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’.

This is the first substantial history of Lourdes not written from a Catholic perspective, and it would be quite wrong to suggest that Harris’s earlier chapters are lacking in interest. She begins by providing a sort of microhistory of Soubirous and her apparitions, which movingly recounts how the 14-year-old girl, accompanying her sister and a friend in a hunt for firewood, sat down to rest in front of the grotto and first saw the childlike figure she called simply ‘aquéro’ – ‘that’. Over the next month, it appeared again and again, as crowds eventually numbering seven thousand (three thousand more than the population of Lourdes) came to the wooded area to watch the girl kneeling ecstatically in the mud, drinking the dirty water and recounting what she had heard. Aquéro asked for prayer, penitence, bathing and drinking in the fountain, a religious procession and a chapel. The local authorities disapproved and tried to keep Soubirous from the grotto, but without success.

Harris sketches out a number of contexts in which to make sense of what happened. Lourdes suffered a major economic decline in the 1850s – the Soubirous family, for example, was reduced to living in a former prison. Bernadette was ill-treated at the hands of the woman for whom she was a maid-of-all-work and shepherdess. ‘Far from being a rural idyll,’ Harris writes, ‘it seems her life was toilsome and grim, even by the standards of the region.’ She also underlines the importance of the woodland, as a site of conflict between the peasantry and the state and as a place where earlier miraculous apparitions had occurred. Aquéro fitted in with Pyrenean traditions about the Virgin Mary, but also with local lore about sprites and fairies. Finally, Soubirous’s words about the Immaculate Conception came at a particularly convenient time for the Church, as the Vatican had recently translated this belief into doctrine.

In short, many different observers had good reason to believe Soubirous, and to consider the apparitions miraculous. Her story gained the support not only of the local peasantry, but of a Pyrenean bishop determined to bring his diocese onto the national scene, a Catholic press eager for continuing evidence of divine intervention in human affairs and even of figures close to the imperial court of Louis Napoleon. It was a powerful combination and it soon overcame the initial resistance of the local authorities: within a few years the phenomenon of Lourdes had grown to astonishing proportions. From being simply one miraculous apparition among many (other women claimed visions not only in Lourdes but in the same grotto), the story came to animate a cult that would, by the turn of the century, bring hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. By the mid-1860s an enormous basilica had been built, and word of Lourdes’s miraculous cures was starting to attract sufferers from across Europe. The town would be changed for ever, becoming, among other things, one of the world’s capitals of religious kitsch. ‘At Lourdes there is such a plethora of vulgarity,’ an otherwise sympathetic Huysmans wrote, ‘such a haemorrhage of bad taste, that the notion of some intervention by the Prince of Depravity inevitably springs to mind.’ Meanwhile Soubirous, her visions accomplished, was packed off to a convent in distant Nevers, where she died of tuberculosis in 1879, and there she remains, waxed and preserved as a relic. The business of saying what the visions meant was left to others to argue about.

The key figure here is the Catholic journalist Henri Lasserre, who attributed his own recovery from blindness to treatment with Lourdes water. His Notre-Dame de Lourdes sold over a million copies: more than Victor Hugo, Jules Verne or Alexandre Dumas; more probably than any other book published in France in the 19th century. It ran to 142 editions in just seven years; was translated into 80 languages and remained in print until the Sixties. It did so well because it was highly melodramatic, simplistic to the point of gross inaccuracy, and turned both the obstructionist local authorities and the religious order that first oversaw the shrine into cartoon villains. The meticulous Jesuit Léonard Cros attempted a more accurate account of the apparitions, but went too far in a different direction, laying out absolutely all the evidence, even where it contradicted itself. Catholic critics warned that he would destroy the credibility of the apparitions altogether. A combination of these criticisms and the pains he took in his researches meant that his book was not published until the Twenties, and did not appear in full until 1957.

However expertly done, these sections pale beside the last one, which so brilliantly illuminates the bizarre world of 19th-century French Catholicism, still suffering from the trauma of the Revolution, and yearning to return to an imaginary medieval past of deep faith and organic social cohesion. For Catholics who saw themselves, despite their social position and often considerable wealth, as an oppressed island of faith in a hostile secular sea, the miraculous apparitions and cures gave reassurance of divine support as well as offering hope for the conversion of the faithless, and thanks to the pilgrimage that developed, providing an annual opportunity for mobilisation in defence of the Church and true believers.

