A chair, a pillow and other trivia: the material culture of a saintly reputation

by Tine Van Osselaer

‘… and you can still see the traces of blood on the chair.’ My guide pronounces these last words with apparent pride and a smile on her face. Feeling a little uncomfortable, I take a step back. Am I, who has been working on stigmatics for a while now, still not used to the blood? My curiosity trumps my revulsion and I look closer. Yep, there are definitely traces there, but whether or not these are really marks left by Louise Lateau during one of her Friday passions I cannot say. To be honest, I would not only have missed the droplets of blood but I would have completely ignored the chair if the kind lady had not pointed them out to me.


Ill.1: The chair of Louise Lateau in her house in Bois-d’Haine


Ill.2: The same chair in a photograph of Louise-memorabilia.

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Our imagination

by Kristof Smeyers


Into the fog

When we travel into unchartered territory, we go prepared. We have a survival kit. It includes a compass that is built by literature, experience, and trawling through archive inventories. But it isn’t until we arrive in the unknown that we know whether the needle is indeed pointing north. If the past is a foreign land, but even if it’s not (and I’m not convinced that it is) we need to be able to rely on our compass. Armed with a survival kit of academically justifiable presumptions we arrive on site. And, as often as not, all compasses and roadmaps notwithstanding, we get lost.

To some degree this is a voluntary, even conscious decision; we are still professionals.

And no survival kit is ever complete. We are aware of this, there’s always something you forget to pack for a trip. This blogpost isn’t so much a warning—‘Be prepared for everything, kids!’—as it is a deconstruction of a historian’s toolkit. What to do when you’ve ventured deep into the fog, and you not only wonder how to get out but also how you got here in the first place? We have all read Hayden White, even if we do not reflect on it or feel uncomfortable about his writings. Maybe this blogpost is a warning, after all: be prepared to use your imagination.

Last October I travelled to Youghal, co. Cork in Ireland, with the generous funding of the Michael Williams Research Fund (Catholic Record Society), to track down the short, intense history of local stigmatics in 1843. I packed pencils, a scarf, sunglasses, notepads (some empty, some full of hopeful references to sources), contextual literature on Irish Catholic history and supernatural beliefs, adapters, itineraries, bus tickets, the material that referred in vague terms to the scandal of 1843. I did, however and much to my detriment, not pack candles. My kit was incomplete, then, but I was pretty confident I had the bare necessities to make this a success: the navigational tools were there. But they, too, often conjure up a world draped in fog, obfuscating more than they help reveal or drawing a map on which the contours of whole continents may be missing or plain wrong.

Sometimes, as in Youghal, the historian’s journey is like trying to find your way through a fog equipped with only a hairdryer.

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A saint under investigation: from a ‘black legend’ to a blessed heroine. The case of Elena Aiello (1895-1961)

By Leonardo Rossi

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Figure 1: A young Elena Aiello in the religious habit

By the end of October, the summer season has ended and you rarely see tourists in Cosenza. So my big suitcase and the city map I was holding drew the attention of some of the people who were also making the not-so-easy journey from the airport to the Calabrian town. I explained that I was in Calabria to do research on the blessed Elena Aiello (10 April 1895 – 19 June 1961). I was surprised to discover that almost no one had ever heard about her. Especially since in 2011 her beatification was a great event for the city, involving the most important religious and civil authorities and attracting thousands of faithful from all over Italy. Moreover, between the ‘30s and ‘60s she had been a media celebrity, about whom numerous articles had appeared in several national newspapers. However, when I elaborated a little more on the mystic woman and her extraordinary gifts (such as stigmata and prophecies), I learned that in Cosenza Elena was simply called by her nickname, ‘Holy Nun’. Here, in fact, she is perceived as their saint’, ‘canonized’ from below (although officially she is ‘only’ Blessed), a contemporary and familiar presence. By opening schools and orphanages, she created better opportunities for hundreds of children. Growing up, these children engaged in spreading her fame and in the idealization of her profile as a holy nun.

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Introducing “wonder nuns” (with true examples)

by Andrea Graus


Figure 1. Yvonne Aimée de Jésus receiving the Légion d’Honneur from Charles de Gaulle.

