Magnificent monks and their flying machines, they go up diddly up up, …

"… they do down diddly down down."

Very cool… from The Lion and the Cardinal:

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.   [This guy’s abbot must have been a remarkable man.]

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.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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25 Responses to Magnificent monks and their flying machines, they go up diddly up up, …

  1. irishgirl says:

    Haha-very cool indeed! [love the use of the title song of ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines…I loved that movie!]

    Is that stained-glass window by Sir Ninian Comper, by any chance? Looks like his work,,,,

  2. bear-i-tone says:

    The guy’s abbot must have had a tremendous sense of patience.

    I really like this article’s line about the ‘spirit of inquisitiveness of the Middle Ages’. This is quite correct. I recently ran into a series of articles debunking myths about the backwardness of the middle ages. Here’s a few links for those who are interested:

    http://faculty.ugf.edu/jgretch/syllabi/psy450DeRevolutione.pdf

    http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/renaissance.html

    I hadn’t heard about the flying monk before. Thank you for posting this.

  3. Banjo Pickin' Girl says:

    This guy is one of my very favorite Benedictines.

    bear-i-tone, there is a good book called “Those Terrible Middle Ages” or something like that by a French historian. She also wrote a good book on “Women in the Age of the Cathedrals” now out of print.

  4. Andrew, UK and sometimes Canada says:

    Banjo Pickin’ Girl and bear-i-tone:

    Regine Peroud, Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths, A.E. Nash trans. (Ignatius Press, 2000).

    Aelmer’s Malmesbury conventual church was recently turned into an indoor skateboarding park by CofE types desperate to attract young people into Church:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/wiltshire/7899339.stm

  5. Amy says:

    Someone should come up with a great tag line and submit this to http://www.lolsaints.com. I would, but am just not feeling that creative today.

  6. So the first test pilot is an 11th century Catholic monk. What? You were expecting someone else? LOL

  7. Stephen says:

    Fr. Bernard McCoy, O.Cist. is the modern day flying monk. He’s from the Cistercians in Sparta, WI. You may have heard of their business LaserMonks. He’s a good man. I met with him for lunch when he was flying back to WI from NC he stopped in IN before I went out to a discernment retreat.

  8. plisto says:

    What a nice and positively funny story! Thanks for sharing it!

  9. Gregory Nagy says:

    since there appears to be some sort of distillation going on behind him, did he also later invent the in-flight drink?

  10. Gregory: Ooooo! I hadn’t noticed that! Good eyes.

  11. Maureen says:

    Ever since I first heard this story, I’ve wondered if Br. Aelmer was influenced by the legend of Bladud, king of the Britons. (His story, like Icarus’, ends badly.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bladud

  12. Michael says:

    I am puzzled by the comment about comets, which we discussed and indeed named by Aristotle. Does it mean he was the first Englishman recorded as seeing a particular coment–Halley’s, I believe–shortly before the Norman invasion of England?

  13. Is there any information on whether Eilmer ever tried again, once his legs healed?

  14. Rachel says:

    Hey, there IS a still behind him! What an awesome monk. He must be the patron saint for these guys in wingsuits:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttz5oPpF1Js

  15. Bill in Texas says:

    Gregory Nagy — Personally, I would think that Brother Elmer probably needed some distilled spirits BEFORE his little experiment! He was a long, long way above the ground, and who could blame him for wanting to steady his nerves? Maybe the stained glass documents more than it first appears.

  16. Sounds like fun, but I would not have the guts to jump out of the tower. I’ll stick with St. Joseph of Coupertino. If the Lord lifts me up that would be fine, but to jump – no way!

  17. Tom says:

    I first heard about Eilmer from Eut Tileston and then later in Tom Wood’s book “How the Church Built Civilization.” When I wrote to the monastery (now Anglican) they sent me a nice booklet on Eilmer.

    As someone who is a pilot and lives in Ohio, it is frustrating trying to convince people that the Wrights’ may not have been the first in all that is presumed. The back of Charles Hamson Grant’s has a couple of pages of people who preceded the Wrights in flight with Eilmer as number one.

    To claim to be the first, the Wrights’ definition has to be narrowed quite a bit.
    1) sustained (a hundred feet or so)
    2) controlled on three axis (replicas built in 2003 and flown by NASA test pilots all crashed.
    3) self propelled (the Flyer was catapulted and couldn’t takeoff and needed a 20kt headwind)

    If you ever want to get Smithsonian types hopping made, bring up History By Contract and the claims of Gustav Whitehead.
    http://gustavewhitehead.org/

  18. Maynardus says:

    Enough of this kid stuff like advertising on MTV – “Aerborne Eilmer” would be a good, manly “poster monk” for a 21st-century vocations campaign! Wing-by-wing…

    (The still might not hurt either!)

  19. B. says:

    There’s another flying monk (OK, technically a canon), who tried these kind of stunts in the monastery of Bad Schussenried. As was noted in the monastery chronicle, Kaspar Mohr had secretly developed his wings and could already lift off the ground. However he was caught by the abbot in the moment he wanted to jump out of the top window of the monastery. The abbot ordered him “per obedientiam” not to jump and had the wings destroyed.
    However, when the new monastery church was built, he was depicted on the ceiling fresco as visiting Heaven with his wings.

  20. irishgirl says:

    Oh, that’s funny-a still?

    The people in the Middle Ages were FAR from stupid!

  21. Dr Richard P. Hallion says:

    Thanks, Fr. Z!! I am delighted that the old AF Centennial of Flight news release on Eilmer proved so interesting! For more on Eilmer, see my book Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity Through the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2003). Eilmer’s “landing site” in Malmesbury is still remarkably well preserved, and one can easily figure where he took off and what his flight path was, given the terrain and prevailing winds. Regarding the Middle Ages, I strongly recommend Edward Grant’s God and Reason in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001), and Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005). The medieval church was a remarkable institution, and its members even more so. With best wishes to all readers, Richard P. Hallion

  22. Dr Richard P. Hallion says:

    Thanks, Fr. Z!! I am delighted that the old AF Centennial of Flight news release on Eilmer proved so interesting! For more on Eilmer, see my book Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity Through the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2003). Eilmer\’s \”landing site\” in Malmesbury is still remarkably well preserved, and one can easily figure where he took off and what his flight path was, given the terrain and prevailing winds. Regarding the Middle Ages, I strongly recommend Edward Grant\’s God and Reason in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001), and Rodney Stark\’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005). The medieval church was a remarkable institution, and its members even more so. With best wishes to all readers, Richard P. Hallion

  23. Maureen says:

    irishgirl –

    Whiskey was invented by Irish monks during the Middle Ages. So yes, distilling is medieval technology, and yes, they distilled all sorts of stuff. Mostly for medicine. (Whiskey was originally meant for medicine, too.)

  24. Jana says:

    There was also a Slovak “flying monk”, fr. Cyprian, in the Camaldul monastery Cerveny klastor in the 18th century. Look at: http://www.slovakheritage.org/Castles/cerveny_klastor.htm