Belief and Popular Religion

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Keith P. Luria

Social historians have found their best approach to understanding the cultural lives of Europe's vast majority in the study of popular religion. Their interest in the subject derives from various sources. One was the influence of Durkheimian sociology, which considered religion an inherent part of society's self-perception rather than a spiritual, otherworldly phenomenon. Another was the development beginning in the 1930s of a quantitative sociology of religion, pioneered in France by the work of Gabriel Le Bras. Concerned with the causes and extent of modern dechristianization, sociologists sought to measure the depth and character of religious commitment by counting repetitive, ritual actions. Antonio Gramsci's writings contributed by sparking interest in the culture of subaltern classes, and the impact of marxist historiography and the French Annales school of social history focused historians' attention on the activities of people who were not part of the elite. The work of cultural anthropologists on the religious activities of "primitive" peoples also inspired historians, as an ethnographic approach seemed readily applicable to the study of the supposedly "primitive" people of Europe's past. In addition to cultural anthropology and sociology, historians have also borrowed from folklore, literary studies, psychology, and semiotics. Thus the study of popular religion has broadened the methodology of social history as well as its subject material.

While the study of popular religion is a relatively recent concern of social historians, its origins lie in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The religious reformers of that time, such as Desiderius Erasmus or John Calvin, who first singled out the religion of the people for special examination, saw those beliefs and practices as superstition or profanity. They opposed that form of religion to their supposedly more refined or spiritually elevated faith. In so doing early modern Protestant and Catholic critics of customary beliefs and religious practices made a formerly unrecognized distinction between the acceptable and the unacceptable in religious life. They created the realm of religion later called "popular."

Modern social historians have remade the early modern religious reformers' categories. Historians' concerns are not with uprooting superstition but with enlarging the field of religious history beyond the study of church leaders, doctrinal development, or ecclesiastical politics. They study religion as people practiced and understood it, in particular, those people who were not literate and whose beliefs therefore have to be interpreted from their religious behavior. Historians of popular religion have focused on examining rituals, religious organizations, cults of divine figures, and the daily instrumental uses to which people put their religious beliefs.

Even if modern historians have not shared the reforming goals of early modern clerics, all too often they have adopted those reformers' division of religion into that which was elite, official, and focused on spiritual concerns and that which was popular, unofficial, and preoccupied with this-worldly matters, such as illness or poverty. Not all historians have treated popular religion thus defined in a negative manner. For some it represents an organic cultural formation resistant to repressive churches and states, though inevitably fated to disappear under their combined weight. Others, however, have perceived the historical bifurcation in terms that oppose a true elite religion to a popular one based on irrational or essentially non-Christian beliefs.


The bipartite division of religion into elite and popular has shown that the religious past is far richer and more complex than a focus on ecclesiastical institutions and doctrines can reveal. But the dichotomous model also poses problems. For one, it has led European historians to concentrate primarily on popular religion within Catholicism, since, it is assumed, a rationalized or deritualized Protestantism eliminated popular religious customs and practices. Although Keith Thomas's classic Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) demonstrates the contrary for England and studies of Germany have shown the persistence of popular beliefs among Protestants there, historians of Protestantism generally have been slower than those of Catholicism to realize that Protestant churches also contended with unofficial beliefs and practices, which were not always just Catholic survivals.

Second, the elite-popular schema characterizes popular religion as the cultural expression of only certain social groups—the lower orders, the illiterate, or the unsophisticated. While historical work of the last decades of the twentieth century has shown that social differences are undoubtedly important in understanding religious variety and change, distinct religious styles are not assignable to specific social levels or groups. Much of the European Catholic elite participated in the religious practices later considered popular, such as festivals, confraternities, processions, and pilgrimages. Just like their social inferiors, they flocked to shrines and asked saints for divine protection or miraculous cures. People of all social levels, from royalty to peasants, as well as both clergy and laity participated in such practices. Scholars cannot simply categorize one form of religion as spiritual and the other as instrumental. People of the lower social orders have not seen religion just as a resource for solving mundane problems. For peasants, artisans, and industrial workers religion also has been an expression of their deepest ethical and spiritual concerns. Indeed they often have seen themselves as the guardians of true religion in opposition to a clergy they may mistrust or reformers who seem to be undermining the traditional basis of the faith.

Drawing too strict a line between the religious attitudes of the elite and those of the people risks turning those people into passive observers in the remaking of their religious lives. Religious change has always been a two-way street. People adopted new ideas and practices from the church but adapted them to their own purposes. The church adopted religious innovations from below, for example, in new shrines and saints' cults, and adapted them to its aims. The church was no monolith. Religious orders, for example, could vary in their responses to official policies and popular initiatives. Rather than establish artificial boundaries between artificial groups, it is better to assess religious variation and change by recognizing widespread religious creativity and the multiplicity of meanings that widely shared religious practices could have for those who participated in them.


