How do you solve a problem like Maria?  

Sister María was born in 1602 to an unremarkable family in the small village of Ágreda, located in the northeastern Spanish province of Soria. She was destined to spend her entire life there, most of it cloistered in the local Franciscan convent. Confirmed at the age of four on account of her precocious piety, from her early years onward she devoted herself to a life of prayer and self-mortification. At age eighteen, she began to experience increasingly frequent and extended raptures, during which she would rise into the air. Word of these levitating raptures soon spread well beyond Ágreda and for several years a steady stream of curious visitors made their way to the convent to witness, and report on, these extraordinary events. 

But levitation was not Sister María’s most impressive feat. While ostensibly closeted in her convent in Ágreda, she crossed the Atlantic and evangelized the Jamano tribes in New Spain (now Texas and New Mexico). This she claimed to have done on more than 500 occasions. Her bilocation was subsequently corroborated by both Spanish missionaries in New Mexico and the objects of her missionary endeavors, giving rise to the legend of the “Lady in Blue” (on account of the blue cloak that was part of María’s Franciscan habit). María was an “avatar of the impossible.”

The well-attested accounts of María de Ágreda’s otherwise implausible accomplishments generate a problem for the historian, and this problem lies at the heart of Carlos Eire’s fascinating and thought-provoking new book: They Flew: A History of the Impossible. In this beautifully written “history of the impossible,” Eire is concerned not merely with providing rich and absorbing descriptions of the many early modern figures who performed impossible feats such as levitation, but also with exploring, with a largely unprecedented honesty and openness, how historians should deal with the “overabundance of testimony” affirming past events that we now regard as impossible. 

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Sister María is, to be sure, one of the more spectacular cases that Eire offers to readers, but his book canvasses many similar figures. Teresa of Avila also figures prominently in his narrative. While something of an underachiever in the bilocation stakes, Teresa was a frequent levitator. A distinctive feature of her levitations is that, in addition to attestation in numerous sources (admittedly mostly hagiographical works associated with her canonization), we also have her own, firsthand accounts. Arguably, these are the most detailed reports of this kind on record. In addition to providing descriptions of her altered states, these testimonies offer insights into Teresa’s reflections on the how and why of levitation. They also bear the ring of truth.

Teresa’s personal accounts were not produced out of any pride in her aerial accomplishments. For a start, she was essentially forced to write an autobiographical account of her experiences by her superiors. She was, moreover, a deeply reluctant flyer. She often found it necessary to anchor herself with objects that were attached to the floor or walls, since the frequency of her unwelcome levitations interfered with the performance of routine activities. Her aversion to levitation also prompted her to prevail upon those in her company to pull her back down to earth whenever she began to float. She repeatedly and fervently prayed that she might be spared what, for her, was plainly a dubious privilege: “I often begged the Lord not to grant me any more favors with visible external signs.” These petitions eventually met with some success, and the more spectacular external signs of her divine raptures began to subside with time.

A third major exemplar of the impossible to whom Eire introduces us is the relatively little known “flying friar,” Joseph of Cupertino (not the home of the modern marvels produced by Apple, but a town in the province of Lecce, in the heel of Italy). Joseph’s aerial achievements were even more frequent and spectacular than those of Teresa. Most of his levitations occurred while he celebrated Mass, most often during the consecration of the elements. His flights were often accompanied by loud screams and shouts, an exception to the general rule. When indoors, the height of his elevation was limited only by the ceiling. Outdoors, he would ascend to the treetops. On the occasion of a papal audience in Rome, he soared over the head of Urban VIII, hovering above the pontiff until commanded to return to earth by Father General Berardicelli. Urban was clearly impressed and is said to have offered to serve as a witness for canonization proceedings, should Joseph be literally translated to heaven during his pontificate.

Joseph’s feats were also attested to by a great number of observers from a broad range of social estates. The records of his exploits are consistent, numerous, and credible. One of the most celebrated witnesses, from the other side of the confessional divide, was the Protestant nobleman Johann Friedrich, whose subsequent conversion to Catholicism was prompted by his firsthand observations of Joseph’s miraculous elevations. It was Johann Friedrich who lured the brilliant German polymath G. W. Leibniz to Wolfenbüttel to serve in the renowned ducal Herzog August library, suggesting that he was no enemy of rational enlightenment. 