Catholic anxieties became more acute after the Commune, when anticlerical workers seized control of Paris, persecuted priests and shot the Archbishop. Among Catholic responses to this event was the construction of the Sacré-Coeur, built expressly to expiate the sins of the city and to stand guard over it, permanently, inescapably. These anxieties might have been allayed had France re-embraced the Bourbon dynasty after the Commune’s failure, but instead it opted for the Third Republic, elected anticlerical leaders like Jules Ferry and drove Catholics once again to despair. In these circumstances every, miracle cure reported at Lourdes and every new account of Soubirous’s apparitions was seized on as further proof of the Catholic verities, to be flung in the face of the Republic and its secular supporters. The priests of the Assumptionist order, who organised the pilgrimages to Lourdes, led by such charismatic figures as François Picard, saw themselves as crusaders battling for their country’s salvation. Against Marianne, symbol of the Republic, they held up the Virgin Mary. Against the will of the people, they held up the will of God.

Unlike earlier historians, Harris not only discusses the priests, but gives equal time to their female sponsors and supporters, who contributed just as much to the way Lourdes developed. They ranged from the Duchesse d’Estissac, who had a replica of the grotto built in the grounds of her château, to the humblest nuns, clerical assistants and lay disciples, whose relationships with the priests often had a sexual tinge. ‘Our Lord wants you more for himself every day,’ the head of the Assumptionists wrote to one of his female charges. ‘There are delicate things in your soul that he wishes to penetrate completely. You have to open up wide to him, and, when you are open, open yourself to him still further, because the divine Master has an insatiable need for your love and intimate sacrifices.’ She warns, however, against reading such relationships as nothing more than expressions of repressed sexual desire. ‘To reduce the feelings between priests and women to some kind of sexual perversion is to misunderstand the benefits women gained from such encounters ... In a pre-Freudian world, these encounters enabled them unselfconsciously to act out and play with many imaginary roles.’ Of one priest and nun she writes that ‘their spiritual “love affair” was possibly the greatest human relationship of their lives.’ At the same time she suggests that the relative weakness of French feminism owes a great deal to this sort of Catholic activism, which gave women alternative outlets for their energies and ambitions.

The annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, organised by the priests and their followers, saw thousands of people trekking to the far south of France in the hope of a cure. Members of some of the country’s wealthiest aristocratic and bourgeois families assisted them, acting as stretcher-bearers and nurses in what Harris calls ‘a temporary inversion that paradoxically reinforced social hierarchies at the journey’s end’. For the sick, the journey involved agonisingly long hours on the train, and then four or more hours getting from the station to the shrine. The last rites often had to be administered en route. But suffering was so much the point of the exercise that priests might call out ‘no remedies’ to the doctors who sometimes accompanied their patients. ‘Bodily sacrifice was admired above all else,’ Harris writes, ‘with the sick on stretchers using their last bit of strength to imitate the Passion by putting themselves in the position of Christ on the cross.’ After the Calvary of the journey would come, it was hoped, the resurrection of the cure. As for the nobs, by participating in the rituals, helping the afflicted, and exposing themselves to the ‘harrowing atmosphere’ of the trains, hospitals and pools, they were acting out an ideal of Christian solidarity which they dreamt of extending to French society as a whole.

The cures themselves caused the greatest controversy. At the very moment when the triumph of science seemed assured, when Pasteur and his germ theory seemed to be stripping away mystery and fear, the pilgrims of Lourdes were asserting the claims of the supernatural. The paralysed stood up and walked, the blind saw, the deaf heard. Secular critics mocked it all as an anachronistic farce in which unscrupulous priests and charlatans preyed on the gullible and the hysterical. In Lourdes, his most popular novel, Zola scandalised Catholics by fictionalising the case of a tuberculosis sufferer cured at the shrine, and falsely claiming that she had relapsed afterwards.

Anticlerical doctors descended on the town, eager to expose the cures as a fraud, or to find proper scientific explanations for them. Sometimes their task was relatively easy: one deaf woman regained her hearing after repeatedly syringing her ears with Lourdes water, washing away wax that had hardened there over several decades. At other times they resorted to the notion of ‘suggestion’, or invoked that quintessential 19th-century malady, hysteria. On a few occasions they were simply stumped. Pierre de Rudder, a Flemish labourer, broke his leg so badly he spent a year in bed in terrible pain. His doctors found a three-centimetre gap separating the two parts of the unset bone, and counselled amputation. Instead de Rudder went to Lourdes, and was cured. Today, the leg bone resides in a glass case in the Lourdes museum, with only a fracture line visible.

