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Lourdes
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Ruth Harris is Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at New College, Oxford.

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This is a deftly balanced history of religious pilgrimage to the small town of Lourdes in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Harris crafts a book that simultaneously provides a historical context of the pilgrimage for religious readers and constructs an interpretive model for nonbelievers that will enable them to sympathize with the appeal of the tradition rather than dismiss it as ignorant superstition. Lourdes became the focal point for pilgrimage by Catholic followers of the Virgin Mary after a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous began having visions of a figure (who identified herself as the Immaculate Conception) in a grotto in 1858. Harris, a historian at Oxford University (Murders and Madness: Medicine, Law, and Society in the Fin de SiŠcle), accomplishes her goal of respecting the religious tradition of the site while offering a dense social history of what appears to be a cultural paradoxÄthe growing popularity of the shrine during periods of rapid secularizationÄby contextualizing the pilgrimage within the broader histories of the French nation, the Catholic church and the worldwide Marianist movement. One of the more interesting features she analyzes is the constant interplay between strong religious women and male authority figures throughout the history of the increasing popularity of the shrine. Harris also explores the interdependent relationship between positivistic science and the spirituality represented by the grotto, and she challenges the notion that the two remain in clear and perpetual opposition. A deceptively easy read, this is in fact a complex and sensitive history that refuses to dehumanize religious believers. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

"A remarkable book. . . beautifully written . . . Harris never forgets the human dimension to this complex story". -- Chicago Tribune

A tutor in modern history at New College, Oxford and author of Murders and Madness: Medicine, Law, and Society in the Fin de Si`ecle, Harris has written a fascinating book. Here, she recounts the history of Lourdes, a French town that has been an important pilgrimage site since 1858, when Bernadette Soubirous claimed she saw the Virgin Mary there. What distinguishes this book (in addition to Harris's being Jewish and secular) is her careful historicization of Lourdes's rise as a pilgrimage spot in the context of late 19th-century rationalism and anticlericalism, and the Third Republic's inability to suppress off-shoot religious movements. Divided into two parts, the book focuses first on the Lourdes of the Apparitions and second on the transformation of the town into the Lourdes of Pilgrimage. Harris expertly weaves together histories of the peasant initiative, the subsequent women's movement, the role of aristocracy and clergy, and the transformation of the pilgrimage into a carefully regulated, pan-Catholic event. Highly recommended.ÄCarolyn M. Craft, Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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