Eilmer of Malmesbury
Eilmer of Malmesbury was an 11th-century
Timeline of aviation - pre-18th century
-pre–10th century:*c 1700 BC** Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus explores the desire to fly and the inherent dangers of it.*c. 1000 BC** mythical flying machines called Vimanas are mentioned in the Vedas*c. 850 BC...

 English Benedictine monk best known for his early attempt at a gliding flight using wings.


Eilmer was a monk of Malmesbury Abbey
Malmesbury Abbey
Malmesbury Abbey, at Malmesbury in Wiltshire, England, was founded as a Benedictine monastery around 676 by the scholar-poet Aldhelm, a nephew of King Ine of Wessex. In 941 AD, King Athelstan was buried in the Abbey. By the 11th century it contained the second largest library in Europe and was...

 and is known to have written on astrology
Astrology consists of a number of belief systems which hold that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events in the human world...

. All that is known of him is told in the Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings), written by the eminent medieval historian William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury was the foremost English historian of the 12th century. C. Warren Hollister so ranks him among the most talented generation of writers of history since Bede, "a gifted historical scholar and an omnivorous reader, impressively well versed in the literature of classical,...

 in about 1125. Being a fellow monk of the same abbey, William almost certainly obtained his account directly from people who knew Eilmer himself when he was an old man.

Later scholars, such as the American historian of technology Lynn White, have attempted to estimate Eilmer's date of birth based on a quotation in William's Deeds in regard to Halley's comet, which appeared in 1066. The difficulty lies in that William recorded what Eilmer said not to establish his age, but to show that his prophecy was fulfilled later that year when the Normans
The Normans were the people who gave their name to Normandy, a region in northern France. They were descended from Norse Viking conquerors of the territory and the native population of Frankish and Gallo-Roman stock...

 invaded England
Norman conquest of England
The Norman conquest of England began on 28 September 1066 with the invasion of England by William, Duke of Normandy. William became known as William the Conqueror after his victory at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, defeating King Harold II of England...

If Eilmer had seen Halley's comet seventy-six years earlier in 990, he could have been born about 984, making him about five or six years old when he first saw the comet, old enough to remember it. However the periodicity of comets was probably unknown in Eilmer's time, and so his remark "It is long since I saw you" could have referred to a different, later comet. Since it is known that Eilmer was an "old man" in 1066, and that he had made the flight attempt "in his youth", the event is placed some time during the early 11th century, perhaps in its first decade.

The flight

William records that, in Eilmer's youth, he had read and believed the Greek fable
Greek mythology
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

 of Daedalus
In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a skillful craftsman and artisan.-Family:...

. Thus, Eilmer fixed wings to his hands and feet and launched himself from the top of a tower at Malmesbury Abbey:
Given the geography of the abbey, his landing site, and the account of his flight, to travel for "more than a furlong" (220 yards, 201 metres) he would have had to have been airborne for about 15 seconds. His exact flightpath is not known, nor how long he was in the air, because today’s abbey is not the abbey of the 11th century, when it was probably smaller, although the tower was probably close to the present height. "Olivers Lane", off the present-day High Street and about 200 metres (656.2 ft) from the abbey, is reputed locally to be the site where Eilmer landed. That would have taken him over many buildings. Maxwell Woosnam's study concluded that he is more likely to have descended the steep hill off to the southwest of the abbey, rather than the town centre to the south.

Flight analysis

To perform the manoeuvre of gliding downward against the breeze, utilizing both gravity and the wind, Eilmer employed an apparatus somewhat resembling a gliding bird. However being unable to balance himself forward and backwards, as does a bird by slight movements of its wings, head and legs, he would have needed a large tail to maintain equilibrium. Eilmer could not have achieved true soaring flight in any event, but he might have glided down in safety if he had had a tail. Afterwards, Eilmer remarked that the cause of his crash was that "he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail."

Historical traditions and influence

Other than William's account of the flight, nothing has survived of Eilmer's lifetime work as a monk, although his astrological treatises apparently still circulated as late as the 16th century.

Based on William's account, the story of Eilmer's flight has been retold many times through the centuries by scholars, encyclopaedists, and proponents of man-powered flight, keeping the idea of human flight alive. These include over the years: Helinand of Froidmont
Helinand of Froidmont
Helinand of Froidmont was a medieval poet, chronicler, and ecclesiastical writer.-Life:He was born of Flemish parents at Pronleroy in Oise in France c. 1150; his date of death is said to be 3 February 1223, or 1229, or 1237...

 (before 1229), Alberic of Trois-Fontaines
Alberic of Trois-Fontaines
Alberic of Trois-Fontaines was a medieval Cistercian chronicler who wrote in Latin. He was a monk of Trois-Fontaines Abbey . In 1232 he began his Chronica Albrici Monachi Trium Fontium, which describes world events from the Creation to the year 1241...

 (before 1241), Vincent of Beauvais
Vincent of Beauvais
The Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais wrote the Speculum Maius, the main encyclopedia that was used in the Middle Ages.-Early life:...

 (1250s), Roger Bacon
Roger Bacon
Roger Bacon, O.F.M. , also known as Doctor Mirabilis , was an English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empirical methods...

 (ca. 1260), Ranulf Higden (before 1352, and the first to misname him "Oliver") and the English translators of his work, Henry Knighton
Henry Knighton
Henry Knighton was an Augustinian canon at the abbey of St. Mary of the Meadows, Leicester, England. He was a canon at the Abbey since at least 1363, when he was recorded as being present during a visit from the King.-The chronicle:He wrote a four-volume chronicle, first published in 1652,...

 (before 1367), John Nauclerus of Tübingen (c. 1500), John Wilkins
John Wilkins
John Wilkins FRS was an English clergyman, natural philosopher and author, as well as a founder of the Invisible College and one of the founders of the Royal Society, and Bishop of Chester from 1668 until his death....

 (1648), John Milton
John Milton
John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell...

 (1670), and John Wise
John Wise (balloonist)
John Wise was a pioneer in the field of ballooning. He made over 400 flights during his lifetime and was responsible for several innovations in balloon design...


More recently, Maxwell Woosnam in 1986 examined in more detail the technical aspects such as materials, glider angles, and wind effects.

Eilmer typified the inquisitive spirit of medieval enthusiasts who developed small drawstring toy helicopters, windmills, and sophisticated sails for boats. As well, church artists increasingly showed angels with ever more accurate depictions of bird-like wings, detailing the wing's camber (curvature) that would prove beneficial to generating the lifting forces enabling a bird – or an airplane – to fly. This climate of thought led to a general acceptance that air was something that could be "worked." Flying was thus not magical, but could be attained by physical effort and human reasoning.

External links

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