Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

They Flew?: Making Sense of Levitating Saints

April 9th, 2024 | 7 min read

By Daniel K. Williams

Carlos Eire, They Flew: A History of the Impossible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023). xviii + 492 pp. $35.00 cloth.  

In a few graduate seminars I’ve taught, I have assigned a debate between two contemporary historians over how the historical profession should treat accounts of the miraculous. As a test case, the two historians in the debate – Brad Gregory and Tor Forland – looked at a seventeenth-century account describing what is purported to be a miraculous growth of plants whose fortuitous timing saved a small group from starvation.

Gregory argued that it’s not necessarily historians’ job to provide alternative non-supernatural explanations for phenomena that their sources attribute to the supernatural. If a primary source says that a plant sprouted miraculously overnight, historians can report what the sources said and readers can then draw their own conclusions, unencumbered by the historian’s own pro- or anti-supernaturalistic bias.

Forland, on the other hand, argued that historians do have a job to provide rational, scientific explanations for such phenomena, since historical accounts cannot present miraculous claims as credible explanations for past events. Miracles are not compatible with modern science, he seemed to think. There has to be a scientific explanation for everything, and it’s historians’ job to find it.

I thought of Forland as I read Carlos Eire’s They Flew: A History of the Impossible and wondered what he would make of the phenomena that Eire described. If Forland was bothered by Gregory’s willingness to let the purported miraculous growth of a few small plants go unquestioned, what would he think about Eire’s accounts of early modern saints miraculously levitating and flying through the air across great distances?

As the subtitle of Eire’s book suggests, his book is a history of phenomena that we “know” are impossible – especially unaided human levitation in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe. Contemporaries of the time were not quite sure what to make of these human flights either, which makes them all the more interesting from a historical perspective.

In an early modern European society on the cusp of the scientific revolution, there were plenty of skeptics who wanted to see such miracles with their own eyes before they would believe – and they did. Some of the human flights were conducted outdoors in front of numerous witnesses, a phenomenon that Eire says was probably impossible to fake with any of the technology available at the time.

What’s more, many of the levitators claimed that they went to great lengths to try to avoid levitating and did so only because God compelled them – a claim that made sense at a time when levitation would likely attract a charge of witchcraft, which was a capital offense.

And yet, Eire said, “they flew.” Somehow historians have to reckon with these claims, regardless of their own presuppositions about what is possible. Eire refuses to provide alternative explanations of what “really” happened, because, as he suggests, there are no credible alternative explanations available. And as it turns out, in the early modern era Catholics and Protestants disagreed about what “really” happened anyway.

Catholics had an easier time accepting these miracles, especially since all of the levitators were Catholic. The Catholic Church was built on miracles; the idea that miracles continued to happen through the church was central to the Catholic faith. But, as Eire notes, Catholics still insisted on a high burden of proof for levitation, and they sought a rational explanation for the phenomenon.

As they well knew, the devil could make people levitate just as easily as God could, so a monk or nun who suddenly rose up in the air and floated to the ceiling during Mass might have sold their soul to Satan rather than have been chosen as the channel of any God-given power. Such suspicion was especially likely in a hierarchical society where monastic superiors and ecclesiastical authorities were jealous of ordinary monks or nuns who began acquiring a popular following through displays of miraculous power. The temptation to shut down these displays by charging their practitioners with witchcraft was strong. Those who dared to levitate in spite of pressure not to do so had to be very deft diplomats when it came to navigating ecclesiastical power politics.

But at least Catholics did have a theology that allowed for the miraculous, even if they were skeptical of individual would-be saints who insisted on working miracles after they were ordered not to do so. This happened often enough that early modern Catholics in Europe developed a rational explanation for levitation: Holy deeds and pious living made a person lighter, so when blessed with an overabundance of meritorious good works or supernatural grace, a person on occasion might involuntarily float up into the air in a state of spiritual ecstasy. Such flights were as inevitable and unstoppable as the flotation of a helium balloon might be in our own day; due to the physical properties of a spiritually enlightened soul, an unusually saintly person might rise into the air uncontrollably, regardless of the person’s own wishes. As one of these early modern levitators found, she would rise to the ceiling when she partook of the Eucharist, no matter how much she wished to stay grounded.