In large part to avoid giving ammunition to the secular enemy, a medical bureau, staffed by Catholic doctors, was set up to separate true cures from false ones. It had strict standards, and in its first year of operation, the numbers of the cured fell by nearly half. As Harris points out, adopting the methods of modern science to verify the miraculous was more than a little paradoxical, and like Cros’s researches, the medical bureau risked writing the miraculous out of Lourdes altogether.

Ironically, Harris, though not a Catholic, sometimes seems to take a less critical approach to the miracles. She doesn’t endorse the thesis of divine intervention, but she considers it possible that the cures demonstrate something more interesting than temporary ‘suggestion’, pointing to powerful, as yet poorly understood, ways in which the mind can act on the body. She even calls these mental capacities ‘miraculous’ – though she puts the word in inverted commas. Harris is hardly the first to have concluded that something was at work that we still don’t understand. Her last chapter shows that many of the secular intellectuals and physicians who observed the phenomenon were forced by what they saw – not just the ‘cures’ but the degree of religious feeling, particularly on the part of women – to question their own assumptions about the workings of the mind, and the relationship of mind and body, notably in regard to the developing notion of the unconscious. Among them were a number of pioneers of the new science of psychology, including Charcot. ‘Psychoanalysis,’ Harris writes, ‘is built on religious foundations, on the 19th-century attempt to reinterpret the physical and psychological dimensions of the religious imagination.’ In this sense, it represents a retreat from 19th-century positivism, and foreshadows the change in attitudes to science that is now taking place.

It is a pity that Harris decided not to take the story up to the present, leaving us to wonder about Soubirous’s canonisation, Franz Werfel’s tremendously popular Song of Bernadette, the transformation of pilgrimage in the age of the global tourist industry and the 20th-century’s own spectacular wave of Marian apparitions, from Fatima to Medjugorje. Since 1980 there have been more than two dozen widely reported apparitions in the US alone, leading in some cases to lawsuits by neighbours incensed by the resulting parking problems.

Harris’s failure to take on the 20th century is a minor problem. A more serious one concerns her treatment of the links between Lourdes, extreme right-wing politics and anti-Semitism. As the book makes clear, the architects of the Lourdes pilgrimage had a visceral hatred not only of republicans but of Protestants, Freemasons and Jews. Le Pèlerin, edited by the Assumptionist priest Vincent de Paul Bailly, regularly printed caricatures of Jews and accounts of Jewish ritual murder of Christians. The Assumptionists helped lead the campaign against Drefyus, strongly supported the anti-Semitic, monarchist Action Française, and in 1898 even toyed with the idea of a coup. As a result, in 1900, the republican government expelled them from France. Harris says that for these men and women ‘anti-Semitism was an integral part of their piety, the dark side of their veneration for the Virgin and the Eucharist.’

‘Integral’ is a strong word. Yet in the following sentence, she tries to separate Lourdes and the pilgrimages from this political pollution: ‘In the enclosed world of pilgrimage, devoid of republicans, Freemasons and other “enemies”, the venom and rancour of life under a distasteful regime faded, and the positive aspects of the Catholic programme came once again to the fore.’ In this way she justifies restricting her own discussion of anti-Semitism to a couple of pages, although she devotes more to the overall political context.

The problem with this argument is, first, that it goes against what Harris herself had previously said: namely, that many of those who took part in the pilgrimage saw it in large part as a way to rebuild their strength against their enemies – republicans, Protestants, Freemasons and Jews. Secondly, it avoids the question of the overall impact of Lourdes on French politics. To the extent that Lourdes was an effective means of mobilisation for the extreme Catholic Right – and Harris leaves very little doubt that it was extremely effective – it directly strengthened the forces of reactionary monarchism and anti-Semitism. In most cases, a secular observer ‘converted’ by the experience was another voice against Dreyfus, another vote for the Far Right. Finally, both the stories of the cures and anti-Semitic propaganda juxtaposed images of twisted, unhealthy, corrupt bodies with healthy, normal ones. How often were the Jews themselves referred to as a ‘sickness’ or a ‘plague’, calling, perhaps, for a drastic ‘cure’? Representations of suffering, diseased bodies can’t be seen as altogether innocent when they feed directly into representations of a suffering, diseased body politic. It is not that easy to separate the ‘positive aspects’ of Lourdes from its ‘dark side’.