Weighing the body

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.

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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.’

 

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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.

Transformations

by Kristof Smeyers

The beast and the frog

In 1916, as the First World War came to a standstill in the trenches of the western front, a great beast went hunting in the forests of New Hampshire, USA. The beast, an odd and disturbing creature by all accounts, stalked a frog. In The myth of disenchantment (pp. 159-160), Jason A. Josephson-Storm describes the beast’s modus operandi. It did not kill instantaneously. At sunrise, the beast baptised the ensnared frog and named it ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. This was only the start of the animal’s prolonged suffering. At dusk, the frog was put on trial. With appropriate pomp, the beast exclaimed: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, how thou art taken in my snare. All my life long thou hast plagued me and affronted me… Now, at last, I have thee; the Slave-God is in the power of the Lord of Freedom. Thine hour is come; as I blot thee out from this earth, so surely shall the eclipse pass; and the Light, Life, Love and Liberty be once more the Law of Earth. Give thou place to me, O, Jesus; thine aeon is passed; the Age of Horus is arisen by the Magick of the Master the Beast that is Man.’

After the mock trial, the frog ‘Jesus’ was condemned to death, and subsequently crucified. The British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1948), nicknamed the Great Beast and infamous as ‘the wickedest man on earth’, cooked the frog’s legs, ate them, and burned the rest of the body. Jesus was consumed, no more: Crowley had taken and twisted the doctrine of transubstantiation to its extreme. This series of acts was done in accordance with Book LXX (‘The Cross of a Frog’) of the Thelema, Crowley’s own written philosophy. One of many similar rituals, the consumption of the frog transformed Crowley, turning himself into a god one incongruous step at a time. In 1921, he considered the transformation complete, and crowned himself ‘Ipssissimus’: beyond the gods.

 

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Aleister Crowley as photographed by Arnold Genthe. The Equinox 3.1 (Detroit: Universal Publishing Company, 1919), facing page 197. (c) Wikimedia Commons

Transubstantiation

Christ’s suffering body occupied a particularly strong cultural imaginary in the early twentieth century. Early twentieth-century stigmatics provided ammunition for those polemicists and worriers who aimed to protest a perceived disenchantment. (Or so S. Luzzatto claimed in his 2010 book on Padre Pio: miracles and politics in a secular age; the stigmatic and their community remain disconcertingly and overwhelmingly silent in approaches that go to some length to show how a stigmatic’s suffering was the embodiment of religious negotiations of ‘modernity’.) The parable of the beast and the frog shows how Christ’s body could transgress Christianity and hold symbolic sway in magical, occult, and other practices and beliefs. Crowley absorbed Christian symbolism to make it part of his own theology. The notion of ‘transformation’, of a practical use of Christ’s body, is central to any understanding of this multiplicity of meanings. For Crowley, the body of Christ signified a physical conduit between the material and the divine: to consume it, as he meant to consume all other gods, meant to transcend the bounds of the earthly realm and to reach his full potential. Though radical both in its aetiology and in its exertion, the underlying idea that interaction with the crucified body meant personal transformation or growth connects Crowley’s time under the New Hampshire canopy to the Passion experienced by many of the people that we study. Whether or not the Tyrolean mystic Angelica Darocca used a knife to reproduce the wounds of Christ on her body, for example, is in this respect not particularly relevant. By bearing the stigmata, she transformed herself; she was transformed.

Acknowledging that stigmata could be a form of religious, emotional self-expression is not the same as forcing the phenomenon into a corset of pathology. Our research has examined to some length now how we cannot approach the stigmata as a merely metaphorically and symbolically significant manifestation. The stigmatic was not only a tool in the battles between miracle-loving Catholics and materialists. Mortal skin was not just the canvas for holy signs; the Word was not simply made flesh. But the signs transformed the flesh—and the senses. Moreover, they held power, over believers and sceptics alike. That power was itself subject to the cultural contexts in which it appeared. A religious proclivity to suffering is not universal. In Biography of a Mexican crucifix (2010) Jennifer Scheper Hughes gives the example of the Cristo Aparecido in sixteenth-century Totolapan in Mexico. In 1543 the Augustinian missionary Antonio de Roa saw a crucifix made from the wood of the native maguey plant. The Christ figure is bloody and pale, ‘his ribcage poking through almost diaphanous skin’ as Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada describes it (‘Catholic devotion in the Americas’, Religion Compass, 13 (2019), pp. 1-10: 4). The appearance of the crucifix changed the indigenous community; it also meant a dramatic change in Antonio de Roa’s life. As crucial part of his conversion mission, he turned his own body into a ‘living image of pain’. Christian evangelisation centred around bodily suffering as a gateway into personal transformation. De Roa’s bleeding body, viewed in tandem with the Cristo, became a site of religious, christocentric instruction.

