Gabor Klaniczay: The Modern Rebirth of Ecstatic Catholicism. Stigmatics, Visionaries and their Adepts in 19th Century Europe

Gabor Klaniczay: The Modern Rebirth of Ecstatic Catholicism. Stigmatics, Visionaries and their Adepts in 19th Century Europe


Pursuing his scholarly interest in medieval and early modern popular religion further in time, Professor Gábor Klaniczay (Medieval Studies, CEU) talked about a pronounced re-emergence of ecstatic religious experience in 19th Europe, where after a lull in the preceding century, stigmatics and visionaries again demanded widespread public attention. The presentation grew out of a recent research project Klaniczay conducted within the frames of an interdisciplinary cooperation between Collegium Budapest and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford) on the role of visions in religion. The result of the project was a collection of essays titled The "Vision Thing". Studying Divine Intervention in 2009. Since then, the professor did further research in the area and published an article in 2013 titled Louise Lateau et les stigmatisées du XIXème siècle entre directeurs spirituels, dévots, psychologues et médecins in the Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà.

In his presentation, Klaniczay set out from describing the 19th century as an age of disenchantment with tendencies of the separation of state and church as well as an increasing pressure on the Catholic Church. The church offered resistance to these tendencies, especially under the conservative papacies of Leo XII, Gregory XVII, and Pius IX, who is known for elevating the concepts of papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception to the level of dogma. In its struggles to resist secularizing tendencies, the Holy See embraced and supported instances of ecstatic religious experiences as well, such as resurging Marian apparitions in French villages, cases of mostly female stigmatics and ecstatic visionaries. Klaniczay described several such cases, like Anna Katharina Emmerich, a stigmatic of the Napoleonic era, whose revelations have been written down by Clemens Brentano, Maria von Mörl, the Tyrol visionary of the 1830s, Maria Domenica Lazzari, a miller’s daughter from Capriana, the Italian part of Tyrol, named ‘Addolorata’ for the severe pains, bleeding and vomiting which she went through during her ecstasies, Louise Lateau, the Belgian village seamstress and stigmatic whose wounds have been examined and observed by dozens of doctors and debated at the Belgian Royal Academy, or Pauline Lair Lamotte, a French stigmatic who was treated in the famous Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris by the Charcot-disciple psychologist, Pierre Janet. Klaniczay interpreted all these phenomena as part of a re-enchantment process in the 19th century.

The professor distinguished the salient, common features of the cases, some of which tie them to their medieval and early modern predecessors while others unveil a markedly modern experience. For example, in the 19th century, visionaries and stigmatics were still always accompanied, counselled and protected by a priest. The spiritual counsellor of Louise Lateau for instance has written a 6000-page-long diary about the sufferings of his protégée, a writing which is currently classified by the Vatican due to Lateau’s ongoing canonization process. At the same time, by the 19th century, the figure of the physician also became a compulsory element in these cases: they were assigned an important role in the debate about the verity of the stigmata and the visions. Sceptics and believers alike tried and managed to find medical and scientific arguments in support of their views. The bodies and souls of ecstatics became objects of constant scientific observation and experimenting, mostly without a decisive result – added the professor. Finally, while just like in earlier times, the overwhelming majority of stigmatics and visionaries were lower class women, Klaniczay identified an emphatic spatial shift in the 19th century towards the peripheries: the majority of the phenomena in this era came from rural regions, while urban population many times remained sceptical towards them.

The lecture incited numerous questions, much of which centred exactly on the aforementioned features. In response to why lower-class females have always been over-represented among ecstatics, Klaniczay explained that unrefined people’s extraordinary experiences and actions (such as speaking in tongues) seemed more credible in the eyes of the public, because they could not be explained away by erudition. On the other hand, the professor proposed that women achieved self-expression and power through religious ecstasy, something which in other fields of religion and society was difficult due to the prevalent male-domination in these areas. In another answer, Klaniczay affirmed that the medieval question of the discernment of spirits (i.e. how to distinguish a good spirit from a malicious one) did remain an important one, but the possibility of a medical explanation achieved a greater emphasis than before. A participant pointed out that the Church never officially recognised any vision as ‘true’, the only thing it stated is whether the content of the vision was in accordance with dogma. Accepting the criticism, Klaniczay however underlined, that this has only been the case in modern times. Pope Gregory IX, who canonized Saint Francis of Assisi, proclaimed to have had a personal vision proving the truthfulness of the stigmata of Francis, and   excommunicated  all those who put this in doubt. To the problem of saying where Baroque ends and modernity begins, the professor replied that indeed much of the achievements of the Enlightenment did not take root even in the 19th century, especially in the rural areas. Another commenter called for greater caution with the term ‘ecstasy’, for experiencing stigmas, apparitions and visions should be distinguished from each other in both psychological and anthropological sense. In his reply the professor maintained the applicability of the term ‘ecstasy’ to all phenomena which involves a direct contact with the supernatural and which is explained as a dissociation of the spirit or soul from the body. Furthermore, Klaniczay stated that ecstatic experiences are the real fuel of all religions, for the institutional establishment, the Church both fears and needs them: it is the dynamic debates around these cases which bring life to the given religion.