Photo by Felice Boscaratti on Wikimedia Commons

Understanding the Impossible

Carlos Eire —

Levitating saints raise questions that no historian should avoid. Never mind the metaphysical questions, that floating ten-ton anvil that historians dare not touch, much less acknowledge. Aside from the fact that they reify social constructions of reality, levitating saints allow us to peer into the very process of cultural change, offering unique insights into an essential component of the transition to modernity. Their flying and hovering reveal complexities about an epistemological revolution that up until very recently was assumed to follow a steep and well-defined upward curve: the triumph of rationality over primitive credulity and superstition. When Max Weber argued in the early twentieth century that the Protestant Reformation was instrumental in the gradual “disenchantment” of the world and the rise of rationalism and empirical science, the miraculous and supernatural had already been stripped of legitimacy.43 Some bits and pieces of this history have been claimed—as in the case of witchcraft—by those who have found it useful for the promotion of certain social, cultural, and political causes in their own day. Some historians have been an exception to this rule, straining to understand the past on its own terms and accepting the transition to modernity as a very complex process in which the redefinition of the boundaries between the natural and supernatural did not always follow a Whiggish or Weberian upward curve.44

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.45 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-Lüneberg, a Lutheran prince converted to Catholicism as a result of Joseph of Cupertino’s 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.46 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.47 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.48 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.”

43 Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by Hans Heinrich Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).” “This “disenchantment” thesis is an essential component of one of the influential books on early modern religion: Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Oxford University Press, 1971). For a revisionist take on this classic text, see Michael Hunter, The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020).

44 See Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons (Oxford University Press, 1997); Midelfort, Exorcism and Enlightenment.

45 See Robert Scribner, “The Reformation, Popular Magic, and the ‘Disenchantment of the World,’ ” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23 (1993): 484, 487.

46 In addition to the work of Andrew Keitt and Fabián Alejandro Campagne, see Julie Crawford, Marvelous Protestantism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Daston, “Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence”; and Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature (New York: Zone Books, 1998).

47 For an insightful summary and analysis of the development of these concepts in medieval and early modern thought, see Daston, “Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence,” pp. 95–100.”

48 Andrew Keitt argues in Inventing the Sacred: Imposture, Inquisition, and the Boundaries of the Supernatural in Golden Age Spain (Leiden: Brill, 2005) that the seventeenth century was “a period in which rationalism was employed as often to shore up belief in the miraculous as to challenge it” (p. 7). For a concise summary of Keitt’s views, see his article “Religious Enthusiasm, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Disenchantment of the World,” Journal of the History of Ideas 65, no. 2 (2004): 243–44.

From They Flew: A History of the Impossible by Carlos Eire. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Carlos M. N. Eire is the T. L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. He is the author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, winner of the National Book Award, and of War Against the Idols; A Very Brief History of Eternity; and Reformations. He lives in Guilford, CT.

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