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Procession of the Cristo Aparecido in the streets of Totolapan, 15-19 March 2018. Image courtesy of http://museosanestebantetelpa.blogspot.mx/

Life, death, afterlife

The crucified body of Christ had many meanings: idiosyncratic, conflicting, overlapping; to be consumed, forgotten, venerated, or emulated. Stigmata were not the exclusive terrain of Catholics who equated the wounds with penitence and redemptive suffering. Jennifer Scheper Hughes has shown how the people of sixteenth-century Mexico did not welcome Christ’s pain and passion as an embodiment of their own suffering under colonial rule, but saw the crucifix rather as an object deserving of their care and love. For Crowley, though steeped in Christian themes, the body of Christ meant something else entirely. That transubstantiation, resurrection and stigmata were notions open to interpretation becomes apparent in occult writings. Occultists were naturally drawn to the power that emanated from Christ’s life, attributing it with qualities that befitted their own conceptions of the known, unknown, and unknowable universe. Helena Blavatsky tackled the subject of stigmata in Isis Unveiled (1877): supernatural markings on the skin were, in her view, a manifestation of the power of the imagination over one’s own body. To reach that conclusion, Blavatsky cherrypicked from a wide range of material, from Pythagoras to contemporary debates in the English medical journal The Lancet.

In turn, the phenomenon itself clearly held power over the imagination of others. The transformations of Christ evoked comparisons across a broad cultural imaginary. Stigmata were, perhaps naturally, often discussed in relation to matters of life, death, and rebirth. These matters could, depending on the perspective, corrupt rather than enshrine religious practices, and turn them into different things entirely. Stories of stigmata and other phenomena existed in a state of constant flux, oscillating between truth and fiction, between myth, interpretation and hearsay. Those different iterations nonetheless co-existed. Crowley’s hunt in the woods was by some Catholics considered as a mockery of some of the beliefs they held holiest, but they did not pick apart the connotation between occultism and ‘proper’ religion. Rather, the widespread and multiform focus on Christ’s body and suffering allows us to draw seemingly separate strands together. As cultural historians of stigmata we would be wrong to limit our scope to the field of (Catholic) religion at the expense of other contemporaneous worldviews concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation, or themes of penitence and resurrection.

Similarly unnerving comparisons were made in previous centuries, by local communities as well as later scholars. David Keyworth has pointed at the notable similarities (as well as differences) between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives of Central-European vampirism on the one hand and Catholic themes on the other: ‘The supposed existence of vampires also mirrored Christian belief in a future bodily resurrection at the Last Judgement’ (‘The aetiology of vampires and revenants: theological debate and popular belief’, Journal of Religious History, 34:2 (2010), pp. 158-173: 172). Here, vampires and Catholic miracles tied to Christ existed as each other’s mirror image—even if vampires famously have no reflection. Vampires as creatures having escaped the mortal confines of the coffin for an immortal life sustained by feeding on the blood of the living was, in Keyworth’s words, ‘in effect the antithesis to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation’ (p. 172).

Without incorporating these stories we would lose a significant part of this cultural imaginary in which religious phenomena, reanimated corpses, ghosts and vampires co-existed. Ongoing beliefs in stigmata, vampires, and the power that emanates from divinely touched bodies were often linked. Stigmata may at one point have been the sole terrain of the Catholic theologian (and this, too, is up for debate), but by the time Crowley crucified a frog between the maples and birches of New Hampshire Christ’s body and wounds had long been transformed into a powerful nexus of culturally entangled meanings.

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In 2017 a student art piece at Penn State’s Abington campus caused furore: Christus Ranae, a seven-foot sculpture of a crucified frog.

Why pain?

