In 1560 a poor woman named Margherita left the Italian city of Piacenza to check on her crop. In the field she heard herself being called, and turned to see a woman dressed in white. It was "the blessed Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mary." Mary was soon joined by a male figure, whom she identified as Christ. "The blasphemies of Piacenza angered Christ," said Mary, who had intervened before Christ devastated the city with a flood. She gave Margherita specific instructions for the people of Piacenza to save themselves from divine punishment. And to ensure that Margherita would be believed, Mary gave a sign: she paralyzed Margherita's legs.
In Madonnas That Maim, Michael Carroll looks at the ways in which Italians have revered, invoked, feared, and placated their madonnas and saints. Carroll examines a range of devotional practices that have been legitimated by the local Catholic clergy in Italy for centuries--including the cult of the patron saint, relics, miracles, processions, sanctuaries, pilgrimage, and the mixing of Catholic ritual and magic. He explores the "dark side" of holiness--the willingness of the madonnas and saints of Italy to maim, occasionally even to kill, in order to maintain their own cults--and discusses the psychological origins of such a belief structure. He also considers differences between northern and southern Italy, both in popular Catholicism and in the social structures that have allowed differences to emerge.
Including an English-language overview of literature on popular Catholicism in Italy and summaries of important studies by its authors, Madonnas That Maim offers a rich account of the development of beliefs and practices that have characterized popular piety in Italy for the past five hundred years.
As someone who knows something about devotion to the Mother of Jesus, I was as astonished and appalled by the wild variety of popular devotions in Italy as I was impressed by the ingenuity of Carroll's sociological imagination in ferreting out evidence and articulating theories to account for devotional practices that are far beyond the ordinary Catholic devotional tradition. -- Andrew Greeley * Contemporary Sociology * Incongruities have always existed between the devotions of the Christian laity and the official teachings of the Christian clergy. Michael Carroll argues in this book that Italian Catholics since the fifteenth century have found various means of reconciling-and even solemnizing-such discrepancies. This genial dialectic between official and popular belief is aptly summarized by the book's title, for Italian madonnas cannot only maim, but also kill, and their awesome power can command admiration and devotion. Carroll maintains that Italian Catholicism is unique in its approach to the divine through numerous splintered personalities, that is, in its penchant for creating localized devotions to the three 'metacults' of Christ, Mary, and the saints and in its ability to harmonize fear and hope. Carroll accomplishes two goals admirably: this is an excellent summary of the most recent literature on the subject (especially of studies in Italian); and it is also a superb compendium of specific religious practices and of scholarly approaches to them. Moreover, Carroll is a provocative writer who raises bold questions and incites the reader to distrust accepted theories. Even if one does not agree with all of Carroll's definitions and proposed solutions, one will have to grant that he grapples with some of the most vexing problems in the study of popular religion and that he does so confidently and with bravado. * Journal of Modern History *