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Between saints and celebrities. The devotion and promotion of stigmatics in Europe, c.1800-1950

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - STIGMATICS (Between saints and celebrities. The devotion and promotion of stigmatics in Europe, c.1800-1950)

Reporting period: 2016-10-01 to 2018-03-31

This project studies the promotion and devotion of the hundreds of stigmatics reported in five European countries during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The majority of the work on these women (and a few men) who carried Christ’s wounds, has focused primarily on the medical debates and religious treatises and examined the stigmatics in isolation. This project wants to move beyond the traditional historiographical emphasis in at least three ways.
First of all, it focuses on the popular perception of stigmatics and examine how they became symbolic figures of political and religious causes. Secondly, we study the interaction of the ‘victim souls’ with their communities and examine how they were turned into ‘living saints’ through religious practices and discourse, and how some of them were eventually even beatified and canonized. Thirdly, we address them as carefully constructed religious commodities (celebrities) and rebalance the research on the selling of religion that has adopted a top-down perspective and focused primarily on the popularization of authorized cults rather than on the impact of the commercialization from the bottom-up.
Combining these three aspects in studying the ‘golden age’ of the stigmatics, the project will enhance our understanding of the role of (new) media and consumption practices in religious change and the construction of religious identities. As each of these emphases calls for a study that takes into account chronological and geographical differences, we adopt a comparative approach and examine five of the countries where most of the (hundreds of) stigmatics have been attested (Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Belgium).
This allows us to trace larger trends as changes in the type of stigmatic (e.g. bedridden silent ‘sign’ or a socially engaged charismatic leader) and moments and locations of increased attention (e.g. political crises). However, since this was the era of an internationalized Catholicism the countries are not studied in isolation and special attention is given to transnational attraction (e.g. pilgrims) and the related differences in promotion and perception.
This project focuses on the popular response to stigmatics (the men and women who bore the wounds of Christ) and studies the ways and means via which these became mediatized, symbolic, figures and ‘living saints’. The focus is on the five countries where, as preliminary research indicated, most stigmatics were reported in the nineteenth and twentieth century: Belgium, France, Spain, Germany and Italy.
The project is carried out by three team members: Leonardo Rossi (PhD student) studies the Italian stigmatics; Andrea Graus (post-doc) examines the stigmatics in France and Spain and Tine Van Osselaer (PI) focuses on Belgium and Germany. The research of the PhDstudent started with a delay (on the 1st of September) as the Turkish candidate who was originally selected, did not manage to have his Master’s diploma (Divinity, Miami International Seminary) approved by the administration of the University of Antwerp and could thus not start as a doctoral student.(The Turkish government did not legalize his diploma.) The vacancy had to be opened a second time, this time there was no problem with the legalization of the diploma (History, University of Florence) and its approval by the University. The team has regular meetings and keeps in touch via Skype during the research stays abroad. The team has its own website: where information on our project, publications, presentations, upcoming events and a blog can be found.
As outlined in the research proposal, our first task was to track down the stigmatics who were reported in the five countries during centuries under discussion. We created a database with all the stigmatics we found and added biographical information to their files. The database is constructed by a third party: Zeticon (the company was selected in collaboration with the Purchasing office of the University, after an open procedure during which three companies were invited to send in an offer). We are using the Mediahaven-software that Zeticon reconfigured to fit our needs. As the selection procedure took up some months and the development of the databank is a gradual process, the team initially shared information via Dropbox until the database became available. We shared two types of documents: one was the file on the stigmatic, and the other a general list with all the names, data and countries. This way, it was easy for the team members to keep an overview of the names that had been tracked down and each could add to the file of a stigmatic. Zeticon was granted the commission in September 2015 and developed the software in dialogue with the team (meetings on 1/10, 22/10, 6/11 and 8/12/2015). As soon as the first versions of the database-software were available we added the information we had already compiled to the database. (The development of the database is currently in its final phase, the database has already been migrated to the University Server.) After the end of the project the database will be made publicly accessible.
This first, communal, phase of the project confirmed that the nineteenth and early twentieth century were indeed a ‘golden age’ for stigmatics in these five countries. The number of stigmatics was however, much higher than we expected: our overview currently counts 228 stigmatics (in comparison: Imbert-Gourbeyre counted 321 stigmatics throughout all the centuries all over the world). This is most probably not the final number as smaller, local and short-lived cases appear on the radar when we are working on other cases. Moreover, for the Italian case, 42 extra names have already been traced via general lists but as it is hard to find proof of their stigmata in the sources and they might be excluded in a second phase. If we compare the countries, Italy stands out (95): it has the double and even triple amount of numbers that other countries have (Belgium: 20; Germany: 37; France: 51 and Spain: 25). The names and biographical information on these stig
"By examining the ways in which the stigmatics were constructed and appropriated as cult figures, we are able to study how promotional campaigns, commercialization, instrumentalization and devotion could interact and influence 'official' religion. Vice versa, we are able to trace the impact of this official sanctioning on the grassroots cults. The project will thus contribute to religious history and balance the research that has primarily addressed these issues from a top-down perspective and help to understand the impact of lay initiatives on Catholic devotional culture. Moreover, by explicitly addressing religious media produced in the context of grassroots devotions, the research contributes to a better understanding of 'religion as practiced' and the production, consumption and regulation of its media. Consequently, it also fits into the scholarship on media and religion, ""an emerging field"" (Stout, 2012). The project will not only contribute to our understanding of popular religious culture in the modern era but also offer interesting perspectives for other disciplines such as consumer research where ideas on the 'sacralization' of celebrities have grown more popular in the last years. By addressing the stigmatics as cult figures, we might argue that such sacralizations are not new and that cultic celebrity following has its roots in religion like so much of society's behavioral learning, phenomena and movements. Finally, as modern stigmatics were primarily women, the project will help to write women back into religious history, and give them back the voice and authority that their contemporaries gave to them."