New York Times Book Review
Lourdesby Ruth Harris
Lourdes was at the very centre of nineteenth century debates on religion, science and medicine. Both the Church and secularists championed the 'miracle' town as crucial in shaping how society should think about the mind, body and spirit. Since the ‘visions’ of Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 transformed the quiet Pyrenean town into an international tourist
Lourdes was at the very centre of nineteenth century debates on religion, science and medicine. Both the Church and secularists championed the 'miracle' town as crucial in shaping how society should think about the mind, body and spirit. Since the ‘visions’ of Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 transformed the quiet Pyrenean town into an international tourist and pilgrimage destination, it has been a site for controversy. In her well-crafted and carefully researched book, Harris deftly places Lourdes and its attendant spiritual movement firmly at the centre of French history and shows its significance in the country’s development.
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Town, Region, Family
For nearly all writers Lourdes was defined by its location: a town at the edge of the country, nestling in the valleys of the Pyrenees, scarcely affected by the buffeting of the nineteenth century. For Lasserre, this gave the region a romantic tinge, and he transformed it into the embodiment of a world of mountain stoicism maintained by religion and tradition. Louis Veuillot, a Catholic polemicist and political firebrand who was later of critical importance for the shrine, portrayed Lourdes as the essence of French provincial society, not utterly unenlightened but scarcely on the cutting edge of either fashion or progress:
a little town in the Hautes-Pyrénées, very old, passed through rather than known ... a small market town, neither sleepy nor lacking in what people these days call 'enlightenment' ... There are large houses, fine inns, cafés, a [literary] circle with its supply of newspapers ... a newspaper, Le Lavedan, the paper for the Argelès Arrondissement, politically moderate, but reluctant to credit anything not vouched for by the police commissioner and authorized by the sub-prefect.
He saw Lourdes almost as a theatre set, waiting for the drama to begin, a view that, one hundred years later, Laurentin unwittingly reinforced by likening it to Camus's Oran before the plague: the image is of people living almost in a time-warp, their humdrum lives soon to be transformed utterly by momentous events. Though a century apart, both subscribe in various degrees to a vision of stasisconjured up by pyrénéisme, that most romantic of nineteenth-century movements, which mystified the hard, bleak life of the mountains, made its very distance from the cosmopolitanism of Paris into its greatest virtue and ignored the ever deteriorating economic conditions of the first half of the century. The Virgin, it was often argued, decided to appear to Bernadette because she somehow represented a world uncontaminated by materialism and secularism, and it is this image of purity in poverty that almost all sympathetic writers sooner or later employ.
Viewed from Paris, Lourdes did indeed seem to be little more than a small speck on the edge of the map of France. Even getting to it was difficult until the coming of the railways: Bordeaux to Bagnères-de-Bigorre took at least thirty-two hours by coach, and one traveller claimed after the experience that Dante should have used the vehicle in his inferno to punish sinners. What the voyager saw when he or she arrived was, above all, the mountains, the forbidding, rugged peaks that tower above the Pyrenean piedmont where Lourdes nestles between Tarbes to the north and Argelès to the south. Lourdes itself was less than remarkable, its most prominent feature the medieval fortress, the traditional seat of the counts of Bigorre, which in 1858 quartered idle soldiers. To the west of this monument was the Gave, which powered the mills, provided the town's water and washed up the debris that Bernadette was collecting on the first day of the apparition cycle.
To the east of the fortress was the town itself, which contained little to catch the eye of even the diligent tourist. The main road was the rue Saint-Pierre, which ran from north to south and was dominated by a small cluster of public buildingsthe parish church, the town hall and police station all of which faced the maison Cénac, where Jacomet and Estrade lived. At the southern end it opened on to the place Marcadal, which contained the main café frequented by the notables. On the northern edge of the town, going towards Tarbes, was the Hospice-Ecole des Surs de Nevers, where Bernadette took her catechism lessons and later lived until she left for the mother-house in Nevers (see illus, 1).
Although a market town essential for the local economy, Lourdes had not made many advances in the first part of the century and remained a 'parish of the second class', even though it had five clergymen Abbé Peyramale, three vicars and Abbé Pomian, Bernadette's confessor. Above all, it had lost out to Argelès in the competition to be the seat of the sub-prefect, an administrative function that would have increased its prominence. Moreover, it had no water supply suitable for developing a spa: instead, the Lourdais had to watch Cauterets and Bagnères grow prosperous on this increasingly lucrative business.
