EARLY CATHOLIC AVIATORS, part I: EILMER of MALMESBURY
Dr. Richard P. Hallion:
The first known serious flight attempt in world history occurred about a thousand years before the Wright brothers, in western England. Then, a young Benedictine monk leapt with a crude pair of cloth wings from a watchtower of a church abbey at the beginning of the 11th century. This monk, known to history as Eilmer of Malmesbury, covered a furlong - a distance of approximately 600 feet - before landing heavily and breaking both legs. Afterwards, he remarked that the cause of his crash was that he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail.
We know of Eilmer's attempt through the writings of a historian, William of Malmesbury, who mentions the flight in passing. Of more interest to William was that Eilmer, late in his life, was the first person to spot a comet which people then credited as being an omen of the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror.
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 that would prove crucial to generating the lifting forces enabling a bird - or an airplane - to fly. This climate of thought led to 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.
Eilmer was an individual of remarkable daring and boldness. He leapt from the top of a tower, passed over a city wall, descended into a small valley by the River Avon, and then fell into a marshy field fully 150 feet lower than the point of his leap. Of his wings, we can surmise that they were constructed of ash or willow-wand, covered with a light cloth, and perhaps attached to pivots on either side of a back-brace, with hand-holds so he could hopefully flap them.
Given the geography of the Abbey, his landing site, and the account of his flight, he must have remained airborne about 15 seconds. At low altitude he apparently attempted to flap the wings, which threw him out of control. His post-flight assessment qualifies him as the first test pilot, for he sought to understand, in technological terms, what happened on the flight and why he crashed. Malmesbury exists today, much changed and quite quaint, near Swindon and Bristol. The Abbey features a stained-glass window of Brother Eilmer. Alas, a nice pub named The Flying Monk is no more, replaced by a shopping centre.
To this I would add the following thoughts. First, it is good to see a piece about the Flying Monk which treats him seriously, and not as just another lovable medieval monastic eccentric.
Secondly I think we must see Eilmer, who from his comet observation in 1066 clearly continued to be interested in scientific matters. He appears to belong to that English tradition in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that showed a remarkable interest in scientific observation, and which was concentrated in the western Midlands and the south west. Thus Adelard of Bath (c.1080- c.1152), a seeming polymath who traveled widely on the continent, about whom there are links here and here, or the monks of Worcester cathedral who were making drawings of sun spots in the early years of the twelfth century, or the observational interests of the canons of Hereford at the same time - and not least there the activities of Dinah, the lady astronomer who calculated by trigonometry the height of the cathedral tower - and that in the reign of King Henry I. This topic is introduced and developed, with classic elegance, in Sir Richard Southern's "Robert Grosseteste" (OUP).
So Eilmer the Flying Monk may have made history as the first recorded individual to have actually flown - but he should also be seen as part of a lively intellectual and practical tradition that witnesses to the vitality of his age and country.