Have you ever bitten into a piece of fruit so delicious, so ripe and perfect in its flavor and sweetness, that you vibrated, just a little, with pleasure? The Franciscan beggar Salvador de Orta did. He sliced into a pomegranate and—seeing in the multitude of tiny seeds a microcosm of everything beautiful in God’s perfectly ordered world—rose into the air in ecstasy. God was there in the fruit.

He was in the kitchen, too. Teresa of Ávila told her spiritual daughters that “God walks amidst the pots and pans, helping you with what’s internal and external at the same time.” So when the nuns found Teresa suspended in the air, transfixed in ecstatic union with God, a frying pan still clenched in her hand above the cooking flames, they may not have been surprised. It was God, helping her with both the internal (lifting her soul up to heaven) and the external (the frying of, perhaps, an egg).

They flew. They flew! That is Carlos Eire’s claim, in this deeply unserious book. Salvador and Teresa; the idiot savant Joseph of Cupertino, patron saint of airplane travelers; Saint Francis of Assisi, who with flames of love pouring from his face and mouth lifted his friend Masseo up in the air with his breath, uttering “Ah! Ah! Ah!” These enchanted men and women rose to church rafters and to crucifixes, they flew so high that roof tiles had to be removed; they flew to the topmost branches of the trees and perched there like birds. They flew at the slightest provocation—a lamb that reminded them of Christ, the perfection of a tidy flower, the reedy music of a flute blown by a shepherd. All enough to rend the veil of nature and send them up—up—up.

In They Flew, Eire offers what he calls a “history of the impossible”: a history of the early modern men and women who levitated and of those who bilocated, that is, who were in two places at once, whether inside isolated chambers within convents and evangelizing indigenous communities in New Mexico or on their knees before altars in remote Spanish churches and in Japan, giving spiritual succor to missionaries. More than other forms of the miraculous, Eire argues, levitation and bilocation force us to confront the status of the supernatural in history writing. So far, our feet remain on firm scholarly ground. For all of Eire’s protests that his subject is professionally “eccentric” or “risky” or even deemed “incompatible with seriousness,” the history of the supernatural in early modernity—of miracles, witchcraft, magic—is a perfectly normal field of inquiry.

What is more incompatible with seriousness is Eire’s contention that these miracles actually happened. These people flew. At least, I think that’s what he argues; it’s hard to tell, through the irony. (The closest we get to a thesis is this: “The assumed impossibility of certain events deserves closer scrutiny and some challenging.”) His reasoning is not so much advanced as danced around: in jokes, in suggestion and coincidence, in bizarre counterfactuals, in hypotheticals, in torrents of rhetorical questions. He would probably call this a style. I would call it evasion, even a kind of professional dishonesty. It’s hard not to feel that he’s written the book in such a way that, if pressed, he could plausibly deny that he ever said “they flew.”

In one such stream of baffling questions he asks:

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?

Under the slightest pressure, these insinuations collapse. Is Eire claiming that magnetic levitation trains are suspended in the air by God? Or is it rather that Joseph of Cupertino had magnets in his shoes? Did bilocating saints have access to a celestial Wi-Fi connection? Is the Internet God’s immanence, too? (In which case, a follow-up question: Are we in hell?) To read Eire’s book is to experience a profound disorientation. He would probably take that as a compliment. Is God a magnet? I wondered, and then had to put down the book and get some air.

In early modernity, the membrane that separated the natural world from the supernatural was gossamer thin; it might be ruptured at any moment. Saints and their miracles were physical evidence of the workings of supernatural grace in the natural world. They flew, they hovered, they teleported; their hands and feet bled like the wounds of Christ; their bodies glowed with brilliant light; they could smell the sins of others. They survived with barely any food—a Eucharist wafer a day, perhaps—and were supernatural insomniacs, defying the body’s need for sleep. They moved objects by telekinesis; they were mind readers. They could see things happening elsewhere and received divine messages in their dreams. They commanded animals and the weather. When these unusual people died, their bodies refused to decompose; their corpses oozed a pleasant-smelling goo that had healing, miracle-working properties when smeared onto the broken bodies of the faithful.


