“Each of Our Springs Has Lost Its Miraculous Power”

The Range of a Religious Hotspot – A Distant Reading of Lourdes Representations in Denmark 1858–1914

In: Numen
Katrine Frøkjær Baunvig School of Culture and Society, The Grundtvig Study Center, Aarhus University Aarhus Denmark

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This article seeks to apply Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger’s theoretical concept of a “religious hotspot” to the case of representations of the French Catholic shrine of Lourdes in Danish (Protestant or post-Protestant) public media from 1858 to 1914. While suggesting that hotspots could be seen as centers in wider interest spheres, I seek to demonstrate the push and pull effects of the hotspot of Lourdes, moving from the local level of the Pyrenees to the national level of France and, further, to the broader Catholic and freethinking-intellectual worlds before I finally arrive at relatively distant Denmark. Here, the development of the representations of Lourdes from 1858 to 1914 mirrors public representations of “the fantastic” and of religiosity as such in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning with disdain, the Lourdes representations end in nostalgic fascination – in a longing for the enchanted hotspot no longer available (that is, no longer deemed plausible) in Denmark at the opening of the twentieth century. Further, this case helps evaluate the dynamics of exoticism that I propose to be an integral part of religious hotspots per se; in addition, it helps tweak out the commercial nature intrinsic to religious hotspots.


This article seeks to apply Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger’s theoretical concept of a “religious hotspot” to the case of representations of the French Catholic shrine of Lourdes in Danish (Protestant or post-Protestant) public media from 1858 to 1914. While suggesting that hotspots could be seen as centers in wider interest spheres, I seek to demonstrate the push and pull effects of the hotspot of Lourdes, moving from the local level of the Pyrenees to the national level of France and, further, to the broader Catholic and freethinking-intellectual worlds before I finally arrive at relatively distant Denmark. Here, the development of the representations of Lourdes from 1858 to 1914 mirrors public representations of “the fantastic” and of religiosity as such in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning with disdain, the Lourdes representations end in nostalgic fascination – in a longing for the enchanted hotspot no longer available (that is, no longer deemed plausible) in Denmark at the opening of the twentieth century. Further, this case helps evaluate the dynamics of exoticism that I propose to be an integral part of religious hotspots per se; in addition, it helps tweak out the commercial nature intrinsic to religious hotspots.

Despite all differences, it was plain to see that they had been brought together by a shared hope. Underneath the haze and talk and bewilderment one sensed a common solemnity, the same somber expectation of what the following days would reveal. Something in the setting reminded one of times gone by – of midsummer pilgrimages to the holy springs with water able, it was said, to heal every wound and quench every longing. In the lines of more than one anxious face one could read of a soul stunned by the various doubts of the time and restlessly thirsting after the medicine of truth.

This fictional depiction of a Christian, open-air gathering was written in the mid-1890s. It is not, however, as could perhaps be expected, taken from one of the many novels written during this period about the shrine and holy spring at Lourdes to which this article is dedicated. There is thus no reference to the young visionary Bernadette Soubirous (1844–1879), who in 1858 instigated the process of Lourdes becoming a Catholic shrine when she claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary eighteen times. Further, this passage is not from French author-journalist Émile Zola’s (1840–1902) bestselling novel Lourdes (1894), even though, as I shall show, the descriptions of the solemnity of the crowd and the confusing condition of modernity comes very close. That the holy spring mentioned here is a phenomenon of the past gives it away. This is a section from the Danish Nobel Prize-winning author and (moderate, complexly nuanced) critic of religion Henrik Pontoppidan’s (1857–1943) novel Judgment Day (Dommens Dag) (1895).1

In Danish newspapers of the time, Henrik Pontoppidan was described as a writer on par with Zola when it came to the literary representation of religion.2 In an article seeking to plot representations and the reach of the Catholic hotspot of Lourdes in Protestant Denmark, it serves as an opening illustration of a strong tendency that might seem somewhat paradoxical at first glance: the sense of disenchantment that colored discourses observing fin-de-siècle religious revival in France, Denmark, and Europe at large. Once, certain springs were considered holy and offered miraculous healing to those in need; this is no longer the case, was Pontoppidan’s logic, as it was for so many of his freethinking contemporaries. This sense of disenchantment was particularly striking in the Danish public interest in the fantastic reports from the distant French pilgrimage site in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Striking because the representation of the phenomenon in Lourdes up until the 1890s had been ripe with stereotypical disdain – mainly of Protestant disregard for Catholic “superstition,” but gradually also of the contempt by naturalists, freethinkers, and socialists for religious lifestyles.

This article targets representations of Lourdes in Denmark. That is, it targets the range of effects ascribed to Lourdes as a religious hotspot. Lourdes and its potential as an exotic location – as a Catholic imaginary for post-Protestants sometimes viewed as a beguiling place of ardent faith, sometimes seen as a site demonstrating revolting religiously corruptive commercialism – serves as a case for a task of a more theoretical nature. I consider Lourdes an advantageous case for testing Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger’s theoretical concept to which this special issue is dedicated. A religious hotspot in Fibiger’s sense is a space ascribed with numinous or spiritually regenerative qualities appealing to various religious, and in this case also nonreligious, traditions or currents (Fibiger, this issue). They are places “emitting energy … a kind of power station,” unlike the “cold” sphere of the everyday (Fibiger, this issue, p. 6). Expanding this fruitful theoretical concept, I conceive of a hotspot as the center of a “sphere of interest” that is dividable into concentric subspheres. The closer you get to the center, the more first-hand, physical experience with the energy there is to be expected. On the outskirts, on the contrary, one is more likely to find thoughts on and representations of the hotspot that are not necessarily informed by such experience. Though I am ultimately interested in an “outer realm” of the Lourdes hotspot sphere, the best way to get there is to start at the center. Therefore, in the following, I will move through and pay brief visits to the spheres of the local Lourdes community, the French and Roman Catholic clergy, and the French and European mass-pilgrims. I will make a slightly longer stay with the French intellectuals before I finally arrive at my destination in Denmark. What I want to assess is the push and the pull effects of the hotspot in these different realms.3 In anticipation: the main push effect is the commercialization of the religious site.