The elite-popular model has often misconstrued the Catholic Church's attitude toward the people's religion, seeing it from the Counter-Reformation on as only repressive. However, the church has never opposed all the purposes to which people put religion, nor has it ever mounted an all-out attack on popular religion. Catholic reformers wanted to establish more clerical discipline over observances such as confraternity celebrations, processions, pilgrimages, and saints' day festivities, which they felt were too independent of priestly surveillance. They sought to bring greater decorum and uniformity to religious observances, and they wanted to instill in the faithful a greater understanding of doctrine as well as a spirituality that emphasized individualized examination of conscience over collective activities.

Summarizing the church's program in these bold terms, however, can exaggerate the desire of clerics to rid religious observance of many elements that were central to it and not in any way contrary to proper doctrine. It also ignores historical variations in the church's attitude toward popular beliefs. The reform program took shape and bishops first put it into action during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But many of the new rituals and devotions that the church promoted at that time did more to revitalize than to undermine popular religion, as people across Catholic Europe put them to their own uses. The distance between the clergy's attitudes and people's practices probably grew during the eighteenth century, as Enlightenment rationalism found adherents within the church's hierarchy who were more likely than their predecessors to treat popular beliefs as superstition. Following the French Revolution, however, the church came to embrace many aspects of popular practice, notably great pilgrimage centers such as Lourdes, as a means of rallying the faithful against nineteenth-century liberalism, scientific rationalism, and state encroachment. In the aftermath of the Vatican II Council (1962–1965), many of the faithful felt once again that the church was abandoning practices central to their religious lives. But even this gap between institutional program and popular belief has not always been great, as illustrated by Pope John Paul II's devotion, after his survival of an assassination attempt, to the miraculous shrine at Fátima in Portugal.

Just as the church's response to the people's religion is complicated, so too is the people's response to the institution and its clergy. Within the doctrinal framework the church has constructed, people seek to order their religious practice creatively in keeping with their own needs and the circumstances of their lives. To do so they often have carved out a sphere of local religious activity over which they can exercise a control, if necessary, independently from the clergy. They might have resisted a Counter-Reformation bishop's orders to halt devotion to a local saint of questionable official status by continuing annual processions to that saint's shrine to insure protection of their crops. Or they might have accepted a new cult the bishop was promoting, such as that of a Counter-Reformation saint like Carlo Borromeo, but honored him not as a figure of ascetic spirituality but as a protector against the plague.

The most striking example of the autonomy of local religious life from clerical supervision occurred in revolutionary France. During the government's dechristianization campaigns of 1793–1794 and 1797–1799, churches were closed, and priests were outlawed, arrested, deported, or forced into exile. Catholic religious life was left without the clergy necessary for its functioning. In certain areas, such as the famous Vendée in western France, these policies provoked counterrevolutionary uprisings and efforts to protect priests and continue worship. But Catholic observances did not die out even in progovernment areas. Instead, in between dechristianization campaigns, worship revived, directed by laypeople. The educated, often local schoolteachers, performed marriages and burials. They led "white masses," which followed much of the traditional form but in which the communion elements were not consecrated because no priests were available to preside over transubstantiation. The worshipers invented rituals to take the consecration's place or left time for private veneration of the host. In a display of autonomy from the church as well as from the government, people resuscitated local saints' cults that the Counter-Reformation clergy had thought suppressed a century before. The activities women led also illustrate the extent of people's religious creativity. They organized saints' festivals, directed processions, and conducted female worship services—all unprecedented leadership roles for women. Local activists were not necessarily opposed to the Revolution. They made direct use of its political repertoire to advance their religious revival. They wrote petitions, organized demonstrations, held votes, and if necessary participated in riots to force authorities to reopen churches or to allow religious observances. Indeed their religious style borrowed much from the Revolution's ideology. It was antihierarchical, egalitarian, activist, and anticlerical or at least nonclerical.


The French Revolution was an extraordinary circumstance in which people were forced to create new forms or re-create old forms of religion independently of the church. More often popular religion is constructed by means of a negotiation between the laity and clergy. The church may seek to supervise religious practice and belief, but it must contend with the attitudes of people who do not necessarily feel subordinate to their priests. Scholars often refer to such attitudes as anticlericalism, a distrust of if not an outright rebellion against any attempt by the clergy to control the people's religious life. But depicting the laity's perspective with such a term does not do justice to the variety of attitudes possible or to the way cooperation as much as tension can mark lay-clerical relations. It is undeniable that parishioners have often treated their priests with suspicion. But this feeling is not encountered everywhere, and not everyone shares it.

