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Eilmer of Malmesbury: the flying monk of medieval England The first known serious flight attempt in world history occurred about a thousand years before the Wright brothers, in an English abbey.

If you’re into extreme sport athletes jumping off cliffs and high towers and what not, you can thank Eilmer (or sometimes known as Elmer) the Flying Monk. He was doing it way before parkour was cool, because Elmer lived in the 11th century.

“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. 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.”

Eilmer had a keen interest in science and a brilliant mind

Eilmer was an 11th-century Benedictine monk who lived at Malmesbury Abbey. Though he was interested in many scientific disciplines, he was especially fascinated by the sky. He witnessed the Halley’s Comet twice in his lifetime, the second in 1066. Even without proper training and education, Eilmer realized it was the same one.

He managed a short flight from the tower of Malmesbury Abbey

Eilmer observed jackdaws in flight and was inspired. He thought about air current dynamics and how the birds glid on them. He then made a set of wings which he fastened to his arms and feet before launching himself from the heights of the tower of Malmesbury Abbey.

Eilmer was able to cover a distance of around 200 meters (660 feet) and flew for 15 seconds before he panicked and crashed, breaking both his legs.

After the crash, Eilmer came to believe that a tail would have given him more in-flight stability. As soon as he recovered, Eilmer worked to correct the shortcomings of his initial flight. However, his experiment came to a halt when his abbot officially banned any further flying attempts.

How likely is this all to be true?

Very! According to the Daily Medieval:

Let’s first consider what we might call “incidental” evidence. William [of Malmesbury] is not just reporting a legend [when writing about Eilmer]: although he lived after Eilmer, he was in the same Abbey, and very likely got the story from elders who knew Eilmer and had witnessed the experiment first-hand.

William also records a curious detail: that Eilmer ever after claimed his failure was due to not constructing a tail for his device. This suggests that Eilmer really did study birds in flight, and realized that a tail is also important to steer and brake for landing. Unfortunately for the history of manned flight, the abbot forbade him or anyone from repeating the crippling experience.

But was such a flight possible? Several historians have weighed in, and even the United States Air Force is willing to accept it. The conditions that make it believable are as follows:

The Abbey was situated at a cliff edge over the Avon River that would have created strong updrafts. Eilmer would have seen how jackdaws use the strong updraft to glide and soar without the need to flap. The tower would have been about 80 feet high, giving him additional altitude for catching an updraft. If Eilmer were a small man, calculations suggest that a light and strong frame of willow or ash, covered with parchment or light cloth, would only need an area of 100 square feet to support his weight. William says the wings were attached to Eilmer’s hands as well as feet—this supports the notion that they covered a larger area than just wings attached to arms.

Likely inspired by the legend of Daedalus

It was believed that Eilmer’s fascination with flying was inspired by the mythical Greek architect Daedalus who designed and built the famous Labyrinth in Crete. According to the epic, King Minos wanted to keep the Labyrinth a secret, so he detained Daedalus and his son Icarus in a tower. Daedalus then created giant wings using feathers and wax which he and Icarus used to fly to their freedom.

Charlie Graley has made a short film about the flying monk, available for free via Vimeo:

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