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Anthropology of CatholicismA Reader$
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Kristin Norget, Valentina Napolitano, and Maya Mayblin

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780520288423

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520288423.001.0001

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Excerpt from “St Besse: A Study of an Alpine Cult”

Excerpt from “St Besse: A Study of an Alpine Cult”

Chapter:
(p.33) 1 Excerpt from “St Besse: A Study of an Alpine Cult”
Source:
Anthropology of Catholicism
Author(s):

Robert Hertz

Publisher:
University of California Press
DOI:10.1525/california/9780520288423.003.0002

The works of French sociologist Robert Hertz (1881–1915) are now staple readings in general anthropology. This study of the cult of a saint in the Italian Alps is lesser known than Hertz’s celebrated essay on the symbolism of death and sin, “Death and the Right Hand” (1907), yet it remains a model of classic ethnography. Hertz was raised in a devout Parisian Jewish family, studied at the École Normale Supérieure under Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, and later became a critical member of the famous Année Sociologique group. The influence of the Année—its concern with theoretically driven, detailed, holistic, and integrative analyses of social phenomena—can be seen in his essay “Saint Besse: Étude d’un culte alpestre” (first published in 1913 in the French Revue de l’Histoire des Religions and translated into English in 1988).1 The essay is a painstaking, eloquent ethnohistory, locating Saint Besse intimately in divergent paths of regional history and local tradition, where Saint Besse’s shrine in a rocky Alpine overhang is, quite literally, embedded in the landscape. The essay portrays beautifully the independent spirit of popular Catholicism, especially in the flexibility of the hagiography of Saint Besse, which allows each community—whether mountain peasants or village dwellers, even church authorities—to lay claim to the saint through the qualities he is seen to manifest: the courage of a soldier, the moral stature of a bishop, and the devotion of a pious shepherd. The work is methodologically unorthodox for a Durkheimian, for Hertz not only draws on oral and archival sources, popular, local, and ecclesiastical traditions, but also has left his Parisian armchair for direct, “participant observation” in the field. In the Italian Alps, as elsewhere, a vibrant popular Catholicism evolves from pagan, telluric sources, sometimes articulating with official Catholicism, sometimes not. In typically Durkheimian fashion, Hertz describes the tremendous power of Saint Besse to knit together diverse communities of people morally and physically through collective religious devotion. In Hertz’s focus on Saint Besse as a material source and mediator of social identity we can read this work as a precursor to many other great ethnographies on Catholic saints (popular and more official), whether in Europe, Latin America, or elsewhere. But we can also read in the essay the political and moral vision of a socialist, activist—and Jewish—scholar who saw in a popular rural Catholic saint cult the vitality of community life that he might have seen as missing in his own social milieu of pre–World War I France.

Keywords:   St Besse, Robert Hertz, Pilgrimage, Saints cult, Ethnohistory, Popular Devotion, Catholic Europe

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