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Flight in Eleventh-Century England August 14, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

As regular readers will know Beachcombing is one of those irritating sceptics, who looks askance at most historical records of the ‘impossible’. But every so often even he has to shake his head and admit that the evidence for the ‘impossible’ is frighteningly good. Take this record from William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of the Kings of the English ‘published’ c. 1125. In William’s work there appears the following description of a certain monk named Eilmer.

Not many years after [1060] a comet, a star foretelling, they say, change in kingdoms, appeared trailing its long and fiery tail across the sky. Wherefore a certain wonderful (pulchre?) monk of our monastery, Eilmer by name, bowed down with terror at the sight of the brilliant star, sagely cried ‘Thou art come! A cause of grief to many a mother art thou come; I have seen thee before; but now I behold thee much more terrible, threatening to hurl destruction on this land.’

Non multo post, cometes stella, ut ferunt, mutationes regnorum praetendens, longos et flammeos crines per inane ducens, apparuit; unde pulchre quidam nostri monasterii monachus, Eilmerus nomine, uiso coruscantes astri terrore conquiniscens, ‘Uenisti’, inquit, ‘uenist, multis matribus lugende; dudum est quod te uidi, sed nunc multo terribiliorem te intueor patriae hujus excidium uibrantem.’

This passage begins quietly and uncontroversially enough. We learn that there was a monk called Eilmer who had dwelt in William’s own monastery of Malmesbury. The reference to the comet is to Halley’s Comet and the mutationes regnorum or, if you like, the ‘regime change’, it heralded was the Norman Invasion of England: both comet and the invasion dating to 1066. Note too that Eilmer seems to have seen Halley’s Comet on its previous trip, i.e. in 989 that would mean that he was in his eighties in 1066. Alternatively, he could be referring to any other comet that had brightened the night sky in the early eleventh century. For present purposes it doesn’t much matter, though perhaps we should add that Eilmer may have written astronomical tracts some of which may have survived into the sixteenth century.

What is interesting though is that it situates Eilmer as a historical figure well within William’s living memory. Eilmer was still alive in 1066 and was apparently an old man at that time. William was born in c. 1090 (the date is difficult) and spent his boyhood at Malmesbury. It is unlikely that he himself ever met Eilmer but he would certainly have come into contact with monks who had known the venerable old Saxon. This is worth bearing in mind as we now move to the second fact concerning Eilmer.

Eilmer was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, 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. 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 himself used to say that the cause of his failure was his forgetting to put a tail on the back part.

Is erat litteris, quantum ad id temporis, bene imbutus, aeuo maturus, immanem audaciam prima iuuentute conatus: nam pennas manibus et pedibus haud scio qua innexuerat arte, ut Daedali more uolaret, fabulam pro uero amplexus, collectaque e summo turris aura, spatio stadii et plus uolauit; sed uenti et turbinis uiolentia, simul et temerarii facti conscientia, tremulus cecidit, perpetuo post haec debilis, et crura effractus. Ipse ferebat causam ruinae quod caudam in posteriori parte oblitus fuerit.

There have been attempt to date this attempt at flying or gliding to the early eleventh century – none really succeed though because of the dreadful ambiguities of the word iuuentus in Latin and the difficulty over whether or not Eilmer saw Halley’s comet twice or Halley’s comet and another now forgotten object in the heavens. But what is difficult to gainsay is that at the end of the eleventh century there was a tradition that old Eilmer had, as a young man, tried to fly. Beach can accept that it was not really from a tower, that it was less than a furlong – what, after all, is a spatio stadii? –  and that the wings were not as described. But there does seem to be some memory that, c. 1000, an Anglo-Saxon monk was trying to soar with the birds and that he badly hurt himself.

Not the least incredible part of this is that Eilmer even tried. The Christian tradition ascribes flying to two human beings: Christ with his ascension (a notable late Saxon theme in art btw) and Simon Magus, the sorcerer. It is difficult to imagine any monk wanting to emulate Simon and while imitatio Christi was all good and fine it was supposed to involve charity and turning the other cheek not walking on water or defying gravity. What was Eilmer thinking?

Beach should also note another fact. Abul-Qasim Abbas bin Firnas from Cordoba tried to fly c. 875. The parallel with Eilmer’s attempt has been noted by many scholars but no one else who has written on this subject seems particularly worried by it, perhaps because this account is so very late (seventeenth century).

‘Among other very curious experiments which [Abul-Qasim Abbas bin Firnas] made, one is his trying to fly. He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when, according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but, in alighting again on the place whence he had started, his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one.’

That detail about the tail rankles. Did William read or hear about this tail from one of his (several) Spanish sources (now lost) and include it a little naughtily in Eilmer’s tale? Did the Malmesbury oral tradition pick it up earlier in the eleventh century from Christian northern Spain and integrate it into Eilmer’s saga? Did a tradition from Malmesbury get dragged into the Arabic world and get included in the late source? Or is the parallel sheer chance?

Other examples of early flight please write to: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

PS Beach was so excited by Eilmer that he went to tell Mrs B about him. Mrs B – who holds history in proper contempt – quoted Woody ‘this is not flying, it is falling with style’. Then she roared with laughter and went to water the roses.

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15 August 2011: Roy himself writes in ‘I really enjoyed learning more about Eilmer.  It would be interesting to discern his motives. There is one other record of flight in the Bible: the ascension of Elijah.  Fire, whirlwind, a chariot and a horse.  Something tells me Eilmer wasn’t trying to imitate this event.  It seems like mankind has been interested in flying for quite some time, but this definitely seems a bit out of character for a monk!  One possibility is that Eilmer may have been inspired by the account of Archytus, who had built a dove-like machine that was self-propelled and could fly on its own.  Even then, Gellius seemed at least a bit skeptical.’ Thanks Roy!

16 August 2011: Sword And Beast writes in ‘I’ve only seen your post on Eilmer today, and I remembered two similar cases, an old one and a rather stupid new one: Bartolomeu de Gusmão was a portuguese jesuit and is said to have patented, in 1709, ‘an instrument to walk on air’, which is today the hot air balloon. There is a link in , with a rather interesting transcript from a 1786 Times article. But the first documented balloon flight only took place eighty years later, in France. ‘The Flying Priest’ was later mentioned in José Saramago´s Baltasar and Blimunda novel. A contemporary version of air monks took place in 2008: a priest decided to take off in a chair attached to 1000 helium balloons, in order to raise money for a social cause. Even though he had a GPS device, he called from the air through his cellphone, asking how to use it. Some hours later, his battery went dead. Needless to say, he went missing for two months, and his body was later found in the sea.  It seems that Eilmer has quite a following… ‘ Thanks Sword!