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Ruth Harris


Body and spirit in the secular age

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

There have been many books about Lourdes. Ruth Harris's approach is historical, with a bias towards social anthropology. It covers the period from 1858 to 1914. Harris is not a Catholic but she writes sympathetically; indeed, she participated in a pilgrimage herself as a helper and says that she was touched by the experience but not converted.

The story starts in 1858, when a young French shepherdess, Bernadette Soubirous, had the first of eighteen visions that were to make her and the small Pyrenean town of Lourdes famous throughout the world. On the first occasion she was alone, but when she told her sister what had happened the news spread and on the next occasion she was accompanied by a number of other girls, although none apart from Bernadette saw the vision. Before long the Church became involved and soon there were large crowds in attendance.

The apparition seen by Bernadette had the form of a young girl. Bernadette referred to her as "Aquéro", a patois word meaning simply a paranormal being of some kind, but towards the end of the cycle of manifestations the vision announced herself, somewhat unexpectedly, as the Immaculate Conception—a term that Bernadette had apparently never heard of. After the appearances were over Bernadette entered a convent hundreds of miles away at Nevers. She had always been in poor health and she died of tuberculosis in 1879. By that time Lourdes had already become one of the greatest centres of pilgrimage in Christendom.

The apparition seen by Bernadette did not correspond exactly with usual Marian conventions. For one thing, she was younger than would be expected—a child, in fact. For another, she had features in common with mythical creatures of Pyrenean folklore, such as fairies. These were often seen as enchanting little women, only a little bigger than dwarfs, and linked with cosmic forces. They were dressed in white and had yellow roses on their feet, as did Aquéro, although she differed from a fairy in having a blue belt and carrying a rosary. Still, the resemblances are evident and not only in appearance. Like the fairies, Aquéro could be harsh and demanding if her requests were not complied with.

In spite of these features linking the vision with folklore, others were not slow to identify what Bernadette had seen with the Virgin Mary. Even so, the success of Lourdes as a centre of pilgrimage was not assured at the outset; even the Church was wary at first. But the fame of Lourdes spread quickly, and it is a major part of Harris's aim to explain why this happened. She sees it as part of the story of France and of the struggle of French Catholics to resist secularisation in the aftermath of the Revolution.

To secularists Lourdes is anachronistic, a manifestation of superstition. Harris thinks that to understand its appeal we need to take "a more sympathetic approach to the sustained appeal of the miraculous in religion." This is what she has done here, and the book is an important contribution to the psychology of religion as well as to the history of religion in France. Here she includes many other matters, including anti-clericalism, anti-Semitism, and Emile Zola's hostility to Lourdes, which he expressed in a novel.

For many people it is the claimed miraculous cures that they mainly think of in connection with Lourdes. In fact, these only began to occur some time after the establishment of Lourdes as a centre of pilgrimage. Harris does have a chapter on the subject, but it is not her main focus of interest; indeed, she says that she was not allowed to inspect the medical records because she is not medically qualified. Even so, she includes the account of a startling early cure.

A Flemish labourer called Pierre de Rudder apparently experienced the instantaneous healing of a year-old ununited and infected fracture of the tibia and fibula. A section of bone was entirely missing, yet a photograph shows the leg not only whole but equal in length to the opposite leg. The odd thing about this story is that the cure took place, not at Lourdes, but at a local replica of the Grotto in Belgium. It was certified by physicians and, when de Rudder died, post mortem examination confirmed that the bones had united and were of normal length. As Harris remarks, this case is different in kind from reports of recovery from cancer, tuberculosis, or paralysis, and it "dismays and perplexes".*

This book is an important contribution, from a neutral but sympathetic viewpoint, to the history of Catholicism in the nineteenth century.

11 January 2005

*For more light on de Rudder and his apparent cure, please see my blog entry on this.

%T Lourdes
%S Body and spirit in the secular age
%A Harris, Ruth
%I Allen Lane: The Penguin Press
%C London
%D 1999
%G ISBN 0-713-99186-0
%P xxi + 474 pp
%K history, religion
%O hardback
%O illustrated

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