They Flew: A History of the Impossible (Paperback)

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An award-winning historian’s examination of impossible events at the dawn of modernity and of their enduring significance
“Historically rich and superbly written.”—David J. Davis, Wall Street Journal

Accounts of seemingly impossible phenomena abounded in the early modern era—tales of levitation, bilocation, and witchcraft—even as skepticism, atheism, and empirical science were starting to supplant religious belief in the paranormal. In this book, Carlos M. N. Eire explores how a culture increasingly devoted to scientific thinking grappled with events deemed impossible by its leading intellectuals.
Eire observes how levitating saints and flying witches were 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 scientific discoveries. Relying on an array of firsthand accounts, and focusing on exceptionally impossible cases involving levitation, bilocation, witchcraft, and demonic possession, Eire challenges established assumptions about the redrawing of boundaries between the natural and supernatural that marked the transition to modernity.
Using as his case studies stories about St. Teresa of Avila, St. Joseph of Cupertino, the Venerable María de Ágreda, and three disgraced nuns, Eire challenges readers to imagine a world animated by a different understanding of reality and of the supernatural’s relationship with the natural world. The questions he explores—such as why and how “impossibility” is determined by cultural contexts, and whether there is more to reality than meets the eye or can be observed by science—have resonance and lessons for our time.

About the Author

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.

Praise For…

“Historically rich and superbly written.”—David J. Davis, Wall Street Journal

They Flew, written in Eire’s familiar evocative, beguiling narrative manner, is in fact more revealing for what it does not say. His oblique style is famous.”—Jan Machielsen, Times Literary Supplement

“[This] mischievous history of miracles during the early modern period pokes at our most basic assumptions about life, the universe, and everything.”—The Bulwark

“Eire is a master storyteller. . . . A spellbinding narrative reminiscent of the best works of Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis. . . . [A] masterpiece of historical scholarship.”—Peter B. Kaufman, Los Angeles Review of Books

“[A] compelling new book. . . . Eire makes a powerful case for taking [these stories] seriously, and considering them through the eyes of the society in which they happened.”—Katherine Harvey, Engelsberg Ideas

“[Eire] challenges assumptions by providing an informative, engaging, and extraordinarily provocative account of ‘impossible events.’”—Glenn C. Altschuler, Jerusalem Post

“[An] absorbing and impeccably researched book.”—Peter Harrison, Public Discourse

“A fascinating study. . . . Eire is sincerely sympathetic to the complexities and strangeness of the human condition and writes elegantly and clearly.”—Bob Rickard, Fortean Times

“This a work which seeks to boldly fly where no early-modern historian has flown before.”—Alexander Faludy, Church Times

“Eire examines in this insightful study such phenomena as levitation and bilocation (being in two places at once) that were frequently attributed to saints and mystics in the early modern era. . . . Readers interested in magic, religion, or medieval history will want to take a look.”—Publishers Weekly

“Engrossing.”—Katherine Howell, National Review

“Compelling. It was impossible not to find myself engrossed in Eire’s meticulous—one might even say loving—handling of these narratives. . . . Watching his delight in recounting these stories of the impossible is an act of faith itself. One might even say that it’s miraculous.”—Garrett Brown, Christianity Today

“This book is a game-changer. Eire engages in extensive primary textual work in multiple languages, goes down all the skeptical pathways (including demonological ones), and practices the historian’s bracketing of the obvious truth question: ‘Well, did these people fly or not?’ Eire’s deeper conclusion is secreted, or just shouted, in the title: They Flew. And that, well, that changes everything.”—Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, New Realities

“Eire has once again done the impossible: written a book with the pace of a thriller and the scope of a historical monograph. He has historically unraveled levitations and bilocations, where the temporal merges with the spiritual: Newton’s gravity with Teresa’s ecstasies. Specialists will find deep insights and general readers will enter a new fascinating universe.”—Jaume Aurell, author of Medieval Self‑Coronations: The History and Symbolism of a Ritual

“With sophistication and subtlety, sensitivity and sympathy, Carlos Eire follows the unlikely thread of abundant testimonies about human levitation and bilocation in sixteenth‑ and seventeenth‑century Catholic Europe. His book invites self‑examination about cocksure assumptions and uncritical dogmatisms in the present. A profound meditation on religion, history, and the meanings of modernity, They Flew shows that a history of the impossible is not just possible—it has now been realized.”—Brad S. Gregory, author of The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

“Eire has written an engaging and monumental history of supernatural belief during a period when the miraculous coincided with the Age of Reason: flying nuns and friars were contemporaries of Isaac Newton. For Protestants and Catholics alike, the supernatural imaginary maintained a powerful hold.”—Alison Weber, University of Virginia

“Only Carlos Eire could take us on this journey to the impossible. A brilliant feat of scholarship and imagination that requires us to look again at an early modern world we thought we knew.”—Bruce Gordon, Yale University

Product Details
ISBN: 9780300280074
ISBN-10: 0300280076
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: October 22nd, 2024
Pages: 512
Language: English