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.
I found the documents for this book because I was looking for something else, which happens all the time to historians. I’d gone with my friend Eddy Put to work in the archive of the old abbey of Park, in Leuven, Belgium, partly because it had some documents about Archbishop Hovius (of A Bishop’s Tale) and mostly because we just wanted to work in a cool old place like that. (The full story of my experience in the abbey is told in the Prologue.)
While looking through a lot of tedious, dusty piles, at a table set right in the middle of a bunch of old bones and other relics, Eddy laid eyes on a big seventeenth-century fight between two neighboring parishes over a newly miraculous shrine, called the Jesus Oak. He looked up to tell me he’d found something I might be interested in, even though it had nothing to do with our bishop. Not again, I thought, not another document that Eddy felt obligated to give me!
But he freely handed it over, as he knew I’d become interested in miracles lately, thanks to a register I’d seen in another archive that contained testimony from over 300 seventeenth-century witnesses about them. The problem was, what did you do with 300 three-page stories? The documents about the Jesus Oak gave me an idea: to look not so much for miracle-stories, which were everywhere, but for stories around miracles.
And suddenly those sorts of stories started falling miraculously into my lap. At an archive in Gent, I found a story about why a woman, who’d apparently been miraculously cured from having no milk for her fourteenth child, could not have her cure declared miraculous; and then another about why some tailors were so desperately distracting pilgrims from going to see a miracle-working shrine. At the trusty old archive of Mechelen, where I was best friends with the archivist now, I found a wild and crazy story about a woman who’d stolen the Eucharistic host in order to abuse its miraculous powers; and then another about the famous medical doctor Jan Baptista van Helmont, who was put on trial for saying that a lot of what were called miracles were in fact just ordinary natural processes.
The Epilogue tells the story of how my Belgian friend Jan convinced me, as I was finishing the book, to go on a pilgrimage myself, in order to experience something of what my seventeenth-century subjects experienced—and then how I got injured in the process, which as one of my walking companions pointed out was nothing less than a reverse miracle.
Named a Top Ten Book in Religion for 2003, by Booklist
“Harline’s narratives realize the protagonists and their miracles as personal tragedies, replete with the Machiavellian melees of their time. As such, they read almost like fiction, though [the] exhaustive research makes them factually precise. Harline may be an academic, but his writing isn’t.”
“Using his engaging storytelling powers, Harline imaginatively recreates the scenes surrounding miracles…, bringing to life the fervent faith of the miracles’ recipients…. A lively collection of stories.”
“Craig Harline has written a lively page-turner…. I highly recommend Harline’s foray into the popular imagination of the 17th century…. The book is written in a lively style, hard to put down.”
“He should be grouped with others devoted to revealing secrets hidden in early-modern shadows: Steven Ozment, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Harline’s style is lively, his sources reputable and his interpretations trustworthy…. This work shows the grace and insight obtained only by years of painstaking research.”
“In themselves they are delightful stories…[but] the volume is more than simply a collection of delightful tales…. Miracles still enthrall.”
“Some of the tales seem bizarre, but they highlight universal contexts of miracle-making during the Reformation, set against the variables of rival theologies, view on nature, and secular interests. Enjoyable reading; recommended for public and academic libraries.”
“This is good reading; the stories are like little windows letting the reader see into the religious life of the 17th century…. It is rare to find a historian who successfully writes for a wider audience; Craig Harline has managed to do this very well indeed.”
-National Catholic Reporter
“Harline has selected five stories…, shaped them with consummate skill, and employed them to reveal an early modern Catholic world…. In the crucible of his literary imagination, [Harline] has transformed the unpromising dross of forgotten manuscripts into narrative gold.”
“Craig Harline’s superlative prose depicts popular devotion…through the very lives of male and female Catholics in the seventeenth-century Low Countries. Incident by incident, story by story, and book by book, Harline is reconstructing this vanished world with sensitivity and insight in ways unmatched by any other historian writing in English.”
-Brad Gregory, University of Notre Dame
“This book impels to serious thought even while entertaining…. Many of us will take this book into the classroom to good purpose and with great pleasure.”
-American Historical Review
“Alive with vibrant characters and evocative details, Miracles at the Jesus Oak will not disappoint his admirers and is sure to bring more into their fold…. He opens a window onto the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of people, often in their own words, who otherwise would have forever been lost from our view.”
“Harline’s research is clearly extensive, and his approach and writing style make the work engrossing to everyone from general readers on…. An excellent way for a wide range of readers to gain knowledge and appreciation for both the devotional practices and spiritual worldview of seventeenth-century Catholics.”
-Sixteenth Century Journal
“In his usual manner, lively and fresh, he not only brings ordinary people front and center but also offers startling insight into the political and religious dynamic of the time. His approach and writing style, although historically responsible, are enjoyable for non-specialists as well…. His work makes clear what professional historians alas sometimes forget: an enjoyable story need not be taboo.”
“Written in an accessible, lively manner…. Whoever reads this book will get a memorable impression of the world that once was.”
–Brabants Dagblad (Belgium)
“…reads like a Flemish version of The Name of the Rose.”
–De Morgen (Belgium)
“A wonderfully unique work…. It offers vistas of the past that are vivid enough to engage the senses as well as the mind: it makes another world come alive…. This is an elegant book. Simply elegant. The narrative flows, the reader is drawn in and swept away. Throughout, there are sentences that transcend. A fine eye for detail makes this read like a good novel or short story, yet the analysis is always there, woven in seamlessly, unobtrusively, and even invisibly at times.”
–Anonymous Reader for the Press