Eilmer of Malmesbury: the Benedictine flying monk and test pilot in the 11th century
May 2, 2009 Leave a comment
Historical Advisor to the Air Force Centennial of Flight office
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 (curvature) 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 (now known as St. Aldhelm’s Meadow) 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 center.