Who mended Pierre’s leg?

David A. Bell

  • Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age by Ruth Harris
    Allen Lane, 473 pp, £25.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9186 0

On the surface, no two people in 19th-century France had less in common than Louis Pasteur and Bernadette Soubirous. Pasteur, the great icon of modern biological science, was a French national hero, a pillar of the academic establishment: the very embodiment of modern, rational, liberal civilisation. Soubirous was a miserably poor, tubercular peasant girl, illiterate, unable to speak anything other than Pyrenean patois, who claimed, in February 1858, to have seen a miraculous apparition in a grotto near the village of Lourdes. ‘Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou,’ the apparition said to her: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’

Yet both Pasteur and Soubirous came to stand as symbols of healing. Within a decade of the apparition, Lourdes had become one of the great pilgrimage sites of the world, and people flocked there by the thousand to bathe in water from a spring Soubirous had found, in order to gain relief from one debilitating illness or another. Sufferers have been flocking there ever since, usually after Pasteur’s successors in the medical profession have failed to heal them, and every year brings its host of supposedly miraculous cures.

Pasteur and Soubirous have more recently been brought together to symbolise the remarkable shift in perceptions of science and religion over the past two generations. It was once the case that few secular writers would have dared mention the biologist and the peasant girl in the same sentence, except to dismiss the latter as a benighted, superstitious, embarrassing relic of the past, the sort of person who would vanish altogether from the bright scientific future pointed to by Pasteur and his like. But that was before the Frankfurt School, Michel Foucault, the environmental and antinuclear movements, the ‘linguistic turn’ and the new academic field of ‘science studies’ (carried out largely by sociologists, anthropologists, historians and literary critics). Thanks to them it is much harder to see the history of science as a triumphal pageant, steadily advancing towards that bright future. Pasteur in particular has variously been denounced as a cold-hearted exploiter of his patients, a falsifier of data, the ruthless servant of an oppressive patriarchal order, while figures such as Soubirous are more likely to be respected even by non-believers. Their faith is honoured, their visions are described in a determinedly neutral manner and the supposed miracle cures are examined with the eye of a sympathetic anthropologist, rather than a sceptical doctor. At its reductionist and polemical worst, this new approach treats science with the sort of scorn and vitriol that French freethinkers once directed at the Roman Catholic Church.

Ruth Harris’s book exemplifies the promise of this approach rather than its excesses. Pasteur appears only incidentally in its pages, yet he lurks behind them, for the book’s great theme is precisely the confrontation between modern, scientific, secular society and religious passion. Lourdes is a general history of the shrine from its origins to the First World War, but the last section, which examines the power of faith in a secular world, the rituals of modern pilgrimage, the cures themselves and the influence Lourdes eventually exerted even on its secular critics, is the richest. It is here that Harris combines analysis with sympathy for her subjects and vivid, evocative prose, as in this passage:

During the 1897 Jubilee pilgrimage to Lourdes, after a long day full of exertions, Père Picard asked for a drink. Rather than drawing some water afresh, he asked a stretcher-bearer to fill his glass from an infected pool, filled with the pus, blood and scabs of the sick pilgrims. When the father had received the water, he made the sign of the cross and drank slowly, right to the end. Then, he gave back the glass and concluded with a smile: ‘The water of the good Mother of Heaven is always delicious’ ... Picard both enacted a 19th-century vision of medieval fervour and underlined his belief in the power of faith over science at the height of the Pasteurian ‘revolution’.

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