“Wonder nuns” are type of modern, ultra-charismatic, celebrity-like, supposedly supernaturally gifted religious woman, who have or were attributed a certain influence over the political agenda of their country. Wonder nuns are allegedly blessed with all kind of supernatural gifts at the same time: stigmata, bilocation, clairvoyance, Marian apparitions, mystical marriage, levitation, miraculous healing, among others. It is this “all-in-one” manifestation of the supernatural that defines their charisma, both in the sense of their divine power and with regard to their attractiveness to the public. Rumours of their wonders circulate in the press or by word of mouth, building a reputation for sanctity and attaining celebrity status. Even when they are a fraud, their celebrity status maintains them at the heart of public debate. Such popularity helps them to acquire a rare privilege for religious women: ecclesiastical authority, becoming female spiritual leaders and a public face of the Church—for good and for bad. We can speculate that none of this would happen had their lives not been enriched with the supernatural, which becomes their driving force.

Wonder nuns are directly linked to politics. It is not surprising that their most epic mystical episodes coincide with unfavourable political turns or with times of national crisis. Their cases are linked to a longer tradition of political prophecy and religious women in Europe. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, female prophets helped to advance the interests of the Church and endorse the social order; for instance, through visions of the “divine approval” of a monarch.[1] Supposed manifestations of the supernatural, especially when they become public events, such as Marian apparitions, are rarely disinterested. Just as for medieval “holy women”, for nineteenth- and twentieth-century wonder nuns claiming supernatural gifts was a source of power; through it they obtained a recognition that they could not have gained otherwise within the enduring “Christian patriarchy.”

Now, let’s look at some true examples.

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A gentle touch

by Tine Van Osselaer


Ill.1. Saint Rita images in the Museum voor Volksdevotie (Miskom, Belgium) an initiative of a local layman. Non-professional collectors often preserve source material that does not make it to the official museums and archives and are therefore definitely worth contacting.

It is by far the craziest thing I have ever done to get access to sources. But here I am. It’s early morning and I am sitting in a church waiting for mass to begin. About two months ago I found out that the cult I thought had not survived the legal trial and asylum stay of one of ‘my’ stigmatics had actually endured and is still ‘alive’. The only chance I have this year of meeting the devotees is today, the anniversary of the miraculous cure of the stigmatic almost a century ago. No pressure. There is only one problem: I have absolutely no idea what the devotees look like. To make matters worse, it is not a small church and even though it is a weekday it is starting to get pretty crowded. A colleague of mine agreed to join me on this mission and we are scanning the audience. The devotees must know each other, right? So they are probably sitting together. O.k. so that means we are looking for a group – probably of slightly older people. To our frustration, there are no real groups in sight. That is, until circa five minutes before the mass starts and then suddenly three groups enter the church. They all fit the profile. This means watching their movements and interactions for we will not have the time to run after all three of them once mass has ended. In the end, it is a subtle movement that gives them away. The moment the intentions are read out loud and the name of the stigmatic is mentioned, I see an older lady gently touching the shoulder of the lady in front of her and smile. I still feel a little awkward running over there after mass holding a picture of the stigmatic in my hands and calling out her name. Do they now her? Smiles and curious glances. It takes a while for me to explain who I am and why I am interested in their stories, but I have brought print-outs from our website and my university card so I must be a serious scholar. Gradually the mood shifts and I am promised a follow-up meeting and sources. What a morning.

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Talking data

by Kristof Smeyers



In a box, a folder; in the folder, an envelope; in the envelope, a blood-stained handkerchief that once—during the First World War—belonged to the stigmatised young woman Nellie Brown from Leeds. Now it sits in a small collection of Nellie’s paraphernalia within Herbert Thurston’s archive in the Archives of the Jesuits in London. How it ended up there is hard to determine. Thurston (1856-1939) was a renowned investigator of the supernatural and an authority on the physical phenomena of mysticism (see, for example, his The physical phenomena of mysticism). A cursory glance on the material in his archive shows dozens of letters he received from across Britain and beyond concerning supernatural and spiritual occurrences. The handkerchief, one of the few items in the Thurston collection not made of paper, may have reached him in a similar way.