For example, a gender division is often evident. Scholars of modern European popular religion, especially in Mediterranean areas, have repeatedly described formal religious practice as "feminized." The phenomenon has been noticeable since the French Revolution. Attendance at church has increasingly become a form of female sociability, while men have found theirs elsewhere, such as in the café or in other secular leisure activities. The increased availability of lay education, first for men, and differentiation in gendered patterns of labor, have drawn men away from formal religious practice. Men participating in left-wing politics have resented the church's frequent alliance with conservatism.

Clerical celibacy also provokes suspicion. Are priests not men like any others and therefore unlikely to live up to strict standards of sexual renunciation? If they cannot maintain celibacy, can they be trusted to exercise priestly authority over women? Jokes about the sexual behavior of priests reveal another anxiety. Since priests are not "normal" men, what right do they have to subject men to their clerical control?

But anticlericalism cannot simply be equated with irreligion. That men do not participate in regular, formal church worship does not mean they avoid all religious activity. They might, for example, still participate in parish saints' day celebrations but do so to express religious identification with their community rather than with the institution of the church. Moreover those who express anticlerical attitudes do not necessarily spurn the church's teachings. People have often criticized priests for not living up to the ethical or spiritual standards the church has set. When seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation bishops toured dioceses in their efforts to reform religious life, they were often inundated with villagers' complaints about parish priests who were incompetent or neglectful of their duties. Theirs was a pious anticlericalism. The laity saw themselves as better Christians than their clergy. People did not reject the necessity of the clergy in a proper religious practice; they wanted better priests. In Spain under Francisco Franco or in Portugal under Antonio Salazar, anticlerical criticism of the clergy targeted priests because of the church's close ties to the conservative political regimes. In the wake of the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, the clergy in Spain and Portugal tried to distance itself from the repressive states. But priests also tried to reform religious life by suppressing religious practices to which many Iberian villagers remained closely attached. They came under fire for repudiating what many of their parishioners considered true religion. In such a case the anticlerical critique extends to the church as a whole. Can the institution, which has rejected pre–Vatican II rituals, provide the means for a proper and true practice of the faith? This attitude is not mere blind traditionalism. It is deeply influenced by its modern political context. The political freedoms of newly democratic societies, even the religious freedom Vatican II fostered, has encouraged a questioning attitude among the faithful. Such a democratization can lead to doubts even about basic doctrinal understandings of sin, confession, and communion. Priests are no longer among the few with access to education, and mass communication has rendered unnecessary their historical role as intermediaries between villages and the outside world. Their traditional status and influence has been undermined. As people negotiate the form of their religious lives with the church, they can treat their local priests not as authority figures but as functionaries whose role is to serve parishioners and their religious requirements.


The scope of religion as people practiced it is too vast for a comprehensive description. But examples drawn from works on religious change between early modern and twentieth-century Europe can illustrate two central issues in understanding how people lived their religion, that is, their relations with the sacred and their use of religious practices to construct meaningful collective lives in the face of political, economic, and social changes.

The negotiations between religion as the church prescribed it and religion as people practiced it is best witnessed in the transactions of the faithful with the sacred figures from whom they sought protection, healing, and redemption. People asked for divine aid in churches, chapels, and pilgrimage shrines; at sacred fountains or springs; and through relics, images, festivals, processions, and saints' cults. Catholic reformers have not always felt equally comfortable with all these manifestations of sacrality. The church has tried to exercise supervision over them and to rid them of customs deemed profane or superstitious. Meanwhile the faithful have remade their own religious practices by inventing new sources of sacrality and by appropriating the church's reforms for their own purposes.

The cult of saints was central to all of these practices. Saints took on a variety of meanings within Catholicism. They were advocates before God as patrons of communities, groups, and individuals. In the quest for miracles of healing or protection, they served as intermediaries of divine grace. As moral and spiritual exemplars, they taught people how to live properly. Locally they symbolized the historical identity of villages, cities, regions, or nations. Universally they represented the institution of the church that canonized them. It was precisely their malleability that made them important to Catholics of all social and cultural levels.

In certain respects the cult of saints seems to have changed little over time. In the seventeenth-century diocese of Grenoble in France, villagers venerated Saint Anthony the Hermit at pilgrimage shrines and local chapels for a number of reasons. He was called upon to cure ergotism, to safeguard crops, and to preserve people from the plague. But above all Saint Anthony protected livestock, and he was often depicted with his iconographical symbol of a pig. People prayed to him and left offerings at his chapels seeking divine support for their livelihoods. Twentieth-century Cantabrian villagers in Spain would have recognized these concerns immediately because they too asked Saint Anthony to protect their animals. They said prayers to him and made offerings at his chapels, and no one missed mass on his feast day.

