European Mysticism: A case for criminal law?

Andrea Graus
Andrea Graus

Europe witnessed a revival of Catholic mysticism during the “culture wars” — or the secular-religious conflicts of the nineteenth-century — during which the Catholic Church struggled with anticlericalism and the establishment of liberal governments (Clark and Kaiser, 2003).

From Napoleonic Italy to Republican France and Bismarckian Germany, the political turmoil became fertile ground for an “ideological” manifestation of the supernatural. Peasant women and children were the main actors in this Catholic revival, which was notably manifest in the form of Marian apparitions laden with political meaning, and through apocalyptic prophecies about the triumph of the Pope and the restoration of the ancient regime (see, e.g. Blackbourn, 1993; Bouflet and Boutry, 1997).

In relation to this scenario, Catholic mystics became symbols that were used in support of politico-religious causes. In Italy, lay mystics such as Anna Maria Taigi and Palma Matarelli prophesized the election of Pius IX and the devastating consequences of the culture wars for Catholics (MacLaren, 2012; Multon, 2003).

In Belgium and Germany, the stigmatic Louise Lateau became emblematic in opposing the Kulturkampf (Van Osselaer, forthcoming). In France, at the beginning of the Third Republic, Berguille Bergadieu and Marie-Julie Jahenny announced the return of the monarchy and the rise of the Count of Chambord (Henri V), Legitimist pretender to the throne. The millenarist and messianic tone of their revelations pleased ultramontane aristocrats who had lost their privileges after the French Revolution (Kselman, 1983).

The Catholic revival coincided with heated debates concerning modern and gospel miracles, fostered, on the one hand, by a positivist approach to the supernatural, and, on the other, by a renewal of Biblical studies.

With regard to the latter, the German-Protestant theologian David Friedrich Strauss fuelled the controversy with his book, ‘Das Leben Jesu’ (‘The Life of Jesus’), in which he disagreed with rationalist and supernaturalist approaches to gospel miracles and argued for the mythological basis of the ‘New Testament’ (Craig, 1986; Gregory, 1992).

Regarding modern miracles, the nineteenth-century is renowned for its positivist and medicalized approach to allegedly supernatural phenomena. The Salpetri’ere School, which sympathized with the anticlerical agenda of the Third Republic, championed the pathologization of religious experiences (Didi- Huberman, 2003; Goldstein, 1982).

Cases of alleged demonic possession and miraculous healing, such as the possessed of Morzine and the Lourdes miracles, were integrated into the discourse on hysteria (Carroy, 1981; Edelman, 2003; Harris, 1999).

In the fight against this approach, we find Catholic doctors such as Antoine Imbert-Gourbeyre, a French Legitimist, who attempted to prove the supernatural origin of stigmata, ecstasy and the Lourdes miracles in a book that challenged the “free-thinkers” of the Salpetri’ere (Imbert-Gourbeyre, 1894; Sandoni, 2014). The acknowledgement or debunking of miracles was thus part of the politico-religious clashes of the culture wars.

Other nineteenth-century approaches to the supernatural included those fostered by new religious movements such as Victorian Spiritualism and Allan Kardec’s Spiritism, which emerged from the fashion for “turning-tables” and spirit communication in the 1850s.

Such movements aimed not only to transform Christian spirituality but science and society as well; for example, presenting seances as scientific proof of survival after death and advocating utopian socialism and women’s emancipation (Hayward, 2007; Mulberger, 2016; Sharp, 2006).

Female mediums across Europe became feminist activists, spreading their ideals through “trance texts” against Catholicism and scientific materialism (Owen, 2004).

Psychiatrists dispossessed mediums of their experiences, as they had done with the mystics, medicalising their trances using theories of hysteria, automatism and hallucination (see, e.g. Edelman, 2003; Le Mal’efan, 1999).

Thus, it is clear that the nineteenth-century uses of the supernatural implied an ideological intent and constituted a political threat within the European secular–Catholic conflicts.

What was the role of modern justice in this respect, especially when the threat came from Catholic mystics; that is, individuals whose repression and control had traditionally been undertaken by the Church? To understand the role of the legal system, it is useful to look briefly at how the Catholic Church and the courts interacted in Europe before the nineteenth-century.

Since the early Middle Ages, the Church had accepted the intervention of judicial powers in cases of repeated or major heresy, where the defendant had to follow a Judicium Dei or trial by ordeal.

With the abandonment of ordeal after the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), most European countries and the Catholic Church adopted an inquisitorial system based on the Roman canon law of evidence.

This system of proof-primarily relied on testimony and aimed to find “objective” evidence of the facts, such as eyewitnesses. By law, torture could be used to force a confession from the defendant (Langbein, 1977).

An official investigator conducted an extensive pretrial inquiry and interviewed witnesses in secret. As in canonisation causes, a dossier with the written testimony was created and presented to the judges (Vidal, 2007).

England was the only country using trial by jury at that time.

Enlightenment thinkers criticised the use of torture and the secrecy of the inquisitorial procedure and, in 1791, France introduced the jury into criminal justice (Donovan, 2010; Johnson, Wolfe and Jones, 2008).

During the Enlightenment, and especially after the French Revolution, many thinkers advocated secularising the state. They thought that offences against religion or against morality should not be punished by law (see, e.g. Montesquieu, 1995[1748]).

According to Cesare Beccaria, an influential Italian jurist, offences should only be judged with regard to the damage caused to public peace and safety (Carbasse, 2014).

While small fines or police warnings against “troublesome” mystics became increasingly common (see, e.g. Canioni, 2014), bringing them before a court was an extreme measure reserved for cases having a powerful impact on public opinion or disturbing public order.

A common feature shared by the Christian mystics who were taken to court during the nineteenth-century was that their cases had moved beyond an “acceptable” level of religious enthusiasm, arousing the interest of the press and causing a public disturbance. This included inconvenient events such as uncontrolled gatherings at sites where “miracles” had taken place, roads becoming unusable due to crowds of pilgrims, illegal commerce in alleged holy objects, indiscriminate publicity of the phenomena and the spread of political prophecies.

In such cases, justice systems treated the events as a threat to public order and targeted the source of the disturbance, whether it was the prophet of a growing sect — such as Eugene Vintras (1807–1875), who was prosecuted (Garc¸on, 1928) — or the alleged mystics who will be introduced below. For example, in Germany, Catherine Filljung was declared a “danger to public safety” for obtaining money from “credulous people” while posing as a martyr (Pelt, 1934: 236–7).

In the following, I sketch the cases of the Franciscan nun Sor Patrocinio (Madrid), and the French laywomen Rosette Tamisier (Provence) and Catherine Filljung (Lorraine). These examples, which I will refer to throughout the sections below, allow the exploration of common features of mystic trials in nineteenth-century Spain, France and Germany — with Filljung’s case occurring during the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to the German Empire and thus falling under German jurisdiction.

As mentioned above, these kinds of cases were quite exceptional.

While for the majority there are only brief references and no additional sources to expand the subject matter, for the cases presented here there is rich archival material and a wide range of printed primary sources: from books and transcriptions of court hearings to press articles and caricatures.

The fact that these reports sometimes originated abroad indicates the significance of these trials at the time.

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