The importance of the town was greater than it appeared, however, for its significance had always lain in its position at the intersection of seven different valleys of the Lavedan indeed, this was the reason the fortress had been built in the Middle Ages. By the nineteenth its location made it a natural stopping-point for travellers, and by mid century these were becoming numerous. Those who came to the Pyrenees sought the sublime in the mountains and the exotic in the population, drawn by the descriptions of ethnographers and literary luminaries like Vigny, Sand, Baudelaire and Flaubert. The locals, with their infinitely various local costumes and languages, were deemed the 'Indians' of France and colourfully represented as the indigenous peoples of an unadulterated race.
Such descriptions, which tended to depend on a contrast with northern urban centres, disguised the region's long involvement in wider national and international currents and made it seem far more isolated than was actually the case. The chateau itself was a brooding reminder of Lourdes's often bloody and tumultuous past. The town had been razed when trying to resist Huguenot armies in the sixteenth century. Between Spanish and French territories and the target of competing secular jurisdictions, the region had known Charlemagne, Simon de Montfort, the Black Prince, Du Guesclin, Jeanne d'Albret and Henri IV. The Revolution forced the town to pay attention to national quarrels, while the Peninsular War under Napoleon sucked the local population into the struggle with Spain.
Even though it missed out on the vogue for 'taking the waters', Lourdes drew some benefit from the growth in tourism, which was one of the few new activities with the potential to replace trades, such as metallurgy or textiles, that were being squeezed by new industrial processes. None the less, in 1856 it had a population of no more than 4,000 people, of whom 120 were notables men in the liberal professions, rentiers, physicians and so on with a similar number of small tradesmen. The largest section of the population consisted of the manual workers the shepherds, farmers, millers and forestry workers, as well as the quarrymen who exploited the marble, stone and slate found in the mountains; their accidents and injuries were to figure in the earliest miracle tales of the Grotto. Finally, at the bottom of the social hierarchy were the day workers, men with no fixed employment who sought a crust from whatever was going. François Soubirous, Bernadette's father, belonged to this group.
For Lourdais such as the Soubirous, life was a harsh struggle to keep body and spirit together, as the Pyrenean economy collapsed under pressure from agricultural scarcity and disease mainly brought on by a 40 per cent increase in population between 1801 and 1846. The land produced wheat and corn as well as rye and potatoes, but cultivable fields were scarce and increasingly subdivided; and, while sheep and cows were pastured on common land or in the forests in the good months, shepherds found it ever more difficult to provide the feed their animals needed to survive the winter. It was precisely at this moment that common pasturage was subdivided or sold, and the forests the source of firewood and building materials were subjected to tighter controls; the importance of this for the story of the apparitions will appear later on.
Bernadette's parents' generation was the worst affected: there were food shortages twice a decade until 1850, and the crisis between 1853 and 1857, just before the apparitions, pushed grain prices to their highest point in half a century. The result was disease: diet-related illnesses such as goitre, chest complaints, eye diseases and pellagra, as well as the cholera epidemic of the 1850s, which struck Bernadette and Lourdes. The department of the Hautes-Pyrénées was notable for the poor quality of its military recruits, the ailing and diseased soldiers a testimony to the ill-health of the population in general. It is not perhaps surprising that under such circumstances the poor welcomed a miraculous fountain that might ease their pain.
The plight of the Soubirous family illustrates the cycle of indebtedness, dispossession, malnutrition and disease that afflicted so many. They were forced first to leave two mills and reduced to living in the cachot, the old Lourdes prison, picking up what work they could. Bernadette, struck down in 1855 by cholera, became permanently asthmatic and weakened, a perfect example of the impact of epidemics on the fragile health of the poor. The children were the victims of the region's poor diet: one of the boys nibbled the wax from the church candles to fill his empty stomach, while Bernadette was treated by her mother to an occasional slice of wheat bread because she was unable to digest the unpalatable milloc, or mashed corn, which was the staple of the poorest. It was at this stage that her father was arrested for stealing a bag of wheat from an employer.