When I saw the handkerchief, together with Nellie’s diaries and a few devotional prints stained with Nellie’s blood, the first realisation was not that I should have worn gloves. (I totally should have worn gloves.) It wasn’t even the thrill of having found a new, hitherto undocumented addition to our stigmatics’ database. The first question that arose was, How did this collection came to be? Or, How and why did all this stuff get here? Our research requires a flexibility to deal with a wide range of sources. Because of that flexibility, but also because of the archival varieties, it is necessary to stop every now and then to reflect on our methodology. How we get to the sources makes for one such reflection. In this post I want to make the exercise in the opposite direction: how these sources come to us, and how we present them.

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Blood, suffering and ‘fake news’. Prophecies of Italian stigmatics in the 19th century

by Leonardo Rossi

The 19th century could be considered a century filled with great paradoxes, violent political struggles and intense cultural debates that divided revolutionaries and conservatives. On the one hand, it was a turning point in European history due to the secularisation of political life and the laicisation of society – the end of Church’s temporal power, the suppression of ecclesiastical orders, and the spread of positivism and rationalism. On the other hand, it was the golden age of mysticism, supernaturalism, and the politicisation of the popular piety. Ecstasies, stigmata and political prophecies were phenomena at the centre of the public debate of that time, which mobilised supporters and detractors in a political-cultural contest for declaring their authenticity or falsehood.


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Figure 1: Monster of Apocalypse

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“The nun with the wounds”: on mockery, politics and the supernatural

by Andrea Graus

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Figure 1: Sor Patrocinio and Queen Isabel II of Spain, c. 1865. White globes cover the stigmata. Figure 2: Caricature of Los Borbones en Pelota (c. 1868), by SEM (pseudonym).

The Spanish Franciscan nun Sor Patrocinio was born on 27 April 1811. “On that day,” wrote the authors of an anticlerical booklet entitled Los Neos en calzoncillos (1868) (“Neo-Catholics in their underwear”), “the woman was born who perhaps, and by no accident, has for over thirty years been the staunchest enemy of the Spanish people, the true queen of Spain, who with her feigned saintliness managed to dominate the granddaughter of a hundred kings [Isabel II].”[1]

In the early 1830s, she gained a public reputation as a stigmatic and became popularly known as “la monja de la llagas” (the nun with the wounds). Her stigmatization coincided with times of national transformation, when the transition from an absolutist to a constitutional monarchy opened the way for a liberal regime and threatened the status quo of the clergy. During Queen Isabel II’s reign (1833-68), Sor Patrocinio allegedly exercised her political influence through mystical experiences. Alarmist letters from Spanish politicians warned that the Queen based some state decisions on “the nun’s visions”. To many, Sor Patrocinio became a symbol of the Church’s attempt to control the throne. A very popular satirical sonnet of the time expressed this fear:

I fear that the sceptre will become a crosier […] / I venerate God, I venerate the tabernacle; / but not a hypocrite Sister who with emetic tartar, / mimics the [holy] wounds […] / if this cynical farce continues, / all masks will fall / and all Spain will burn like a match.[2]

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Adeline’s hands – on lies, flaws and visual sources

by Tine Van Osselaer

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Photograph of Louise Lateau (1877), Archives of the Seminary of Tournai (see ‘The affair’)


How do you photograph sanctity? When you look at the picture above, there does not seem to be much to it. You photograph a girl praying the rosary, solemnly closing her eyes. If your model is a well-known stigmatic, and a young girl from a humble background on top of that, it does not seem to require much effort to produce the right saintly effect. Still, the moment you gaze a little more attentively at this picture of Louise (Lateau, 1850-1883), you start to notice small details. Wasn’t the bed on the other side of the room and not nearly as close to window as it seems to be here? And what are those hands doing on the right-hand side of the picture holding up a white sheet?

If you did not see the hands of Louise’s sister Adeline when you first looked at the photograph, do not feel bad. Most people seem to filter them out of the picture focusing their attention on the face of the stigmatic (I’ve tested this on my students). It means the photographer did a good job and Louise’s face is indeed quite an eye-catcher, perfectly lighted as it is so close to the window and with the white sheet reflecting the natural light. A slightly better framing of the picture, a little turn to the left, and we would never have known about the staging. Luckily for us, there was this one more clumsy moment, and a picture amidst a series of photographs that tells us more than the flawless versions that eventually made it onto the devotional cards.

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