Monday, 8 February 2016

Those Magnificent Monks in Their Flying Machines

By Caleb Reynolds

In the opening years of the 11th Century, a monk, living at Wiltshire Abbey, constructed a flying machine and leapt from one of the abbey's towers. Fantastically, the monk, named Eilmer of Malmesbury, did not die, but soared like a bird. A hundred and twenty years later, the historian William of Malmesbury recorded the following lines:

"Wherefore a certain Monk of our Monastery, by name Eilmer ... was a man learned for those times, of mature age and in his youth had hazarded an attempt of singular temerity.  He had by some contrivance fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for true, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze on the summit of a tower, he flew for more than the distance of a furlong [1]. But, agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by awareness of his rashness, he fell, 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." [2]


The abbot forbade Eilmer from ever experimenting with flight again, and thus human flight was curtailed for centuries [3]. But, dear reader, do not think of Eilmer's attempt as a failure. The tower Eilmer launched himself from is no longer standing, but the present abbey is of a similar height: 25 meters. Local legend states that Eilmer landed in Oliver Lane, some 200 meters from the present day abbey. An impressive first attempt. The flight might have been longer if not for the wind. But William says that Eilmer flew "spatio stadii et plus," or more than 600 feet, before falling [4].

The stained glass window of Eilmer
in Malmesbury Abbey
(photo by Shaun Martin 
on the Malmesbury Internet site)
So, Eilmer either glided 200 meters straight into the ground, breaking both of his legs on landing, or flew for 200 meters, lost control and fell from some height and then broke both of his legs. In either case, quite impressive, and quite inspiring. The flight of Eilmer was told and retold by historians. First by William of Malmesbury [5] who would have had access to the abbey's records and would have spoken to people whose parents or grandparents might have seen the flight with their own eyes.

Helinand quotes William verbatim in the 1299 "Chronicon", as does Alberic of Trois-Fontaines in 1241. Vincent of Beauvais re-told Eilmer's story in 1250 in "Speculum". In 1352 Ralph Higden, in his “Polychronicon”, renamed the monk Oliver due to a mistranslation. Henry Knighton and John of Trevisa, did write about ‘Oliver's’ flight in their histories. Roger Bacon did not mention Eilmer by name, but in his discussions on human flight wrote, "Such devices have long since been made, as well as in our own day, and it is certain that there is a flying machine. I have not seen one, nor have I known anyone who has seen one. But I know a wise man who has designed one" [6]. Personally, I think that that is a mistranslation: there is no evidence of any medieval flyers during Bacon's life [7] and the final line, of the quote, might have been "But I know OF a wise man who has designed one."

The amazing thing was not that one monk managed to fly for 200 meters, some 1100 years ago, the truly amazing thing was that it took so long for another European to make another attempt [8].

There is, however, no evidence that memory of Eilmer's feat helped to stimulate the new burst of speculation and experiment about aviation which occurred in Italy in the later fifteenth century. Even before 1449 the engineer Giovanni da Fontana rejects the idea of ascent by hot-air balloons as too hazardous of fire, but expresses confidence that human flight can be achieved with mechanical wings. Indeed, he has thought of making some himself, "sed aliis distractus occupationibus non perfeci." Leonardo da Vinci's sketches of parachutes and flying devices are well known but none appears to have been constructed. The evidence that in the 1490's Giovanni Battista Danti of Perugia flew in a glider over Lake Trasimeno has as yet emerged in no document earlier than 1648. But we must assume that when, in October 1507, an Italian named Giovanni Damiani, who in 1504 had been appointed Abbot of Tungland, a Premonstratensian monastery in Galloway, garbed himself in wings made of feathers, took flight from the walls of Stirling Castle, plummeted, and broke his leg, he was inspired by experiments in his native land rather than by Eilmer's example. Damiani sardonically announced that his error had been to include hens' feathers in his wings, since hens have more at scratching in dunghills than for soaring to the heavens [9].”

Footnotes

[1] 220 yards

[2] Woosnam, p3-4

[3] Jones, p132

[4] White (2), p98

[5] "Gesta regum Anglorum", 1125

[6] De secretis operibus, cap. 4, in Opera quaedam hactenus inedita, ed. J. S. Brewer (London, 1859), p. 533. For the date, cf. S. C. Easton, Roger Bacon and His Search for a Universal Science (New York, 1952), p. 111 - quoted from various sources

[7] 1214-92

[8] The Iranian philospher al-Jauhari, died in a similar flight attempt in Khorosan, sometime between 1003 and 1008 and there is evidence of men flying while strapped to large kites, in China, around the same time.

[9] White (2), p103-4


Bibliography

"Mystery Files - Leonardo da Vinci": National Geographic. TV Program. Season 1, Episode 8

"Terry Jones' Medieval Lives." TV Program. Season 1 Episode 5. The Philosopher

Anderson, Roberta; Bellenger, Dominic. "Medieval Worlds: A Sourcebook." Routledge, 2013

Ereira, Alan; Jones, Terry. "Terry Jones' Medieval Lives." Random House, 2009

Huitson, Toby. Stairway to Heaven: The Functions of Medieval Upper Spaces. Oxbow Books. 2014

Kealey, Edward J.  "Harvesting the Air: Windmill Pioneers in Twelfth-century England." University of California Press, 1987

Lienhard, John H. "The Engines of Our Ingenuity." Episode 3: "The Flying Monk." Radio program; produced by Houston Public Media.

Lienhard, John H. "The Engines of Our Ingenuity." Episode 1142: "Legend and Flight." Radio program; produced by Houston Public Media.

Paz, James. "The Falling Body of Eilmer the Flying Monk: Religious Belief and Technological Innovation in Late Anglo-Saxon England." King’s College London. London Anglo-Saxon Symposium 2014

Sharpe, John. "William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the kings of England. From the earliest period to the reign of King Stephen." London, H. G. Bohn. 1847. Archive.Org: Digitizing sponsor: Northeastern University, Snell Library.

White, Lynn, Jr. (1) "Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays." University of California Press, 1978

White, Lynn, Jr. (2) "Eilmer of Malmesbury, An Eleventh Century Aviator. Medieval Religion and Technology." Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978, Chapter 4.

White, Lynn, Jr. (3) "Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition. Technology and Culture." Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring, 1961), pp. 97-111 The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology


Woosnam, Maxwell. "Eilmer, The Flight and The Comet." Malmesbury, UK: Friends of Malmesbury Abbey. 1986

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