Miracles at the Jesus Oak: Histories of the Supernatural in Reformation Europe / Edition 1

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Overview

In the tradition of The Return of Martin Guerre and The Great Cat Massacre, Miracles at the Jesus Oak is a rich, evocative journey into the past and the extraordinary events that transformed the lives of ordinary people.

In the musty archive of a Belgian abbey, historian Craig Harline happened upon a vast collection of documents written in the seventeenth century by people who claimed to have experienced miracles and wonders. In Miracles at the Jesus Oak, Harline recasts five of these testimonies into engaging vignettes that open a window onto the believers, unbelievers, and religious movements of Catholic Europe in the Age of Reformation.

Miracles at the Jesus Oak transports readers to the seventeenth-century Spanish Netherlands and into the company of a flesh and blood and captivating set of people. Combining meticulous historical research and storytelling élan, Harline writes about the competition for pilgrims waged between a group of tailors and a group of nuns; takes readers inside the emotional turmoil of a young prostitute who secretly takes away a consecrated host from Mass; explores the political and religious ramifications that arise when a woman’s breasts miraculously fill with milk enabling her to feed a starving infant; and in the title story, describes how two towns fight each other for control of the miracle-working oak tree that lies between them.

Craig Harline’s previous books have won the praises of both the mainstream and the religious press. The Weekly Standard said A Bishop’s Tale “reads like the very best historical fiction . . . the history book of the year–and perhaps simply the book of the year.” Written with grace and charm, Miracles at the Jesus Oak is popular history at its most informative and enlightening.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
For thousands of years, skeptics and believers have argued about the nature of miracles: are they supernatural events or natural coincidences? Historian Harline (A Bishop's Tale) provides a different take on the significance of miracles in the lives of believers. Ensconced in the library of a Belgian monastery, Harline discovers manuscripts full of stories about miraculous happenings at various Catholic shrines throughout 17th-century Holland. Using his engaging storytelling powers, Harline imaginatively re-creates the scenes surrounding the miracles at these places, bringing to life the fervent faith of the miracles' recipients as well as the religious and political struggles surrounding the acceptance of these miracles as authoritative. For example, Harline tells the story of a young woman who had been unable to feed her starving baby because her breasts were not producing milk. Once the woman visited a particular church, her breasts miraculously filled with milk, but the Catholic Church debated whether or not to authorize this event as a miracle. Church authorities argued these events so fiercely, Harline says, because they were forging a new self-identity in the face of Protestant challenges to miracles. Harline's lively collection of stories offers a new view of the relationship between Catholics and Protestants in a 17th-century Europe where affection for shrines, icons, relics and the miracles associated with them provided the foundation for Catholic identity. (Apr. 15) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A sole researcher in an ancient Belgian abbey, Harline (Brigham Young Univ.; Bishop's Tale) happened upon thousands of testimonials from the 17th-century Spanish Netherlands by people who claimed to experience miraculous wonders. He sifted through these testimonials and here presents five idiosyncratic vignettes from miracle-hungry Catholicism during the Reformation. The first relates the story of the Jesus Oak shrine and the competition between two rival parishes for control over the pilgrims-and the income they provide. In the second tale, we empathize with a woman who seeks God's intervention in producing breast milk to nurse her starving infant. Another tale involves incest, murder, and priests who frequent brothels, adding a new dimension to miraculous wonders. The author adds commentary and interpretation to place these one- to two-page tales in context of the politics and religious movements of the time. Some of the tales seem bizarre, but they highlight universal contexts of miracle-making during the Reformation set against the variables of rival theologies, views on nature, and secular interests. Enjoyable reading; recommended for public and academic libraries.-L. Kriz, West Des Moines P.L. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385508209
  • Publisher: The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/15/2003
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.87 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

CRAIG HARLINE, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, is the author of A Bishop’s Tale and The Burdens of Sister Margaret. His extensive research into European culture and religion during the Reformation has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Organization, the Council of Learned Societies, the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), and other agencies and organizations. He lives in Orem, Utah.
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Read an Excerpt

ONE

MIRACLES AT THE JESUS OAK

A HOLY PLACE

In the Sonien Woods, near Brussels, around 1630. The grocer Peter van Kerckhoven traveled often on the rutted dirt highway that ran southeast from his home in Brussels. Most of the time his destination was the middling village of Overijse, some eight miles away, where he was born more than fifty years before and where in his spare time he oversaw the family properties. Though the journey was by now long familiar, it was also unfailingly stressful, for it required him to pass through the Sonien Woods, deep and dark.

