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Making sense of stigmata

Journal Contribution - Journal Article

Subtitle:how Victorians explained the wounds of Christ
The nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic rise in occurrences of stigmata, the wounds of Christ crucified, across Europe and in the British Isles. As allegedly supernatural manifestations of devotional enthusiasm, stigmata complicated notions of an emerging science and a rationalizing religion, and could even upset the fragile religious status quo. Because of this, this article argues, Victorians adopted different ways of understanding and various strategies for dealing with stigmata. Stigmatics were subjected to priests’ condemnations, doctors’ diagnoses, and judges’ verdicts. This article traces how the stigmata were present in the religious and cultural imagination of the Victorians, for whom the wounds of Christ provided a starting point for discussions about what constituted their faith. Starting with the stigmatization of John Thom in Canterbury on the eve of Victoria’s coronation, and drawing on hagiographies, tabloid journalism, and correspondence between clergymen, physicians and authorities, this article emphasizes the multiform manifestations and interpretations of the stigmata across British and Irish society, from bodily signs of the divine or the devil and objects of popular devotion, to fraudulence, to hysteria and skin disease, and finally to symbols of socioeconomic distress. Through an examination of the ambiguities within these ways of ‘making sense’ of stigmata, this article makes the case for a revaluation of the religious supernatural in Victorian culture.
Journal: Journal of Victorian culture
ISSN: 1355-5502
Volume: 24
Pages: 227 - 240
Publication year:2019