There were hundreds of these flying, sleepless, starving people in premodern Europe: one Spanish writer complained that “it seems as if one had wished to reduce these kingdoms to a republic of enchanted beings, living outside the natural order of things.” Some of the levitators were famous: Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who was observed glowing and “raised up in the air, with his knees bent, weeping and sighing”; or Francis of Assisi, “raised so high in the air and surrounded by such radiance” that people lost sight of him. When Giotto painted the scene he showed Francis levitating above swirling, parting clouds, a kind of medieval human rocket ship. But so many people started to fly in early modernity that there are hundreds more whose names have now fallen into obscurity, part of what Eire aptly calls the “inflationary spiral” of Catholic sanctity.

Did they fly? It was a question that bore the pressure of a fracturing continent. The boundary between the supernatural and the natural was a major point of contention in the Reformations that transformed Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Eire argues that the Protestant reformers radically reconfigured the relationship between the two realms. They sealed off the supernatural world, made it inaccessible, and “rejected the commonplace irruptions of the sacred” that had characterized medieval Christianity. For the reformers, there were no miracles after the biblical period of church history: all accounts of flying, healing, glowing were falsehoods, manipulations, superstitions. The miraculous became a theological weapon in the confessional arsenal. Protestants argued that so-called miracles were evidence that the Catholic Church was rife with demons, or that they were a bunch of swindlers; Catholics argued that miracles proved God really was on their side, that Protestantism was a heresy.

But what sent these enchanted people into the sky? Was it God—were they saints? Or were they animated by demons, flying in an evil sort of way, like witches? Worse, were they committing fraud, concealing their stilts or suspension by ropes, bouncing from an invisible premodern trampoline? The Catholic Church was reforming itself, too, and they had to be sure they weren’t allowing the faithful to pray to a charlatan. The writings of holy people were examined for evidence of their sanctity, and even Teresa of Ávila wasn’t immune from the Inquisition’s suspicion. She wrote her spiritual autobiography knowing that the text would be vetted for orthodoxy and authenticity. Her descriptions of how it felt to levitate give us a sense of what it was like for a woman to negotiate such pressures. She describes becoming insensate, “as if the soul has forgotten to animate the body.” Her eyes were open but unseeing; “I come close to losing my pulse altogether.” And then: she flew. Teresa described an out-of-body experience, a “new estrangement”: “I must confess,” she wrote, “that it produced an exceedingly great fear in me at first—a terrible fear, in fact—because one sees one’s body being lifted up from the ground.”

Not that she enjoyed breaking the laws of nature. Teresa begged the other nuns to grab her habit when she started to float up; she reached for anything nailed down, she prayed that God would put an end to her levitations. This was a winning strategy for holiness, because the best way to become a saint was to prove that you never wanted to be one in the first place. When God eventually did stop lifting her into the air, that was yet more proof: she’d even managed to strike a deal with him. Eight years after she died, Teresa’s miracles were already wielded against reformers. One of her hagiographers wrote that “God willed at this time…a lone, poor woman, to sound her challenge and raise the battle flag,” to humiliate the “throngs of infidels” and “heretical nations.”

The question of sanctity generated a lot of paperwork. In 1588 the Vatican created a new office, the Congregation of Sacred Rites and Ceremonies, to take charge of canonization. Saint making was complicated. To collect the accounts of miracles, to verify them; to interrogate witnesses, seek opinions of medical and scientific and theological experts: Church bureaucrats were verifying the supernatural with new evidentiary standards. This was where the promotor fidei, better known as the devil’s advocate, came in. But he wasn’t really in the pocket of the devil. He was a professional doubter, a Church bureaucrat who neither denied the existence of miracles nor believed in them but allowed instead for a subtler third thing: not knowing. Just because some phenomena—a flying friar, a stigmatic and bleeding nun—couldn’t be explained didn’t mean it was God at work.