The impression of an unchanging form of worship this example provides can be misleading. While certain elements of the cult of saints have remained largely constant over the centuries, the meanings of the cult have changed as a result of negotiations between the church and its faithful. In the early modern period the church faced criticisms of the cult of saints from both Protestants and its own reformers, who felt that many of the practices and beliefs associated with the cult were too superstitious and were based on misunderstandings of doctrine. Catholic reformers tried to disabuse people of the idea that saints worked miracles themselves rather than mediating God's grace for the petitioners. They targeted disorderly festivities on saints' days and processions to shrines not led by priests. Because many figures of local veneration had never been officially canonized, the church insisted on its prerogative over determining true saints from false by reforming canonization procedures in the 1630s and 1740s. Ecclesiastical authorities also insisted on more stringent verification of miracles, but the church never repudiated the belief that the faithful could receive them by venerating sacred figures.

Indeed the Counter-Reformation church encouraged the cult of saints through promotion of its own heroes, such as Saints Ignatius of Loyola or Teresa of Avila. It championed cults that fostered Counter-Reformation spirituality, such as that of the Blessed Sacrament, focused on the church's central cultic object, or that of the rosary with its meditative prayers. The church encouraged the honoring of sacred figures shared by all Catholics—Christ, Mary, Anne, Joseph, and the Apostles—as a means of both increasing uniformity in devotional practice and emphasizing the church's institutional authority. The attention the church paid to the cult of saints did nothing to undermine it but rather contributed to its immense renewal. The seventeenth century witnessed a "veritable explosion" of sacrality (Sallmann, 1994, pp. 14, 110) as the church beatified and canonized new saints, while people, encouraged by the church's attention to new holy figures, sought out others the institution did not officially recognize.

In many regions, such as the Castilian diocese of Cuenca, people abandoned old, local, and formerly popular saints for more universally known figures. So Saint Quiteria gave way to Saint Anne, but not just because the church promoted Anne as a member of the Holy Family. People expected her healing powers to be superior to those of the discarded Quiteria. In the mountains of the diocese of Grenoble, Anne protected villagers from avalanches, and along the coasts of the Kingdom of Naples, she looked after sailors and fishermen.


The same variability of meaning was evident in the veneration of the Virgin Mary, the church's most successful cult. More chapels were dedicated to her and more vows made to her than to any saint. Mary was the perfect vehicle for the forms of spirituality the Catholic Reform encouraged. But she was also the most capable of divine intercessors, one to whom people could turn for help with all sorts of problems. Much devotion to the Virgin was localized, focused on Mary as tied to a particular city, village, chapel, or shrine. In such places she was named not for doctrines of the church but for the local site at which people venerated her. These places were sanctified by visions or miracles, and people honored Mary at them because they knew that there she would be especially receptive to their pleas. The national and international pilgrimage shrines to which people flocked were overwhelmingly Marian in their dedications, such as those at Altötting in Bavaria, Wagheusel in the Rhineland, Montserrat in Catalonia, or Guadalupe in Mexico. These shrines flourished because of both the peoples' quest for miracles and the church's efforts in encouraging devotion to Mary.

The church promoted forms of Mary's cult that referred to central doctrinal or spiritual concerns, such as Our Lady of the Conception, Assumption, Incarnation, the Rosary, and in the nineteenth century the Immaculate Conception. In the seventeenth century Our Lady of the Rosary was particularly successful. Parish churches throughout southern France, Spain, southern Italy, and elsewhere had more chapels dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary than to any other devotion, and they were often associated with rosary confraternities. These groups were well suited to the Counter-Reformation's goals. By means of devotion to Mary, the church encouraged a disciplined form of prayer recitation—praying the rosary—that fostered an interiorized and individualized spirituality. Members of the confraternities said the rosary prayers, confessed and took Communion regularly, and submitted themselves to the clergy's direction. In other respects, however, the new organizations continued to fulfill the time-honored requirements of local religious life. The rosary devotees celebrated Marian festivals together with processions. They took over the funerary duties of the older confraternities they were supplanting, burying their confraternal brothers and sisters and saying masses for their souls.

Thus rosary confraternities were not simply tools of the Catholic Reformation. People who joined them did so for their own reasons of piety, sociability, and social competition. The local elite families, which established the groups, saw them as expressions of their piety but also as a means of building prestige and exercising their control over their communities' religious activities. Women joined them because they were attracted to rosary-style prayer and Marian devotion but also to promote their families' interests and to gain roles in an important communal institution. Poorer members shared in the religious enthusiasm for the rosary and also sought the groups' charitable aid and assistance for funerals. Even the rosary's devotional practices could be put to other uses. In southern Italy rosary beads became miracle-working objects when touched by holy people, like Jesuit missionaries.

