by Kristof Smeyers
The time has come now, at last, to talk truth.
Our research on stigmata doesn’t directly engage with the possibility of the wounds’ divine or supernatural nature. As cultural historians (albeit from different angles) our interest is in the stigmata’s meaning to people in the past rather than in trying to prove or disprove, sanctify or debunk the wounds of Christ. To do so, we have put great emphasis on so-called ‘bottom-up’ history, simply put: to reconstruct those layers of meaning departing from fragments close to the phenomenon and to build on those layers reaching outward to state and church archives.
In a great article last year, Christine Grandy problematized the weight of meaning – or rather, the ways we as historians measure the weight or significance of something in the face of an ‘absent audience’: ‘we continue to know very little about the way ordinary people responded to most forms of culture’ (p. 645). Where do we turn to hear the voices of ‘ordinary’ people? Inevitably, very often they are found in the sources of the meaning-makers: ‘the experts, the professionals, or those whose livelihoods are most explicitly tied to the functioning of that set of symbols whose archives we sift through’ (p. 647). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that means, among other things, trawling through newspapers that proclaimed to be the voice(s) of the people(s), but which more often than not ran with a particular case of stigmata to sensationalise or ridicule it in order to sell. Rather than mere receptacles of contemporary ‘voices’, from which we can glean how stigmata functioned within the culture wars of Europe in the late nineteenth century for example, these newspapers fuelled and shaped those culture wars in ways not so different from how they steer today’s culture wars.
Now, we may not spend our research hours figuring out which stigmatic wounds were authentically divine, perversely diabolic, or inflicted via other means, but many of the sources of meaning-makers centred around this crucial matter; many of these sources are preserved precisely because of this focus. Today this is still the question at the heart of the phenomenon for most people, expert or no. Medical and theological scholars continue to attempt to find the cause under the skin or in transcendence.
The first thing we often get asked when our work comes up in conversation is what we really think went on in this case or that – on this or that person’s body. We have become skilled at nimbly avoiding that question, using all the arguments in the arsenal of a cultural historian: we are interested in meaning, you see; what did this phenomenon signify to the individuals and communities we study? But how fair is our act of avoidance when so much of our sources grapple with exactly that question? And how does this repeated, conscious act influence how we read such sources, only to ripple through our own writing?
What does all this imply for our ‘bottom-up’ approach? How, if at all, do we circumvent or reflect the hierarchy, the meaning-making of the sources in our work? Part of the answer, I think, is to hone in on the physicality of the phenomenon itself. Bottom-up begins with the body. Most often, stigmata were read as (often also presented to the world as) corporeal manifestations of redemptive suffering: a bleeding body that offered comfort to pious onlookers. We contextualise this religious suffering within a – primarily – Catholic tableau of spiritual, sublimated pain. The stigmatised bodies are inhabited by ‘victim souls’. Focusing so much on this meaning, the body is sometimes left behind. What happens, for instance, when we situate the supernaturally suffering bodies within a context of physical suffering more generally, among the ‘rank, foul and dysfunctional’ bodies ‘racked with pain, disability and disease’ (Roy Porter, Flesh in the age of reason (London, 2004), p. 25) in which so many people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lived? Different contexts create different meanings.
Suffering bodies in supernatural, corporeal Catholicism make for rich sources for prose, poetry, and other forms of fiction. Many are sensationalist and gory, often playing to the same tropes as contemporary newspapers. In 1991 Ron Hansen published Mariette in ecstasy, a strange book about a rich teenager who enters a convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion in New York, in 1906. The order has its motherhouse in Louvain, Belgium. Central to the novel is not the question of truth, but Mariette’s body. The New York Times reviewed the book as a ‘luminous novel that burns a laser-bright picture into the reader’s imagination, forcing one to reassess the relationship between madness and divine possession, gullibility and faith, sexual rapture and religious ecstasy’. Returning to Mariette in ecstasy in 2016, the Paris Review summarised this appeal: ‘Catholics go for crucifixes over crosses. They want their Mass wine in a chalice, not Solo cups. The Eucharist is not a symbol; it is substance.’
Mariette in ecstasy (not, strikingly, Mariette with stigmata) is a story of pious psychology and body horror. The novel hits beats that are familiar to those who have browsed our database. Mariette’s stigmata followed years of prayer to Christ’s Passion and a sustained wish for enclosed life. Once in the convent, her emphatically corporeal devotion meets with suspicion and judgment from the other sisters. One sister enters Mariette’s cell and finds her on the floor, ‘unclothed and seemingly unconscious’, holding her hands up as if crucified. On Christmas Eve, she receives the wounds on her body. She holds ‘out her blood-painted hands like a present’, saying ‘Oh, look at what Jesus has done to me!’ Sisters notice red footprints in the hallways. Her faith is lived on the skin, and the skin in turn becomes canvas: ‘Blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like handwriting on the floor.’
In these fictions, stigmatised bodies become places on which others vie for vindication, and sites of conflict – whether of an eschatological, religious, scientific, or social nature. Mariette’s body is not hers, either: she surrenders it to Christ and God, but by doing so she also gives it up to a society that tries to make sense of the strange wounds. The inhabitants of the convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion are unwilling or unable to engage with the intense physicality of what goes on in Mariette’s cell. One sister enters at night and licks the blood from Mariette’s stigmatised palm: ‘I have tasted you. See?’ Her stigmata become a news item to the outside world. A doctor – her father, no less – examines her body. He concludes: ‘You have all been duped.’
In stigmata fictions, the truth behind the wounds is often central. Many stories hone in on the method behind the wounds, as if the body is a crime scene, a whodunit: how did they manage to get away with it? What tools did they use to inflict the wounds? Who was ‘in on it’, who is ‘duped’? What were the stigmatic’s primary motives? How long will their pious fraud – or fraudulent piety – continue? Mariette in ecstasy’s protagonist has supernatural wounds. The author never gives any indication that another explanation is plausible or necessary. The reader never doubts Mariette’s sincerity; we simply witness the miraculous at work. All suspense comes from the reactions of others to her body. They make meaning, and in that process of making, Mariette’s body suffers all the more for it.