The seventeenth-century friar Joseph of Cupertino flew so often, so extravagantly, so publicly, that he forced everyone around him—peasants and princes, Protestants and inquisitors—to confront the boundary between the inexplicable and the impossible. Joseph was a kind of holy idiot, called Bocca Aperta (“open mouth”) in school, who did everything wrong: he read poorly, was kicked out of a monastery for breaking pots and spilling food. Accepted into a new friary, he was put in charge of the mule because he couldn’t do anything else right. After two years of intense mortification and starvation—he ate only herbs, dried fruit, beans, and rotting vegetables; he barely slept, scourged himself with a whip, wore a chain wrapped so tightly under his hair shirt that it embedded into his skin—he levitated. He would shriek loudly and rise up into the air.

Crowds of people came to see the spectacle. Pilgrims would poke at him, catatonic in his flying state, prick him with needles, try to burn him with flames, but his soul was already up, his body insensate. So many came to see him that the friars had to remove tiles from the roof so the masses could watch him fly during the liturgy. He levitated constantly, understandably annoying his fellow friars—what with the shrieking, the soaring, the streaming crowds. He eventually annoyed the Inquisition, too, and was charged with feigned sanctity. He levitated on the way to his trial. The examiners gave him a stern warning, and the Inquisition would monitor him for the rest of his life, hiding him away in ever more isolated friaries so as not to attract crowds to witness the spectacle. It wasn’t that he was faking it, necessarily, but that his flying was so frequent, so disruptive, so attention-grabbing that it was better to let him fly alone than to deal head-on with the problem of his extreme sanctity.

A Jesuit returned from speaking with Joseph and related: “He is very intensely united to God and his heart is more disposed to this union than gunpowder is to ignition by the tiniest spark.” What did it mean to be so intensely open, so intensely vulnerable to the divine that every holy word, every ordered and beautiful flower or birdsong would send him flying? “Every natural thing served Joseph as a stairway to the supernatural,” one of his superiors remembered. The veil between this world and the supernatural was thinner for him, ripped hundreds and hundreds of times. He was held in the palm of God. When he flew, it was “as if an invisible hand wrapped itself around him at those moments and adjusted his clothes according to whatever his position was.”

Joseph understood his body as his medium. He starved it, whipped it, abused it violently for decades. Did he starve himself into lightness, with his diet of beans and rotting vegetables? According to hagiographers, when he was dying he called his body asino, or “jackass.” During his final illness: “The jackass has now begun to climb the mountain.” On the brink of death: “The jackass has reached the top of the mountain. He can no longer move. He will have to leave his hide here.” Sanctity made the flesh over into pure meaning. The Congregation of Sacred Rites had come to emphasize medical evidence of sanctity, and they performed an autopsy on his corpse; they found the sac enclosing Joseph’s heart dried up, the blood burned away. Proof that his heart had been inflamed by God’s love.

Joseph of Cupertino’s case seems to have brought Eire to the edge of his explanatory powers. Joseph, in his words, was “so impossibly otherworldly as to defy rational analysis.” Eire claims to have assembled eyewitness accounts to Joseph’s flights, but really he’s read hagiographies—a genre that hews toward narrative consistency and an insistence on its own fidelity to what really happened. What is this hagiographic evidence meant to be evidence of? I think we’re meant to believe that these “eyewitness testimonies” suggest that Joseph, indeed, flew. Eire writes that, since most of these levitations were outside, Joseph couldn’t possibly have used trampolines or ropes to fake it. “Why,” he asks in another one of those rhetorical questions, “has he been relegated to the history of the ridiculous rather than to the history of the impossible, or to the science of antigravitational forces?”

According to this line of reasoning, Joseph’s flights would necessarily change our understanding not of history but of gravity. But gravity is its own black hole, if one can bear the mixed metaphor. “Antigravitational forces” is a kind of bluster, a way of bludgeoning the reader into faith through science, a cynical appeal to secularism on behalf of faith. To say that Joseph flew and that our understanding of the laws of physics therefore must change (how, exactly?) is to explain precisely nothing: nothing about the early modern world, nothing about our own, and nothing about the vexed relationship between the enchanted past and our disenchanted present.