The same mixture of the church's institutional goals with the people's religious and social preoccupations occurred in new, urban, Jesuit congregations or sodalities. These associations were first established in the 1560s, and within two decades a network existed in Catholic cities across the Low Countries, Germany, France, and southern Italy. The Jesuits envisioned the sodalities as the vanguard of a hierarchically ordered and Jesuit-guided Catholic society. The congregations were dedicated to the Virgin, and they inculcated in their members new habits of piety based on individual examination of conscience, Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises (1548), and frequent confessions. The congregants were expected to lead lives of perfect harmony with their fellows and to set moral examples for their neighbors. They practiced good works assiduously, and they acted as pressure groups, coercing local Protestants to convert and pushing civic authorities to ban carnival celebrations. But like the rosary groups the Jesuit sodalities combined a new style of piety with more traditional confraternal activities. The congregants engaged in urban processions, and they undertook pilgrimages to regional shrines. They were devoted to Mary but also to locally important saints, whom they petitioned for traditional needs, such as healing or good weather.

As thousands joined the new sodalities, which at first included members of both sexes and a range of social groups, the Jesuits came face to face with problems they had not initially considered. Segregated congregations for men of different social groups and for women developed quickly. Nobles did not want to associate with bourgeois members, who in turn did not want to worship with artisans. The Jesuit Society did not want its priests ministering directly to women, and women could not be easily accepted with men into congregations that stressed the brotherly equality of their members. The sodalities came to serve not only the Jesuit program but also the goals of the various groups that belonged to them. Rulers saw them as a means of consolidating power; the nobles and bourgeoisie as a means of gaining prestige within their social circles; and craftspeople as a means of combining religious devotion with artisanal sociability. In other words, those manifestations of Marian piety associated with the church's institutional concerns were not separate from those that grew out of the people's creative social and cultural practices.

This interchange between popular piety and the goals of the church is especially apparent in the most spectacular manifestation of the Marian cult, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century apparitions of the Virgin that led to the development of internationally important pilgrimage shrines. After the eighteenth century, during which few apparitions were reported, and after the church's crisis during the French Revolution, Europe experienced a resurgence in apparitions and visions that continued periodically into the twenty-first century. Indeed as David Blackbourn reported in Marpingen, thousands of cases occurred from the second half of the nineteenth century through the twentieth (Blackbourn, 1995, p. xxiv). That these have been almost exclusively visions of the Virgin Mary suggests that they were the result not just of popular religious sentiment but also of the church's efforts to promote the Marian cult. Devotion to Mary strengthened during the Counter-Reformation, but in the nineteenth century the church preached the arrival of a Marian age that would precede the Second Coming. Some members of the clergy treated these miraculous occurrences with suspicion if not outright disdain, much as had Catholic reformers of previous centuries. But the church as an institution did not. Although most of the reported apparitions failed to pass the test of ecclesiastical investigation, the church promoted heavily those that did. The enthusiasm for Mary and for her new shrines served the church as a means to rally the faithful to a Catholicism that felt embattled by liberal political ideas and scientific rationalism. Workers' movements, secular education systems, and nonreligious pastimes competed with a church formerly accustomed to dominating European cultural life at higher and lower social levels. In the twentieth century the rise of communism provided a new challenge that shrines were called upon to combat.

That the apparitions and shrines were overwhelmingly Marian in character illustrates the influence of the church's institutional preoccupations over popular piety and also the continuation of a centralizing tendency in devotional life that had started with the Counter-Reformation. The church's message found a receptive audience and combined easily with an already fervent popular devotion to the Virgin. For the visionaries and pilgrims Mary's power was tied to particular locations in local landscapes. At the Lourdes grotto in the French Pyrenees or at the Marpingen sacred spring in the German Saarland, Mary's charisma was strong, and the people who came to venerate her at these spots asked for cures or divine protection in much the same way their ancestors had petitioned saints. Thus the church's official piety was infused with the popular enthusiasm of the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to the new shrines.

The church also sought to shape the meaning of the new apparitions and shrines. In 1847 the two shepherd children who witnessed visions of Mary at La Salette (in the French Alps near Grenoble) carried messages from her criticizing, in a thoroughly traditional way, the religious behavior of local people. Mary said that their sinfulness was responsible for crop failures and food shortages, but the Virgin also sent secret messages, revealed in the 1860s, that criticized the French government's religious policies and urged closer relations between Paris and Rome. It is difficult not to see the hand of the French clergy in shaping this part of the Virgin's message at La Salette. At Lourdes the church's doctrinal interests were even clearer. When Mary appeared to the shepherd girl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, she announced, "I am the Immaculate Conception." The church had promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception only four years earlier, and support for it within the church was not universal. The Lourdes visions helped greatly in cementing its acceptance. There too, however, official and popular concerns merged, since the declaration of the Immaculate Conception doctrine was an attempt by the church to promote a cult that would fit with traditional, popular religious sentiment (Kselman, 1983, p. 94).

