Healing and Holiness: Religious provocateurs during the 19th century

The nineteenth century is often depicted as an epoch of secularization, rationalization, and science. However, Catholic piety also underwent a boom, which was particularly noticeable in the increase of visions of Maria and the phenomena of stigmatization and miracle healing. Defined as the appearance of the wounds of Christ, which Christian mysticism views as a way to feel the sufferings of Christ, stigmatization appeared almost exclusively on the bodies of women during the nineteenth century. The promulgation of the Dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and stories of stigmatization are both expressions of revived, newly interpreted practices of Catholic piety that resonated throughout Europe and the world.

My PhD project seeks to take a global perspective by studying three case studies that illustrate the potential of popular piety and resistance against it in an increasingly modern society. The project first studies the official state and church reactions to three stigmatic women: Louise Lateau in Belgium (1850-1883), the nun Sor Patrocinio in Spain (1811-1891) and the Mexican Teresa Urrea (1873-1906), who appeared to have healing powers after having visions of the Virgin Mary. Secondly, the project seeks to understand how the church reacted to potential competition from laymen and women during an age of Ultramontanism and how state power sought to defend itself against women who were in fact powerless.  Special attention lays on the phenomenon of miracle healing, which depicted ideological conflicts through bodily expressions. By treating physical diseases, these key actors negotiated crisis phenomena of their respective societies as well.

The project combines insights of the history of gender, science, and religion of the nineteenth century and seeks to apply them to a global approach on popular piety in the second half of the nineteenth century.

A comparative approach allows the project to analyze the national specificities of the Culture Wars that were ignited around Louise Lateau, Sor Patrocinio, and Teresa Urrea. Just as well, this approach will help us better understand the similarities in the way these women expressed their lay piety.



Prof. Birgit Aschmann