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The Mal de Morzine

R. Harris, ‘Possession on the Borders: The ‘Mal de Morzine” in Nineteenth Century France’, The Journal of Modern History 69 (1997), 451-478.

In 1857 a series of psychic torments and bodily seizures erupted in the town of Morzine. The crisis began when a young girl claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary, however this Marian encounter was quickly dismissed as possession. By the end of 1862 around two hundred women were possessed. The villagers sought to cure the town through magic, magnetism and pilgrimage, however no of these methods worked.

In 1862 Adolphe Constans, a Parisian alienist, was sent by the state to repress the outbreak. He saw the mal as a traditional pathological religious experience, which was instigated by the town’s anachronistic lifestyle in a modernising and secularising world.  He sought to cure the town through modern positivism, placing women in hospitals. But also introduced education morale and administration. He built a new imperial road into the town that revitalised the town’s economy and connections with the outside world. In addition, he founded music societies and a library in order to provide some ‘enlightened’ entertainment. 

Historiography

Jaqueline Carroy and Laurence Marie have argued that the mal de Morzine was a case of the coercive secularisation of peasant society, arguing that the claims of witchcraft and possessions by the village women were an ‘anti-voice’ that they used to try and resist the secularisation and modernisation of their traditional world. 

However, Ruth Harris argues that the mal was the product of a changing and developing peasant culture that was torn between a desire for modernisation and the guilt over the loss of the village’s spiritual and traditional integrity.

Harris argues that the women of the mal had two aims:

1.    The maintenance and reinstitution of the collective spiritual and social solidarity of the village.

2.    The revitalisation of village morality through greater mobility and openness to the outside world.

It was this divergent desires resulted in psychic and physical torment.

The Loss of Traditional Peasant Culture

The changing social and economic demographic of France crippled the village of Morzine, and destroyed all the traditional practices that the village had historically relied on. Their entire social and psychic worlds were turned upside down.Increasingly the male population was forced to immigrate to neighbouring cities to find work in order to sustain its population. The female population were left to maintain the village, having to undertake all of the agricultural and domestic work on their own. Destroying traditional gender roles, whilst also places considerable stress on the womenfolk of the village.Moreover, emigration broke the society’s division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that had traditionally structure the villager’s psychic and social worlds.

Desire for Modernisation

The women’s possession was an act of defiance against the out-dated and oppressive village lifestyle.The devils that possessed women refused to eat traditional village food, and instead demanding expensive urban luxuries such as black coffee and chocolates. If families protested against these demands the women would be crippled by violent convulsions.The women insisted that they could only by cured outside of the town’s borders, forcing their families to take them abroad to seek a cure. Thus allowing women the luxury of travel and the opportunity for adventure, which had previously been reserved only for men.But also this insistence on travel voice the opinion that their menfolk were ‘not good enough’ to alleviate the mal. A group six of women travelled to be healed by mesmerist Charles Lafontaine, thus demonstrating their faith in foreigners. Moreover, demonstrating their willingness to try new modern healing methods and their knowledge of the latest therapeutic fashions.Through their possessions women were able to transgress the moral and gender order of the community without being held responsible.

But also the women felt guilty for rejecting their traditional culture, and suffered for their desires. The rebellion took on a physical compulsive form that was as much self-destructive as it was subversive.The women suffered from stomach pains, feelings of suffocation and seizures. In many ways their behaviour was destructive to the town, forcing families to look after their sick and travel and thus abandoning work. 

In fact, it could be argued that the mal was also characterised by a desire to retain traditional culture.The possessions were influenced by the religious culture that structured the villager’s entire lives. They were obsessed by ideas of damnation, sin and guilt, but also influenced by the Counter-Reformation that had instilled ideas of magic and sorcery. The first cases of the mal were quickly claimed to be instances of possession, rather than Marian encounters. The girls frightened villagers with acrobatic contortions, physical power, and ability to speak in foreign tongues. Powerful men who had recently benefitted from recent town’s recent annexation from France were accused of witchcraft. These men were targeted because they were thought to have disrupted the spiritual and economic balance of the community.

Manipulation of the French State

The French state took advantage of the disorder to instate a new policy of secularisation and administration. They sent in Constans who was to restore order, however the village itself never sanctioned his authority or vision.

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