For the sketch of the local lourdais and the French clerical contexts, I draw on Ruth Harris’s (1999) and Susan Kaufman’s (2005) seminal works. These works also play a role in my outline of the French cultural-intellectual context, as does my own previous work on the French author-journalist Émile Zola and his Lourdes-skeptic 1894 novel Lourdes (Baunvig 2017). Combining the work of Jürgen Habermas (1962), Benedict Anderson (1983), Wolf Lepines (2006), and Franco Moretti (2013, 2014) into the hypothesis that, in late nineteenth-century Europe, the newspaper and the novel strived for the position as the leading Zeitgeist-interpretation organ, I see newspapers and (bestselling) novels as gateways to the public sphere in the nineteenth and early twentieth century – the beginning of the modern era. Thus, I will reference a line of influential novels although I have had to reserve the systematic approach for the newspapers, the organ par excellence for leveling a critique of tradition and religion within the period. For the purposes of the Danish case, I delve into the total number of published newspapers and periodicals and the 1,723 occurrences of “Lourdes” that exist in the Royal Danish Library’s digital archive (Mediestream) for the period in question. Based on this “distant reading” (Moretti 2013), I outline main drifts in the semantic current of the term as it was represented in a significant Öffentlichkeit-material to be able to assess the public representation of Lourdes in Denmark.

Bernadette Soubirous’s reported experiences in 1858 are the obvious starting point for these investigations. The endpoint, however, is of a more contingent nature. I have chosen 1914 and the beginning of an all-consuming event in terms of public attention, and a game-changing event for the cultural and religious sphere in Europe in general: World War I.

1 The Historical Context of the Events in the Massabielle Grotto

In the late winter of 1858, Marie-Bernarde Soubirous, known as Bernadette, who lived in the small town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees, reported that she had seen the Virgin in a grotto called Massabielle. The grotto lay nearby the commons of Lourdes, and the fourteen-year-old Bernadette had gone there with a couple of friends to gather firewood. Here she had the apparition. But not just once. According to the young seer, the Virgin appeared eighteen times before her during a period of six weeks in February and March. Some of the acclaimed apparitions were witnessed by members of the local community. In the course of the apparitions, the Virgin led Bernadette to understand that there was a spring underneath the grotto and that its waters possessed healing powers. In fact, the visualist reported that the Virgin wished for a chapel to be built at the source of this spring.

Rumors of Bernadette Soubirous’s reported experiences quickly gained attention in the local community, and early on crowds gathered regularly around the grotto, much to the annoyance of the local authorities. In 1858 Lourdes was a small, relatively secluded town. Today it is an extremely popular pilgrim site attracting 500,000–600,000 Catholics from all around the world on a yearly basis (Statista Research Department 2021). But the story of Lourdes is not only a story of the rise of a modern Catholic holy site. Lourdes and the grotto have received a striking amount of attention from remarkably disparate spheres. The girl and the apparitions she reported was the core of a Lourdes miracle-narrative that quickly spread. Initially, it spread orally in the communities of the immediate vicinity. Later, in writing, it reached the whole of France, and then the world – especially the Roman Catholic one – through the rapidly expanding mass media of newspapers and novels. A crucial medium for the written dissemination were fictionalized accounts, of which the novel Notre-Dame de Lourdes, a sentimental, romanticized version by the Catholic journalist-author Henri Lasserre (1828–1900) published in 1869, was particularly important. It formed the basis for many other representations of the events (Harris 1999: 177–209). And these representations helped the site grow in complexity by expanding its “audience” and by adding hotspot qualities, such as “syncretistic-exoticistic” fascination and a status of being contested, to its more straightforward healing and pilgrimage characteristics.

If we zoom out from Lourdes to the wider Catholic world, it becomes clear that Bernadette Soubirous’s alleged experiences should be taken as part of a general trend of apparitions that unfolded throughout Europe in the nineteenth century and up until World War I (Blackbourn 1994: 3–41; MacCulloch 2010: 817–865). The most well-known examples accepted by the Church are the visions in and around Rue du Bac in Paris by the nun Catharine Labouré in 1830, which led to similar reports by nuns in Venice in the early 1840s. Another example is the Italian-Jewish banker Alphonse Ratisbonne from Rome who, after a vision in 1842, converted to Catholicism. Many more incidents can be added to this list, such as cases in Lichén, Poland, in the 1850s; in Phillipsdorf, Bohemia, in 1866; in Knock, Ireland, in 1879; in Castelpetroso, Italy, in 1888; and not least in Fátima, Portugal, in 1917. These examples are just a snippet of what scholar of religion Chris Maunder considers the official and recognized tip of a folk- or lived-religious iceberg (2016: 19–21). To this, one can add that these trends represent an unambiguous “feminization” of the expression of popular religion (cf. Woodhead 2004: 144–156; van Osselaer 2019): a total of seventy-four percent of recognized apparitionists in the 1800s were female (Maunder 2016: 53).

In general, in the nineteenth century, the Virgin Mary had a strong following in both lay lived-religious practices and in Catholic theological reflection. This following was perhaps strongest in post-Revolutionary France,4 as is substantiated by the fact that every year from 1802 until 1898 a new religious order or laity-driven ecclesiastical organization was created in the name of the Virgin Mary (Maunder 2016: 18). That most of these organizations were created in France is also substantiated when one consults digital text corpora such as Google Books. A search in the French subcorpus shows that the name and title “Vierge Marie” – and to a lesser degree also alternatives such as “Notre Dame” and “Sainte Mère” – increased significantly in the first three quarters of the nineteenth century and peaked in the mid-1850s (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

Occurrences of “Vierge Marie” 1800–1914, Google Books’ corpus: French

Citation: Numen 70, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/15685276-12341675

This heightened interest for the Holy Mother mirrored a clerical interest; Pope Pius IX’s encyclical on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary from 1854 being the most striking example.5 Bearing the topic of this article in mind, it is worth noticing that the pope’s response to Henri Lasserre’s novel reflects an agreement between the interests of the general public and the ecclesiastical elite’s interests with regard to Lourdes. In a letter from 1869, Pope Pius IX thanks Lasserre for his book and for “establishing the truth about the recent apparition”:

We firmly believe that She [Our Lady of Lourdes] who, from every quarter, attracts towards Herself by miracles of her power and goodness, multitudes of Pilgrims, wills, in the same manner, to employ your book in order to propagate more widely, and to excite towards Herself, the piety and confidence of mankind, to the end that all may participate in the plenitude of Her graces.

Lassere (1869) 1906: 4–66

These words suggest that only ten years after the visions, a popular national pilgrimage was in place, and that the pope as the ultimate clerical official had established Bernadette Soubirous’s visions to be true. Certainly not all apparitions led to the foundation of a shrine and the development of systematic, religious worship, just as the majority of apparitions were not officially recognized by the ecclesiastical authorities (Maunder 2016: 1). For this reason, it seems relevant initially to consider why the events at Lourdes led to the emergence of one of the most successful Christian holy sites in modern times. This question can be split into two equally important parts: Why did ordinary people believe Bernadette Soubirous? And why did the Church so swiftly sanction her visions?

