Storied Places: Pilgrim Shrines, Nature, and History in Early Modern France , by Virginia Reinburg

In: Journal of Religion in Europe
Elissa Cutter Georgian Court University USA Lakewood, NJ

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Virginia Reinburg, Storied Places: Pilgrim Shrines, Nature, and History in Early Modern France (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 272 pp., ISBN: 9781108483117, £ 78.99 (hbk.)

Storied Places describes how landscape, history, and legend intertwined in the promotion of Catholic shrines in France following the wars of religion. These shrines, and the shrine books that promoted pilgrimage to them, created, as Virgina Reinburg explains, “a new map” (p. 231) for Catholic France in this period of history. The interaction between the landscape—often a spring or a mountain—and the people who visited it—pilgrims, those seeking miracles or cures, curious visitors, and the chaplains—ultimately created the history of the shrine by combining contemporary miracles with historical legends. In this book, Reinburg combines environmental, intellectual, and religious history to effectively demonstrate the way religious shrines played an important anti-Huguenot role in Catholic Reformation France.

Following an introduction that sets her project in the historiography of shrines and early modern religious life, Reinburg’s book is divided into two parts. Part 1, “Legendary Locations,” looks at the examples of four shrines that were popular in early modern France. The first chapter examines the shrine of Sainte-Reine in Burgundy. As with all the chapters in this part of the book, Reinburg examines the history of the shrine, tracing it back to antiquity. As she shows, early modern shrines, especially those connected with springs, often had a longer history that traced back to Roman and even Celtic religious practices and these “shrines were built at places that already had a reputation for marvels” (p. 31). Although the chapter connects this longer history to the shrine, the focus is primarily the promotion of and visitors to the shrine in the early modern era. She describes in detail the accounts of five visitors to the shrine in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The second chapter looks at two shrines located in the Pyrenees—Notre-Dame de Garaison and Notre-Dame de Betharram. Again, Reinburg connects these shrines to antiquity and the landscape, but also introduces some of the ways the post-Reformation French Catholic renewal affected the shrines. The third chapter shows even more how the shrines were affected by the religious disruption of the Protestant Reformation by examining the shrine of Notre-Dame du Puy. As Reinburg argues, “the story of Le Puy and its shrine during the religious wars and the postwar aftermath is particular to one place, but it also illustrates how the religious wars could reshape Catholic places and practices across France” (p. 114). Where the two previous shrines were located at springs and so had a direct medicinal connection to the spring water, Le Puy was known for an allegedly ancient, black image of the Virgin Mary. The shrines that Reinburg has chosen to examine in this part thus represent just a selection of possible early modern shrines across France. But these four shrines provide a glimpse into the role and significance of religious shrines as part of the conflict during the wars of religion and the subsequent Catholic renewal and reform.

Part 2, “Text, Territory, and Truth,” examines the practice of writing shrine books to popularize the shrines and the way the authors used history, archives, and legends to create the history and record of the shrines. This part is made up of two chapters—chapter 4 on historiography and archive and chapter 5 on legend and fable. As Reinburg explains, “Essential features of the shrine book are myth, history, and archives, in some combination” (p. 160). In the fourth chapter, she provides a detailed analysis of the content of the shrine books, the common characteristics of their authors, and the interaction between religious faith and the creation of—or publication of—an archive of miracles in support of the shrine. Then, in the final chapter she describes the different foundation legends of shrines, all of which involve some form of “mariophany,” either an apparition of the Virgin Mary to designate the spot where her shrine should be built, or the miraculous discovery of a hidden image indicating the prior location of a forgotten shrine. As she notes in relation to the miraculous discovery narratives, these became more common after the Reformation, as people in Huguenot-dominated areas of France may have hidden icons and other religious images for safekeeping. There are common features in all these legends, but—as Reinburg points out—these common features, which would lead modern readers to be skeptical, were seen by early modern readers as proof of the divine, as God was understood to work in consistent ways throughout history. The shrine books were distinctly shaped by the post-Reformation context, creating—as she argues—an “archive of faith” to demonstrate divine favor and the truth of the Catholic faith through miracles and miraculous origins. Myths and legends were retold and “reshaped … around postwar anxieties” (p. 200).

Reinburg’s book allows the reader to appreciate the mentality of the visitors to and promoters of early modern Catholic shrines, giving a window into the religious practices, controversies, and ideas of post-Reformation France. The images included in the text—including pages from the shrine books, artistic depictions of the shrines from the early modern era, and her own photographs of the shrines as they exist today—help the reader connect the testimony of the shrine books and the histories of the shrines to the landscape of France. Scholars of early modern Catholic history, the Reformation, and religion in France would particularly enjoy this text.

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