Thursday, November 30, 2023 - 4:00pm
HQ L01 (320 York Street)
On Thursday, November 30th at 4 p.m., we shall host a book talk by Carlos Eire, the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. The subject will be his latest book, They Flew: A History of the Impossible.
Accounts of seemingly impossible phenomena abounded in the early modern era—tales of levitation, bilocation, and witchcraft—even as skepticism, atheism, and empirical science were starting to supplant religious belief in the paranormal. In this book, Carlos Eire explores how a culture increasingly devoted to scientific thinking grappled with events deemed impossible by its leading intellectuals.
Eire observes how levitating saints and flying witches were 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 scientific discoveries. Relying on an array of firsthand accounts, and focusing on exceptionally impossible cases involving levitation, bilocation, witchcraft, and demonic possession, Eire challenges established assumptions about the redrawing of boundaries between the natural and supernatural that marked the transition to modernity.
Using as his case studies stories about St. Teresa of Avila, St. Joseph of Cupertino, the Venerable María de Ágreda, and three disgraced nuns, Eire challenges readers to imagine a world animated by a different understanding of reality and of the supernatural’s relationship with the natural world. The questions he explores—such as why and how “impossibility” is determined by cultural contexts, and whether there is more to reality than meets the eye or can be observed by science—have resonance and lessons for our time.
Eire, who received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1979, specializes in the social, intellectual, religious, and cultural history of late medieval and early modern Europe, with a focus on both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations; the history of popular piety; the history of the supernatural, and the history of death. Before joining the Yale faculty in 1996, he taught at St. John’s University in Minnesota and the University of Virginia and was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for two years. He is the author of War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin (1986); From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth Century Spain (1995); A Very Brief History of Eternity (2010); Reformations: The Early Modern World (2016); The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila: A Biography (2019); and They Flew: A History of the Impossible (2023). He is also co-author of Jews, Christians, Muslims: An Introduction to Monotheistic Religions (1997); and ventured into the twentieth century and the Cuban Revolution in the memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003), which won the National Book Award in Nonfiction in the United States and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. His second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami (2010), explores the exile experience. A past president of the Society for Reformation Research, he is currently researching various topics in the history of the supernatural. His book Reformations won the R.R.Hawkins Prize for Best Book of the Year from the American Publishers Association, as well as the award for Best Book in the Humanities in 2017. It was also awarded the Jaroslav Pelikan Prize by Yale University Press. All of his books are banned in Cuba, where he has been proclaimed an enemy of the state – a distinction he regards as the highest of all honors.