The Flesh Made Word

Stigmata in the public sphere in Britain and Ireland, 1830s-1930s

Kristof Smeyers (@kristof_smeyers)

Kristof talks to Richard Parrington about the religious legacy and embodied supernaturalism of John Nichols Thom, alias Sir William Courtenay

The Flesh Made Word examines the plethora of meanings and significances attributed to the religious supernatural in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain and Ireland through the lens of one specific phenomenon: stigmata. By exploring the attitudes to the wounds of Christ, their bearers, and their believers across British and Irish society, this thesis argues that the religious supernatural played an important role both in religious practices and in the imagination. Whereas the social and cultural ambiguities of the British and Irish supernatural have received plenty of scholarly attention outside the religious sphere (e.g. on spiritualism, ghosts, and mesmerism), studies on nineteenth- and twentieth-century religion have thus far largely shied away from stigmata, ecstasy and other religious phenomena. This thesis offers to open up this field of research by weaving religious supernatural phenomena into a broader history and exploring the devotion to stigmata as well as their cultural production and contestation – and in doing so, obfuscate the ontological dichotomy of experience and representation, of materiality and textuality, of ‘superstition’ and ‘modernity’.

Particular attention goes to the various ways in which the stigmata were constructed by a cultural mainstream as part of an ‘Other’; studying these strategies over a period of 150 years allows us to historicise the religious supernatural as well as the attitudes toward it and the practices that were formed around it. Its central argument, then, is that phenomena like the stigmata constituted a ‘sub-structure of rich spiritual enterprise’ (Edward Norman, The English Catholic church in the nineteenth century (Oxford, 1984), p. 1) in Britain and Ireland that simultaneously illuminates previously neglected forms of religiosity and contemporary attempts at severing the ‘blood ties’ between society and the religious supernatural.

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