By Merlijn Gabel

You may have already seen my name pop up on the website or somewhere else and you are aware that I have recently started on a new stigmatics project. If not, pain, suffering and stigmatics are the themes I will dive into for the next four years, with the focus on Austria. Last Christmas, the importance of the research became instantly clear. Enthusiastically, I was speaking with a family member about pain. She is a nurse and I asked how she would know if her patients are in-pain. It is important to know that she works mostly with children. She replied that children almost always point to their belly to express pain. It does not matter whether they are dying of cancer or are worried about an important school test, it is the belly where they feel this unpleasantness we call pain. She also stated this makes it difficult for medical personnel to read the severity of the pain children are experiencing. In some cases, doctors may be seriously in doubt whether the children are in-pain or not.

Of course, pain does not always have to be the result of a lesion, think about the so-called phantom pain people can experience in their lost limbs. The relation between lesion and pain becomes even more uncertain when there are people who have a serious injury but claim to not experience pain. Think about cyclists in the Tour de France, who can continue cycling with a broken hip, elbow, knee, ribs, or all the above at the same time. As pain is not always a sign of lesion, doctors do not always trust children being in-pain when they point at their bellies every time they experience something unpleasant.

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Foto by ©Leonie Kohn

Not only modern-day doctors are aware of the ambiguous relation between pain and lesion. They were just as aware of it in the past, just as the doctors who examined Juliana Weiskircher. She was an Austrian stigmatic from Schleinbach, a small village close to Vienna. She was born in 1824 and her youth was marked by all sorts of pain. She was one of ten siblings, of whom six would not see their tenth birthday, which was, how sadly so, not uncommon in the nineteenth century. Her father died when she was only thirteen years old, which had a big impact on the young girl. If this was not enough, she was often sick. Very often. She was probably suffering of tuberculosis among other diseases. She coughed blood and sometimes lost control over her body when it cramped. We can only imagine the tragic and pain she must have experienced. Sadly, the medical treatment was not developed enough to cure the diseases. One of the few things doctors could do to relieve pain was bloodletting, but this did not heal her. She had to accept that she had to live with a body-in-pain. Beside the worldly bodily suffering, she also experienced a divine suffering, which became tangible in 1847 in the form of stigmata. She could feel how Christ had been nailed on the cross. The nails left wounds on her hands. This divine suffering was not meaningless and went hand-in-hand with visions. She felt Christ’s pain in body and soul and in an unconscious ecstatic state she would cry out: “My God,” “My Lord,” “This Pain,” “Thy will be done.” Other times she seemed to be in absolute bliss and her face was still and peaceful. When she was not in an ecstatic state, the sources state, she was a happy and cheerful person.

The stigmata did not only leave a trace on the body, the miraculous phenomenon also had an impact on the small village of Schleinbach. Word travelled fast at the time, as newspapers covered the event, and a growing number of people wanted to see the stigmatic for themselves. The word did not only spread to the curious, local authorities also became aware of the miraculous events happening in the town. For them the claimed miracle was a potential social turmoil that needed to be clamped down.

The reasons why the authorities were so anxious about Juliana are a bit unclear. I assume they were afraid of every popular movement that could undermine their jurisdiction. In 1848, European states were threatened by revolutionary forces. The continent had barely recovered from the previous major revolution and the following Napoleonic wars. In this light, it makes sense that the local Austrian authorities suppressed all possible popular movements that had the potential to undermine them. They preferred the unexplainable miracles in Schleinbach to disappear, rather sooner than later.

How to make a miracle disappear? The answer is quite simple. By simply showing that the miraculous is ordinary. This was the mission of the doctors who had to examine the stigmatic. First, they examined her at home, but they were under the conviction that the Catholic home-environment was one of the main triggers for the extraordinary events. A true examination could only be done in the hospital in Vienna, far away from all the misleading Catholic influences. In Vienna the doctors would show to the world that Juliana had faked the stigmata and therefore the miracle was no more than an ordinary scam.

Juliana and her family were not easily convinced to go to the hospital. The poor health of the girl made her vulnerable for the trip and the intentions of the doctors seemed unjust. Only after the bishop had put in a word and the doctors had promised they would cure the girl, they were persuaded to send Juliana to Vienna.

