Trances, Ecstasies, Raptures, and Levitations: On Carlos Eire’s “They Flew”
By Peter B. KaufmanDecember 12, 2023
They Flew: A History of the Impossible by Carlos Eire
There is so much that is urgent for us to learn from what the social sciences call the dynamics of belief. Belief in things that come without any ostensible proof or evidence—that presidential elections are stolen, that horse tranquilizers cure COVID-19—is a root cause of the epistemic chaos that we find ourselves in today. How timely, then, for this extraordinary new history of belief to appear, even if the author seems to be focusing on the 16th and 17th centuries. And what a time that was. One accomplished British historian of the period, Keith Thomas, tells us, in his 1971 study Religion and the Decline of Magic, that most people back then were, by our contemporary standards anyway, “exceedingly liable to pain, sickness, and premature death”—also to poverty, “sudden disaster,” and “utter despair.” There was, understandably, a concomitant preoccupation, among the general public and elites alike, with the explanation and the relief of human misfortune; devil’s curses and God’s possible antidotes thus played a supersized role, especially before the so-called Age of Reason and Enlightenment learning started to take hold. The natural world of that time, Carlos Eire tells us, “constantly pulsated with the possibility of the miraculous.” It’s a patch of human history that seems very long ago. Yet today, under the existential terrors of climate change, a global pandemic rivaling the medieval plagues, and media that bombards us with news of one catastrophe after another, yesteryear has a familiar ring.
Eire is a master storyteller. His memoir of growing up in and leaving Cuba, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, won a 2003 National Book Award. For They Flew: A History of the Impossible, a new book that has been 40 years in the making, he plunged into scores of archival sources—primary documents in French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, including reams of testimonies from eyewitnesses and transcripts from courtroom hearings and ecclesiastic inquisitions—plus hundreds of secondary accounts from the period: books and pamphlets about mysterious behaviors and events and, when they started to threaten people, how to stop them. The result is a tale about everyday people, usually people of the cloth, performing and recording the impossible—in a spellbinding narrative reminiscent of the best works of Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis.
The heroes include characters upon whom he bestows rich nicknames like the “extreme ascetic bilocator” (Luisa de la Ascensión), the “reluctant aethrobat” (Saint Teresa of Ávila), and the “diabolical abbess” (Magdalena de la Cruz, the Nun of Córdoba). One subject, the “shrieking aerial ecstatic,” is Giuseppe Maria Desa, a.k.a. Saint Joseph of Cupertino, “the Flying Friar.” Desa was born in 1603 in Apulia, Italy’s heel, then under Spanish rule—and born in a stable, no less, while his parents were on the run from debt collectors and the law. Joseph was “[d]rawn to spending time in churches and precociously inclined to prayer,” but “[e]asily distracted at school.” The boy “would often drop his books and remain immobile for long spells,” Eire recounts,
“with his eyes fixed heavenward and his mouth half open, as if we were listening to the singing and the sound of the angels up there.” Soon enough, young Joseph came to be known by his schoolmates and neighbors as Bocca Aperta, or “open mouth,” a mocking reference to his trances and his reputation as a dimwit.
But Joseph had something his buddies didn’t have. He could fly. As contemporary eyewitnesses detailed,
Joseph would regularly take to the air, always after emitting a loud cry, and hover above the ground anywhere from “one hand” to several “paces” or cubits, even higher than the altar, or over people’s heads. Joseph could remain perfectly still in the air, sometimes for hours; he could also gyrate or sing and dance. Many times, at the most unexpected moment, Joseph would let out one of his shrieks—as loud as a cannon blast, by his own description—and take to the air. His levitations were not always predictable but could easily be triggered by anything that affected Joseph spiritually. Simply hearing the names of Jesus or Mary could do it, as could sacred music or the beauty of nature. Prayer, especially, was a common trigger. And saying Mass caused him to rise in the air frequently, especially at the moment of consecration.
Legions of eyewitnesses would spot Joseph hovering over altars and pulpits, levitating over tabernacles, perched with priests and the occasional lamb in almond and olive trees, sometimes simply in ecstasy on a balcony he had landed on. Eire provides Linnaean taxonomies for all the abilities that people, “not just illiterate, mud-caked peasants but also elites at the apex of the social, intellectual, and political hierarchy,” saw in these wonder-workers, along with the conditions they are said to have exhibited, and listicles of the miracles they are said to have performed: visible ecstasies, raptures, and trances (as the body enters catalepsy); transvection; teleportation; bilocation; levitation; stigmatization; luminous irradiance; supernatural hyperosmia; inedia; weightlessness; supernatural insomnia; visible demonic molestations; an odor of sanctity; supernatural incorruption; and, not least, myroblitism, a kind of supernatural ooze (alas, from one’s corpse). Telekinesis? Telepathy? Supernatural control over nature? All are in here. Demonic influence, too, has a hierarchy, which includes “infestation (when devils congregate in a certain location), obsession (when devils assail someone constantly), and possession (when devils take over someone’s body and mind).” More than 50 period illustrations of people flying, bilocating, and engaging other abilities accompany Eire’s accounts, including contemporary paintings that helped to suggest—or confirm—to the 17th-century mind that the impossible wasn’t so impossible after all.
Throughout They Flew, Eire reminds us that these acts and conditions are actually at the core of virtually everything we worship around the world. “One could argue that all encounters with a supernatural reality are the bedrock upon which religions have been built,” Eire writes, offering us “‘theophanies,’ ‘hierophanies,’ or ‘irruptions of the sacred,’” with examples from Buddhism to Islam to Jewish scripture to Indian yogis (not to mention the Christian resurrection). “In traditional religious mentalities,” Eire explains, “these experiences and the narratives they engender generate belief and validate the assumption that the material world we access with our senses and our intellect is only a minute sliver of a much larger and complex reality beyond our ken.”