2 The Pull of the Grotto-Hotspot on les lourdais

An answer to the first question can be found in cultural and religious expectations of the first people to believe Bernadette Soubirous: the people of Lourdes, les lourdais. Several elements seem to point to the fact that, to the inhabitants of this French region, it did not seem strange that a young girl was able to communicate with the Virgin Mary. On the contrary, there are several indications that such a phenomenon would have seemed highly plausible – or at least a “relevant mystery” (Sperber 1996: 73). In fact, a striking tradition going back several hundred years seems to support this. Numerous apparitions of the Virgin Mary had been reported since the period of the post-Reformation Catholic renewal, which is often referred to as the Counter-Reformation and whose main figures include Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582), Johannes of the Cross (1542–1591), and Francis of Sales (1567–1622) (MacCulloch 2010: 655–688). In this context, the most significant of these apparitions is the Pyrenean cultural legend of the twelve-year-old girl Anglèze de Sagazan, who in 1515 claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in the small town of Garaison, which is approximately seventy kilometers from Lourdes. Sagazan’s visions led to the town becoming a place of pilgrimage, and the legends of her served as an important historical reference for Soubirous’s supporters in the 1800s. This reference was in part fueled by an apparently striking resemblance between Bernadette and Anglèze (Harris 1999: 40). Added to this was the unspoiled, unschooled air of the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous: she made a strong impression on her spectators and seemed credible. That is, she lived up to aesthetic, educational, and moral expectations of how a young apparitionist would behave and what she would look like (157–165).

Furthermore, the grotto scenery helped convince the local inhabitants of the validity of the visions. The local population were prepared to expect the extraordinary to occur in the numinous borderland between the village and the mountain wilderness – on the commons where the grotto and the spring was situated. According to local folklore, supernatural, fantastic creatures reigned here; this was where fairies, witches, werewolves, and demons lived. Further, this heathen, numinous energy was met by Christian hesitation: it was common practice to make the sign of the cross when approaching the area where the grotto is located (Harris 1999: 52–54). In other words, it was already a local religious hotspot. Thus, the spatial-ontic expectations of les lourdais supported the idea that a supernatural agent such as the Virgin, should she choose to show herself, would decide on this particular site. Moreover, the power of the grotto hotspot was consolidated by Bernadette Soubirous’s acclaimed visions, which were met by regular reports of individuals who reported to have been healed of a variety of ailments by the grotto and the spring. They supported the idea that a potent, miraculous energy was available here.

So, Bernadette Soubirous’s persona, the local religious history, and folkloric beliefs concerning the local landscape all contributed to paving the way for the credibility of the apparitions in the eyes of the inhabitants of Lourdes.

3 The Push and Pull of the Grotto-Hotspot on Clerical Officials

Integral to the construction of religious hotspots is their contested nature (Fibiger, this issue). The story of Lourdes meets this condition. As was only to be expected, clerical officials were initially skeptical of Bernadette Soubirous’s credibility. Represented by the local abbé Dominique Peyramale (1811–1877), the Church set up an ecclesiastical commission of inquiry in 1858, the purpose of which was to interview witnesses and assess Soubirous’s experiences. The Church’s primary problem was Soubirous’s description of the object of her visions: the fourteen-year-old girl described it in the local patois of Gascon Occitan as “uo Pétito damizélo” (a little girl) dressed in white,7 and sometimes she referred to the figure she saw as an “aquero” (a small water creature) – both descriptions conspicuously close to the local folkloric ideas of nymph-like creatures. Moreover, during one of the final apparitions, Bernadette claimed to have heard the creature say: “soy era Immaculada Councepciou” (I am the Immaculate Conception) (cf. Harris 1999: 55–82). Soubirous’s repeated claims of having seen a little girl went against a central point in the Mariological logic dominating Catholic theology of the period, namely, that the Virgin Mary was a sexually mature woman (cf. Boss 2019).

Bernadette Soubirous’s reports posed another problem for the clerical officials. Dogmatically it was somewhat awkward that Soubirous insisted that the creature had said that she herself was “the immaculate conception” (Boss 2019: 80–81). A more streamlined expression, theologically speaking, would have been something along the lines of “the immaculate mother” or “the immaculate virgin.” Remarkably, this dogmatically off-beat description was, however, turned into a sign of Soubirous’s simple authenticity, unspoiled by theological schooling. In other words, the theological incorrectness of Soubirous’s statements was turned upside down and taken as a sign of her credibility. Thus, in 1862, only four years after Soubirous’s grotto experiences, Pope Pious IX announced that the Catholic Church regarded the apparitions as true, and it was decided to build a basilica above the grotto.

Among a long line of reasons for this rapid process is the fact that the news of Lourdes traveled fast in the growing mass-media landscape of France and of Europe generally. Newspapers, periodicals, and novels gave the Lourdes phenomenon great attention in France, as well as in German- and English-speaking areas. The interest took hold in the early 1860s and accelerated through the rest of the century. At least this is indicated by a series of wordcounts at scale carried out via Google Books Ngram Viewer (Figure 2, Figure 3).

From the early 1870s, many of the stories in the newspapers focused on the growing number of pilgrims that came to the grotto, to the spring, to Lourdes. It seems that the Church deemed it hazardous to go against this mass-media-covered and ever-stronger drift within the lay population.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Occurrences of “Lourdes” 1800–1914, Google Books’ corpus: French

Citation: Numen 70, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/15685276-12341675

Figure 3
Figure 3

Occurrences of “Lourdes” 1800–1914, Google Books’ corpus: English

Citation: Numen 70, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/15685276-12341675

4 The Pull of the Grotto Hotspot on Mass Pilgrims

From the mid-1860s to the mid-1870s, Lourdes underwent a development from “a local holy site into a national healing shrine of great renown” (Kaufman 2005: 21). In 1866, the ever-expanding French railway completed a line to Lourdes, thereby enabling pilgrims from all over France to travel to the grotto and to the spring. That is, the hotspot sphere of interest was significantly extended. In 1869, the journalist Henri Lasserre’s aforementioned novel Notre-Dame de Lourdes was a bestselling success. A devoted Catholic, he had visited Lourdes in 1863 and claimed that he had been healed of an eye ailment as a result (Kaufman 2005: 24). Out of gratitude he wrote the story of Bernadette Soubirous, “an ‘authentic’ retelling of Bernadette’s apparitions and the early events at the grotto” (24). This book and the railway connection “sparked interest in the shrine throughout the country and the larger Catholic world” (25). In effect, it meant that the pilgrimage to Lourdes was born as a mass pilgrimage, from the very beginning attracting pilgrims in their thousands, just as Lourdes itself, due to the complex mass representation, was an instant religious hotspot.

