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Eilmer of Malmesbury: Did This Flying Monk Beat Da Vinci by 500 Years?

Eilmer of Malmesbury: Did This Flying Monk Beat Da Vinci by 500 Years?

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Eilmer of Malmesbury was a Benedictine monk who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries AD. Eilmer is remembered today for his flight from the top of a tower. Due to this feat, the monk is considered as one of the earliest aviators. 

Eilmer’s story is recounted in the Chronicle of the Kings of England, by the medieval historian William of Malmesbury. Apart from this achievement, however, very little is known about the monk. In fact, some have even regarded Eilmer’s flight as merely a legend. 

What Do We Know?

We know nearly nothing about the life of Eilmer of Malmesbury both before and after his flight, which presumably took place sometime between 995 and 1010 AD. For instance, we have neither information about the monk’s family nor of his early life. 

Although scholars believe that Eilmer was born around 980 AD, this is conjecture, based on a quotation of Eilmer’s that was recorded by William of Malmesbury in his Chronicle of the  Kings of England . The quote is as follows:  

“Soon after a  comet, a star denoting, as they say, change in kingdoms, appeared trailing its extended and fiery train along the sky. Wherefore a certain monk of our monastery, by name Eilmer, bowing down with terror at the sight of the brilliant star, wisely exclaimed, “Thou art come! A matter of lamentation to many a mother art thou come; I have seen thee long since; but I now behold thee much more terrible, threatening to hurl destruction on this country”.”  

Halley’s Comet as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry (Myrabella /  Public Domain

Although William’s reason for recording this quote was to show that a prophecy was fulfilled when the  Normansinvaded England in 1066, modern scholars have used it to estimate the year of Eilmer’s birth. The comet mentioned by the medieval historian refers to  Halley’s Comet , which appeared in 1066. The appearance of the comet in that year is famously depicted on the  Bayeux Tapestry

Halley’s Comet’s passes by the Earth roughly once every 76 years, and therefore, would have been visible around 990 AD. In fact, the comet is recorded to have appeared in 989 AD. This information allowed scholars to speculate that Eilmer was born around 980 AD, and that he was a young boy when he saw the comet for the first time. 

William of Malmesbury

After mentioning the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1066, and introducing Eilmer, William proceeds to recount the story of the monk’s flight. Before going into the details of this story, however, some words may be said about the historian himself. 

William of Malmesbury lived between the 11th and 12th centuries AD, and was a prolific writer of history, considered as the “best informed and most reliable  historian in twelfth century England”. William and Eilmer were both from Malmesbury Abbey, though they were born about a century apart from each other. 

Whilst the two monks never met, it is thought that William would have heard stories about Eilmer, especially that of his flight, from the older monks at the  abbey. These monks would have known the elderly Eilmer whilst they were still in their youth. 

Malmesbury Abbey, home to both Eilmer and William (Steve Daniels /  CC BY-SA 2.0 )

This means that whilst William did not witness Eilmer’s flight himself, or spoke to those who had seen Eilmer in action, he would have been able to collect information from the monks who heard the story from Eilmer himself. The proximity of William to the events he recounts adds to their reliability, and would seem to reduce the odds that Eilmer’s flight is merely a legend. 

Eilmer’s Flight

William’s account of Eilmer’s flight is as follows, 

“He was a man of good learning for those times, of mature age, and in his early youth had hazarded an attempt of singular temerity. He had by some contrivance fastened wings to his hands and feet, in order that, looking upon the fable as true, he might fly like  Daedalus, and collecting the air on the summit of a tower, had flown for more than the distance of a furlong [220 yards or 201 meters]; but, agitated by the violence of the wind and the current of air, as well as by the consciousness of his rash attempt, he fell and broke his legs, and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.” 

Although the description of Eilmer’s flight as recorded by William is quite short, much can be elaborated from it. The American Medieval Historian Lynn White Jr. considers the means by which Eilmer flew in a 1961 article. Whilst William wrote that the monk “fastened wings to his hands and feet”, White elaborates that Eilmer probably used “rigid wings of considerable size”. 

White contrasts this with another attempt at flight, which occurred in 1162. In this attempt, a  Saracen who was equipped with “some sort of sail-like cloak”, which was meant to “gather the air for flight”,  jumped from a column in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Instead of flying, however, the Saracen fell to his death. 

White also speculates that whilst Eilmer may have intended his wings to flap like those of a bird’s, they would not fold upwards, as they were hinged. Consequently, the contraption functioned more like a  glider

Odd Behavior For A Monk

Another interesting question pursued by White is the inspiration behind Eilmer’s experiment. Although William identifies the ancient  Greek myth of Daedalus as Eilmer’s inspiration, White intriguingly draws attention to the legend of  Simon Magus , who, according to most accounts of the tale, achieved flight with the help of demons. 

White points out, nevertheless, the difference in the way these two figures achieved flight – one through supernatural means, and the other through artificial, mechanical means. The former was frowned upon, whilst the latter admired, as is evident in William’s approving tone when he wrote about Eilmer.    

Touchdown! Oliver’s Lane, with Malmesbury Abbey in the background (Ben Brooksbank /  CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Lastly, Eilmer’s flight as indeed an extraordinary event, and has been celebrated and remembered in the town of Malmesbury. Oliver’s Lane, for instance, is considered to be the place where Eilmer landed –  Eilmer is known occasionally as Oliver, due to a scribe’s copying error. There is little information, however, about how this lane was determined to be the site of Eilmer’s landing. 

In addition to this lane, there used to be a  pub called ‘The Flying Monk’, an obvious reference to Eilmer, near the railway station in Malmesbury. Unfortunately, both the pub and station no longer exist. Last of all, in July 2010, the millennium of Eilmer’s flight was celebrated in Malmesbury. 

Top image: Eilmer of Malmesbury with a glider model in stained glass, Malmesbury Abbey. Source: Andrew Dunn /  CC-BY-SA-2.0.

By Wu Mingren              

References

Andrews, E., 2020. A Brief History of Halley’s Comet. [Online]  
Available at:  https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-halleys-comet-sightings

Athelstan Museum Malmesbury, 2021. Eilmer The Flying Monk. [Online]  
Available at:  https://www.athelstanmuseum.org.uk/malmesbury-history/people/eilmer-the-flying-monk/

CoolestCrab, 2021. Eilmer's Landing. [Online]  
Available at:  https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/eilmers-landing

Malmesbury Internet Ltd., 2007. Eilmer of Malmesbury. [Online]  
Available at:  https://web.archive.org/web/20091101062715/http://www.eilmer.co.uk/eilmer-biog.htm

The British Library, 2021. William of Malmesbury. [Online]  
Available at:  https://www.bl.uk/people/william-of-malmesbury

White, L. Jr., 1961. Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition. Technology and Culture, 2(2), pp. 97-111. 

William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England [Online]. [Giles, J. A. (trans.), 1847. William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England.] Available at:  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/50778

Comments

It could be done. A contraption roughly mimicking the wings of a bird (at the right scale) could provide a glide ratio around 3/1. Of course flapping would be out of the question but the most difficult part would be maintaining the pitch balance, something very unlikely to happen if you do not understand the basics of flight and the use of a tail.

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