The T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, Eire reflects upon the challenges that working with evidence of the impossible presents—for historians especially. The greatest may be accepting “strangeness”—and especially strangeness of belief—in a profession proud of championing rationality and evidence. Looking at miracles is “a risky liminal field of study,” he writes. But Eire insists that historians have a special responsibility to treat the seemingly irrational—a belief in wonder-working, a deep and unshakable faith in God, certitude about having witnessed the impossible—respectfully, with honor and understanding, as a “rational feature of the past,” rather than as something inherently illogical or unsound. And why not? Titans of the profession like R. G. Collingwood and E. H. Carr have long told us that all history is, in fact, the history of what people thought, and that historians should have to grapple, almost as a professional obligation, with what sociologists call “social facts” and the “social construction of reality”—what Collingwood called the “context of thought.” In Collingwood’s words, “If the reason why it is hard for a man to cross the mountains is because he is frightened of the devils in them, it is folly for the historian, preaching at him across a gulf of centuries, to say ‘This is sheer superstition. There are no devils at all.’”
Eire twice quotes the great French historian Lucien Febvre: “To comprehend is not to clarify, simplify, or to reduce things to a perfectly clear logical scheme. To comprehend is to complicate, to augment in depth. It is to widen on all sides. It is to vivify.” In his footnotes, Eire takes extra effort to praise as insightful, brilliant, and masterful the other historians, many his juniors, who have worked to advance this kind of inclusive approach. History is not—life is not!—“the triumph of rationality over primitive credulity and superstition.” Even in the age that began producing thinkers like Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz, “[l]evitating saints and flying witches were no sideshow,” Eire tells us, “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.”
The media that Eire pores over for this book have an exalted role in the story, much as their cognates, especially radio and television and the internet, play in our own lives today. Manuscripts, letters, records, books, pamphlets, and paintings all are key to shared culture—what people were saying, hearing, reading, seeing—and to the way “social realities are variously constructed, contested, and transformed.” The Flying Friar had “800 folios dedicated to his trances, ecstasies, raptures, and levitations.” While the work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton was being published, so too was the Teufelsbuch and the Malleus Maleficarum, a bestseller about demonology and countering witchcraft that was reprinted at least 30 times.
Historians like Eire, so attuned to the sociology of knowledge, thus pay special attention to exactly what made people think the way they thought, seeking to establish the prevailing “worldview,” “mindset,” “mentality,” “Weltanschauung,” the “mentalité” of the time—and to understand important “epistemic revolutions” and “paradigm shifts” in belief. The Flying Friar, for example, “undoubtedly encountered accounts of levitation at an early age, and that would not have been unusual, even for a poor boy. […] [T]here were plenty of hagiographies that contained stories of levitating saints, as well as oral and written legends.” Among these were Italian editions of Teresa of Ávila’s hagiographies (one published in Rome in 1599) and Italian translations of her autobiography (the first published in 1636). Eire’s brilliant accounts of these literary influences remind one of nothing so much as Miguel de Cervantes’s great novel, written also during these years (part one published in 1605, part two in 1615). The Knight of the Mournful Countenance, too, had his ambitions fertilized by all the books he kept in his library. As Don Quixote’s housekeeper testifies, “I am as certain as I am that I was born to die that it is those cursed books of chivalry he is always reading that have turned his head […] May such books as those be consigned to Satan and Barabbas, for they have sent to perdition the finest mind in all La Mancha.” The wisdom, the wit, the bibliophilia, the myroblitic scent of Cervantes is everywhere in this book.
Eire’s description of Joseph’s competing hagiographies as a “hall of mirrors, wherein one finds multiple reflections of the same details,” is as pertinent to the thinking of the Knight as late-night cable is to ours. The resonances with today’s world are overwhelming. We can believe in so many things without ironclad evidence; it’s part of who we are. Anyone who has ever watched Comedy Central’s Jordan Klepper pose questions to people at a Trump rally—amid the rites and rituals and swag—will recognize Keith Thomas’s quotation from a contemporary account of the Irish peasantry in the 17th century: “[They could] give no account of their religion, what it is,—only, they believe as their priest bids them, and go to mass, which they understand not, and reckon their beads, to tell the number and the tale of their prayers.” Eire’s accounts of the violent disputes between Catholics and Protestants are nothing if not a foretaste of the increasingly vicious belief wars we see today.
Perhaps Eire could have offered more discussion of who benefited, in those centuries, from those miracles, and he could have analyzed the relationship of belief in the impossible to sociopolitical power. Who helped to engineer a system where thoughts of miracles were so often, as it were, ascendant? The church? The state? Whose interests were vested in these ideas? Whose purposes were served? Eire hints at this with lines like: “The Protestant rejection of monasticism […] caused the largest redistribution of property in Western history before the Bolsheviks came along.” Readers of Eire’s memoir about his youth in Cuba will know that he experienced, as a child, a state-imposed “saturation bombing of the mind” when Fidel Castro seized control of the island’s media and communications. Eire left Cuba, airlifted out, in fact, along with more than 14,000 other children in Operation Peter Pan. When Eire closes his new book by discussing, in a single paragraph, the “revered orthodoxies” enshrined by the totalitarian thought control of the Nazis and the Soviets, the reader is left to wonder about all the power structures that lay behind early modern ideologies.
Of course, any reader coming to the end of this masterpiece of historical scholarship could quibble and want more. But as for me?
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