A significant number of the pilgrims were people afflicted with a wide range of physical illnesses hoping to find a cure in the miraculous Lourdes water. The Paris-based religious order of the Augustinian Fathers of the Assumption systematized the pilgrimage to Lourdes as well as the care of the ill from 1873 onward. Among the sick pilgrims flocking to Lourdes – in trains transformed into moving chapels – a considerable proportion reported being healed. In response to this, the clerical authorities decided to establish the Medical Bureau in 1883. The role of the bureau was to validate the growing number of healings (Harris 1999: 261). By the beginning of the twentieth century, “close to half a million pilgrims” annually went to Lourdes on national pilgrimages sponsored by the Church (Kaufman 2005: 2).

In 1898, the Lourdes weekly newspaper Journal de la Grotte was founded, but by then stories of miraculous healings and Lourdes-related advertisements had already been popping up in French (and European) newspapers for decades. Further, the monthly periodical Annales de Notre-Dame de Lourdes had been running since 1868, and guidebooks, souvenirs, and postcards had put Lourdes, its history, and personage on display to a large audience. In the words of Suzanne K. Kaufman, this material had “helped traditional pilgrims become modern tourists and consumers” and fostered a “devotional culture that integrated train travel, sightseeing throughout the town and countryside, window shopping for religious souvenirs” (2005: 56). Driving this trend even further, the visual display was adapted for the new cinematic technology. In the 1890s, early French filmmakers produced short films, so-called actualités, introducing Lourdes “to an even larger audience an understanding of the sacred site” (60).

The mass pilgrimage and use of modern technology had massive local consequences. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Lourdes had been transformed from a poor, remote, provincial town into a tourist/pilgrimage-based commercial center with hotels, cafés, restaurants, and souvenir shops on every corner (Kaufman 2005: 16–61). To no great surprise, German historian Jürgen Osterhammel categorizes Lourdes as a “mono-functional” city – an urban category on the rise throughout the nineteenth century in the global scope. Examples of the various new types of specialized cities emerging in this period are the silver-mining city of Potosí in Bolivia, railway cities such as Nairobi in Kenya, and – not least – outdoor recreational sites such as Spa in Belgium (Osterhammel 2009: 264–275). Lourdes could thus be categorized as a religious version of the many recreational sites drawing (urban bourgeois) reconvalescents out to enjoy the fresh air of European coasts and mountains.

So, in a certain sense, the hotspot energy emanating from the Massabeille grotto combined with, on the one hand, an increased ability and propensity to travel within the French and European populations and, on the other hand, the modern technology of the railway and mass printing radically changing the flow of information and possibilities for mass coordination, thus effecting the transformation of the town and the livelihood of its inhabitants.

5 The Pull of the Grotto Hotspot on fin-de-siècle Intellectuals

Though the crowds of Lourdes around the close of the nineteenth century were now counted in tens of thousands, not everyone was a mass-pilgrimage candidate. Émile Zola, first mover naturalist and superstar author-journalist, was not. Nevertheless, he made a research trip to the shrine in the early 1890s. The result of this journey was the novel Lourdes (1894). Like Lasserre’s book, it was an instant bestseller. But unlike Lasserre’s book, it did not paint Lourdes in exclusively rosy colors. On the contrary, it mirrored a vibrant public debate on religion vs. science in Third Republic France (1870–1940). This was not least visible in Zola’s protagonist Pierre, a lower-ranking Catholic clergyman tormented by religious doubt. In him, Zola instills two images dominating the intellectual milieus of fin-de-siècle France that are worth delving into.

First, in Zola’s Lourdes, one hears an echo of a widespread sensibility toward the strong (and potentially violent) forces represented by large crowds of people. In the years following the centenary of the French Revolution, the academic field of mass psychology emerged. It was led by scholars such as Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931), author of books with titles such as Psychologie des Foules (1895) and La Révolution Francaise et la Psychologie des Revolutions (1912).8

Second, in the protagonist Pierre’s inner monologues, one detects an interest in the dynamics of psychological manipulation of individuals, drawing on medical research of the period. Theories and results of this research circulated widely. Around the turn of the twentieth century, hypnosis and suggestion were regular buzzwords. Google Books’ French corpus tells us that the frequency of such terms increased radically from the early 1880s onward. The term “hysteria” follows the same trend. This psychosomatic diagnosis was reserved for women. Accordingly, the renowned psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) first and foremost conducted hysteria experiments on women (Goldstein 1982). Charcot’s work supported a general interest in psychosocial forces and in religious faith as an energy with possible somatic effects (placebo), which spilled into the discourses on the miraculous healings in Lourdes – and into the thoughts of Zola’s Pierre. He realizes that the Lourdes healings must be acknowledged as real; something real is at play, “which no physiologist [has] studied yet!” he thinks to himself. Perhaps, he ponders, the explanation is that “a crowd becomes an individual who can increase his or her own power of self-suggestion thousandfold?” And perhaps, he continues, “under very exceptional circumstances, this crowd could force matter?” This at least, he concludes, would explain why “the most agitated individuals in this crowd were the ones who are most frequently cured.” Maybe the fact was that the “fire [of excitement] accumulated and concentrated, and that the power that healed, was the power of consolation, hope, life” (Zola [1894] 2009: 541)? These are Pierre’s questions to himself, rejecting the supernatural as a possible explanation for the many healings.

So, in describing this dynamic in such words (hypnosis, ecstasy, suggestion, etc.), Zola draws on the then contemporary jargon among psychiatrists and psychologists. The notion with which these terms were charged, namely, that collective events can trigger hidden, social forces, was, however, particularly important within another specialist group: sociologists (of religion) such as Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), Henri Hubert (1872–1927), and Marcel Mauss (1872–1950). Durkheim’s concepts covering such forces were two third-order, etic constructions. The first is “collective effervescence,” which covers emotional instances of excitement that can take place during collective rituals and typically involve rhythmic coordination, for example, dancing or singing. Durkheim also often described this mechanism in electrical terms similar to Zola’s (see Durkheim [1912] 1995: 216–221). The other is “dynamogénique,” which covers the positive, identity-building effect that religious ideas and forms of practice have on individuals (Baunvig 2014). Transforming Robert Codrington’s (1830–1922) emic description of the Melanesian idea of force demonstrations condensed in the concept of “mana” (Codrington 1891), Hubert and Mauss expanded it to an etic category encompassing ideas about the power or “magical potential” of certain objects, individuals, and actions (Tybjerg 2007: 170; Sørensen 2021).

