The Basilica of Our Lady of the
Pillar, in Zaragoza, Spain.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)
A favorite question asked by skeptics, when confronted with stories of miraculous religious healings, is to ask "Why doesn't God heal amputees?" The answer? He did, once.
It happened in Spain in 1640, when a young man's injured leg was amputated. Two and a half years later, his leg was miraculously restored. It's become known as the Miracle of Calanda, and it's perhaps one of the best documented of miracles. The faithful have hard evidence to back it up, and the skeptics have no answer. Was the event truly miraculous and unexplainable? Maybe it was; but this is Skeptoid, so we're going to take a hard look at what's actually known, and see if we can uncover the most likely explanation.
Miguel Juan Pellicer, a strapping young fellow about 20 years old, was working at his uncle's farm in the village of Castellón in 1637. A mule-drawn cart ran over his leg, fracturing the tibia. Quickly, his uncle drove him to the hospital at Valencia. The story, as recorded, says that Pellicer stayed in the Valencia hospital for five days, until it was decided that he needed better help than they could provide. Pellicer was sent, on foot, with a broken leg, to the larger hospital in Zaragoza, a journey which took him 50 days.
Once he arrived in Zaragoza, feverish and ill, doctors found his leg to be gangrenous and in a grievous state. Pellicer's right leg was amputated "four fingers below the knee" and it was buried in a special plot at the hospital. He stayed in the hospital for several months, and was provided with a wooden leg and a crutch. He then applied to the church authorities at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza for authorization to make a living as a beggar, which was granted. Pellicer lived in Zaragoza for two years, attending mass daily at the Basilica, and accepting alms from the citizenry. The pious young amputee was a familiar face in town.
At last he decided to return home. He rode a donkey all the way to his parents' home in Calanda, where he'd grown up. His family was overjoyed to see him, but since he couldn't work, he spent a couple of weeks riding his donkey to neighboring villages begging. And then one night, it happened.
A traveling soldier was spending the night in Pellicer's own room, so Pellicer took a bedroll on the floor in his parents' bedroom. In the morning, his parents saw not one, but two feet protruding from the end of the short blanket! They excitedly woke their son, who was as surprised as anyone, and the news quickly spread throughout the village that the young amputee had been miraculously healed.
An examination of the leg revealed it was the same leg he'd always had. It bore a scar from where a cyst had been excised when he was a child, two scars made by thorns, and another from a dog bite on his calf. Most notable was a scar where the cart wheel had crushed his tibia. The leg was said to appear thin and atrophied, but within a few days he was using it normally.
As the story spread, it drew in the curious and the official. A few days after the miraculous restoration, a delegation consisting of a priest, a vicar, and the local royal notary came to Calanda to see for themselves and to prepare an official record of the event. They took statements from witnesses and carefully documented Pellicer's story.
Two months later, a trial was opened in Zaragoza where more than 100 people testified that they had known Pellicer with only one leg, whereas now he had two. Ten months later, the archbishop rendered a verdict that the restoration of the leg was canonized as a true miracle. Since that date, skeptics have no longer been able to charge that God does not heal amputees.
The most authoritative work on the Miracle of Calanda is the 1998 book Il Miracolo by Catholic scholar Vittorio Messori which identifies and records the pieces of written evidence collected by the delegation, and which survives today. They are the following:
Documentation of Miguel Juan Pellicer's baptism, confirming that he was a real person.
Registration of Pellicer's admittance to the hospital at Valencia.
The delegation's original notarized report of the statements collected in Calanda, including statements by people who saw him come to town with one leg and wake up with two.
A certified and notarized copy of the original minutes of the trial at Zaragoza, including many statements of people who knew Pellicer as a one-legged beggar.
There are also many other documents that do not necessarily support the miracle claim, but that support other parts of the story; for example, proof that other people named in the story exist, proof that after the miracle Pellicer was invited to the royal court in Madrid, and books and other publications retelling the event.
If we accept that these documents are indeed legitimate, and I think we can, is there any wiggle room left? Do the documents consist of proof that a miraculous restoration of an amputated limb occurred?