Despite their lofty overlord, the king of Spain himself, these royal woods were, like most woods, notoriously dangerous. Peter feared their lushness, with oaks, beeches, and elms so dense that not even a midsummer sun shone through, for this was what hid unknown enemies. He no doubt trembled at their peace, which magnified and made threatening even the smallest sound. And who would have blamed him for ignoring the freshness of their air, so less pungent than the unrelieved streets of Brussels?

For working most of all on his mind were the stories. He knew well the gruesome tales of ill-fated travelers who, on this very road, had been shot, stabbed, or strung up by professional thieves or disbanded groups of soldiers in between campaigns. To make matters worse, he knew also, like all the world around him, that such out-of-the-way places were favorite haunts of the devil and his demons. Even when companions were along, foreboding and apprehension, not calm, dominated Peter's passage through the woods.

That was why, during yet another nerve-racking trip through the Sonien, he resolved to do what many Catholics of his time did to combat dread: he would sacralize this place, or make it holy, by affixing to it a sacred object. This centuries-old practice reassured the anxious of God's presence even in the most forsaken places, thus confirming that He was mightier than the devil even on the devil's own turf. In fact, long before Peter some other believer had had the same idea, and had attached a crucifix to the most famous landmark along the forest road: a gigantic, gnarly, lightning-riddled old tree called the Devil's Oak, used for centuries as a meeting place by hunters and thieves. As long as it bore its crucifix, the oak in the forest seemed less sinister. For decades comforted travelers uttered hopeful prayers as they passed by, and even began calling the tree the Dear Jesus Oak. But by Peter's day this crucifix was gone, and he decided it was time to replace it.

After that decisive trip, Peter went to a market in Brussels and bought a small wooden statue of the Virgin, about a foot tall, with the Christ child in her left arm, and vowed to God that he would hang it on the Jesus Oak. But he grew busy and forgot his vow; children visiting his home even played with the statue as if it were a doll. Only when dying from the plague in late 1635 did Peter finally remember. Fully aware that unfulfilled vows were a danger to one's soul, but lacking both time and inclination to have his vow waived by a priest, a fading Peter whispered his secret to his grown daughter, who in turn told her brother Philip, who understood what he must do. Finally, in early 1637, Philip and two craftsmen placed the statue in a small casing, carried it to the forest, then climbed a ladder they had brought along and set the statue on the Jesus Oak.

Just as Peter van Kerckhoven had hoped, travelers began noticing the new image, and therefore crossed themselves or uttered a short prayer when passing by. Criminals must have noticed as well, but did they think twice before committing their evil deeds in the Sonien Woods? Whatever the case, by early 1642 the image was known enough that some people began attaching even greater importance to it: now they traveled to the newly sacred place for the express purpose of seeking divine aid.

The first person said to receive such aid was a three-year-old boy named Michel, from the village of Overijse, and afflicted since birth with a fist-sized hernia. His mother, Barbel Reyaerts, had tried other shrines and undoubtedly other remedies before visiting the Oak. But only at the Jesus Oak, on March 24, after engaging in the usual rituals of prayer and candle-lighting, did she find a cure for Michel. Gratefully she left behind the customary token of remembrance--in this case the wrappings she had long placed around his little body--as a witness to others that a cure had happened here.

Word soon spread, to family members and friends, from one village to the next, and a flow of pilgrims to the Jesus Oak began. Thus deep in the woods was born a shrine.

Since the late Roman Empire, a common feature of Christian miracles was their association with a specific place. To some believers this was simply an extension of the doctrine of Incarnation: thus, God had become incarnate in a particular person, at a particular time and place, in Jesus Christ, and it only made sense that He would continue to manifest His presence in still other times and places and ways. Other believers were influenced more by leftover pagan notions about otherworldly powers being concentrated in special locations and objects--including oaks. But however it was learned, just about everyone believed that though God was everywhere, His powers were more evident at some places than at others.