Thus, to Zola, as to scholars of various casts, the miracle cures in Lourdes were deemed real. But to Zola and other scholars, these healings begged a scientific explanation, because the religious mode of being had, in their analyses, become defunct in what they conceived of as the modern era. In that sense, the fantastic events at Lourdes seemed to Zola a desperate “attempt at awakening the unshakable faith of medieval times” (Zola [1894] 2009: 765). Desperate because: “History does not revert … These times are different, far too many new seeds have been sown and have germinated for modern man to be able to think as he did several centuries years ago” (765–766). In other words, the Pyrenean landscape was the locus of “the death throes of the old Catholic faith” (766), Pierre concludes in agreement with a range of Zola’s contemporaries, who claimed that the world had been disenchanted – as Max Weber (1864–1920) suggested ([1917] 1992) – or that God had died – as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) had proclaimed even earlier. In other words, to Pierre, there was no place for religious heat in the cold modern world – places once hot would inevitably turn cold.

I shall return to such considerations in my exploration of Lourdes representations in Danish public media below. But first, one last theme in the Lourdes discourse among French fin-de-siècle intellectuals attracts our attention. To intellectuals such as Zola, the fantastic phenomena observed at Lourdes, the healings, were fueled by the power of belief, the placebo-dynamics of suggestion. This was the pull of the hotspot for non-Christian, republican, “freethinking” observers such as Zola; this was what fascinated and attracted them. But there were also repelling elements – a line of circumstances that they deemed repulsive. Of these, the commercial desecration of piety was the most prominent.

6 The Push of the Grotto Hotspot on fin-de-siècle Intellectuals

Despite elements of fascination, Zola’s Lourdes was overall critical of the shrine. To Zola, the site held the air of a marketplace. Sneeringly he described the transformation of Lourdes into a national shrine as a business venture for the Church and for the old town population alike:

At the outset of the new enterprise there was again a flash of enthusiasm. At the prospect of seeing all the life and all the money flow into the new city which was springing from the ground around the Basilica, the old town, which felt itself thrust upon one side, espoused the cause of its priest.

Zola (1894) 2009: 787

As these lines indicate, Zola saw pecuniary concerns defiling the authenticity of the religious life. Following this logic, he accused the Lourdes basilica of having a cheap commercial look:

The worst was that, despite its archaic Byzantine style, it altogether lacked any religious appearance, and suggested neither mystery nor meditation. Indeed, with the glaring light admitted by the cupola and the broad glazed doors it was more like some brand-new corn-market.

Zola (1894) 2009: 787

The novel, ripe with such passages, “ignited intense debates about the commercialization of religion” and of the debasement of religion in an era of capitalism (Kaufman 2005: 63). Even to ardent advocates of the Catholic faith and of the Lourdes pilgrimage site, the obvious commercial elements were highly problematic. One such advocate was the renegade Zola-follower turned Catholic Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907). In his novel Les Foules de Lourdes (The Crowds of Lourdes) ([1906] 1925) he tried to defend the site, but still, he came to see the basilica as a “religious casino.” Similarly, he was dismayed by the urban, commercial surroundings and disheartened by the religious trade:

Not a single shop is without its medals and candles and rosaries and scapulars and pamphlets full of miracles; both old and new Lourdes are crammed with them; even the hotels have them on sale; and that goes on in street after street for miles, starting from old Lourdes with the poor woman who hawks little rosaries with steel chains and crosses and huge characteristic Lourdes rosaries of chocolate-coloured wood … and all these things better and bigger and larger as you get nearer the new town; the statues swarm increasingly and end by becoming, not less ugly, but enormous.

Zola (1894) 2009: 665

To Catholic author Léon Bloy (1846–1917) the problem was, further, that the atmosphere of Lourdes was too cheerful and the aesthetics too pretty, too kitsch: “I cannot picture myself the Mother of the Sorrowing Christ in the kindly light of Lourdes” (1917: 151), he confessed.9 He missed the thorns, the stigmata, the blood, the tears. In other words, Bloy missed the gore and the sorrowful Pietà of medieval Christianity. Huysmans also missed the Middle Ages. To him, the era represented a heartfelt piety – a religious authenticity that he as a nostalgic felt was lost to modern, urban man (cf. Harris 1999: 175–176).10 As Suzanne Kaufman points out, the only plausible way for Huysmans to defend Lourdes, then, was to close his eyes and imagine what the site could have been like if it had not been corrupted: “To encounter the sacred aura of the holy site … [he] simply banished from his mind’s eye the commerce and vulgarity of the sanctuary, reinventing Lourdes to fit his own understanding of what proper religious devotion should be” (Kaufman 2005: 92). The debasement of the grotto was the most problematic aspect; the tourist-like behavior of the pilgrims, the mechanic, “regular whirl of the Masses” not driven by ardent belief but by “a mere performance without any real sentiment behind it” (91), defiled the center of Lourdes, Huysmans argued. The flipside of this analysis is that Huysmans expected the grotto to hold spatial-numinous qualities – religious hotspot qualities that sets it apart and forbids profaning behavior (Durkheim [1912] 1995: 36–39).

Suzanne Kaufman criticizes Émile Durkheim’s conceptual antithetic categories, the sacred and the profane, for importing materiality- and money-skeptic tendencies deep-rooted in Christianity. Mutually exclusive, the sacred represents a “spiritual,” effervescent force or energy; the profane, on the contrary, represents the heft of the mundane, of everyday matter (Kaufman 2005: 6–9). Kaufman rightly observes that “the desire to separate religion and commerce, sacred and profane” has a deep history (11). But there is more to be said. This observation gains precision from the work of Robert N. Bellah and his Weber-inspired typology of religion, setting the archaic world-affirming religions apart from world-denying, Axial Age religiosity (Bellah 2011). Christianity, as it evolved into a world and mainstream religion in the West, found ways to reconcile the two opposing types, offering asceticism, “miserabilism,” and antimaterialism on the one hand, in line with the acquired taste of the world-denying elites, and on the other hand, straightforward rejoicing over God’s creation to the world-affirming masses (cf. Lundager Jensen 2016). Zola’s, Bloy’s, and Huysmans’s skepticism of the commercialization of Lourdes thus echoes deep-rooted, Christian, elitist reservations about material expressions of religion (cf. Brown 2013: 383–407). In a complex way, such reservations were an integral part not least of Lutheran-Protestant, elite religiosity (e.g., Spicer 2017). This is an underlying premise for the public discourse on Lourdes in Denmark – particularly at the early stage between 1858 and 1890 – to which I now turn.

