability to speak in tongues and to perform miraculous healings. He also received the stigmata in the palms of his hands, a divine trait that became known among his followers as the ‘gift of blood’, a fundamental prerequisite to Ukukhanya leadership.
Mystical, then, but also to be situated within a political context: when Halley’s Comet drew a fiery trail through the sky, processes were in motion that, thirteen days later, led to the promulgation of the South Africa Act in the British Parliament and the subsequent establishment of the Union of South Africa. Cekwane’s prophetic career was as much about the local identity of Natal vis-à-vis the colonial pretentions of Britain as it was about religious renewal. His prophecies (and his stigmata, for that matter) should never not be read as political.
Prophetic voices tend to resonate louder in atmospheres of perceived uncertainty or acceleration. Technological leaps, overthrown monarchies, economic crises and social unrest: they provoked both optimistic and pessimistic visions of what was to come. Perhaps seemingly contradictory, by offering a prediction of the future that was fixed in time and therefore certain to happen, these voices offered listeners the possibility of a change in course that could be focused on the individual—soothsayers and palm readers often operated on this level—or on society, whether regional as in Cekwane’s case or global, as with the many millenarian, apocalyptic messages of nineteenth- and twentieth-century stigmatics that were rife with all-consuming wars and judgment days. If a prophecy failed to materialise, it nevertheless had succeeded in briefly providing hope by showing the future could change dramatically at any point. At the same time, the prophet’s words did not form in a vacuum but were, often, carefully crafted to please the ears of a particular audience. The Sardinian stigmatic Maria Rosa Serra comforted the royal family with promises of male heirs in 1801; in late Victorian England the stigmatised cult leader Mary Ann Girling continuously foretold the imminent rapture to followers that were starving and freezing in an attempt to keep the community together. Cekwane predicted the long future of his mission. Visions of the future served to achieve something in the present, whether charismatic authority, political momentum, or simply to stay alive.
The politics of future and past are everywhere in our work as historians. Like every science, history is never not political. Looking across our own research on stigmatics, we integrate histories of gender, body, medicine, and spirituality: the very methodological cores of our work are unstable categories to work with because they require an awareness of our own, early twenty-first-century frame of reference. Timothy Cekwane’s body is very different from mine; a doctor’s diagnosis from 1840 does not correspond 1:1 with one from 2019. This distance between past and present is unbridgeable. (That is not to say the past is entirely beyond our reach; only that it will always be a foreign, unfamiliar country.) Even if we were to travel back in time to investigate a stigmatic’s wounds and to confront a prophet with their failed predictions, it would not solve any of the challenges with which we are dealing in our research. As tempting as it may be to try and look into a prophet’s head or a stigmatic’s mind to see what they felt or why they did something, an important part of our craft is to maintain, even safeguard that distance. Because if we give in to that temptation, and barge into the past with our own ideas and frames of reference, we rob that past of its future and replace it with our own present. A prophecy comes on its own terms; it holds the future—all futures, also the ones that did not happen.
Stigmatics’ prophecies caught on and found listeners, finally, because they promised something neat and comprehensible: they brought the unknown within reach. By doing so they gave the historical present a sense of purpose—a kind of de-cluttering of ballast so that people knew what to focus on in function of what the future was expected to bring. Stigmata and millenarian prophecies were, in that respect, an efficient combination: the appearance of the supernatural wounds was physical, visible proof of Christ’s imminent return to earth, and therefore an extra incentive for believers to organise their lives around the approaching Judgment Day, and do away with everything that could be a potential hindrance to their deliverance. In the 1870s several court cases in Hampshire, England revolved around the neglect of children by parents who had joined Mary Ann Girling’s millenarian cult. Their leader’s promise of the Millennium could make followers single-purposed to the extent of leaving their families behind.
As historians, we must tolerate the ballast and the clutter; we must embrace the mess. We cannot approach a different period from our own perspective and overlay our own experiences and thoughts on top of the experiences and thoughts of other people. The past comes to us on its own terms. Much like the prophesiers of the past, I suspect historians are often wrong about what we claim to know, and about what we do not consider valuable knowledge. Prophecies can fail to come true, but that does not mean we should dismiss them out of hand as historical source; they are revelatory to us nonetheless, as they tell us a lot about the context in which they were formulated, and about the hopes and anxieties of people.
One prophecy, that of the Mission’s longevity, did come true. Timothy Cekwane’s religious mission exists to this day. Every year members of Ukukhanya congregate on the mountaintop where in 1910 their founder looked up at the night skies and saw an endless array of possibilities.
In the current culture wars, prophets stir. How shall we, as historians engage?