REVIEW OF Joe Nickell's Belgian Miracles from his 2010 article

I have twice visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes (named after the famous healing-spring grotto in the French Pyrenees) at Oostakker, Belgium. The shrine’s most celebrated miracle is the healing of a laborer named Pierre De Rudder, whose lower left leg was broken by a felled tree in 1867. Reportedly, De Rudder refused amputation and for eight years suffered constant pain from his open and festering wound. Then in April 1875, he visited the Oostakker shrine where, allegedly, he was instantaneously healed, after which he “walked normally until his death in 1898” at age seventy-six (Neiman 1995, 100–101). On July 25, 1908, the Holy See of Bruges declared the healing supernatural.

Over time, a number of legends grew up about the case, including a claim that De Rudder had been treated by professor Thiriar, physician to King Léopold II (a claim dropped by the miraculists after a denial by Thiriar himself). More significantly, it was claimed that prior to 1875 De Rudder’s unmended leg could be twisted at the fracture point to the extent of revolving the foot half a turn (i.e., putting the heel in front). Then, when De Rudder was allegedly cured in 1875, the mending was “instantaneous.” Unfortunately, most of the important testimony in the case went unrecorded for eighteen years, and memories of this age are subject to error (Delcour 1987).

For example, Dr. Van Hoestenberghe claimed that he had performed the twisting movement on De Rudder’s leg, when in fact the physician’s recollection was a false memory. A letter he had written on May 12, 1875 (which had become lost by the time of a canonical inquiry in 1893 but was rediscovered by 1957) revealed that he had not performed the twist, nor even seen it, but had only heard persons talk about it.

Moreover, the twist was apparently not demonstrated at the point of the fracture by showing the naked leg. Instead, it was done with the leg clothed, so the observers could not know where the twist actually occurred. This is a crucial point because certain supple persons can turn their feet almost completely around, like De Rudder, without benefit of any abnormal mobility.  Although some claimed the leg was uncovered when they saw De Rudder twist it, two men who were present for his demonstrations “well over a hundred times” stated the leg was never naked on those occasions (Delcour 1987). De Rudder’s eagerness to demonstrate the effect at every opportunity suggests not a suffering man happy to suffer more but someone performing a stunt with a purpose—one that will soon become clear.

As to the supposed instantaneous nature of the healing, that claim depends on the dubious testimony of just three persons: an illiterate woman who was apparently represented by hearsay and a father and son who seemed eager to help certify a miracle. (Their story even improved over the years.)

In contrast is the evidence that De Rudder had actually undergone “a certain improvement” about fourteen months after the accident. We know that the Viscount who employed De Rudder at the time of the accident gave the invalid worker a pension, characterized as a “nice salary.” It was rumored about the village that De Rudder was malingering in order to effect a life of ease.

Other medical evidence likewise supports the view that De Rudder’s healing was less than miraculous. A broken leg such as he suffered could—with immobility and good hygiene—have healed without amputation. Besides, the bones (see figure 1) grew together obliquely in a fashion a surgeon would not have been proud of. Also, that which would have indeed been beyond nature—the reconstitution of De Rudder’s dead tendon—did not occur (De Meester 1957, 106). One touted proof that the cure was instantaneous comes from the absence of thickening of the bone callus at the mending site, but this thickening could have been reabsorbed by the body in several months or a few years ( Encyclopedia Britannica 2009, s.v. “callus”). Adrien Delcour (1987) concludes that the physicians who consider the De Rudder case miraculous almost unanimously do so on the basis that the cure was instantaneous, and that, as we have seen, is dependent on dubious testimony. Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary.

States Adrien Delcour (1987): “At the price of slight hip dislocation certain rather supple persons (the author of the present lines, for example) can manage without effort to turn their foot around, with the great toe almost to the back by rotation [of] the ankle. This exercise should have been easier for De Rudder because he had lost the extender tendon of the big toe.”

COMMENT: The case is evidence that we should never rule out deception and error in miracle claims.  We are not saying miracles are unbelievable.  We are saying the evidence says it.  So we cannot be accused of undue unfair scepticism.


John Calvin (1543, 226) critically observed that alleged blood of Jesus “is exhibited in more than a hundred places,” one of the most celebrated being the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges.

According to legend, the Bruges relic was obtained in Palestine in the mid-twelfth century, during the Second Crusade, by Thierry of Alsace. He allegedly received it from his relative Baldwin II, then King of Jerusalem, as a reward for meritorious service. However, chronicles of the crusades fail to mention the relic being present in Jerusalem (Aspeslag 1988, 10). Sources claim that Thierry, Count of Flanders, brought the relic to Bruges in 1150, while another source reports it arrived in 1204. In any event, the earliest document that refers to it dates from 1270 (Catholic Encyclopedia 1913, s.v. “Bruges”; Aspeslag 1988, 9–11).

