Conference Agenda

1D: Illness, Gift or Punishment? Medical Examinations of Religious Corporeal Practices in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1830-1870
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
9:00am - 10:15am

Session Chair: Prof. Tine Van Osselaer, University of Antwerp


Illness, gift or punishment? Medical examinations of religious corporeal practices in the Habsburg monarchy, 1830-1870.

Chair(s): Van Osselaer, Tine (University of Antwerp, Belgium)

In the nineteenth century, the Habsburg monarchy and especially ‘Holy Land’ Tyrol brimmed with religious fervour. The faithful channelled and expressed their religious enthusiasm into prayers, devotional practices and, on some occasions, corporeal religious practices (such as fasting or flagellation). The bodily aspect not seldom gave cause for concern. Whether deemed unhealthy, believed to be supernatural (in duration or form) or rejected as fraudulent, these corporeal practises inspired debates and called for medical examinations. This panel addresses these medical examinations and their outcomes, explores the reasons for organizing them and examines their impact on the reported cases.


Presentations of the Symposium


Undiagnosed disease or supernatural signs? Inedia, stigmata, and medical reports in the Early Nineteenth-century South Tyrol. The cases of Maria Von Mörl and Maria Domenica Lazzeri

Rossi, Leonardo
University of Antwerp

New attention has recently been given to medical examinations of supernatural phenomena and religious practices. These studies showed how medical reports are milestones in establishing natural or supernatural explanations for mystical phenomena in the nineteenth century, especially when they diagnosed hysteria (Mazzoni, 1996; Pires Marques, 2010). Medical analyzes had a wider circulation than the scientific field, influencing the public debate. Civil and ecclesiastical authorities, faithful and non-Catholic thinkers used and (re)interpreted them according to contexts and purposes (Van Osselaer and Smeyers, 2020). But what happens when medical expertise did not formulate a ‘verdict’, that is it did not diagnose pathology or exclude natural causes? Did this have the same influence?

In the first half of the 19thcentury, several mystical phenomena were reported in South Tyrol (Gadaleta, 2012 and 2014). Inedia, religious ecstasies, stigmata were claimed by dozens (even hundreds; Rubatscher, 1936) young women including Maria Von Mörl (1812-1868; Priesching, 2004) and Maria Domenica Lazzeri (1815-1848; Marinolli, 1998). In their cases, physicians could not reach a specific diagnosis, much less provide a cure. In my contribution, I will explain how, despite the non-‘verdict’, these reports played a crucial role in spreading the mystics’ fame. They were read and used by clergymen (who collaborated closely with doctors), cited by international scholars, debated by local people (Brunelli, 1968). The reports without a diagnosis were not seen as a failure of medical expertise, but left the field open to interpretations (both medical and spiritual) by turning ‘common’ patients into exceptional case-studies and local saints.


“This iron penitential belt could be taken from him only with trickery” Psychiatrists about painful religious practices – the case of Tyrol, 1830–1870

Heidegger, Maria
University of Innsbruck

In 1846, during the initial examination of 25-year-old Franz Anton K. the asylum physicians at Hall in Tyrol found his hip loosely wrapped with a belt made of iron wire and tin sheets with sieve-like perforations. The rough side of the metal sheets was turned inward and had caused a superficial rash on the skin. This iron belt could be taken from him only with cunning. When he was asked if anyone had advised or ordered him to wear the said belt, he replied that he had freely imposed this penitential exercise on himself and had put on the belt for the love of St. Peter.

How did psychiatrists perceive the religious dimension of corporeality in their concrete encounter with Catholic patients who hoped for a way to heaven by self-punishment? This question stands at the centre of my contribution, which is based on the files of 19th century Tyrolean psychiatry. I will examine case studies of patients who inflicted pain on themselves on religious grounds in a broad spectrum ranging from painful exercises associated with the "sinful" body to auto-aggressive acts such as self-mutilation in religious delusion. My paper will reflect on some methodological problems related to the material and question how/if medical discourses on painful corporeal practices strengthened medical authority in a period characterized by an intensified religiosity, an inwardly directed piety and the revival of medieval mysticism of suffering.


“On Friday, the patient expressed a great desire for meat.” Medical observations of extraordinary religious phenomena in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Vienna: the case of Juliana Weiskircher.

Tuybens, Linde
University of Antwerp

In the late 1840s, curious crowds gathered in the streets of Schleinbach, a town near Vienna, to get a glimpse of Juliana Weiskircher, a young woman who relived Christ’s Passion and displayed the stigmata on her body. Civil authorities, alarmed by this commotion and popular enthusiasm, appointed a medical commission to investigate the case, resulting in a forced admission of six months to the General Hospital of Vienna. In this paper, I’ll discuss the double objective of this hospitalization: to provide proper care for the seriously ill and suffering woman, but also, as the main reason, to put her under close observation. From the outset, her admission seemed to be aimed at detecting and collecting evidence of deceit.

Juliana’s stigmata, visions and religious ecstasies ceased during her time in the hospital, but her prolonged stay and constant monitoring gave the medical commission the opportunity to observe other corporeal phenomena that become extraordinary due to their length, such as paralysis of the limbs, inedia, and the ability to go without sleep. Whereas in this case, Juliana claimed her inability to eat and lack of sleep to be a burden, these symptoms contributed to the idea of a miraculous body as proof of the divine. I will show that by disproving, and even mocking these phenomena the commission tried to denounce the extraordinary nature of all events. In doing so, the commission also addresses Juliana’s religiosity – or in this case a presumed lack of religiosity – to undermine her credibility.