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After years of resistance, she finally succumbed. Mystic trials were rare, but when staged they were a popular event, attracting the curiosity of the national and foreign press. To some extent, the press reported on them as trials of the supernatural.

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As the legal suits escalated, the culture wars of the era crystallized in the journals. On one side, the Catholic press supported the supernatural to enflame religious enthusiasm against liberal and secularization campaigns. On the other side, the liberal press used mystic trials to discredit the enemies of the new regimes in Europe. They presented the followers of the defendants as dupes and used the trials to advance their political agendas.

The examining magistrate had to publish a press release to deny this Ebel, : After Filljung was released, she accused one journal of slander Seewann, : — As mentioned above, the aim of the justice system was not to attest to the reality of supernatural phenomena, but to elucidate the means through which such phenomena could have been feigned. Sometimes, however, judges contributed to the impression that mystic trials were indeed about revealing the truly extraordinary nature of the facts.

During the trial, the lawyers for the defendants had to remind the magistrates that their task was not to make judgements about the supernatural. The supernatural explanation is no more demonstrated than the natural explanation. At this stage, what should be the course of action? But you, the presiding judges, it is not up to you to say if there is a miracle or some trickery, but whether the facts alleged against Rosette Tamisier are proved. Following the common-law tradition, the assessment of facts relied upon the interrogation of witnesses.

The credibility of witnesses and their capacity to act as a form of evidence continues to be one of the central issues during trials. Direct testimony e.

Most of the time, however, the judges sought evidence supported by expert testimony; that is, specialists, usually physicians, who had not witnessed the events being examined, but who were asked to give their opinion according to their expertise Eigen, ; Watson, Doctors had been consulted during such processes since at least the 13th-century. In some cases, the expert testimony of physicians had been sufficient to support or repudiate a miracle Vidal, In the pretrial investigations of the cases examined here, the judges called upon expert testimony to examine the claimed mystical phenomena.

Allan Kardec

However interesting, these experiments could not prove that Tamisier or Sor Patrocinio had faked their miracles. Although natural explanations could be used to discredit alleged miracles, they did not constitute criminal evidence while it was not proved that the defendants had committed fraud. Therefore, finding a natural cause of the claimed phenomena was not enough to condemn the defendants in a criminal court; although it would have been enough to debunk such phenomena in an ecclesiastical inquiry. Why stage such experiments during a trial?

More than finding legal proof of the accusations, the experiments mentioned above aimed to debunk the supernatural in the eyes of the public and the jury. In this way, magistrates hoped to stifle popular debate about the authenticity of miracles and mystical phenomena and focus on the crimes of which the defendants were accused.

Likewise, in France, jurors had to decide whether the intentions of the defendant were criminal Harris, In Spain, the defence lawyer hoped to see Sor Patrocinio acquitted by arguing that the cloistered nun was oppressed and lived without enjoying freedom of speech or action. If the defendant was deemed guilty, the alleged miracles and the mystical phenomena were debunked; but what happened if the defendant was acquitted?

Although, in juridical terms, it only meant that the defendant was not guilty of the accusations, it also opened the possibility of a supernatural explanation of the phenomena. From that day on, Girling became much more public about her mysticism and began to promote herself to journalists Popplewell, This case suggests that judges were concerned about the effect that an acquittal could produce. If alleged mystics were judged and acquitted, enthusiasm for such mystics was likely to increase.

Hence, it does not come as a surprise that almost all of the supposed mystics brought before the courts were found guilty. If lawyers could not demonstrate fraud or other charges, declaring the defendant mentally disturbed proved to be effective in stifling religious enthusiasm. In the few cases where the defendants were declared not guilty, the acquittal was supported by a psychiatric diagnosis, usually of hysteria.

In this way, the judges were able to conclude that, although the ecstasies and other phenomena may have been real, they were a natural occurrence produced by a mental disorder. The defendant was not a trickster, nor did she have any intention to deceive; but neither was she on a divine mission. In , during the pretrial investigation, she was interned for almost 4 months in an asylum in Sarreguemines; that is, more than the maximum of 6 weeks stipulated by the German penal code of Wolffram, A group of psychiatrists performed several tests on her, similar to those practised on other mystics at that time see, e.