Medically, Pellicer's story is improbable, but not impossible. 55 days after the injury, he said, his leg was amputated due to advanced gangrene. In a crushing injury like the one he suffered, gangrene may take from 48 to 72 hours to set in, and once it does, you're gone from sepsis in as little as a few hours. Nobody lives 55 days with a gangrenous injury. If his skin was not broken, or if any breaks healed cleanly, it is still possible that the wound could have developed internal gas gangrene weeks, months, or even years later. But the appearance of gas gangrene is inconsistent with the condition allegedly reported by the doctors, which was "phlegmonous and gangrenous", meaning open and wet, and "black". Without an actual examination, we can't say for certain that Pellicer's story is impossible; but the version of the story that's been reported raises a huge medical red flag.
This red flag is sufficient to prompt a closer examination of the documented evidence. And there is one thing that jumps out. It's a giant, gaping hole. In case you haven't fallen into it yet, or seen any large buildings or 747s get swallowed up in this hole, I'll point it out: There is no documentation or witness accounts confirming his leg was ever gone.
But what about all those witnesses who knew him with one leg? Allow me to offer an alternative version of what might have happened, that requires no miraculous intervention, and is still consistent with all the documentary evidence we have. Pellicer's leg was broken in the accident as witnessed and reported, but like most broken legs, did not develop gangrene. His uncle took him to the hospital at Valencia (a documented event), where he spent five days — during which his uncle presumably went back to his farm — and his broken leg was set.
The next 50 days he spent convalescing as his leg mended. Unable to work during this time, he was forced to earn a living as a beggar, and found that the broken leg did wonders for the collection of alms. Once his leg was sound, he reasoned that if a broken leg was good, a missing leg would be even better. He bound his right foreleg up behind his thigh, got ahold of a wooden leg, and traveled to Zaragoza, home of the great Basilica — someplace where he wasn't known. For two years, the young Pellicer enjoyed the relative financial success of panhandling among the Basilica's devotees as an amputee with a sad story.
Eventually he made it back home to Calanda, where his plans were accidentally foiled when the existence of his complete, sound leg was revealed when his parents saw his feet sticking out of his blanket. At that point, the miracle story was a perfect cover. Many, many people had known him as the man with one leg, and now everyone could quite plainly see that he had two. There was no way he could lose.
I'm not accusing Miguel Juan Pellicer of being a fraud, but I am pointing out that there is a far more probable alternate explanation. Faking blindness, infirmity, poverty, and all manner of ailments is hardly unheard of among beggars. It is now, and has been for millennia, a pillar of the profession.
Note that no evidence exists that his leg was ever amputated — or that he was even treated at all — at the hospital in Zaragoza other than his own word. He named three doctors there, but for some reason there is no record of their having been interviewed by either the delegation or the trial. The trial did find that no leg was buried where he said it was at the hospital, but this is exactly what we'd expect to find if it had never been amputated. Although this lack of a buried leg is often put forth as evidence that the story is true, it is actually a lack of evidence of anything.
We have evidence that he was admitted to the hospital in Valencia with his uncle. We have notarized first-hand statements that a scar was visible on his leg where he had been injured by the mule cart. We have numerous statements that he was well known in Zaragoza as a one-legged beggar. All the evidence supports Pellicer being a beggar with a popular and time-honored gimmick who was caught, not with his hand in the cookie jar, but with his feet out of the blanket. It is only through the introduction of a new assumption, that of the existence of unprecedented supernatural intervention, can the alternate explanation of a miraculous restoration be found consistent with this same evidence. This is where Occam's Razor comes into play: The most likely explanation is the one that requires the fewest new assumptions.
We can't say that the Miracle of Calanda is not genuine, and we can't prove that Miguel Juan Pellicer's leg was not miraculously restored. But we can say that the evidence we have falls short, and is perfectly consistent with no miracle having taken place.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Miracle of Calanda." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
1 Mar 2011. Web.
12 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4247>
References & Further Reading
Aranda, J. Luis Buñuel: A Critical Biography. London: Secker and Warburg, 1975. 7-17.
Domingo Pélrez, T. El Milagro de Calanda y sus Fuentes Históricas. Zaragoza: Caja Inmaculada, 2006.
Marie, A. "Spiritual Newsletter." Saint Joseph de Clairval Abbey
in Flavigny. Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval, 8 Dec. 2006. Web. 23 Feb. 2011. <http://www.clairval.com/lettres/en/2006/12/08/2061206.htm>
Naval, L. El Milagro de Calanda a Nivel Histórico. Zaragoza: Iglesia Católica, 1972.
Sanz y Martínez, M. Calanda. Reus: Artis Gráf, 1970. 1-41.