Drought in Tongeren

This morning I finished translating a rather remarkable miracle story about St. Evermarus, a relatively obscure saint who is still venerated and celebrated in Rutten, Belgium.

Evermarus was a 7th century noble who went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. On the return trip, he decided to make a trip to see the relics of St. Servatius in Maastricht. He was with a group of other pilgrims, and they decided to spend a night in a barn, during which they were attacked by thieves and killed. (Their bodies were ultimately found by one of Pippin’s hunters.)  This is the part of his story that is now best known, as it is commemorated every year on 1 May with a reenactment of the events and a parade of a statue of the saint around the town. (Here’s the site for the annual Evermarusfeest) http://www.evermarus.be/ 

 photo credit:   
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photo credit: http://www.huisvanalijn.be/product/evermarusprocessie-rutten-1-mei-2010

Yet as important as this feast is to the modern town, an earlier procession was arguably much more crucial.

A collection of miracles (written in the 12th century) reports about an undated drought in the region of Tongeren in Belgium. This was a bad one. According to the account’s anonymous author, “the land, having been drained of all liquid, was completely dried out; so much so that it all dissolved into a tiny powder and, stirred up by a meager gust of wind the clear and pure air darkened.”

As a result of this drought, “No grass, no fruits, and no seeds germinated: because the clouds were held in check by the drought,  [the land] was neither flooded by rains nor irrigated by showers; for that reason, it was left exhausted and uncultivated, and idle.

The drought soon extended to the whole region, and “hunger ate up human bodies, until they were covered only with skin, all the way the bones; [at the peak of the dryness] whatever was able to be torn down was used up…”

This account is already remarkable for the degree of detail and description in recounting the disaster. It becomes even more so as we recognize how long the drought lasted and we sense the depth of despair felt by those who lived through it. Scared and worried, priests tried additional fasting, prayer, and imprecations. Locals prayed for relief, and the bodies of regional saints were brought in to help—this included St. Servatius himself. However, even this great assemblage of saints did no good, and “God did not hear them, even though he hears everything.” The drought did not break, and the horrible, disastrous weather continued.

Disappointed, “they saw how the sun was boiling away the whole land through its burning, no clouds watered the air with drops, the burning wind dried everything out, nothing grew in the earth, and nothing sprang from the ground; neither grasses, nor fruits, nor trees were able to live: instead, the disaster brought death from the sky and from the earth.”

Finally, in a last-ditch effort, they decided to bring the humble Evermarus to their aid. They took out his relics, and decided to take him on a tour of the region. They “walked around Rousson with Evermarus, showed to him the dangers of those who worked the land, pointed out how it was scorched by the burning sun, how the clouds were dried out, how it endured the destruction of the burning wind.” But God protected Evermarus, and decided to make the saint’s trip a more peaceful one, and as the procession continued, “to him God granted that the trip would not be arduous, and the sun checked its vigor, the burning wind blew out, the clouds filled with rain waters and sent them out on the land.”

This remarkably detailed and vibrant story suggests that the author lived through the events, or knew people who had. It is compelling, descriptive, and (especially for a miracle story with an uncomplicated narrative) remarkably long—three full paragraphs. I haven’t scoured through the annals yet to see if I can find this drought recorded, but odds aren’t good—it may have been very bad, but it was also probably very localized. If that’s the case, this is even more ammunition for the argument that narrative sources (especially hagiographical ones) are underutilized by environmental historians. Even if this event can’t be dated securely, it is a truly emotive source that shows us more of the experience, memory, and emotional impact of these kinds of extreme weather events.