These special places, or shrines, were in turn almost always associated with specific saints, present in their powerful relics or--since the eleventh and twelfth centuries--represented in images of potentially equal power.* The connection of the divine to thousands of specific earthly places and holy objects helped to make God more than an abstraction in Christian minds--and after the Reformation more specifically in Catholic minds. Whatever He may have been in official theology--invisible, three-in-one, and incomprehensible--in everyday practice His powers could be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and even tasted at a specially chosen place just down the road. Here people came not only in search of miracles, but to pray, to seek protection from disaster or misfortune, to find forgiveness from sin, and to make or fulfill vows. But the most popular shrines inevitably became so because of some spectacular show of divine power--in other words, a miracle, especially the dramatic cure of an endless array of illnesses.

Many such holy places--in parish or monastic churches, in cathedrals, in minuscule chapels along urban streets or country byways--were made sacred during the Middle Ages. By the time of Peter van Kerckhoven they were therefore hardly new. But what did seem new was the stunning increase of holy places, especially in such war-torn, desecrated areas as the Spanish Netherlands. Though the powers of older shrines were not denied, the new age and all its blasphemous violence called for new miracles, new intermediaries, and new places.

The stories of how these new shrines came to be closely resembled the pious accounts told for medieval shrines--namely, a shrine emerged because God's power showed itself there. Such power might be evident at the very founding, and star a host of otherworldly characters and events. The famous shrine of Loreto, in Italy, for instance, was said to have begun when angels transported across the heavens the house of the Holy Family from the Holy Land. Popular in the seventeenth century was the mysterious appearance of a statue of the Virgin in a tree, usually an oak, where miracles suddenly began to occur. Or miracles might occur, as at the Jesus Oak, through statues set in place by human hands. Whenever it occurred, the essential thing was some convincing manifestation of God's power--no miracle, no shrine.

Also essential in the emergence of a shrine, however, were influences of a decidedly earthly character, such as location, investment, patronage, or personality. These influences were rarely elaborated upon in the official chronicles of shrines because they were considered secondary, or traceable to God anyway--so why belabor them? The chronicler of the Jesus Oak preferred to focus on the place's early miracles rather than its considerable worldly struggles--not because he was unaware of those struggles, but as a matter of emphasis. If God kept his eye on such trifles as sparrows, then believers could safely assume that He was most assuredly in charge of this new holy place, directly and indirectly, and saw not only to the necessary miracles but the right earthly people, conditions, and events.

To whatever extent contemporaries saw the finger of God conducting worldly forces, they grasped perfectly well the immediate importance of those forces in the life of a shrine. They simply made plain their understanding outside of the official histories--in records rarely noised abroad or even preserved at all. But for the Jesus Oak such unnoised records survived in uncommon abundance.

THE BATTLE FOR THE HOLY

June 1-July 5, 1642. After the healing of her son in March 1642, Barbel Reyaerts told her stepmother, Anna Eregiers, about the Jesus Oak. When the fifty-four-year-old Anna developed an unbearable fever, in late May, she too made the three-mile trip from Overijse to the Jesus Oak, prayed before the image of Mary and the Christ child, and on June 1 was suddenly healed.

In gratitude, Anna did more than utter a prayer of thanks or leave a simple object of remembrance. Rather she decided to walk daily to the Oak and sell candles to passersby, in order to raise money to embellish the statue. At its most theological, lighting a candle at a holy place symbolized Christ the light of the world, or the presence of God, but at its most earthbound it was a straightforward, old-fashioned bargain: offering goods in exchange for divine help. Whatever their motives, people bought enough candles from Anna at the Oak that she could afford to hire a carpenter to build a small roof over the already encased image, thus protecting it twice from wind and rain.