Protestants, on the other hand, rejected these explanations, because most of them did not believe that the divine gift of miracle-working had continued in the post-apostolic era – and especially not in the Catholic Church, which they considered the church of the Antichrist. Protestants did not deny the possibility of levitation, but since they were sure that it was not the work of God, they knew that it must be the work of Satan. While Catholics thought that levitation could be caused by the devil, Protestants believed that it was always the result of satanic activity.

When we realize this, we can better understand the rapid rise in the number of witchcraft trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There were a lot of unexplained things happening in early modern Europe, and contemporaries were sure that the devil must be behind many of them. Catholics and Protestants disagreed on a lot, but both groups agreed that Satan was alive and well, and that he was doing a lot of malevolent work through people to whom he had given preternatural abilities – including, in some cases, the power to fly.

“Thank God for the Enlightenment!” some readers might be tempted to exclaim at this point in Eire’s narrative. At least after Newton and Locke, fewer people were burned to death as suspected witches – and fewer people claimed to levitate. But actually, Eire notes, the Enlightenment did not bring an end to the miraculous flights. There were nineteen recorded saintly levitators between 1800 and 1912, and more after that. Numerous people today – including many Catholics, charismatic Protestants, and others – believe in miracles that are supposedly scientifically impossible.

It turns out that large numbers of people found it relatively easy to combine a confidence in science with a belief in supernatural intervention in the world. The Enlightenment did not displace religious belief, but instead offered a new belief system that many people synthesized with their preexisting beliefs in the supernatural.

In our contemporary world, some take Forland’s perspective: Science has ruled out the possibility of miracles, and historians should therefore know better than to treat miraculous claims as genuine historical events. For others, though, miracles are still possible – which means that although one can take a skeptical view of any individual miraculous claim and require a high burden of proof, one cannot rule out the possibility of any alleged miracle a priori.

And, as it turns out, a growing number of scholars are sympathetic to that latter view. But Eire cautions that we need to be cautious about claiming too much about these miraculous accounts. Reports of miracles are too numerous in historical sources to ever fully disprove, he thinks. But he also concedes that no miracle can ever be convincingly proven either. No matter how many witnesses there might be for any given miracle, the source evidence will never be conclusive enough to definitively rule out all other possible explanations. That means that any view on whether a particular miracle did or did not occur will ultimately have to be based on faith – faith in a particular assumption about how the universe works and whether the supernatural is possible. Forland apparently has a strong faith in a scientific worldview that does not permit the miraculous. Many Christians (including a few historians and other scholars) have an equally strong faith in the reality of supernatural intervention in the world. How each group interprets the source evidence for miracles will depend less on the sources themselves than on their own assumptions about what those sources purport to be describing.

But this difference in perspective on the miraculous is not a new phenomenon. Catholics and Protestants faced a similar dilemma in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Was a monk’s levitation a sign of divine approval or evidence of the devil’s work? Was a levitator a saint or a witch? If those who saw these levitations firsthand could not agree on how to interpret them, perhaps it’s no surprise that we as historians face difficulties making sense of them today.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study them, Eire thinks. It’s only in grappling with evidence for the seemingly impossible that we come to terms with how we have constructed our own beliefs and how our predecessors have done so in the past. If the claim that people miraculously flew makes us nervous, maybe we’re no different than the early modern European Christians who found some of these flights an uncomfortable challenge to their own beliefs and who struggled to fit them into their existing philosophical categories of natural and preternatural or saintly and satanic.

Eire’s book is not for those who are looking for easy answers that will resolve the discomfort of confronting evidence that may not fit our paradigm. Those who are convinced that the supernatural is impossible will probably be frustrated with this book. Even Protestants who are open to the supernatural but who have not given much credence to Catholic miracles – especially miracles associated with a soteriology that is at odds with key Reformation tenets – may find that this book challenges their assumptions. But for those who are open to the seemingly impossible  and who are ready to come to terms with their own biases, this book raises some provocative questions. We might come away from the study with more questions than answers – but also perhaps gain a new humility about our own assumptions and perspective. And in the process, we’ll be treated to a lot of strange and wonderful stories about supernatural feats that we might never have even imagined before. After all, Eire reminds us in the final sentence of his book, “They flew!”


Daniel K. Williams

Daniel K. Williams teaches American history at Ashland University and is the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship. He is currently writing a history of Protestant Christian apologetics that is under contract with Oxford University Press.