National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Winter Books
Issue Date:  October 10, 2003

By Craig Harline
Doubleday, 324 pages, $22.95
Five tales open windows to the past

Historian explores the miraculous in 17th-century Netherlands


This, Craig Harline’s third study of religious life in the 17th-century Spanish Netherlands, leads the reader through five tales that emerge from Harline’s research in the state, abbatial and diocesan archives of Ghent, Brussels and the Abbey of Park in modern-day Belgium. The book begins as the archival doors at Park Abbey open for Harline, and it closes as he leaves and the porter shuts the doors behind him. In between the reader is introduced to a series of historical vignettes written for the general reader (but with an eye to the historian) in an accessible style unburdened by footnotes.

Harline tells five separate stories, the first two of which concern miraculous healings. The first focuses on a shrine of the Virgin placed at an oak tree (subsequently called the Jesus Oak) in 1637; it soon became a place of healing miracles, a pilgrimage site and a focal point of intense competition between two parishes. The case was consequently referred by the civil Council of Brabant to a lay-ecclesiastical commission. By the time the evidence was collected, the legal maneuvering completed, a decision taken and a church built, the attraction of the shrine had waned along with its proceeds. Harline contrasts this short-lived local phenomenon with the longer-lived, more famous shrine at Sharp Hill, as he pursues the issue of what makes or unmakes a shrine.

The second chapter describes a possible miracle at a statue in 1657 in which Maria, a mother of many who had no milk for her latest infant, prayed for and received an abundant flow of milk. The miracle was claimed by the Jesuits, who forwarded evidence to the bishopric for verification. Along with the evidence they included testimonials from numerous doctors who agreed that this event went “beyond nature.” The bishop’s vicariate, however, armed with less supportive medical testimonials (some from the very same doctors) decided that this healing, while exceptional, was not supernatural or miraculous. In the final analysis the decision of the vicariate to reject the miracle seems to have rested more on the contested credentials of the statue, as well as on conflicts between the bishop and the Jesuits, than it did on the circumstances of Maria’s healing.

The last three chapters all involve attacks on sacred places, objects and, in Chapter 5, on the concept of the miraculous itself. Chapter 3 describes a guild of tailors who tried unsuccessfully in the 1660s to wrest the miracle-working power of St. Fiacre away from a nearby convent and into their own poor chapel. They accused the nuns of cheating and stealing; they alleged that the relics of St. Fiacre had been moved. The tailors, deaf to various ecclesiastical admonitions, persisted in their calumnies until, faced with enormous fines, they were forced to desist. Chapter 4 follows the fortunes -- or, more accurately, the misfortunes -- of an unrepentant prostitute named Aldegonde whose many misdeeds, imagined or real (she claimed to have committed abortion and murder and to have been the victim of incest), surfaced when she was caught appropriating the consecrated host with apparent intent to sell it on the black market. The investigative documents do not allow us to discover what happened to her. A trial for witchcraft or for insanity, along with life-long imprisonment, are possibilities. Finally Harline moves abruptly from the underworld of Aldegonde to the scholarly world, although he remains concerned with issues of ecclesiastical justice. Chapter 5 follows the reasonably well-known history of Dr. Jan Baptista van Helmont’s prosecution by ecclesiastical authorities for his unorthodox opinions regarding sympathetic magic and magnetism, and his tendency to ground the miraculous in the natural.

Along the way Harline digresses to discuss the role of relics, the cult of saints, the economies of tailoring and of convents, miracles associated with the host, medical definitions of madness, and a description of the rising new “Natural Philosophies” of the 17th century. Unfortunately, Harline’s use of this last rubric of “Natural Philosophy” for the innovative, Platonizing and Hermetic thinkers of the Renaissance is an injudicious label since it confuses these thinkers with traditional students who studied Aristotle’s natural philosophy, central to the liberal arts curriculum of European universities since the 13th century.

For the most part these stories are found in legal documents, most of which have not previously been published or have only been partially published. In addition, Harline draws on investigations and interviews conducted by ecclesiastical authorities as well as a host of secondary materials. The documentation of sources, normally done with footnotes or endnotes and a bibliography, is here replaced by topically organized lists of sources placed at the end. While mostly (but not always) allowing the scholarly minded to track down relevant sources, this method also allows for more speculative historical writing, such as when Harline suggests what Helmont’s thoughts might have been while in prison.

While these case studies highlight the depth of interest in the miraculous among the populace and the seriousness with which ecclesiastical authorities considered these matters, there is relatively little to bind the stories together. They do hover around the same few decades in the mid-17th century. There is an intermittent interplay between secular and religious authorities (which, in Dr. Helmont’s case, may have saved him from prolonged imprisonment). There is a leitmotif of jockeying for power between various ecclesiastical interests and powers. At a general level the book argues for the vitality of a world full of miracles and shrines in a part of Catholic Europe struggling with its religious identity in the face of a threatening Protestantism. Ironically and simultaneously, however, the presence of Protestantism (and the power of the Protestant press) meant that the ecclesiastical hierarchy, for fear of mockery by Protestants, at the time bent over backwards to investigate thoroughly and to apply stringent guidelines in investigating events that touched on the sacred. Although Harline does not argue this, these stories do suggest a widening gap between popular beliefs and the needs of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Overall, this is good read; the stories are like little windows letting the reader see into the religious life of the 17th-century Spanish Nether-lands. They are not sufficiently contextualized, however. The reader is never told about the wars that impinged so dramatically on the Netherlands or the overall religious and political tensions. The rivalries between Jesuits and Jansenists are lightly touched on. Institutional relationships are sometimes difficult to follow. The names of Agrippa, Paracelsus, Pomponazzi and Rosicrucians, for example, dot the last chapter without being explained to the general reader. Despite the sketchy nature of a larger framework, the stories, as individual set pieces, read well. It is rare to find a historian who successfully writes for a wider audience; Craig Harline has managed to do this very well indeed.

Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz is an associate professor of history and director of Medieval Studies at Georgetown University.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2003

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