The nineteenth century's cultural, technical, and commercial developments made possible the wide impact of the visions and the success of the new shrines. Increased literacy provided a vast audience for the reports on the Lourdes miracles and those of other shrines published in widely distributed Catholic periodicals. The construction of national railroad networks brought large numbers of pilgrims from distant areas. The developing travel industry insured that the pilgrims were housed and fed, just as it provided for the growing numbers of visitors to secular tourist attractions. The pilgrimage to a miracle-working shrine, that most ancient of popular religious phenomena, became very much a part of the modern age.

Lourdes's success, in particular, made it the model for Marian apparitions and shrines around Europe. In 1876 three village girls told of seeing the Virgin near a spring in Marpingen in Germany. They had likely heard a great deal about Soubirous and Lourdes from their parish priest and their schoolteacher. The first Marpingen apparitions occurred on the same day as a major celebration at Lourdes, the crowning of a statue of the Virgin, which drew 100,000 pilgrims. As the Marpingen visionaries and the village's adults retold their story, it came to resemble that of Lourdes. When the girls saw the vision a second time, they asked Mary, as one of their parents had instructed them to do, if she was the Immaculate Conception. The "woman in white" replied that she was. As at Lourdes and other shrines, the Virgin ordered the building of a chapel, and miraculous healings started to occur, though here the spring rather than a grotto marked the sacred site. Marpingen quickly drew thousands of pilgrims from throughout Germany. Although the church never formally approved the Marpingen miracles as it had those of Lourdes and La Salette, many thousands visited the site during the rest of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth.

These and the other new Marian pilgrimage sites were also notably different from early modern shrines in that the visionaries who reported the apparitions were poor children or women and more pilgrims were women than men. Women pilgrims often traveled to the new shrines together, independently of their husbands and priests. The gender imbalance is both a sign of and a contributor to the feminization of modern Catholic religious practice. The role of visionary enabled women and poor children to serve as privileged intermediaries in bringing divine aid to their often sorely distressed or impoverished areas. It brought them enormous public attention and established for them a position of prominence and even community leadership that they otherwise rarely enjoyed.

Despite the preponderance of female visionaries and pilgrims, the Marian shrines were not simply a woman's world. The Virgin was an ambivalent symbol of female religious autonomy and leadership. She was a figure of female power but also one of female submission and chastity. Women could approach her for help with reproductive or marital problems, but men too sought her aid. The initial acceptance of the seers' reports in villages depended considerably on the communities' male notables. Their approval of the visionaries' stories made the apparitions credible to the wider world, and building chapels or organizing communities to receive pilgrims was their responsibility. Critics of shrines were quick to point out that these local men acted as much out of commercial interest as piety, but the two motivations were difficult to separate.

The clergy's participation was also essential to the positive reception of visionaries. Although priests were often more skeptical than enthusiastic about the apparitions, unless they played a role the miracles would never have been widely publicized, and the church would never have approved them. Indeed Pope Pius IX's support for La Salette and Lourdes, his granting of privileges to the shrines, and his belief that the Lourdes apparitions vindicated his promulgation of the Immaculate Conception doctrine did much to insure those shrines' success.

It was precisely the malleability of Mary's meanings that made her shrines so attractive a destination for pilgrims of both sexes and of high as well as low social classes. The political tensions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries added another level of meaning to the Virgin's appearances, as her shrines became identified not only with the popular religious need for miraculous help and with the church's battle against secularization but also with the programs of political groups. Lourdes quickly became associated with the legitimist Bourbon cause against the Second Empire and later against the Third Republic. Marpingen became a weapon in the battle of German Catholic political parties against their liberal rivals and Otto von Bismarck's Kulturkampf (cultural struggle). Visions in the northern Spanish town of Limpias in 1919, not of Mary but of a moving statue of Christ, were publicized as supporting right-wing politicians and as a divine warning against the liberal government.

The shrines also quickly became involved in national rivalries. Lourdes came to be seen as the French national shrine, and French Catholics took pride that Mary had appeared in their country to establish the truth of the Immaculate Conception. After the defeat by Prussia and the crisis of the Commune, thousands gathered there proclaiming Mary a symbol of national regeneration. German Catholics hoped that Marpingen would become a rival to Lourdes. They regretted that the Virgin had not previously appeared in their country but had been seen so frequently in their rivals'. Promoters of the Limpias visions sought to make their site a shrine that would attract Spanish pilgrims who were otherwise flocking over the Pyrenees to Lourdes.