7 The Push of the Grotto Hotspot in Danish Public Media

Six months after Bernadette Soubirous in a distant corner of France claimed that she had seen the Virgin Mary in a grotto near her hometown, the Copenhagen-based newspaper Fædrelandet (The Fatherland) brought the events to Danish attention. Four lines, printed on September 1, informed the reader that the bishop of Tarbes had taken measures to assess the validity of the visions (No. 202, pp. 837–838). A week later (September 8), the same newspaper – of a national-liberal bent and in religious matters relatively neutral (Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 109) – elaborated the story in half a column: cunning Jesuits encourage every “good Christian” to go on a “mass-pilgrimage … to the holy site where the Virgin Mary appeared before a young peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, six months ago” (p. 861). Here, the Virgin had also “made a holy well spring” and indicated that she wished for a chapel to be erected there (p. 861). In a sneering tone, the anonymous author emphasized the commercial potential of the water. The understated judgment is that the “matter is not of economic insignificance” (p. 861). This statement echoes conventional Protestant propaganda: that the “trade union” of the Catholic ecclesiastical and monastic clergy (MacCulloch 2004: 43) is driven by greed and capitalizes on common people’s faith.

Squeezed in-between an account of the marital contract of the English Princess Alice and Prince Louis, heir to the Grand Duchy of Hesse, and a report on the possibilities that the Austrian archduke Maximilian could be installed as emperor of Mexico, the landowner-loyal and politically conservative newspaper Flyveposten (The Flight Post) on February 14, 1860, brough information on the latest developments in Lourdes: the bishop of Tarbes had now reached a conclusion. He was of the opinion that Bernadette Soubirous’s visions were true. In other words, the “Immaculate Conception” had “really” shown herself in the grotto “no less than eighteen times.” The anonymous author lets us know, however, that the bishop acknowledged that this conclusion will ultimately have to be assessed by the pope.

In the following years, up until after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1871, mentions of Lourdes in Danish newspapers were very sparse, if not entirely absent. The year 1872, however, represented a boom (Figure 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4

Occurrences of “Lourdes” in Danish newspapers 1858–1914 relative to the number of newspapers printed. Author’s calculations

Citation: Numen 70, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/15685276-12341675

Figure 5
Figure 5

Total number of occurrences of “Lourdes” in Danish newspapers 1858–1914. Author’s calculations

Citation: Numen 70, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/15685276-12341675

The interest in Lourdes was not overwhelming, it must be stressed. In 1872, a line of French cities attracted more attention in Danish newspapers. Paris was mentioned 13,931 times, Bordeaux 1,306, and Toulouse 103 times. “Lourdes” appeared sixty-nine times, on a par, for example, with mentions of the river Ganges. This 1872 level was a relative peak in the period in question, relative, that is, to the number of newspapers published. It represented 0.015 percent of the words printed. By comparison, in 1894 “Lourdes” was mentioned in 125 articles, but the number of prints had increased rapidly (Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 42–50) in the twenty-two years in-between, making the 125 instances cover only 0.0065 percent.

The year of 1872 was when the national pilgrimage to Lourdes caught hold of French and European Catholics, but in Denmark the same year also included the early days of the “Modern Breakthrough,” a movement promoting the cultural currents of naturalism and secularism, mainly through public debates of literary trends in Scandinavia. Strikingly, the life of Lourdes in Danish newspapers thus concurred with an increase in negative attention toward religious phenomena in general. This fact leaves its mark on the most frequent type of headlines of stories about Lourdes from 1872 until the mid-1890s, which were variants of “modern superstition” (Moderne Overtro). Curiosity stories of “remarkable churches on wheels” – that is, the Lourdes trains – are likewise a recurrent framing. Prejudice about Catholic tendencies toward corruption were, furthermore, still vibrant. In a jubilee article of July 24, 1883, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Bernadette Soubirous’s visions, the Copenhagen conservative newspaper Dagbladet (The Daily Magazine) (Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 120–123) thus reported on the decision to build a new church on the site. The projected expenses at two million Francs were no problem, the anonymous author smirked, since the mountain creek was flowing with gold. The Danish Lourdes-articles are overflowing with such antimaterialist and anticommercialist disdain. This trend was not dependent on the newspapers’ respective political observance, though the socialist papers tended to be the most explicit. The disdain was particularly evident in the 1870s and 1880s.

In the 1890s a gradual change set in. The massive interest in the superstar author-journalist Émile Zola is striking in this context, even before his famed involvement in the Dreyfus Affair in 1898. In 1894, a line of pieces anticipated the upcoming publication of the novel Lourdes. On Tuesday March 27, 1894, the provincial, liberal paper Svendborg Avis, Sydfyns Tidende (Svendborg Newspaper, News of Southern Funen) (see Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 406) reported:

In as well as outside of France, Zola is believed to aim for a violent attack on the Catholic religion in his new book “Lourdes.” His is not particularly pleased with this misunderstanding, and in a letter to an English friend he has stated that he in no way intends “Lourdes” to be an indictment. Religious subjects will only be dealt with in passing; it tells a love story, a study of the circumstances of life in these remarkable surroundings.

When published, the book received a lot of attention. Lengthy summary-serials were brought in a line of papers. The Seelandic and conservative Slagelse-Posten, Vestsjællands Avis og Avertissementstidende (The Slagelse Post, Commercial Times of West Sealand) was one of them (see Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 308–309). From August to December it published extracts of the book. Further, the interest in Zola encouraged editors to publish information on anything, from his number of sales to the creative process of his writing. For example, Østsjællandsk Folkeblad, Dagblad for Storehedinge-, Fare- og Kjøgekredsen (People’s Press of East Sealand) published a piece on Zola’s methodology (“Zolas Arbejdsmaade”) on May 30, 1894 (Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 267), conveying in a telltale fashion that he made sure to write at least one line a day.

The ambivalent representation of the Lourdes religiosity in Zola’s fiction seems to have rubbed off on the subsequent representations of the religious hotspot in Danish papers. The hitherto antimaterialist tone was now accompanied, if not eclipsed, by a fascination of the phenomenon. That is to say: the pull effects of the religious hotspot became increasingly evident in the years around 1900, at least in the liberal and conservative papers. The socialist papers kept representing the Lourdes phenomenon as an illustration of religious corruption, meaninglessness, and bourgeois-capitalist perversion. The piece “Religion og Reklame” (“Religion and Advertisement”) in Kolding Social-Demokrat, Organ for det Socialdemokratiske Arbejderparti (The Kolding Social Democrat, Medium for the Social Democratic Workers Party) (Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 438–439), June 6, 1899, is particularly illustrative in its understated contempt. An anonymous writer relays the details of an advertisement in the Paris newspaper Aurore for the “registered trademark” of the “Double, hygienic shirt front of Lourdes” (“Det dobbelte, hygiejniske Skortebryst fra Lourdes”). On it, the inventor – a Mr. Emile Lacambra, conductor of a Catholic orchestra in Pau – had the following words embroidered: “Our Lady of Lourdes, miracle making Virgin, protect us! Helper of the sick, heal us!” (“Vor Frue af Lourdes, mirakelgørende Jomfru, beskyt os! Du, de Syges Hjælperske, helbred os!”). Several “Members of the upper clergy” recommended the product. No explicit criticism of religion – such as those uttered by, for example, Karl Marx or Ludwig Feuerbach – is to be found in this newspaper piece. But the irony and dismay at the (perceived) evidence of Lourdes-related religious greed and hypocrisy is insurmountable.

