It's going to be a weird Christmas again.
, we looked at a handful of little-known stories about people who claimed to see the Virgin Mary. These stories weren't the usual visionary treacle designed to please the pious. Instead, I focused on disturbing stories of mass murder, gender confusion and unfettered psychopathology.
Our current tale is of that sort. You won't find it in any book, even though it's quite true.
It's about a truly spectacular outbreak of weirdness which took place near the French village of Savignac-les-Eglises (in the Department of Dordogne) in 1889. At the heart of the tale is a sad, strange, lonely girl named Marie Magontier.
The local church authorities showed hostility to her claims from the beginning, and regional journalistic reports went mostly unnoticed elsewhere. Fortunately, we have a very detailed (albeit flawed) account of the incident written by an esteemed young professor from the University of Paris. His name was Léon Marillier.
He visited the scene, spoke to the claimants, and made a skeptical appraisal:
The newspapers of the district...concerned themselves with these apparitions of the Virgin because it seemed that they might be used as arguments in political and religious controversies. They gave rise to endless discussions between Conservatives and Republicans, between Catholics and Freethinkers; but it hardly occurred to anyone to deal with the matter scientifically.
The same problem bedevils us today: Any debate on a religious controversy tends to devolve into an otiose battle between weltanschauungs, with all parties shouting their opinions without doing much to establish the facts.
Marillier, ever the scientist, always refers to the visions as “hallucinations.” I have to admit that this catch-all term feels lazy, since hallucinations were a poorly understood phenomenon in 1889, and remain so today.
Oddly, all trace of the name “Pontinet” has vanished from maps and the internet record. Marillier says that the closest town is the small rural commune of Savignac-les-Eglises. Using Google Earth to fly over the region, we find a field named Pautinet which exactly matches the description offered in Mariller’s report, down to the ancient overgrown stone wall which runs down the western boundary and into the surrounding forest. (The wall is more visible in an older Google Earth image.) This must be the place.
Marillier offers a striking description of Marie Magontier:
She raised her large black eyes, burning with an ardent fire, and looked at us with a half-smile of her expressive mouth, and an air that was at once bold and frightened... She stood apart, leaning against a dresser, and looked at us with a strange and disturbing expression of mocking hostility. She was barely 12 years old, but in her motions and in her manner of looking and smiling there was a penetrating grace, which was at the same time artless and studied, a sort of unconscious and crafty coquetry. She was still a child, but she was half a woman, with looks which were in turn caressing and forbidding. Her rebellious black hair made a tangle of wild locks upon her head...
American “emo” kids may recognize Marie as a kindred spirit.
Her mother was an unstable servant prone to seeing ghosts; her father was an epileptic. Marie's parentage caused superstitious locals to suspect her of being some sort of "witch child."
After the mother’s death (no cause of death is given), Marie was taken in by relatives who resented her. They tasked her with watching some sheep, which she often took to graze on the field of Pautinet.
While tending her sheep that summer, she saw what modern paranormal researchers would call orbs or “ball of light” phenomena or orbs – glowing spheres flitting through the trees and over the fields. Others saw the same phenomena. People still report seeing such things in this region. (Example
.) (Also see the video here
, which I've embedded at the bottom of this post.)
Marie Magontier had a friend named Margerite Carreau, described as “a fair child, very gentle and timid, but quite ready to answer questions and giving an impression of sincerity and frankness.” She was the next person to report unusual events in Pautinet, although initially all she saw was a shadowy figure – “a vague, ill-defined form, which passes as though wrapped in mist.” These visitations lasted for a week in mid-July of 1889.
Marie Magontier then saw perhaps the strangest version of the Blessed Virgin on record. On July 16, while tending her flock in Pautinet, she sat near a hazel bush that had twined itself around the stones of a crumbling, ancient wall which runs down the western side of the field. Her gaze fixed on a large cranny in the rocks. Marie saw a small black female figure comparable to the mysterious “black virgin” statues found in churches throughout Europe. The dark figure was roughly a foot high.
The black virgin disappeared, replaced by a larger Virgin in white, resembling traditional devotional statues of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. She was flanked by two other unidentified figures.
I would argue that the bizarre details indicate Marie’s honesty. A French child concocting a story about a Marian apparition probably would not speak of a miniaturized black Virgin.