The combination of the popular desire for divine aid, the anxiety over political and economic distress, the interest of political elites in divine approbation, and the church's promotion of the Marian cult to mobilize popular support was also evident in the twentieth-century development of Marian apparitions and pilgrimage centers. The most successful twentieth-century European shrines began with a series of apparitions of the Virgin at Fátima in Portugal in 1917, during a time of war shortages and bread riots. The apparitions were interpreted as a divine criticism of the anticlerical Portuguese government. In the 1950s the Catholic-authoritarian leader Salazar identified his regime with the shrine and promoted it as a bulwark against communism. He sponsored a tour of the shrine's image around the country, and in subsequent years it toured the world. Popes, including John Paul II, also expressed their devotion to the Virgin of Fátima. The fervent anti-Communist Pius XII was particularly attached to Fátima and to the Marian cult more generally. In 1950 he proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption, and he declared 1954, the centenary of the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, a "Marian year." His enthusiasm sparked new apparitions and miracles. As Lourdes did in the nineteenth century, Fátima became a model for shrines in the twentieth. It spawned numerous subsidiaries around the world that took their names from Fátima, and older Marian shrines sponsored "Fátima Day" pilgrimages to share in the devotion to the Portuguese shrine.

Other appearances of the Virgin closely tracked the most difficult periods of twentieth-century European history. The economic problems of the 1930s led to an outburst of apparitions at Ezquioga in the Spanish Pyrenees (1931) and at Beauraing (1932) and Banneux (1933) in Belgium. In economically depressed regions such as these, people sought the Virgin's help, but the local and international political situations also fed Marian devotion at these sites. The apparitions at Ezquioga occurred following a left-wing election victory. It is possible to see (perhaps it is impossible not to see) the Virgin's appearance in 1933 at fifteen different European locations as linked to the rise of nazism in Germany. The difficulties of the immediate postwar years and the tensions of the cold war led to another resurgence in visions of Mary. Between 1947 and 1954, 112 cases were reported, some outside of Europe, such as at Lipa in the Philippines, but most in Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, Britain, Austria, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. As previously, these new visions were given a political meaning. Communism was denounced as a punishment for a lack of faith among Catholics, and stories from the shrines told of former communists converted by the Virgin's ministrations.

In 1961 young girls at San Sebastián de Garabandal in northern Spain claimed to have seen the Virgin, and over two thousand apparitions were recorded there over the next two years. The church, however, did not officially recognize the visions. In 1964 an Italian woman known as Mama Rosa declared that the Virgin had appeared to her in the sun at San Damiano near Piacenza. The apparitions continued for almost two decades, but the church did not authorize Mama Rosa's visions either. In this instance the church's hostility might have come from a particular tension between the institution and the visionary. Among the conservative messages Mama Rosa conveyed from Mary were criticisms of the church's Vatican II liberal reforms. Presumably, however, the eighty thousand pilgrims who, by the 1980s, arrived each year at Mama Rosa's farmhouse were not attracted by disputes within the church (Nolan and Nolan, 1989, p. 308). Water from a well at the sacred site has reportedly worked miracles of healing. Pilgrims brew dried flowers from the site of the visions with the water, and the concoction is said to make an especially effective cure. The same might be said for Fátima or any of the other modern shrines, both those few the church has approved and the many more the church has not. People do not come to them just because the apparitions have been interpreted in ways that offer solace from political strife. Likewise they do not come only because the Virgin assures them of refuge in a world and a church that seem to have left old religious certainties behind. They travel to shrines for much the same reason that Catholics have for centuries, seeking divine help with the perplexing if mundane problems of life.

This mixture of motivations remained true in spectacular manifestations of the Marian cult's popularity in the late twentieth century. In 1981 six youngsters reported visions of the Virgin near the village of Medjugorje in Herzegovina, in an area that Croatia claimed. The apparitions continued into the twenty-first century. In the political context of the former Yugoslavia, the apparitions easily took on an anticommunist connotation. In the ethnically and religiously mixed region, where tensions exploded into war in the 1990s, Medjugorje became a rallying point for the local Croatian Catholic population. Again the clergy's response has been divided, but the heavily publicized apparitions have provoked a popular response similar to that of Lourdes or Fátima. Millions of pilgrims from around the world have visited the site, attracted less by the shrine's role in local political and religious conflicts than by its miracles and the possibility of contact with Mary's divine power.

It is impossible to separate the supposedly "elite" from the supposedly "popular" religious motivations at Medjugorje. The success of shrines and indeed of all collective religious phenomena depends on a combination of impulses shared among a variety of social and cultural groups, including both the laity and the clergy. The meanings of the phenomena are negotiated between the church, with its institutional aims, and the faithful, with their particular purposes. These meanings combine the age-old need for recourse to divine power with more current and often more worldly concerns. It is precisely because of this combination that popular religious belief and practice demand the attention of social historians.

See also other articles in this section.


Badone, Ellen. "Breton Folklore of Anticlericalism." In Religious Orthodoxy andPopular Faith in European Society. Edited by Ellen Badone. Princeton, N.J., 1990. Pages 140–162.

