cover image They Flew: A History of the Impossible

They Flew: A History of the Impossible

Carlos M.N. Eire. Yale Univ, $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-300-25980-3

Historian Eire (Reformations) 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. These reports flourished from the 15th through the 17th centuries in strongly Catholic southern Europe, especially modern-day Italy and Spain, where followers of such luminaries as St. Teresa of Avila, St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, and St. Francis of Assisi offered tantalizing eyewitness testimonies. Acknowledging the impossibility of verifying centuries-old supernatural accounts, Eire delves into the cultural context. He notes that St. Teresa, who begged God to end the miraculous acts in a show of humility, also had reason to fear the Inquisition. The church was wary of the personal power exercised by miracle workers, and could turn against practitioners, accusing them of receiving their abilities from the devil. Drawing on letters, autobiographies, and other primary sources, Eire reveals the Catholic establishment’s struggle to weed out fakes and to spin the narratives surrounding supernatural events in ways they hoped would bolster Catholicism against the threat of rising Protestantism and secularism. He expertly pairs this narrative of a beleaguered institution grappling to control its followers with a meditative exploration of spirituality and the power of belief. Readers interested in magic, religion, or medieval history will want to take a look. (Sept.)