In Vienna, she was treated for almost half a year during which she was constantly watched by nurses and was isolated from any spiritual care-taking. The treatment had its effect. Her health clearly improved and the bleeding had stopped. This was for the doctors the sign that she had been faking the stigmata and they declared her cured, shortly after it seemed unlikely that the stigmata would return. Their mission was accomplished as the miracle was no longer miraculous.

Although the doctors had declared Juliana cured, she still had cramps and bodily ecstasy, which still caused a lot of pain. The doctors, however, stated that she was just exaggerating. Women at that time were ought to suffer in silence. Behavior that did not fit this model was perceived as fake or an exaggeration and could thus be ignored.

In our contemporary eyes it seems totally absurd that a woman who is clearly in-pain can be diagnosed as cured. We are often under the conviction that we are no longer formed by such degrading cultural models of how to express pain. If someone claims to be in-pain, it is acknowledged. Even psychological pain, such as depressions, are more accepted than ever before. So, why is the story about Juliana interesting for us?

I want you to think about the children from the introduction, who point at their belly when they are in-pain. Doctors still lack tools to know how severe someone’s pain is. They often ask the patient to scale their pain from 1 to 10, but we can all think about reasons why this system is untrustworthy and can sometimes still end up in doctors ignoring the children’s pain. Just as they did with Juliana’s. These small children do not yet understand the codes to express their pain correctly. Or how do we deal with people from other cultural backgrounds, who express or feel their pain differently than we do. Recently, I spoke with a doctor who has a lot of patients with a Moroccan background. When these people are experiencing stress, they feel pain in their belly. It took her a while to figure out these people were having stress although the symptoms might implicate something else.

Therefore, the story of Juliana is still important as it is relevant. If we want to be respectful to all people-in-pain and treat them the best way possible, we can no longer take our own cultural standard of how to express pain as the only standard. Otherwise, we end up with more people like Juliana, who come out of a hospital and lose faith in all medical treatment. After Juliana returned home her health decreased once again and the stigmata returned as well. But now, as the doctors had ‘proven’ her stigmata were fake, they did not pay any attention to her anymore. Her tragic life ended in 1862 when she died at the young age of 42.

Road trip

by Kristof Smeyers

When you wander into the woods around Dunkirk, near Canterbury, there is little to remind you that this is the site of the last civil insurgence on English soil. Trees are huddled closely together; the undergrowth is thick. Little moves apart from the territorial robins trying to chase you off with overconfident bravura. The monotonous sound of the motorway nearby is domineering and hypnotic.

On the last day of May 1838 however, nothing was quiet as the 45th Regiment, nicknamed the Sherwood Foresters, marched up the road and into these woods. Shots were already ringing out ahead of them, where a few farmers, impatient of waiting on the weathered soldiers, had taken it upon themselves to get rid of the rebels. A few members abandoned their ragtag band that had disrupted local life so much. By the time the 45th Regiment initiated a pincer movement, only between 35 and 40 members of the band remained. All of them—most were farmhands and agricultural artisans: fathers, husbands and sons—carried sticks, apart from their leader, who bore pistols and an exotic scimitar. The weapons were only part of this strange man’s attire. He was dressed in bright red, sported a Christ-like beard and wildly waved his hands, adorned with the stigmata. He looked not unlike an oversized, overconfident robin.

In a ditch not far from where this band was hiding lay the mangled body of Nicholas Mears, brother of the local constable, who had tried to apprehend the strange man earlier that morning.

The 45th Regiment had therefore taken its precautions. About a hundred soldiers now moved through these woods. They had only recently returned from suppressing unrest in the colonies. One arm of the regiment’s pincer came upon the farmhands first. The Christ-like man stepped forward from the trees and shot the lieutenant, and the Battle of Bossenden Wood, as it later became known, started. It lasted only a few minutes. Forty farmers with sticks were no match for a hundred veteran soldiers. Sir William Courtenay, as the extravagant vagabond leader called himself, was the first of the rebels to die; the battle dispersed after seven of his followers were also killed or mortally wounded.

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‘Sir William Courtenay alias John Thom, the pretended Messiah and his credulous followers’, coloured soft ground etching by W.L. published by William Spooner, 1840 © National Army Museum, Study collection (http://www.nam.ac.uk/online-collection/detail.php?acc=1972-07-45-1).

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