Eilmer of Malmesbury

Eilmer of Malmesbury - Picture

Eilmer of Malmesbury Information

Eilmer of Malmesbury

Aviation History - Elmer of Malmsbury - Stained glass window showing Eilmer, installed in Malmesbury Abbey in 1920

Picture - Stained glass window showing Eilmer, installed in Malmesbury Abbey in 1920

Eilmer of Malmesbury (also known as Oliver due to a scribe's miscopying, or Elmer) was an 11th-century English Benedictine monk best known for his early attempt at a gliding flight using wings.


Eilmer was a monk of Malmesbury Abbey, known to have written on astrology. All that is known of him is told in the De Gestis Regum Anglorum ("Deeds of the English Kings"), written by the eminent medieval historian William of Malmesbury in about 1125. Being a fellow monk in the same abbey, William almost certainly obtained his account directly from people there who knew Eilmer himself when he was an old man.

Later scholars such as the US American historian of technology Lynn White have attempted to estimate Eilmer's date of birth based on a quotation in William's "Deeds" in regard to Halley's comet, which appeared in 1066. The difficulty lies in that William recorded the quote by Eilmer not so much as to establish his age, but to show that his prophecy was fulfilled later that year when the Normans invaded England.

You've come, have you? - You've come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.

Making the assumption that Eilmer may have seen Halley's comet 76 years earlier as a youth, he might have been born in 984, which would have made him about 5 years old when he first saw the comet, and old enough to remember it. However the periodicity of comets was likely unknown in Eilmer's time, and so his remark "It is long since I saw you" could have been made in reference to a different, later comet. Since it is known that Eilmer was an "old man" in 1066, and that he had made the flight "in his youth", the event is placed some time during the early 11th century, probably the first decade.

The flight

William records that, in Eilmer's youth, he had read and believed the Greek fable of Daedalus. Thus, Eilmer fixed wings to his hands and feet and launched himself from the top of a tower at Malmesbury Abbey:

He 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 upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong [201 metres]. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after.

Crippled for life but undaunted, Eilmer believed that he could make a more controlled landing if his glider was equipped with a tail, and he was preparing for a second flight when the abbot of Malmesbury Abbey forbade him from risking his life in any further experiments.

Given the geography of the abbey, his landing site, and the account of his flight, to travel for "more than a furlong" (220 yards, 201 metres) he would have had to have been airborne for about 15 seconds. His exact flightpath is not known, nor how long he was in the air, because today’s abbey is not the abbey of the 11th century, when it was probably smaller, although the tower was probably close to the present height. "Olivers Lane", off the present-day High Street and about 200 metres (660 ft) from the abbey, is reputed locally to be the site where Eilmer landed. That would have taken him over many buildings. Maxwell Woosnam's study concluded that he is more likely to have descended the steep hill off to the southwest of the abbey, rather than the town centre to the south.

Flight analysis

To perform the manoeuvre of gliding downward against the breeze, utilizing both gravity and the wind, Eilmer employed an apparatus somewhat resembling a gliding bird. However being unable to balance himself forward and backwards, as does a bird by slight movements of its wings, head and legs, he would have needed a large tail to maintain equilibrium. Eilmer could not have achieved true soaring flight in any event, but he might have glided down in safety if he had had a tail. Afterwards, Eilmer remarked that the cause of his crash was that "he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail."

Historical traditions and influence

Other than William's account of the flight, nothing has survived of Eilmer's lifetime work as a monk, although his astrological treatises apparently still circulated as late as the 16th century.

Based on William's account, the story of Eilmer's flight has been retold many times through the centuries by scholars, encyclopaedists, and proponents of man-powered flight, keeping the idea of man flight alive. These include over the years: Helinand of Froidmont (before 1229), Alberic of Trois-Fontaines (before 1241), Vincent of Beauvais (1250s), Roger Bacon (ca. 1260), Ranulf Higden (before 1352, and the first to misname him "Oliver") and the English translators of his work, Henry Knighton (before 1367), John Nauclerus of Tx¼bingen (c. 1500), John Wilkins (1648), John Milton (1670), and John Wise (1850).

More recently, Maxwell Woosnam in 1986 examined in more detail the technical aspects such as materials, glider angles, and wind effects.

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 beneficial to generating the lifting forces enabling a bird - or an airplane - to fly. This climate of thought led to a 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.

List of firsts in aviation

This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Air Force document "Pioneers of Flight: Eilmer of Malmesbury" by Richard Hallion (retrieved on May 10, 2008).
Lacey, Robert (2004). Great Tales From English History. New York: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-10910-X.
Scott, P. (1995). "1". The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919. Reading MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Co..
White, Lynn (1961). "Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition". Technology and Culture (Technology and Culture, Vol. 2, No. 2) 2 (2): 97-111. doi:10.2307/3101411. http://jstor.org/stable/3101411
White, Lynn (1978). "Eilmer of Malmesbury, an eleventh-century aviator: a case study of technological innovation, its context and tradition". Medieval religion and technology: 59-73.
Woosnam, Maxwell (1986). Eilmer, The Flight and The Comet. Malmesbury, UK: Friends of Malmesbury Abbey. ISBN 0951379801.

Eilmer of Malmesbury Pictures

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Source: WikiPedia

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