However, as mentioned, in the years around 1900 this critical tone was no longer prevalent, at least not in the conservative and liberal papers’ representation of Lourdes. The socialist reservations continued, but the naturalist and secularist wind of the Modern Breakthrough had softened on the right wing of the political spectrum. An obvious sign that the promotion of naturalism and secularism in Denmark was not a one-way street is the fact that a third-wave pietist revival had been gaining force since the 1860s.11 The most significant and radical exponent of this trend was the so-called Inner Mission (Indre Mission), but the more general call for a heightened attention to the inner, spiritual life and the idea that this life be expressed by devoting oneself to the work of religious (and civil) organizations had gripped large segments of the Danish population, not least the liberals and conservatives (Schjørring 2012: 475–506). Moreover, the public interest in the work of protoethnographers and folklorists such as Evald Tang Kristensen (1843–1929), who wandered through the countryside of Jutland collecting and publishing fairy tales, songs, tunes, poems, riddles, etc. (Rockwell 1982), demonstrated a sense of a collective memory under pressure by industrialized and urbanized ways of living. What had seemed an eclipse of Romanticism and of preoccupations with authentic expressions of national and religious subjects now revealed itself as one (elite) trend among many. And these circumstances left their mark on the representations of Lourdes in the public sphere of Denmark in the early twentieth century.

8 The Pull of the Grotto Hotspot in Danish Public Media

In a staccato prose, the “Danish Huysmans” – renegade naturalist, Catholic convert, and author-journalist Johannes Jørgensen (1866–1956) – reported from his journey around southern Europe. Among a series of destinations, he went to Lourdes in 1909 as a kind of correspondent for the conservative, Copenhagen newspaper Dagens Nyheder (The Daily News) (Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 142–145).12 In 1910 his reports from the Pyrenees were conjoined and published as the traveler’s journal Lourdes. Unlike Huysmans, Jørgensen did not have to close his eyes and imagine what the power of Lourdes could have been had it not been sullied by industrialism, commercialism, and urbanism – by Modernity. To Jørgensen, the energy of the place was unproblematic and tangibly sacred in the Durkheimian sense:

I have been in Lourdes for three days, and it feels as though I have been here forever. I have come from Italy – I have spent three weeks in Assisi, Sienna, Florence, seen a lot, experienced a lot, participated in a lot – but it feels like ages ago. Lourdes has its own strong air – an atmosphere of the supernatural, that makes one forget, makes everything else fade in the distance and seem insignificant and unreal.

Jørgensen (1910) 2017: 52

Perhaps a (post-)Protestant gaze is at play here? One that zooms in on the lived religion, the pilgrimage, of the “exotic” Catholics and blurring the commercial aspects of the activities. This is a gaze that convinced Jørgensen, the Catholic convert, that the Lourdes practices were signs of a vibrant, ardent, and authentic religiosity – of a continued “medieval faith.” Here, in a denominational alterity, rituals held more power and faith was stronger than in his spiritually bleak homeland, Jørgensen felt. This analysis runs along the lines of the dynamics described by the Danish scholar of religion Jesper Sørensen (2007). As Sørensen points out, the perceived efficacity of a given ritual tends to be strengthened by desymbolization and “underdetermination.” That is, exotic or unfamiliar signs and ritual practices “seem to be ascribed extraordinary power” (Sørensen 2007: 193) when compared to practices that are well known. In any case, Jørgensen the Danish Catholic convert kept stressing that one can expect extraordinary events in Lourdes. In fact, he concluded, this is “the city of miracles where people wrestle like Jacob with the angel: The pinnacle battle of faith: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’” (56).

It was not only for Johannes Jørgensen that Lourdes served as an illustration of Catholic enchantment. This trope is traceable in Danish newspapers throughout the first decade of the 1900s. By then, commercial disdain had been replaced by fascination. To some, the attraction was straightforwardly sensational. As mentioned, the holy site was put on visual display and adapted for the emerging cinematic technology in France in the 1890s. Ten years later there were cinemas in the provincial towns of Denmark. In the years around 1910, many of them offered glimpses of Lourdes, as was the case at the Kosmorama in the regional center of Viborg, Jutland. On Friday April 15, 1910, the Kosmorama’s main selling point in an advertisement in the paper Viborg Stifts-Tidende (Viborg Diocese News) (Søllinge and Thomensen 1989: 556) was a “Glorious picture of nature” showing Lourdes. Outranking the comical films The Gentleman Thief, The Forester’s Wedding Night, and the drama Fatal Love, Lourdes was the main attraction.

To the anonymous author of an illustrated piece printed on July 31, 1909, in the provincial newspaper of Randers Dagblad og Folketidende (Randers Daily Mail and People’s Press) – a moderately liberal paper (Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 493–494) – the wonderous spring water of Lourdes evoked cultural memories. “Surely there are still old people in Denmark,” the writer conjectured, who remember bringing the sick to a given holy spring in their youth, and possibly some of them have even experienced the sick being cured. But for the younger generations this is an unfamiliar tradition, for “each one of our springs has lost its miraculous power” (p. 245).

Had the columnist been versed in Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger’s terminology, he might had continued: “Each of our springs has lost its miraculous power, each of our hotspots has turned cold” (cf. Fibiger, this issue). One of these springs could have been the so-called Helenekilde at Tisvilde in the northern part of Seeland. On Sunday September 21, 1913, readers of the Berlingske politiske og Avertissements-Tidende (The Berling Political and Commercial Newspaper) were reminded of the legend of the young girl Helene buried at the Tisvilde coastline causing a holy well to spring: “This spring was, as is well-known, ascribed with healing powers along the lines of those ascribed to the famous spring at Lourdes in the south of France” (p. 469). Such anticipations of Max Weber’s theoretical concept of disenchantment (Entzauberung) (Weber [1917] 1992) was echoed in a string of similar stories.13 Weber was in agreement with the nostalgia of his time (Jenkins 2000). The Randers Dagblad og Folketidende piece (July 31, 1909) does not, however, give in to a sense of nostalgia or dwell on a cultural experience of loss. On the contrary, it cheerfully redirects the attention of the reader to consider that the disenchanted situation in Denmark is exceptional. That around the world there are still various enchanted areas; the Pyrenees is one of them. Each year “pilgrims from every Catholic country travel in great numbers” (p. 245) to Lourdes and the wonderous spring there. As one can tell from the article’s illustrations, they come for a reason. In one of the pictures, one sees a long line of crutches hanging on the wall; these have been hung there by people who, due to their strong faith, have been miraculously cured. The other picture shows a young Spanish girl who has just regained her eyesight and, overwhelmed by the light, is led by her relatives. She rejoices at her recovery of the privilege of vision.