María de Ágreda, a bilocating saint from northern Spain, had an equally extreme approach to the flesh. She took a vow of celibacy at eight. At fifteen she became an ascetic, starving herself, wearing a girdle set with spikes, wrapping herself in chains. She wore a crucifix hammered with needles and pressed it into her breast while she prayed. Soon enough she too began to levitate; she was so light, so weightless, that the nuns could blow her body here and there “with just one puff of breath.” While cataleptic in Ágreda, she doubled: in 1620, according to her, she appeared in northern New Spain (present-day Texas and New Mexico), evangelizing the indigenous Jumano people, baptizing them, and teaching them the Gospel. She came back with detailed knowledge of the local weather. It took a long time for later missionaries there and María’s superiors in Spain to get their stories straight, but eventually they confirmed it: the Jumano had been visited by the Lady in Blue, who had baptized them and taught them the rudiments of Catholic faith in their own language.

The frequency of María’s bilocations—more than five hundred of them, she guessed—and the great distances she traveled raised the suspicions of the Inquisition. Years afterward they came to her convent and interviewed her, over ten grueling days of questioning about matters physical and metaphysical. “Since the regions she visited were so barbarous that the people have no language and can only grunt, how did she preach to them and teach them?” Did she mount a platform? Did she take rosaries with her? “Did she get wet when it rained on the way to those other kingdoms or when she was there, and, if so, did she return to the convent [with] her habit still wet?” Did American rain drip onto the floor of the convent in Ágreda?

María reflected on her flights.

Drawing on the better understanding of things I have now that I am older, it seems to me that either it was all the work of my imagination or that God showed me those things by means of abstract images of the kingdoms and what was going on there…. Neither then, nor now was I, or am I capable of knowing the way it happened.

Did María diminish her claims upon the supernatural for the benefit of the Inquisition, or had the intervening years brought on a certain doubt? “I have always questioned the idea that it happened to me in my body,” she told them; she had her own theories:

If the number five hundred is taken to represent all the times I became aware of those kingdoms, in one way or another, or all the times I prayed for or wanted their conversion, in that sense it is true.

Truth was capacious, flexible, could encompass considerable doubt. María longed to be with the Jumano, and her intense wanting was a kind of truth, too.

The isolation of the convent and this desire for the divine was a potent mix for holy women. In sixteenth-century Córdoba, Magdalena de la Cruz claimed that she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, that she gave birth to a baby on Christmas, breastfed him, and swaddled him in her hair. The baby vanished, but she challenged skeptics to look at her raw nipples as proof. She finally confessed that her miracles had been the work of two demons, Balban and Patonio. In the same century María de la Visitación in Lisbon slept with a life-size cross in her bed every night and called it “my wife.” She claimed she had received the stigmata but was found, on closer inspection, to have used a mix of paint and her own blood to create intricate trompe l’oeil wounds on her palms and the soles of her feet. Luisa de la Ascensión, her contemporary in northern Castile, bilocated to all of the most action-packed spots of the early modern Catholic world: to Philip III’s deathbed, to a martyr’s side in Japan, even to the Battle of White Mountain near Prague, to cheer the Catholics to victory. But some of her fellow nuns saw her secretly eating more than just the communion crackers she had claimed to be sustained by—and she was eventually denounced as a fraud by the Inquisition.

How should we interpret these stories of flying and bilocating, of demons and chapped nipples? Of the body and its impossible desires? Eire’s approach is idiosyncratic. Across his scholarship he has aimed to “re-enchant” history, in the words of Ronald Rittgers. Eire understands modern secularism as its own kind of methodology, with its own interpretive shortcomings. Atheism, as much as faith, shapes the questions we ask of our sources and limits the possibilities of interpretation. In his award-winning memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003), Eire conveys the immediacy of the supernatural during his childhood in revolutionary Cuba and as a child refugee in the United States. He has written that the “doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist totalitarian regime” shaped his understanding of history. Religious belief shouldn’t be explained away as a symptom of something else, as a functionalist response to political violence, say, or economic scarcity. Faith—and especially lived faith, not abstract theology—can make history, too. “Belief is the immortal soul of the imagination,” Eire writes at the close of They Flew, and the power of belief to make history “can be limitless.”

