Patients and Passions

Catholic views on pain in nineteenth-century Austria

Linde Tuybens

The nineteenth century is renowned for an increasing secularization and medicalization of pain. Thanks to medical progress, pain became something that needed to be avoided, something that could be controlled and contained, e.g. by the use of anaesthetics and analgesics. At the same time, the nineteenth century witnessed a revival of Catholic devotions in which the suffering of Christ played a central role, like the cult of the Sacred Heart or praying the Stations of the Cross. This project aims to reinvestigate this alleged dichotomy between a pain-avoiding modern medicine and a seemingly pain-idealising Catholicism.

More specifically, I will investigate Catholic views on pain by studying stigmatics in what contemporaries called ‘holy’ Tyrol. Stigmatics, those who bear the Wounds of Christ, were not only regarded as sources of divine intervention, as “living saints”, or by sceptics as religious frauds, but were also discussed as exceptional medical cases. Stigmatics, mostly young lay women, had often known suffering throughout their lives and most of them had been sick and bedridden for several years before stigmata appeared. It is therefore interesting to investigate how stigmatics could (re)define their suffering after the appearance of the wounds, but also how their suffering had meaning for its beholders, their community and the environment.

This research project will examine the cultural construction of pain in the Catholic context of nineteenth-century Austria. What did contemporaries saw as emotional and/or physical pain, what meaning did they give to this suffering and how did they respond to it? In doing so, I will try to acknowledge the role of modern medicine in this perception of pain, and thus, review the sharp differentiation between religious and medical views in the nineteenth century.

The PhD is a part of a FWO-FWF funded project on pain within Catholicism. The other half of the project is formed by Maria Heidegger, who works on patients within the Austrian context of the nineteenth century. Together, Maria and I will be able to formulate a more in-depth story on how pain was perceived within Catholicism.

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