Frightened, Marie ran home. She returned the next day with holy water. The Virgin (sans companions) was still there, as if someone had left a room without flipping a lamp's light switch into the "off" position.
Tossing holy water at the figure, the girl said: “If you are from the devil, go away; if you are from God, speak to me.” The image did not vanish and did not speak.
Marie brought Marguerite Carreau to the niche; she too saw the diminutive Virgin. So did another young friend, Marie Gourvat. Soon, all the other children in the area filed into the field to play “spot the Virgin” -- and many succeeded: “Generally, a little dark figure was seen at first, which grew larger and brighter at the same time.”
As the weeks passed, hundreds of adults visited the spot -- and a number of them also saw the Virgin. The visions, even when simultaneous, were somewhat subjective; witnesses offered slightly varying details. For example, some visionaries reported “lighted candles” on the Virgin’s breasts and shoulders. Two people standing side-by-side might see subtly incongruent visions.
The high point of the sequence occurred on August 11, 1889, when some 1500 people visited Pautinet. There were tents and sausage-sellers and hawkers of the usual religious trinkets.
Unfortunately, Marillier does not tell us how many witnesses saw the Virgin that day. However, he does describe the case of a 14 year-old girl named Marie Roussary who, after a week of no success, finally managed to see the Blessed Mother -- after first going into a convulsive trance reminiscent of the infamous Saint-Medard
episode. The young lady said that the figure appeared to her in a golden chapel.
An adult then seconded the “chapel” motif, while others reported a “Virgin and child” tableau. Witnesses began to spot full-sized apparitions of the Virgin standing away from that niche, although always in and around Pautinet.
Can we explain these reports as examples of pareidolia, the tendency of the mind to ascribe non-random imagery to a random interplay of light and shadow (as occurs when people see figures in clouds or stucco walls)? Marillier, an ultra-skeptical observer who examined the niche, does not mention any accidental rock formation which an imaginative person could have mistaken for a brightly-lit image of the Virgin. He ascribed the sightings to “collective hallucination” (whatever that
may be), not to coincidence or to the misinterpretation of actual, physical visual stimuli. Marillier also noted that, for many witnesses, the glowing vision in the rocks would disappear if the seer looked away from the niche for a few seconds – a factor which argues against the pareidolia explanation.
“If ecclesiastical authority had been lent to it,” writes Marillier, “a new form of devotion would very quickly have been produced.” But the local clergy was hostile, and much of that hostility, it seems, derived from personal assessment of the seers.
Of the initial three, only Marguerite possessed a good reputation – which is to say, she came from a prosperous family. The Curé of Savignac considered Marie Gourvat “a pretentious child, bold and obstinate.” He had an even harsher opinion of Marie Magontier, who was no Bernadette. Although she seemed intelligent, she displayed a tendency toward outlandish pronouncements and difficult behavior.
At one time, the townsfolk had shunned her. Now, she began to hear what Catholics call “locutions” -- or, to use Marillier’s terminology, auditory hallucinations -- which supposedly gave Marie the ability to predict the futures of the villagers who consulted her. In her new role as fortune-teller, Marie Magontier, the perpetual outsider, became a star -- at least for a while.
If Monsieur le Curé detested her, what of it? She decided that she was “more than the priests.” After all, she had spoken to the Virgin and they had not.
She kept apart from the other children, did not play, and was deeply impressed with the mission which she had received. Herself of a lofty piety, she laughed at received religious practices, and broke out into mockery at the peasants because they took their hats off before a crucifix. She would not accept advice or counsel from anyone. She said that she was rich and had no need of money, because she was the friend of the Virgin...
It is plain to me that this haughtiness was actually the desperate self-assertion of an alienated little girl, bereft of her parents and unloved by her guardians. Everyone in town thought that she had “bad blood” – an unforgivable sin. Marillier damned her on the same grounds, though he couched his disdain in the argot of what that era was pleased to call science:
She is no doubt subject to hallucinations; but at the same time she is ill-balanced, and heavily weighted with the burden of heredity. She is the daughter of a father who was epileptic and of a mother who was doubtless insane, and she has the bearing, the character – in a word, all the appearance of one suffering from hereditary degeneration. She is filled, too, with the morbid self-love and the enormous vanity so common among the degenerated.
