Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bloody beliefs

Last week, I drove to the village of Notre-Dame-de-l'Osier, not far beyond Saint-Marcellin. In the local church, this stained-glass window tells a curious bloody story. On Assumption Day 1649, a local Huguenot named Pierre Port-Combet was trimming a willow tree in front of his house, to obtain twigs of the kind used to make wicker baskets. Devout Catholics—such as Pierre's wife Jeanne Pélion—knew, of course, that it was a sin to work on such a feast day. Suddenly, Pierre was astonished to see that his curved pruning sickle and his clothes were covered in blood. Thinking he had cut himself, Pierre went into his house, to clean himself up, but neither he nor his wife found any trace of the imagined wound. When they returned to the willow tree, blood was flowing from slashed branches. Pierre was henceforth notorious throughout France, which led to his being condemned by the religious authorities for working on 15 August.

The sequel of this story is illustrated by a second stained-glass window. In 1657, eight years after the amazing phenomenon of the bleeding willow tree, Pierre was plowing his field when a lovely female stranger [the Virgin Mary] appeared and informed the Huguenot that she knew him, that she disapproved of his Protestant beliefs, and that he would soon die if he didn't convert to Catholicism. True enough, soon after the apparition of the Virgin, Pierre Port-Combet fell ill and died. And the legend of Our Lady of the Willow Twigs [osier in French] was born.

The Virgin's personal concern for the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism amuses us today. One would imagine that the lady's apparition upon the planet Earth might have been directed towards more universal and profound issues, instead of making the long journey from Heaven simply to reprimand a humble Dauphiné farmer because he was a Protestant. But, as we all know, the ways of God remain mysterious. Meanwhile, a lovely little chapel has been erected at the spot where the Huguenot's bloody willow tree once stood:

A flower-bedecked altar evokes the Virgin's warning words to the unrepentant Huguenot:

Devout believers take these past events seriously, as proven by the quantity of thanksgiving plaques:

In the middle, to accord an allure of credibility to this affair, there's a photocopy of a declaration made in 1686 by the Catholic widow, Jeanne Pélion, 30 years after the death of her Huguenot husband. That was the time it took for the message of the mother of God to sink in. Recent marble plaques inform us that such-and-such a believer got through a baccalauréat exam thanks to the Virgin, whereas another was even awarded a superior university-level certificate with the help of Our Lady of the Willow Twigs. Conclusion: As every true believer knows perfectly well, religion works!


  1. there's plenty of stories like this one in religion. It has something fascinating, n'est-ce pas?

  2. The thing that amuses me most in this legend is that the Virgin Mary actually took sides in the ongoing squabbles between Catholics and Protestants... a century after the notorious Wars of Religion that had wreaked havoc in the Dauphiné. Not surprisingly, she chose the Catholic camp! Another interesting aspect of this tale is the presence of huge quantities of blood... which makes it significantly different from more renowned apparitions of the Virgin, two centuries later, at La Salette [1846] and Lourdes [1852]. I would imagine that, in the collective memory of parishioners, all this blood evokes, not only the Crucifixion, but the actual slaughters that characterized the Wars of Religion. For example, in the village of Pont-en-Royans, a kilometer down from where I live, there's a legend about the local lord Antoine de Sassenage slaughtering so many Calvinist invaders that the River Bourne ran red with blood from Pont down to the junction with the Isère at Saint-Nazaire-en-Royans.

    Back in the Marais neighborhood of Paris where I lived for almost a quarter of a century, there was another exotic and bloody legend about a religious conflict. In 1290, in today's rue des Archives, a Jew named Jonathas was a money-lender. An old Christian lady had left some clothes there as a gage. When she returned to pay back the borrowed money, and pick up her clothes, Jonathas insisted that her debt would only be canceled if she were to provide him with an Easter communion wafer from the nearby church of Saint-Merri. Receiving the fragment of bread, Jonathas made fun of the belief that it might be thought of as an element of the body of Christ. To illustrate his sarcasm, he stabbed the wafer several times with a pointed blade, as if he were plunging a knife into Jesus. The legend informs us, not surprisingly, that blood spurted from the wounded wafer. Jonathas, terrified, tried to get rid of the bleeding bread by throwing it into a cauldron of boiling water, whereupon a frothy red mixture of boiling blood and water flowed out of the cauldron and into the street, while the wafer itself hovered in the air above the red torrent. Jonathas yelled out defiantly that he had boiled the Christian's God. Meanwhile, the old lady alerted all the Christians in the neighborhood concerning the terrible sacrilegious events that were taking place. Jonathas was promptly arrested and condemned to be burnt at the stake, along with some of his Jewish friends. His property was confiscated by King Philippe IV le Bel [1268-1314] and handed over to a prominent Christian bourgeois citizen who erected an expiatory sanctuary called the Chapel of the Miracle... later to become the Carmes-Billettes convent.