Despite the spectacular nature of his performances and the parade of onlookers that they attracted, Joseph made no secret of the fact that his public levitations were a source of deep shame and embarrassment. Indeed, one of the most striking common features of Eire’s levitators is their resolute reluctance to be the center of attention and their deep and oft-expressed desire to keep their feet firmly on the ground. As we have seen, Teresa prayerfully begged to be relieved of the burden of levitation. Joseph also prayed that his involuntary elevations would cease. María was similarly determined to be liberated from her capacity for flight. Unlike the others, however, María suffered the ignominy of being placed on public display in her elevated state without being aware of it by her convent sisters, who conspired to keep this secret from her. She was deeply embarrassed when she eventually discovered the truth and thereafter took to locking herself away from public view. Even then, her fellow nuns found ways to access her room and convey her, weightless, into venues for public viewing. Eventually, her repeated prayers for the cessation of these ecstatic visions were answered.

Our levitators had good reason to be resistant to their special gift. At a moral level, to which our subjects were acutely sensitive, the public adulation that they brought could potentially lead to the foremost of the seven deadly sins: pride. Equally worrying was the fact that widely reported instances of miraculous feats would inevitably attract the attention of the Inquisition, leading to formal inquiries and potential accusations of fraud or demonic possession. Such sinister possibilities point to the grave dangers that attended miracle-working during this period. But they also indicate that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ecclesiastical authorities were not credulously inclined to believe every report of miracle-working. Skepticism is not the sole preserve of the modern, secular West. The official imprimatur granted to the miracles of Teresa, María, and Joseph, and the transmission of their feats to posterity, mean that their performances of the “impossible” had satisfied rigorous, forensic tests of authenticity. So while it is undoubtedly true that there were different standards of credulity then, there were standards nonetheless, and we should ask what this counts for when we now seek to pass historical judgments on their veracity.  

Much of our present incredulity about these levitation narratives, along with the relative ease with which we dismiss them, rests on the assumption that we are more intellectually mature than our forebears; that Western history has followed a simple trajectory from a medieval age of superstition and credulity, through the progressive stages of a disenchanting Protestant Reformation and a scientific revolution, to arrive at a rational and enlightened modernity. The problem with the standard story, as Eire points out, is that it is precisely during the putative phases of disenchantment and rationalization that we see an increase in reports of supernatural and preternatural happenings.  

The sixteenth century thus witnessed a significant rise in reports of supernatural events, including levitation. Especially conspicuous in the age that we’ve come to call the “Age of Reason” is a remarkable rise in reports of demonic activity. Testimonies of personal encounters with the devil circulated widely in print, and the 1550s saw the growth of a new literary genre—the Teufelsbuch, or “devil book.” Devils were assigned to specific vices and afflictions: drunkenness, gluttony, lust, melancholy. There was even a “trousers devil,” thought to be complicit in the vogue for donning sexually suggestive attire. Dating from this period is the most famous devil book of all, The History of Dr. Faustus (1587), which relates the cautionary tale of Faust, whose insatiable curiosity led him to sell his soul to the devil. This uptick in demonic activity was related to the formalization of the rite of exorcism in the Rituale Romanum of 1614. 

To bracket the question of their truth is to avoid the issue that arguably lies at the heart of the historical quest: what actually happened?


Those who catalogued supernatural and demonic events took great pains to sift the factual from the fraudulent and routinely appealed to the weight of empirical evidence. Witch-hunter Peter Binsfield, who authored the 1589 Confessions of Warlocks and Witches, announced that his relations were accumulated, not from “scattered rumours, but from the independent and concordant testimony of many witnesses” who “reported these things as certain facts.” Almost a century later, Joseph Glanvill and Henry More, two fellows of the newly founded Royal Society, documented instance after instance of supernatural events, including levitation, arguing that empirical evidence unambiguously pointed to the existence of a spiritual realm. 

This brings us back to the conundrum confronting contemporary historians: how to write a history of the impossible. To accept stories of levitation as true is to run afoul of the ruling assumption of methodological naturalism and run the risk of being thought a crank. To bracket the question of their truth is to avoid the issue that arguably lies at the heart of the historical quest: what actually happened? Eire does not offer an unambiguous solution to this conundrum. But he does propose that the historian’s task is one of comprehension rather than the more reductive business of logical explanation (in our terms). This entails “not only embracing what may seem strange in the past but accepting the strangeness as an essential rational feature of the past, not as something irrational.”

In the eighteenth century, when reports of levitations and bilocations had already begun to wane, the skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume proposed a celebrated argument against accepting miracle reports. At the heart of the argument lies a principle that the wise should proportion their belief to the evidence. Hume was convinced that this principle would invariably count against miracles since, in his view, laws of nature were necessarily better attested than apparent exceptions. But Hume’s principle of proportioning belief to evidence is susceptible to an alternative reading: Is it more likely that the events in question really happened than that the countless testimonies to their occurrence are false or fraudulent? Eire’s absorbing and impeccably researched book invites us to at least ponder that alternative balancing act while reminding us of historian Ethan Shagan’s apposite observation that “every era is credulous, but they are credulous in different ways.”

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