Although Marillier wrote before Freud published his theories, simple human compassion should have informed him that Marie’s “enormous vanity” was a defense mechanism. Like many scientists of his time, Marillier felt that degeneracy would express itself through physiognomy, and he seems a little disappointed to report that Marie “has no lack of facial symmetry... Her mouth is well-made, her ears properly rimmed, and her face animated and intelligent.”
If Marie’s alleged degeneracy caused her to see things that did not exist, then why did so many others share her visions?
Marillier offered the nonsensical theory that the imagination of the other children might have been stimulated by reading Hoffman. If that
theory has any validity, then today’s youngsters, reared on nonstop fantasy fiction, ought to be seeing apparitions every minute of every day.
It must be remembered, however, that, ordinarily, hallucinations and illusions have a definitely individual character, that they rarely affect several persons at the same time, and that, even when they do, they are generally limited to a small group of persons placed under identical or at any rate very similar conditions of life. Here, on the contrary, peasants and peasant-women, whose minds, I admit, do not differ greatly one from another, who have the same beliefs, the same superstitions, and the same habits of thought, but who are not acquainted with one another and do not live together, experience during a certain period hallucinations which in their general character are very like one another, and in some cases are actually simultaneous hallucinations...
And so on. As Sherlock once said: “Bleat, Watson – unmitigated bleat!”
Marillier here tries to bluff his readers by offering labels in lieu of an explanation. More than 120 years of psychiatry have passed since he wrote, and I’ve seen nothing in the literature of hallucination that covers events like those reported at Savignac-les-Eglises. The vague and unsatisfactory term “power of suggestion” does not address the most obvious question: Why here and not elsewhere?
Many apparition sequences have turned into veritable religious carnivals, yet members of the crowd usually do not experience personalized Marian visions. At Savignac-les-Eglises, they did.
All we can truthfully say is that, for a brief time in the late 19th century, many people entered a field called Pautinet and reported perceptions of the unearthly. Even Professor Marillier admits to feeling a bit “spooked” by the place. That field was a vortex.
If this mystery has a purely psychological solution -- and I suspect that it does -- then let us have the humility to admit that we lack the data for a proper theory of how mass hallucinations arise. We may possess that data in the future; at present, we do not.
The phenomenon seems to have petered out after the grand event in August.
The saddest part of this story may be the way everyone -- including Professor Marillier -- treated Marie Magontier, the child visionary nobody liked.
Marie was a troubled youth undergoing what was – by the standards of her era – an early puberty. Her guardians ignored her. Most others condemned her. But the urbane visitor from Paris managed to win her over:
I then went to her, took her hands, and spoke gently to her, stroking her cheek and her hair, and looking into her eyes. After a short time she came to me of her own accord, and after that she willingly answered all my questions...
Marie started with us for Le Pontinet. She chattered all the way, and would not leave me, keeping close beside me and holding my hand.
Later, Marillier asks: “Had she attached herself to us, and to me in particular, with one of those strange childish affections, sudden and passionate, which sometimes spring up in young minds, when they are uneasy and perturbed like hers?”
Marillier’s report was published in a respected psychological journal with a nationwide distribution. In that report, with all the cold confidence of a fascist pseudoscientist, he portrayed Marie as a hopeless degenerate, doomed by heredity.
Was this report read in Savignac-les-Eglises and environs? Probably. Did Marie learn that her friend from the University of Paris had trashed her in print? Probably.
Imagine how she felt.
Imagine how she was treated.
I have no photos of Marie to show you, and no information about how she fared in later life. She left almost no trace of herself. After visiting several French genealogical sites, I found one reference to a "Marie Margonthier" (slightly different spelling; more or less the same pronunciation) who lived in Dordogne, with the approximate dates of 1875-1925. Although Marillier speaks of a girl who was twelve in 1889, I think that we must be dealing with the same person.
If she died in or around 1925, she outlived young Professor Marillier, whose distinguished career was cut short early in the 20th century. The ship on which he traveled suffered from an unfortunate case of Exploding Engine Syndrome.
Are there any lingering local memories of this strange episode? I don't know, but I'd love to hear from anyone who has traveled (or has plans to travel) through that part of southern France. Please remember that a field which used to be public may now be private property.
Next Christmas, if I'm still around, I may tell you folks another freakish, grotesque, and morbidly depressing true tale of the Virgin Mary.