The reliquary, housed in the twelfth-century Basilica of the Holy Blood, is now brought out daily for veneration by the faithful. Although mistakenly characterized by at least one source as “a fragment of cloth stained with what is said to be the blood of Christ” (McDonald 2009, 145), it in fact consists of “clotted blood” contained in a vial set in a glass-fronted cylinder, each end of which is covered with gold coronets decorated with angels. The vial (made of rock crystal rather than glass) has been determined to be an eleventh-or twelfth-century Byzantine perfume bottle.

In 1310 Pope Clement V issued a papal bull granting indulgences to pilgrims who visited the chapel at Bruges and venerated the blood. At that time, believers claimed the blood miraculously returned to its original liquid state every Friday at noon. This not only sounds like a magic trick, but it evokes the similar “miracle” of the blood of St. Januarius at Naples—a phenomenon that forensic analyst John F. Fischer and I replicated, utilizing a mixture of olive oil, melted beeswax, and red pigment. In addition to St. Januarius, some twenty other saints have reportedly yielded magically liquefying blood. My Italian colleague, chemist Luigi Garlaschelli, externally examined one of these in its sealed vial and discovered that the “blood” simply liquefied whenever the temperature rose (BACK TO TOPl 2007c, 44–49, 169–170).

Unfortunately, the Holy Blood at Bruges soon stopped liquefying, supposedly as the result of some blasphemy that occurred later in 1310. The miracle recurred only one more time, in 1388 (Aspeslag 1988, 11).

Naturally, I wanted to get a good look at the “blood,” so I twice stood in the pilgrims’ line, supposedly to pray over the reliquary (again, see figure 3). In fact, although I bowed respectfully, I used the two brief occasions to scrutinize the substance. I observed that it had a waxen look and was bespeckled with “coagulated drops” that have suspiciously remained red (Bruges 1998, 28) unlike real blood, which blackens with age (Kirk 1974, 194–195).

In brief, the Holy Blood of Bruges lacks a credible provenance, since it has no record for a dozen centuries after the death of Jesus and is contained in a medieval bottle. It appeared with a profusion of other dubious blood relics, including several with which it had in common the property of liquefying and resolidifying, suggestive of a magic trick. Both that behavior and its current appearance are incompatible with genuine old blood and are instead indicative of a pious fraud.

COMMENT: Notice how much this is like the Turin Shroud.  Blood the wrong colour again!  And in both cases there is no clear origin of the relic.  The blood trick shows that people were devoting considerable time and effort and money to come up with something that could not be easily explained.  There is deliberate mystery mongering which is why the strange features of the shroud may not be strange in the light of somebody trying to make something that nobody could explain.  A painting of the regular type would be too easy.  It wouldn't reach the same heights of fame.  Fake miracles of that nature abounded at the time the Shroud appeared...

BACK TO TOPl's References

Aspeslag, Pierre. 1988. Chapel of the Holy Blood, Bruges. Ostend, Belgium: s.v. Van Mieghem A.
Bruges Tourist Guide. 1998. Brussels, Belgium: Editions THILL S.A.
Calvin, John. 1543. Treatise on Relics, trans. Count Valerian Krasinski 1854; 2nd ed. Edinburgh: John Stone, Hunter, and Col., 1870, 217–218. (Reprinted without translator’s notes but with an introduction by Joe BACK TO TOPl, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009.)
Catholic Encyclopedia. 1913. New York: Encyclopedia Press.
Coupe, Alison, ed. 2009. Michelin Belgium Luxembourg (travel guide). Watford, Herts, England: Michelin Apa Publications.
Delcour, Adrien. 1987. A great ‘Lourdes miracle’: the cure of Pierre de Rudder or, what is the value of testimony? A paper by Delcour of Brussels, Belgium, translated by Jan Willem Nienhaus.
De Meester, Canon A. 1957. Report of the Holy See of Bruges; cited in Delcour 1987.
Kirk, Paul L. 1974. Crime Investigation, 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
McDonald, George. 2009. Frommer’s Belgium, Holland & Luxembourg, 11th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Mullen, Peter. 1998. Shrines of Our Lady. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Nieman, Carol. 1995. Miracles: The Extraordinary, the Impossible and the Divine. New York: Viking Studio Books.
Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
—. 2004. The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
—. 2007a. The Netherlands: Visions and revisions. Skeptical Inquirer 31:6(Nov./Dec.), 16–19.
—. 2007b. Adventures in Paranormal Investigation. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
—. 2007c. Relics of the Christ. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
Notre Dame de Lourdes a Oostakker. 1975. Souvenir booklet in French (“Imprimature Gradae, 7–4–1975, O. Schelfhout, vic. Gen.”), distributed at the shrine.
Scherpenheuvel: Famous Shrine of Our Lady. N.d. Pilgrimage information sheet in English, provided at the basilica.
Scherpenheuvel-Zichem. N.d. Large color folder with text in four languages. Brabant, Belgium: Hageland.
Scherpenheuvel-Zichem. 2009. Available online at (accessed August 4, 2009).
Smith, Jody Brant. 1983. The Image of Guadalupe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
World Desk Reference, 3rd ed. 2000. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing.

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