Due “to their strong faith.” These are revealing words echoing the work of Jean-Martin Charcot and the suggestion-discussion dominating French intellectuals’ representations of religion in general and Lourdes in particular. In Randers Dagblad og Folketidende, the Lourdes phenomena are not sought to be revealed as a sham; they are accepted as real – a result of an exotic, intact enchantment rooted in a vibrant faith.

9 Closing Remarks on the Commercialism of Religious Hotspots

The interest in Catholics’ exotic hotspot-flocking grew ever stronger in Danish newspapers and fiction around 1900. To a large extent, the contempt for the tourist, mass-culture features, and for the “simulacra nature” (cf. Baudrillard 1981) of the Lourdes pilgrimage, so prevalent among French intellectuals, freethinking and religious alike, was gradually dropped. In France, even self-professed guardians of the Catholic faith felt that the blatant commercial elements of the Lourdes shrine tainted its religious authenticity. This was not the case in Denmark. In France, the Lourdes shrine was criticized for integrating the conditions of modernity, and this was deemed a debasing integration. In Denmark, it came to represent the “survival” of an enchanted past.

In the condemnation of the commercial-cum-modern elements of Lourdes lies the potential for a theoretical consideration relevant to the scope of this special issue. In fact, this insider-level judgment poses ethic-level questions: Are the commercial elements of the Lourdes hotspot truly modern? Are they to be understood as an originally modern product based on industrialization, mass media (printing) technology, and an expanding railway infrastructure? The works of a variety of scholars, such as Peter Brown (2015b), suggest that this is not the case. According to them, commerce and religion became intrinsically intertwined in the Bronze Age city-state cultures. City-states relied on pilgrimage commerce for their wealth and expenditure. The argument that I am trying to make is that the hotspot temple and the market constituted two faces of the same coin in “archaic” religiosity. So, the idea of decoupling thoughts on resource distribution from ontological-religious considerations is anachronistic when dealing with cultures predating the (late) Axial Age. And even beyond that period, antimaterialist, world-denying, ascetic tendencies appealed primarily to minorities. The majority of the evolving Christian cultures remained archaic, world-confirming materialists (Lundager Jensen 2016). The innate “embarrassment of materiality” (cf. Schama 2004; Brown 2015), running deep with the axial current in the river of Christianity, was thus ideologically (if not practically) guiding the elite. But for the lived religion of the vast majority of people, things and places – as well as the consumption and distribution of these – continued to be a central part of the religious expressive repertoire. In that sense, Lourdes is not a quintessentially modern shrine. The individual steps in the rise of it might be. But the permeation of the market with the hotspot and vice versa is as old as urban culture.


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  • Zola, Émile. (1894) 2009. Lourdes.


Pontoppidan 1895: 201. This and the following translations from Danish are my own.


For example, in August 1894, Henrik Pontoppidan was mentioned in the conservative Copenhagen paper Berlingske Tidende as an author who “when it comes to religion has made just as severe trespasses as Zola” (quoted in Søllinge and Thomsen 1989: 100–104).


Tweaking the well-known terminology of migration studies, I am thus interested in the factors that pull people toward Lourdes and the factors that push them away; what lures and attracts as well as what deters and repels.


For an introduction to Catholicism in France during and after the Revolution, see Aston 2000. Weber 1976: 339–374 is also valuable in this context.


This dogma concerns the perception that has flourished in Christian circles since late antiquity, namely, that the Virgin Mary, in spite of her biological conception, was preserved from the stain of original sin. However, this view was not endorsed by the pope until 1854 (cf. Warner 2003: 241–260). An English translation of an important excerpt from the 1854 encyclical reads as follows: “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” The text can be accessed at


The letter has been reprinted in the Latin original and in an English translation in the English translation of Lassere’s novel.


For a description of the linguistically greatly varied landscape in France up until the end of the nineteenth century – a diversity that hampered the centralization efforts of successive political administrations – see Weber 1976: 67–94.


Le Bon was not alone. Others before and after him attempted to uncover the vital importance of physical crowds for understanding society and the individual. Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904) and Hippolyte Taine (1828–1893) are two obvious examples, among many, although it appears a valid opinion, as J. S. McClelland says, that one must look beyond France and back to Plato to find the origins of such considerations (McClelland 2010).


Too cheerful, too pretty, too kitsch – or too cute? Following Sianne Ngai’s reframing of Karl Marx’s understanding of the alluring, fetish dynamics of consumer culture, one might see Bloy’s critique as an anticipation of the “soft” aesthetics of twentieth-century mass culture. Ngai combines Marx with the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard in her focus on cuteness as one among three dominating aesthetic categories of (post)modernity – the other two being the zany and the interesting (2012).


This medievalist backdrop in evaluations of what was conceived as authentically religious was in no way unique to these Catholic authors. Figurehead of French Romanticism, François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848), paved the way in France for such logics. Particularly his monograph Génie du Christianisme ([1802] 1828) and his (post-Revolutionary) description of the “Christian spirit and beauty,” pays tribute to medieval-Gothic, popular, rural religious beliefs prominent in the 1800s. For early French medievalism, see Glencross 2000.


By Pietism I understand any religious movement that spurs on its members to establish an intimate, emotionally intense, individual relationship with a given god, often with ascetic practices as a characteristic trait. Thus, I implicitly propose to broaden the term Pietism to include more than the specific northern European religious movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to which it originally refers. In doing so, I follow the Danish scholar of religion Hans J. Lundager Jensen (2021: 207–211). On the religious revivals in early nineteenth-century Denmark, see Pontoppidan Thyssen 1964.


The obvious biographical parallel between Jørgensen and Huysmans was no coincidence. Jørgensen was inspired by the French writer and wrote a biographical essay in his honor published in 1908, a year after Huysmans’s death and the year before Jørgensen went to Lourdes.


Or, more precisely, this is the tabloid reverberation of the German poet Friedrich Schiller’s (1759–1805) lamentations over the disenchantment of nature (Entgötterte Natur!) in his famous 1788 poem “The Gods of Greece” (“Die Götter Greichenlandes”) ([1788] 2013) which inspired Weber.

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