After a month of this, Anna had raised enough money to do even more. At four in the morning on July 2, a time of year when the sun rose especially early, she not only walked from Overijse to her customary place at the Jesus Oak but brought along a carpenter to install a post, to which she attached a new and sturdier offer box, in anticipation of even more activity. Anna intended to affix the box to the post each morning, so that pilgrims could drop in their money for candles. At the end of the day she would then carry the box home. That she chose July 2 to expand her little shrine was no accident: it was the feast of the Visitation of Our Dear Lady, and more pilgrims than usual would make the trek to the newly popular site.

By now, however, Anna Eregiers was hardly the only person with designs on the Oak. Most interested of all in the image on the giant tree were two of the villages that lay closest to it: Overijse to the southeast (about three thousand inhabitants) and Tervuren to the north (about one thousand). Each lay some three miles from the Oak, and each had buzzed with excitement since the first healings in March. Much of this excitement was grounded, of course, in the hope a shrine offered to anyone in difficulty. But much came as well from the promise of prestige for those neighbors fortunate enough to be connected to the shrine.

Like every Catholic village, both Tervuren and Overijse already had sacred places within them, most notably a parish church and a chapel or two. But holy places even short distances away were always more alluring than the humdrum home parish. By July 1, when Anna Eregiers was laying her plans, people in each village decided it was now time to tell their particular pastor about the Jesus Oak and urge him to take charge before a rival got there first.

And so, months after the first miracles, the preoccupied pastors of Overijse and Tervuren finally learned about events taking place in the woods. It was a classic pattern that emerged over and over in the history of shrines: villagers initiated things, yet in urging pastors to take control they acknowledged that the church's stamp of approval mattered to them. And while pastors moved a bit more slowly and might have held somewhat different ideas about shrines, they too believed in the reality of divine aid and the desirability of being connected to the holy.

The pastor of Tervuren, Renier Assels, heard from his parishioners first--perhaps because the recent destruction of their church and homes by Dutch troops gave them an even stronger need for divine renewal, and, admittedly, income from a potential shrine. Upon learning the news, the pastor considered the following. The reports of miracles had aroused so much interest that perhaps they were true. A proper shrine required the direction of a priest. The area around the Oak did not belong clearly to any parish. Though the highway on which the Oak stood ran into Overijse, the Oak did stand on the Tervuren side of that highway. And, since beginning as pastor in 1636, he could recall ministering to a few people who lived in a hut near the Oak, thus giving his parish a history there. All these things taken together led the pastor to decide that he had as strong a claim as anyone on the Oak, and would therefore heed his parishioners' wishes.

On July 2, the feast day of the Visitation of Our Dear Lady, and the very day Anna Eregiers set up her new offer box, the pastor announced at High Mass that immediately afterward he would lead a procession to the Jesus Oak. A procession was an old rite that publicly confirmed the bonds between a village and its protecting saints and holy places and God. But today it would also provide a convenient crowd of witnesses for what Pastor Assels intended to do--take control of the shrine.

Followed by many members of the parish, divided according to custom into a column of men and a column of women, the pastor led songs and sent up prayers that helped dispel the tension of the woods and set the proper tone for the occasion (for processions too easily turned, he knew, into mere recreation and worse). Arriving just before noon, the group from Tervuren saw two people already at the Oak: the enterprising Anna Eregiers, who sat near her freshly erected offer box tending things, and a peasant fellow nobody knew, who knelt weeping before the image.

The pastor ignored the peasant and directed the crucial question to Anna. "Are you watching after this shrine, or did you install this offer box, at the instigation of any other pastor?" Anna responded that it was all her own doing. Noticing the crude paper images she had crafted to sell, lamenting the meager decoration of the shrine, and seeing that no other ecclesiastical figure had yet made a claim, Pastor Assels declared solemnly to all that he was now taking charge. He commanded Anna to continue her watch over the shrine, but in his name--and to say so to anyone who might ask.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1
1 Miracles at the Jesus Oak 11
2 Maria Abundant 53
3 The Chapel of Poor Tailors 93
4 Aldegonde in the Underworld 127
5 The Perfectly Natural Cure of Wounds 179
Epilogue 241
Sources 251
Illustrations and Credits 307
Acknowledgments 309
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