As Eire and others have argued, secularism involves its own, often unacknowledged assumptions about historical interpretation. But for all that Eire makes himself out to be a lone wolf howling against the secular status quo, the field of early modern religious history has long been riven by these questions of faith, secularism, and how we interpret the beliefs of the past. Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (2012) mounted an intense attack on the secular academy, arguing (as he put it later) that

some religious truth claims are consistent with all possible findings of the natural sciences, that the denial of the possibility of miracles is an unverifiable dogma, and that some religious claims are intellectually viable today and therefore might be true.

But does that mean unbelieving historians can never understand the past? Does belief offer special access to the elements of early modernity—faith and the supernatural—that exceeds “rational” or secular attempts at interpretation? These are serious questions, and Eire does not approach them with the rigor and care they deserve. Rather than deeply involving himself in the faith of his early modern subjects, he rationalizes their beliefs in the terms of the same scientific epistemologies he claims to criticize: the irruption of the supernatural into the natural world bears an “eerie resemblance to the multiverse cosmology proposed by some astrophysicists in our own day and age,” for example. One of the strange ironies of They Flew is that Eire’s re-enchanted history leaves the past less clear, less real, and less vivid than the secular histories of the miraculous that—precisely because of their secularism—have to work harder to understand early modern faith on its own strange terms.

I am sympathetic to some of the problems Eire identifies in our dominant approach to the study of early modern religion. But they do not mean we need to become re-enchanted, were such a thing even possible; or that, as other historians have suggested, we might fracture into two academies, the secular and the nonsecular. There is room to become more critical, though, of the way that “truth” and “atheism” have become synonymous. We might take a cue from María de Ágreda’s comfort with unknowing, her ability to transform the longings of the imagination into their own form of truth, and so to make truth itself more expansive.

I agree, too, that recent histories of religion that understand early modern beliefs and practices as a set of discourses, ideologies, and representations can be unsatisfying. This approach risks reducing belief to something discursive, to a text the historian can untangle and cleanly interpret without ever having to truly confront what was real and radical about belief. The distancing effect of this kind of cultural history is frustrating, with its unexamined conviction that we, with our lack of belief, can make belief make sense. But to do so is to misunderstand what it means to believe. There is an irreducible quality to Joseph’s flight: something unnerving, excessive—not a cold discourse but a fantasy of the body’s possibility. “Flight is also a positive course,” the historian Joan Scott has written, in a meditation on the place of fantasy in history: “a soaring; it traces the path of desire.”

How might we approach the early modern world as absolutely real? How can we navigate between the dogmas of unconditional faith and unconditional secularism? A flying saint is neither a rebuke to gravitational physics nor a cultural script to be read for rational meaning. Both approaches subordinate all that was strange and extravagant about the early modern past to our own dull preoccupations. Is there another way? Like the promotor fidei, I am drawn to the realm between belief and unbelief, of not knowing. I want to take the devil’s side: the side of the inexplicable.

We might follow the instincts of the Congregation of Sacred Rites as they sliced open the corpses of saints, looking for answers to the problem of the supernatural in the oddities of the flesh. In Philip Neri’s enlarged heart, thought to be so swollen by the fervor of his prayer that it broke apart his ribs; in Carlo Borromeo’s divine absence of a penis, said to have withered away from virginal neglect. In the dripping juice of a really good pomegranate running between holy fingers. What could be a richer site of fantasy than the sore nipples of Magdalena de la Cruz, aching for her vanished baby, born on Christmas Day? Or the tiny paintings that decorated the palms of María de la Visitación, those miniature realist illusions of Christ’s own wounds? These oozing, luminous early modern bodies remind us of what we can’t explain. Of the desires and excesses and fantasies irreducible to blind faith or to blind reason; of a time when you could starve yourself until you flew.