What is Religious Bodies?

The Italian stigmatic Ester Moriconi (1875-1937) on her deathbed. In 1920s Rome, a bell rang to announce the beginning of her joining in Christ’s bodily suffering

The Religious Bodies team asks how people in Europe’s recent past – the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – engaged with bodies as objects and drivers of faith. It is the study of ‘lived religion’ at its most intimate: lived in and through the body.

We are an international group of historians with headquarters at the Ruusbroec Institute, University of Antwerp, Belgium. Our (individual and collaborative) research projects and public activities are embedded within a transnational network of scholars, collectors, archivists, and institutions. This network is crucial, and our research depends on the generosity of many.

Transnational also within the Religious Bodies team: projects frequently intersect and pollinate one another. Collaborations make it possible to draw comparisons and conduct systematic research into bodily cultures that have often only been studied as singular case studies: a stigmatised body, an incorrupt saint. Instead, our corpus of data allows for a reconstruction of bodily concepts that resonated across nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe: the ‘stigmatic’, the ‘incorrupt body’.

Our approach is dynamic. Although we are all historians, we draw inspiration from other disciplines: religious anthropology, ethnography, theology, folklore, and cultural history. We also strive to tell our stories to wider audiences in accessible ways, by talking, exhibiting, and playing our research.

Our sources come in all forms, shapes, and languages. They are scattered across likely and unlikely places: in large institutional archives and in private attics. They reflect our approach, which turns not (only) to the ‘loudest’ past voices – ecclesiastical authorities, medical experts – but also listens to the voices of ‘ordinary’ people who gathered around extraordinary bodies and experienced their own corporeal miracles. This offers new windows onto stale narratives such as the disenchantment hypothesis, the emergence of a ‘modern body’, and the centralisation strategies of the Vatican in this period.

The body of Pope Pius IX acquired a political meaning after his death in 1878: a symbol of ultramontane Catholicism and a vessel for Italian anti-ecclesiastic and unionist sentiment. Pius’ body was found uncorrupted and played an important role in the pope’s beatification process

In life, death, and afterlife the religious bodies that emerge from this research encapsulate a plethora of meanings.

They were claimed by many. Demons and divines fought their eschatological battles on human bodies. Political, religious, and scientific authorities fought their worldly battles on them.

They were elevated to the status of symbol: the suffering religious body as symbol for the body politic.

They served as corporeal sites of the sacred and the spectacular.

They hurt. They writhed, convulsed, bled. They offered physical proof of supernaturalism and sanctity.

Relics that touched the stigmatised body of Louise Lateau (1850-1883), the (in)famous ecstatic of Belgium

They were carefully staged and performed, they had an audience.

They attracted devotion and promotion.

They mobilised other bodies. Devotees and sensation seekers came to see and touch…

… and to feel along with them: around religious bodies, emotions ran high. People tied their faiths and fates to them.

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