Sign or Symptom?

Exceptional Corporeal Phenomena in Religion and Medicine in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Tine van Osselaer, Henk de Smaele, Kaat Wils
KADOC Studies on Religion, Culture and Society
  • Leuven, Belgium: 
    Leuven University Press
    , November
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The essays in this book all ask the titular question: Sign or symptom? That is, are “exceptional corporeal phenomena”—stigmata, levitations, inedia, and so forth—instances of transcendence or of disease? Have we grounds for supposing that any of the “exceptional” phenomena be construed as signspointing toward the “miraculous,” or something at least physically inexplicable? Or, may we best account for them neuroscientifically, and safely regard them as mere “symptoms” of one or another pathology? 

The choice between “sign” and “symptom” is no small thing; at bottom, it’s a choice between worldviews, between ontologies. The book points to a crucial moment in history: a time when science took to questioning and undermining one religious belief after another, culminating in 1882 with Nietzsche’s announcing the death of God, and when David Hume argued that the concept of a “miracle,” and its implied violation of the laws of nature, had no place in enlightened society.

In the introduction to Sign or Symptom? Tine Van Osselaer begins with the famous Lourdes case of the bones of Pierre de Rudder. De Rudder’s smashed leg bones tormented him for eight years; the doctors failed to help him. Finally, he was allowed to drag himself to the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes at Oostakki on April 7, 1875. Instantaneously, on that day, he was completely and permanently healed. 

This case is important for two reasons.  The evidence for the prodigy was massive. But because it was so massive, it provoked resistance from the anti-clericals. The controversy stayed in the news for a half century.  For Van Osselaer, it illustrates the fruitfulness of the science-religion dialogue. The latest technology seems to authenticate the miracle interpretation of de Rudder’s healing, we are told, but the issue is not settled; the dialogue goes on. 

Maria Heidegger’s chapter covers a period when records of a mental hospital in Tyrol show that half the population suffered “desperate sadness over their own salvation,” saw visions, and some reported being possessed (25). Such were the times that exorcism and benediction were brought in alongside scientific medicine, and both played their parts in response to the collective crisis. Heidegger focuses on two individuals, Josepha S. and Anna G.: tormented by horrific visions and driven by their belief in damnation, the women were in deep need of spiritual understanding. We’re left in this chapter with a noble image of scientific and spiritual rapprochement, a convergence of healing paths in service to the suffering. 

Nicole Edelman compares how three experienced doctors interpreted unusual bodily phenomena—ecstasies, seizures, and healings. From the professional perspectives of Gustave Boissarie, director of the Lourdes Medical Bureau, Jean-Martin Charcot at La Salpetriere, and Sigmund Freud with his patients in Vienna, Edelman provides a perceptive discussion of the fact that the same phenomena evoke very different responses. Charcot seems to mediate between the extremes of Boissarie and Freud. Charcot concludes that some healing “miracles” are real, based on the healing power of faith, but that the entire process is natural and not divinely inspired. Boissarie thinks there are real miracles that must be caused by God. Freud, proceeding from his premises, sees no miracles, just regression and illusion. 

Sofie Lachapelle provides an absorbing account of the rise and fall of a French ecstatic, Marie Bergadieu (1829-1904). At the peak of her career she appeared like a new Bernadette Soubirous, poised to found a new Lourdes. On one point she made the grade. She proved herself a bona fide ecstatic by not physically responding when doctors shouted, burned, pricked, or jabbed her body. To all appearances, Marie tuned everything out and was gone from her body. Unfortunately, the authentic ecstatic was a lousy prophet. She made all kinds of provocative predictions, but none were born out and this failure seems to have ruined her once great reputation. 

The following chapter by Mary Heimann reviews the “contentious case” of a 20th-century English mystic, Teresa Higginson. Higginson’s baroque personality produced a split in English Catholicism. The cool intellectuals of the upper classes blocked her beatification, with Herbert Thurston calling her out on her egotism and self-advertising, while the emotional over-believers were awestruck by her levitations, visions, inedia, and—get this—her bilocations to Africa where she is supposed to have converted some natives. 

There is a timely chapter by Paula Kane called “Disenchanted America.” It explains why Catholic America has been so lacking in extraordinary mystical phenomena. Mysticism had to be sacrificed by Catholic immigrants, Kane argues. To assimilate and make it in America, Catholic immigrants followed the paths of rationalism, consumerism, and capitalism and, of course, avoided the magical, the mystical, and anything dangerously “transcendent.”

Ellen Amster recounts the story of an Islamic Majnun, titled “The Mad Saint as Healer.” Like the ancient Greek Cynic philosophers who masturbated in public to demonstrate contempt for convention and allegiance to nature, the Majnun acted out his revolt against all social, rational, and physical inhibitions, mixing miracles with obscenities. The Moroccan Majnun was the ultimate thorn in the side of the French colonizers and their lackey-physician class. In this account, we see clearly how politics smashes metaphysics and how the transcendent is devalorized. 

Finally, we find a discussion of how science and religion have different ways of interpreting visionary and supernormal bodily manifestations. Tiago Pires Marques works very hard to make sense of the different, often conflicting lines of interpretation offered by observers. I leave it to the reader to struggle with Marques’s effort at elucidation. 

In sum, this is an invaluable collection of essays on a topic that digs deeply into issues of great human importance, asking what “exceptional corporeal phenomena” might mean and how we might understand and possibly make use of them. It provides the historical perspective we need to dig down on the mind-body problem and the actual possibility of “miracles.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Grosso is Professor Emeritus at New Jersey City University.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tine van Osselaer is Research Professor at Universiteit Antwerpen (Ruusbroec Institute).

Henk de Smaele is Associate Professor of History and Member of the Research Unit Power in History: Centre for Political History at Universiteit Antwerpen.

Kaat Wils is Professor in European Cultural History and Head of the Research Group Cultural History since 1750 at KU Leuven.


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