Rather than existing in a bubble of unchanging stability, therefore, Lourdes and the Pyrenees in general were in the midst of a crisis in the 1850s, and an explosive situation was perhaps averted only by the mass exodus of artisans and smallholders, who generally ignored the attractions of northern France and instead used eighteenth-century BéarnaisBasque links to go to Argentina and Uruguay. The preference indicates one of the defining features of Pyrenean identity: few in the mountain regions had much understanding of the concept of a frontier and they had little sense of being French. That this should be the case was not surprising, for the 1659 treaty of the Pyrenees with Spain had more to do with international relations than with the life of the mountain dwellers; exactly where the boundary ran was not even properly established until after 1853.
As a result the Pyreneans went back and forth as though the Spanish frontier scarcely existed; not only did muleteers, brigands, counterfeiters and shepherds brave the cold and the avalanches, large numbers of agricultural workers and artisans regularly left for months at a time to find work from the French side into Spain in the eighteenth century, the other way round in the nineteenth, for however poor the French Pyreneans were, their neighbours over the mountains were now even poorer. In addition, the boundaries of language bore no relation to those established by statesmen: in the west, Basque dominated on both sides; the peoples of the east spoke Catalan; and in the centre, where Lourdes was situated, a wealth of Béarnais dialects flourished, Gascon languages that made the acquisition of Spanish relatively simple. Bernadette's patois thus linked her to a common Pyrenean heritage even as it marked her off not just from the rest of her nominal country, but from inhabitants of other valleys. There were comical instances of miscomprehension when she recounted the words of the apparition, as speakers of other patois heard a different meaning in the messages.
Not only did Pyreneans have little notion of Frenchness, what sentiments they did have were often hostile, for they had traditionally enjoyed considerable independence in a region in which feudalism had taken hold only superficially and where the hand of the state had never gained a strong grip. Villagers maintained local languages, costumes and customs against the regulating tendencies of bureaucrats well into the second half of the nineteenth century, and disdain for the state found expression in various forms of illegality that were essential to family and community survival. Breaking or rather ignoring the law was virtually the norm; rather than the great and wily contrebandiers of legend, for example, the majority accused of smuggling were the poor, especially women and children, caught carrying salt and other household necessities across the border. The Hautes-Pyrénés were third in national tables for the number of young men who evaded military service, with many encouraged by their families to emigrate rather than to go into the army. It would take the railway link, the sanctuary and republican institutions the ballot box, barracks and schools to confer a truly French identity on a place like Lourdes, and even then local families retained strong links with emigrants to the New World in the same way that Sicilians remained tied to brethren in New York.
The tradition of 'honourable illegality' that led to smuggling and evading military service appears in the history of the shrine when the Lourdais and surrounding villagers defended 'their' Grotto from the officials' overweaning interference. For the Grotto of Massabieille was on common land it was precisely for this reason that Bernadette went there in the first place and was considered part of the collective patrimony of the poor; the apparitions, in this sense, sanctified the conception of collective ownership. This perception of communality mingled the spiritual and economic almost indistinguishably; the quarrymen, for example, would lay a path to enable more people to approach the Grotto and honoured the Virgin by doing the work for free.
At the same time, however, the Lourdais also believed in their right to build the chapel the Virgin had requested, seeing in this divine instruction a dispensation of providence. Like the poor in neighbouring spa towns who saw mineral springs as collective property and sought to live off the tourists, the Lourdais saw the benefits the Grotto might bestow and were keen to establish their right both to protect the site and to exploit its potential. For the Virgin had appeared among them, who were so desperately poor; there was nothing impious in making the best use of her gift. It was, perhaps, out of this original attitude that the mingling of spirituality and commercialism that so dismayed later commentators developed.
The Grotto was in the line of battle because of its proximity to the communal forest, the greatest cause of friction between Pyreneans and the state in the first half of the nineteenth century. Covering a third of the mountains, the forest was crucial for survival providing fuel, building materials and grazing and a new code in 1828 to limit the amount and kind of wood that could be taken was bitterly resented. While the concern of the government was to control the depredations of a growing and starving population, the effect on the poor was devastating. The result in the early 1830s was the War of the Demoiselles, in which Pyrenean men attacked the forest guards who had become their enemies. Dressed in white, the rebels hid their identity by behaving like the demoiselles, or fairies, the dainty denizens of the forest. Light of foot and punishing to those who had wantonly offended the delicate balance between nature and people, the Demoiselles joined the struggle for communal rights to a vision of the supernatural nature of the forest.
Meet the Author
Ruth Harris is Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at New College, Oxford.
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