Ted Harrison

Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age

Review by Maria Smilios, 2002

Harrison, Ted. Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

According to the account in Ted Harrison’s book Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age, in 1222 “a man [was] imprisoned after claiming that he carried on his body the five wounds of crucifixion.” The man’s marks were quickly deemed by authorities to be “self-inflicted” and thus inauthentic. Two years later, the great Christian saint, Francis of Assisi, while engaged in prayer on Mt. Alvernia, was to become the second recipient of the five wounds; his were to become the first authentically recorded marks in Christian history. Francis seemed to set a precedent, and in the century preceding his death “more than twenty cases were reported.” By the 19th century hundreds of individuals (90% women) ranging from the extremely pious to the not-so-pious were to claim that they too had received Christ’s wounds. But with the advancement of the medical sciences, particularly psychology, a new light was to be cast upon the study of stigmata—one that would reach back to the annals of Christian history and reexamine the recorded cases in the hopes of better understanding present day cases.

In his book, Harrison focuses on an objective investigation of the phenomenon conducted through a multi-dimensional lens, which incorporates psychology, sociology, demographics, history, and theology. However, this is not a close critique of stigmata but rather a cogent general overview, with sufficient sources. Harrison is not particularly interested in creating categories or examining how the phenomenon of stigmata fits into already existing methodologies; rather, his concern resides in how stigmata are perceived (and received) as an experiential religious phenomenon. This becomes evident from the outset, where Harrison begins his inquiry not from a historical perspective, but rather from a medical one. The first chapter serves as a framework to introduce and elucidate some of the major medical explanations that are currently being considered as possible causes for stigmata: psychosomatism, autohypnosis, personality-driven disorder, and a particular form of schizophrenia (where one self-inflicts wounds). With the backdrop in place, Harrison enters into a brief historical perspective (more for context than for historical grounding), where he glosses some of the more famous cases (St. Francis, St. Catherine of Sienna, Anne Catherine Emmerich) before moving into his primary focus, present-day stigmatics. In the ensuing chapters we travel around the globe meeting men, women, and a child, from a variety of religious backgrounds (Baptist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, etc.) and hear in their own words the testimony of how and when this experience transpired and the socio-religious consequences of living with it.

The book is divided into eight chapters, all of which follow a similar pattern: a brief overview of the particular case, the actual case, a theological perspective, a counter-perspective (one that attempts to rationalize the occurrence), and a conclusion, which, incidentally, is not a tidy paragraph presenting an answer to the issue at hand. If anything, Harrison refrains from giving his opinion. Such a position is not only beneficial to readers, as they are left to arrive at their own conclusions, but, moreover, it allows Harrison to present simultaneously a variety of perspectives, all of which in some way have impacted this phenomenon. It should be noted that Harrison is not of the academy and his expertise comes from on-the-job experience—he was a religious correspondent for the BBC. Therefore, Stigmata is not your classic scholarly text (replete with bibliographies and footnotes). However, this is not to suggest that the book is devoid of scholarship—Harrison’s research is evident. He simply cuts through the dense theoretical aspects, which often times plague other texts, and presents bare-bone facts in a language that is accessible to all. Overall, Stigmata is not a book that gives concrete and definitive answers but instead provokes thought by inspiring curiosity about a phenomena that has fascinated and mystified for over 700 years.