Book Review: They Flew: A History of the Impossible by Carlos Eire (Yale; 2023)

It isn’t very often that I read a book and find myself speechless. Usually, as my beloved would attest, the opposite is the case, and more so if I liked the book. And I am in awe of They Flew. All I could say to her was, “You’ve GOT to read this book.”

Carlos Eire is an author, scholar, and historian I have long appreciated. His credentials are impressive—Dr Eire is the T. L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. He is also the author of a captivating childhood memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003). If you haven’t read it, please do so soon. It is the story of Carlos and his brother who were sent by their parents to America on one of the last flights out of Cuba as Castro established his repressive Communist regime. It is poignant, well written, funny, sobering—a truly edifying read on all sorts of levels. Waiting for Snow won the National Book Award, if you need one more reason to read it.

So, back to Eire’s latest, fascinating work, They Flew: A History of the Impossible. He begins, in his “Introduction,” to help us understand his scholarly interest:

            Anyone who examines the early modern period carefully should eventually discover that the public sphere in Western Europe was rife with levitating saints and flying witches and other impossible events. This should seem odd, not only because this was the age of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz but also because—as Weber assured us all—Protestantism had already “disenchanted” the world. Under the Weberian formula, how can one explain the Protestant belief in flying witches? How does one account for the fact that Protestants left the devil in full control of his preternatural powers while they stripped God of his supernatural powers on earth? And how does one account for the fact that John Frederick of Saxe-Lündeberg, a Lutheran prince converted to Catholicism as a result of Joseph of Cupertino levitations, was Leibniz’s patron? Or that Newton, born in 1643, could have journeyed to Fossombrone or Osimo as a young man to lay eyes on Saint Joseph, “the Flying Friar”?
            In the past few decades, some historians have begun to call attention to the way in which both Catholics and Protestants started redefining the concepts of natural and supernatural. Much of this work stresses the fact that the epistemological and metaphysical gap between Catholics and Protestants was one of their principal battle lines. Since Protestants tended to reject the miraculous as impossible, most of this recent work has focused on Catholics and on how they tried to identify “real” miracles or on how they tried to argue rationally for their occurrence, relying on the concepts of natural and supernatural or preternatural that were commonly shared by priest, minister, and scientist alike. Precise definitions and boundaries were of immense concern for Protestant and Catholic alike in the early modern period, as were those individuals who seemed to trespass the laws of nature. Levitating saints and flying witches were no sideshow but part of the main act, as essential a component of early modern life as the religious turmoil of the age and as much a part of history as Newton’s apple. Distinguishing between the natural and supernatural was as crucial as telling right from wrong and as necessary as classifying the airborne as either “good” or “evil” The shocking truth is that both Protestants and Catholics professed belief in human flight and tried to sort out the airborne among them. No one can deny that the sorting took place at the very same time that calculus, empirical science, and atheism emerged in Western culture.
            That is a fact.
            But what does this fact tell us about the impossible? What does it tell us about the past and the way we strain to understand it or the present and its concerns and unquestioned assumptions? Why do we have high-speed magnetic levitation trains but feel the need to bracket all reports about hovering saints or witches? How can millions of us humans be in multiple locations simultaneously via the internet, day after day, but still feel the need to scoff at bilocation? Why is the only fact that we can accept about human levitation the fact that others, long ago, thought it was possible? What difference does that make? More than a question mark? Yes. Much more than the question mark missing from the following sentence:
            “They flew.” [p. 22-23]

I am not a historian, but my understanding is that they do their work by carefully investigating the available evidence for some event or person in the past. Much, but not all of this evidence may be documentary in form. Witnesses to what happened record their experience in letters, diaries, official reports, notes, casual asides, judicial records, etc. There is also the art and archeology involving the person or event to consider. The historian tracks down all those records, data, and documents, then carefully dates, compares and contrasts the different versions of what was recorded, tries to ascertain the reliability of the correspondents, and comes to the best possible conclusion about what actually occurred. Serious historians working today have developed strenuous standards for this work, and although conclusions are always to some extent tentative, unless bias or fraud creeps in we can usually have a good level of confidence in their work.

Dr. Eire points out that at the time of the Protestant Reformation there were numerous claims that in some instances, monks and nuns were so overcome as they fasted, meditated, and prayed, that they levitated off the ground. Many witnesses were involved, and Catholic leaders strenuously investigated to make certain the claims were not fraudulent. Some were, in fact, found to be fraudulent and were punished. Many others were deemed legitimate.

Now, here is the interesting point. Both Catholic and Protestant leaders believed the ecstatic worshippers levitated. Neither claimed it did not occur. The Catholics claimed it was a gift of God, and the Protestants insisted it was the work of the Devil. The modernists eventually asserted such things were impossible and so ignored the entire topic as worthy of scholarly attention.

Eire points out there were numerous witnesses to the levitations, numerous documents recording their experience, and numerous official investigations into it all. So, shouldn’t modern historians take note? He argues they should, and so he does.

            If you would like an audio preview of They Flew, Carlos Eire was hosted by Anselm House  on the University of Minnesota campus to give a lecture on the topic that is available, free, on YouTube.  And a conversation between Tara Isabella Burton, author of Self-Made, Social Creature, and Strange Rites and Carlos Eire is available, free, on YouTube .

            I do not merely recommend They Flew. I would argue the book is must reading for all discerning followers of Jesus.

Photo credit: The author with his iPhone.