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  • Between Miracle and Sickness:Louise Lateau and the Experience of Stigmata and Ecstasy
  • Sofie Lachapelle (bio)

When, on the last Friday of April 1868, Louise Lateau began bleeding from the left side of her chest, the eighteen-year-old girl was advised by her local priest to keep quiet and forget about the wound. But the bleeding occurred again on the following Friday, this time accompanied by wounds on her feet. The third Friday, wounds appeared on both hands. This time, Lateau could no longer hide the blood; her secret was out. From Friday, July 17, thirteen weeks after the stigmata's first appearance, she experienced a state of ecstasy in which she witnessed scenes of the Passion and shared her savior's sufferings. On Friday, September 25, she developed stigmata on her head, small cuts forming a bloody crown. These awe-inspiring feats continued for months and years. Over time, Lateau's experiences intensified; she stopped reacting to either heat or cold, she stopped sleeping, and she began to refuse any food or water other than the daily communion. In the spring of 1873, she received her final mark: a large wound on her shoulder, recalling Jesus's burden when carrying his cross to Mount Golgotha. The wounds did not affect her daily life. Miraculously, it seemed, she was able to continue her work as a seamstress, participate in household activities, and walk to church every morning—at least until 1876, when, having grown visibly weaker, she was forced to renounce her daily visit to the village church. Her health declined, but she continued to exhibit marks of the passion every Friday. From 1879 onward she remained bedridden, until her death in 1883 at the significant age of thirty-three.1 [End Page 77]

Between 1868 and 1883, physicians, members of the clergy, believers, and curious visitors traveled to Bois-d'Haine, Louise Lateau's small Belgian village, to witness the famous stigmatic. Many of them wrote accounts of their observations that tell her story from various and sometimes-conflicting perspectives. This paper is mainly based on a dozen works, both first- and second-hand accounts. Because Lateau herself never wrote, and because her biographers rarely reported her words, what has been left behind is a set of rich but confusing material in which her character, her mystical experience, and her surroundings remain unstable. The central figure of all these accounts occupies an ambiguous position, and displays multifarious identities: as a person of simple intellect; as a suggestible victim, manipulated by her family and religious surroundings; as a deceitful girl, lying about the nature of her wounds and faking her ecstasies; as a hysteric belonging to a hospital ward; or as a saint to whom God had granted the ultimate gift of suffering.

In this paper I attempt to situate Lateau within a complex configuration of science and religion—in the dialogue, cooperation, and antagonism between the two at the end of the nineteenth century. Her story is one in which faith and the various religious, medical, and psychiatric interests constructed a same subject. It illuminates anxieties regarding religious experiences and suggests limits to the scientific explanation. It is an example in which scientific discomfort was soon replaced by ridicule, and explanation by classification. The paper is organized into four sections, more or less chronological: in the first, I present the religious and social context and the reactions of believers and religious authorities at various clergy levels; in the second, I consider the opinions of Catholic physicians who openly professed their faith in the Church of Rome; the third section centers on the sixteen-month discussion on Lateau's case held at the Académie royale de médecine de Belgique in 1874 and 1875. In the final section I present Lateau as a hysteric in the context of nineteenth-century psychiatry.

I. Gifts from God

Over the last twenty years, historians have been reacting to the claim that the second half of the nineteenth century was a period of [End Page 78] secularization in Europe. While church attendance dropped and atheism, positivism, and scientism were dominant trends of the time, the nineteenth century, particularly its second half, was...