Guillemain, ; Lachapelle, Didi-Huberman, ; Pires Marques, , the director of the asylum argued before the German court that Filljung was a hysteric and that she was not responsible for her actions. The final sentence concluded that the defendant truly believed in her divine mission, but that her actions were the outcome of a morbid condition that undermined her will.

The medicalization of religious experience allowed Filljung to be acquitted, but at the high price of having her mysticism reduced to a psychiatric diagnosis. In an era that witnessed the separation of powers in many European countries, and when modern nation-states aimed to secularize the law, alleged cases of Catholic mysticism were brought before the courts under accusations of fraud, misrepresentation or religious defamation. Such cases took place during times of political turmoil, when the manifestation of the supernatural acquired an ideological meaning.

In general, mystic trials had more to do with specific clashes between the defendant and the ecclesiastical or civil authorities than with public concerns about the falsification of mystical phenomena. To some extent, the cases examined here reveal the aim of the secular powers to control religion amid growing tension within the culture wars in Europe Clark and Kaiser, Phenomena that had traditionally been policed by the Church were now regulated inside the courtroom. When confronted with the allegedly supernatural, both ecclesiastical commissions and criminal courts dealt with it in terms of facts.

The courts often found it difficult to translate alleged mystical experiences into criminal charges. During such trials, the followers of the defendant hoped for an acquittal, which they incorrectly interpreted as proof of the supernatural. Acquittals were rare, however, and, when pronounced, they were usually supported by medical reports that cleared the defendant of the accusations but debunked the supernatural with a psychiatric diagnosis.


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  • The coverage these trials received from the national and foreign press, with daily updates and the transcription of the court hearings, reveals the interest they provoked within and beyond national borders. Different narratives coming from Catholic and liberal newspapers show how editors used mystic trials to advance their political agendas. To some extent, the press portrayed such cases as trials of the supernatural. Magistrates, concerned about the pernicious effects of this depiction, attempted to discredit supernaturalist claims through expert testimony.

    In the 19th century, expert testimony was only required for cases involving serious crimes, such as murder see, e. Eigen, ; Harris, Thus, it is clear that the law deemed the cases examined here to be quite serious, either from the point of view of cultic religious belief or regarding public safety. In the courtroom, medical examinations and scientific experiments served to debunk alleged miracles and mystical phenomena before the jury, the press and the population.

    Debunking the supernatural, however, rarely amounted to legal proof of the accusations. Although magistrates perceived the risk of mystic trials encouraging the belief in the supernatural, non-intervention was often deemed more dangerous, especially if the Catholic Church had already failed to restrain enthusiasm surrounding the mystic.

    Her research interests include the history of modern mysticism in France and Spain, and the history of child prodigies. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. History of the Human Sciences. Hist Human Sci.

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    Published online Mar Andrea Graus. Author information Copyright and License information Disclaimer. Andrea Graus, University of Antwerp, Belgium;. Email: eb. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4. Abstract This article examines how and why criminal proceedings were brought against alleged cases of Catholic mysticism in several European countries during modernity.

    Keywords: Catholicism, criminal justice, expert testimony, legal history, supernatural. Introduction Why did 19th-century criminal justice take an interest in cases of stigmata, prophecies and other mystical phenomena? Mysticism: A case for criminal law? Open in a separate window. Figure 1. Catherine Filljung After the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the German Empire in , Catherine Filljung — had visions of the Virgin Mary, who allegedly told her she was on the side of the French people; a highly controversial statement amid tensions between German and French nationalists in the region Blackbourn, ; Klein, Translating mystical phenomena into criminal charges Criminal courts in Europe were not alone in bringing mystics before the law.

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    Figure 2. Mysticism on trial Mystic trials were rare, but when staged they were a popular event, attracting the curiosity of the national and foreign press. Figure 3.