Badone, Ellen, ed. Religious Orthodoxy and Popular Faith in European Society. Princeton, N.J., 1990. Useful collection of essays on popular religion in Europe.

Behar, Ruth. "The Struggle for the Church: Popular Anticlericalism and Religiosity in Post-Franco Spain." In Religious Orthodoxy and Popular Faith in European Society. Edited by Ellen Badone. Princeton, N.J., 1990. Pages 76–112.

Blackbourn, David. Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village. New York, 1995. Excellent political, cultural, and social study of one Marian shrine and the entire phenomenon of Marian shrines in modern Europe.

Bouland, Fernand. "La religion populaire dans le débat de la pastorale contemporaine." In La religion populaire dans l'occident chrétien: Approches historiques. Edited by Bernard Plongeron. Paris, 1976. Pages 27–49.

Brettell, Caroline B. "The Priest and His People: The Contractual Basis for Religious Practice in Rural Portugal." In Religious Orthodoxy and Popular Faith inEuropean Society. Edited by Ellen Badone. Princeton, N.J., 1990. Pages 55–75.

Châtellier, Louis. The Europe of the Devout: The Catholic Reformation and the Formation of a New Society. Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge, U.K., 1989. Important work on the Counter-Reformation and Jesuit sodalities in early modern Europe.

Christian, William A., Jr. Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Christian, William A., Jr. Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain. Princeton, N.J., 1981. Fundamental study of the relation between local religion and centralized Catholicism in early modern Europe.

Christian, William A., Jr. Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain. Princeton, N.J., 1992. A study of apparitions and their political importance in modern Spain.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. "From 'Popular Religion' to Religious Cultures." In Reformation Europe: A Guide to Research. Edited by Steven Ozment. St. Louis, Mo., 1982. Pages 321–341.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. "Some Tasks and Themes in the Study of Popular Religion." In The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion. Edited by Charles Trinkhaus and Heiko A. Oberman. Leiden, Netherlands, 1974. Pages 307–336. Important critique of the notion of popular religion.

Delumeau, Jean. Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of theCounter-Reformation. Translated by Jeremy Moiser. London, 1977. Classic but much-challenged work on the triumph of Christianity over an essentially pagan popular religion in early modern Europe.

Delumeau, Jean. La peur en occident, XIVe–XVIIIe siècles: Une cité assiégée. Paris, 1978.

Delumeau, Jean. Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th–18thCenturies. Translated by Eric Nicholson. New York, 1990.

Desan, Suzanne. Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990. Important account of Catholic religious revival in France during the Revolution.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York, 1965.

Forster, Marc R. The Counter-Reformation in the Villages: Religion and Reform in theBishopric of Speyer, 1560–1720. Ithaca, N.Y., 1992.

Gentilcore, David. From Bishop to Witch: The System of the Sacred in Early ModernTerra d'Otranto. Manchester, U.K., 1992. A study of saints' cults and healing in southern Italy.

Hsia, R. Po-chia. The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540–1770. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. Useful overview of the Counter-Reformation. The Medjugorje pilgrimage information website.

Kselman, Thomas A. Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth-Century France. New Brunswick, N.J., 1983. A study of the role of pilgrimages in religious and political change in modern France.

Le Bras, Gabriel. Études de sociologie religieuse. 2 vols. Paris, 1955–1956. Collection of the work of an important early sociologist of religious practice.

Luria, Keith P. Territories of Grace: Cultural Change in the Seventeenth-Century Diocese of Grenoble. Berkeley, Calif., 1991. A study of religious and cultural change in the rural world during the Counter-Reformation.

Muchembled, Robert. Culture populaire et culture des élites dans la France moderne:XVe–XVIIIe siècles. Paris, 1978. Argues that elite culture successfully suppressed traditional popular culture during the early modern period.

Nalle, Sara T. God in La Mancha: Religious Reform and the People of Cuenca, 1500–1650. Baltimore, 1992. Excellent study of religious change and stagnation in a Spanish diocese.

Nolan, Mary Lee, and Sidney Nolan. Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989.

Plongeron, Bernard, et al., ed. La religion populaire dans l'occident chrétien: Approches historiques. Paris, 1976.

Sallmann, Jean-Michel. Naples et ses saints à l'âge baroque: 1540–1750. Paris, 1994. Important study of the cult of saints and changes in the notion of sacrality in early modern Italy.

Soergel, Philip M. Wondrous in His Saints: Counter-Reformation Propaganda in Bavaria. Berkeley, Calif., 1993.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. London, 1971. Classic study of the disappearance of traditional, magical beliefs and popular culture in Protestant England.

Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives. New York, 1978.

Vovelle, Michel. Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1973. Study of the process of eighteenth-century dechristianization.

Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra L. Encountering Mary: From La Salette to Medjugorje. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

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