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Consuming Visions

Mass Culture and the Lourdes Shrine

Plastic Madonnas, packaged holy tours, and biblical theme parks can arouse discomfort, laughter, and even revulsion in religious believers and nonbelievers alike. Scholars, too, often see the intermingling of religion and commerce as a corruption of true spirituality. Suzanne K. Kaufman challenges these assumptions in her examination of the Lourdes pilgrimage in late nineteenth-century France.Consuming Visions offers new ways to interpret material forms of worship, female piety, and modern commercial culture. Kaufman argues that the melding of traditional pilgrimage activities with a newly developing mass culture produced fresh expressions of popular faith. For the devout women of humble origins who flocked to the shrine, this intensely exciting commercialized worship offered unprecedented opportunities to connect with the sacred and express their faith in God.New devotional activities at Lourdes transformed the act of pilgrimage: the train became a moving chapel, and popular entertainments such as wax museums offered vivid recreations of visionary events. Using the press and the strategies of a new advertising industry to bring a mass audience to Lourdes, Church authorities remade centuries-old practices of miraculous healing into a modern public spectacle. These innovations made Lourdes one of the most visited holy sites in Catholic Europe.Yet mass pilgrimage also created problems. The development of Lourdes, while making religious practice more democratically accessible, touched off fierce conflicts over the rituals and entertainments provided by the shrine. These conflicts between believers and secularists played out in press scandals across the European continent. By taking the shrine seriously as a site of mass culture, Kaufman not only breaks down the opposition between sacred and profane but also deepens our understanding of commercialized religion as a fundamental feature of modernity itself.

Author Information

KaufmanSuzanne K.:

Suzanne K. Kaufman is Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago.


Sarah A. Curtis:

"Breaks new ground for the study of Lourdes and French religious history.... For historians looking to understand the Lourdes phenomenon within the context of mass culture in fin-de-siècle France..., this book provides an insightful and persuasive argument for the centrality of Lourdes to the development of modern France. Historians of religion can only rejoice that their objects of interest have finally gone mainstream."

James R. Lehning, The University of Utah:

"Suzanne K. Kaufman shows how commercialization was a central part of the Lourdes shrine and its transformation into the most popular Catholic pilgrimage site in Europe, the cradle of a modern form of religiosity, and a source of profound concern about the proper relationship between religious piety and the commercial enterprises at the shrine. The activities at Lourdes undercut traditional forms of piety, allowing a more democratized experience in which the agency of pilgrims and miraculous subjects created a more popular form of religiosity. Consuming Visions provides exciting insights into the reformulation of French political and popular culture in the late nineteenth century and the ways in which religion, commerce, gender, and democratization interacted to produce a specific version of the transition to modernity in late nineteenth-century France."

Whitney Walton, Purdue University:

"This well-researched and engagingly written book argues that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Lourdes shrine modernized religious devotion through mass transportation, advertising, sensationalized medical debates, and the mass press, but not at the expense of true faith. Suzanne K. Kaufman's original insight is that modernization actually created exciting and innovative devotional practices. Consuming Visions thus offers a new perspective on the Catholic and anticlerical conflict of the early French Third Republic. Indeed, this book represents a new way of thinking about faith and modernity."

Katrin Schultheiss:

"This is a sophisticated, erudite, and provocative study of one of the world's most enduringly popular modern sites of Christian worship. In arguing for the transformative character of the shrine's amalgamation of spirituality and commerce, Kaufman offers a compelling explanation for its longevity and for the ever-growing market for mass-produced religious objects even today. Refusing to condescend to her subjects, in particular the thousands of desperate women who made their often painful way to the shrine, Kaufman has produced an important book that will be of great interest not just to historians of France but to anyone interested in the role of religion in the modern world."

Mark Mossa:

"An engaging entrée into the ways in which the re-appropriated Traditions' and popular religiosity that the shrine spawned challenged the growing secularism and anti-clericalism of fin-de-siècle France.... Kaufman is especially good at showing how the Lourdes medical bureau, charged with verifying cures, was a particularly inspired and effective means of engaging the modern culture.... Kaufman also explores well the complicated role women played in the shrine's growth.... The experience of Lourdes chronicled by Kaufman might hold answers for our own day as we struggle to rediscover our traditions in the light of postmodern realities."

Mary L. Roberts, University of Wisconsin–Madison:

"This is a truly outstanding book, strongly argued yet highly readable, about the 'commercial culture' that developed at the shrine in Lourdes in the nineteenth century. It is also impressively researched: Suzanne K. Kaufman has mastered a massive body of archival, periodical, and historiographical literatures and has an excellent grasp on cultural theory, particularly that pertaining to commodity culture."

Leigh E. Schmidt, Princeton University:

"In Consuming Visions, Suzanne K. Kaufman deftly explores the crowded cultural intersection that produces modern forms of pilgrimage, healing, and devotion: commerce, spectacle, popular media, tourism, and mass consumption. Making good use of religious and cultural histories of the United States—where the merchandising of faith has long been viewed as a wondrous sign of creative adaptation to religious disestablishment—Kaufman bathes the Lourdes shrine in a new light."

Audience: General/trade;