Eilmer of Malmesbury: The Monk Who Flew (Sort Of)

From Daedalus to the Wright Brothers to NASA flying a tiny helicopter on Mars, the concept of flight has fascinated humanity for millennia. This was no different for an 11th-century monk named Eilmer (AKA Elmer/Oliver. Oliver is due to a misreading). Eilmer of Malmesbury was briefly mentioned in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum. Sadly this text is really the only surviving account we have about Eilmer. That being said, his works about astrology (now lost) were referenced as late as the 16th century.

What does an astrologer monk have to do with flight? Well, when Eilmer was a young monk he decided that he was going to try to fly. His plan included making wings and jumping off of Malmesbury Abbey’s tower. And it worked! Eilmer flew! Well, sort of. He flew for about six hundred feet before the wind became violent, the air current changed and he crash-landed. Fortunately for Eilmer, he survived the crash. Unfortunately for Eilmer, he broke both legs. His injuries were severe enough that according to William of Malmesbury he “was lame ever after.” Apparently, for the rest of his life, Eilmer lamented his experiment would have worked had he not forgotten to add a tail. (Some modern writers say that Eilmer’s abbot forbade him from doing a second experiment, but this is not in the primary source. Dom Aelred Watkin added this tidbit to his account in the 1950s. While not factually accurate, it certainly is funny to think about.)

There are a lot of myths/legends about people trying (and failing) to fly. However, it is extremely likely Eilmer’s experiment did in fact happen. For one, William is considered to be an extremely accurate medieval historian. It helps that William came from the same monastery as Eilmer and Eilmer died less than one hundred years before William finished his chronicle. William probably heard the story from monks who knew Eilmer as an old man.

When exactly did Eilmer attempt to fly? Well, we don’t have an exact date but Dr. Lynn White’s research does give us a general estimate of when it happened. See, Eilmer isn’t just famous for his flying. In fact, William seems to have added that as more of an after thought. William focuses more on how Eilmer had seen Halley’s comet twice in his life. This is very imporant for dating his life story. The second time he saw the comet was in 1066. Eilmer recognizes it as the comet he saw in his childhood. Because Halley’s comet appears every 75-76 years or so, the first time Eilmer saw it had to have been in 989. Assuming Eilmer was about five or six at the time (five to six being old enough to remember things) he would have been in his early 80s in 1066. William says Eilmer was in his early youth when he tried to fly, so he was probably less than 25 years old at the time of his experiment. This puts the date sometime from the years 1000 to 1010.

We don’t know for certain what Eilmer’s flying machine looked like, but we do have some clues thanks to William’s description, cultural context, and modern-day aviation. We do know Eilmer used wings he attached to his hands and feet. William uses the Latin term “pennae” when describing them so the contraption could not have been a parachute or a balloon of some sort. They were probably rigid, maybe hinged, and possibly meant to flap like a bird’s. (I will note that humans do not have the right muscle structure to fly by flapping their arms.) They would have to be pretty big to carry him. James of Wanborough theorizes that they were around 100 square feet, probably made of ash or willow (the wood most likely to be available to Eilmer at the time), and covered in a light cloth or parchment. Because Eilmer did in fact fly for a good distance before he crashed, he had to have been a small man. However, that is all scientific speculation.

Even though we no longer have his astrological works or really any other evidence of Eilmer’s existence besides William’s account, I want to stress how remembered he was throughout the Middle Ages. William was not the only historian to write about him. Some other medieval historians include (but are not limited to!) Helinand, Alberic, Vincent of Beavais, and Ralph Higden. Unfortunately, they all seemed to use William’s account as their source so they don’t have any new information about Eilmer. (In fact, Ralph Higden even misread Eilmer’s name as Oliver! Thanks to this, Eilmer was referred to as Oliver by other historians.) And it wasn’t just medieval people who were fascinated by Eilmer! From William’s chronicle to the modern day Eilmer is a figure who has fascinated generations.

Finally, as a little treat, I would like to share this YouTube video I found about Eilmer. It’s a short silent animation. I think you will enjoy it!

https://youtu.be/DShl_FR5vBQ

Sources:

Eilmer of Malmesbury. 25 Aug. 2008, web.archive.org/web/20091101062715/www.eilmer.co.uk/eilmer-biog.htm

Giles, J. A., translator. “Book II Chapter XIII.” William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England, by William of Malmesbury, J. Haddon, 1847, pp. 251–252. https://archive.org/details/dli.ministry.07166/page/251/mode/2up

Wanborough, James of. Eilmer the Flying Monk, 981-1069ad (Approx). web.archive.org/web/20090115195158/www.jane-williams.me.uk/so/cartnav/eilmer.htm. 

White, Lynn. “Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition.” Technology and Culture, vol. 2, no. 2, 1961, pp. 97–111. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3101411. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.

The Very Basics About Medieval Penitentials

If you are Catholic (or were raised Catholic) you are almost certainly familiar with the concept of confession. And if you aren’t, I want to give a little context before I get into the main topic of this article. Confession (AKA penance/reconciliation) is one of the modern seven sacraments. (Depending on the time and place in medieval Europe penance might not be considered a sacrament just yet.) It is exactly what it sounds like: you are confessing what you’ve done wrong (i.e. your sins) to a priest and receiving penance so God will forgive you. This results in your soul being cleansed. In the Catholic faith, it’s extremely important that you confess before you die so you can eventually get into Heaven. Of course, people do not just confess on their deathbeds. Ideally, they go to confession throughout their lives. (Especially if they want to receive the Eucharist which is another sacrament.)

The Lord listening to confession | Add MS 42130 f.185v | The British Library

In medieval Europe confession was a major part of life. So much so, that religious figures actually wrote manuals on how it should be performed. These manuals are called penitentials. It was around the end of the fifth century the idea of previously designated penances started to become a thing. However, it was only at the beginning of the sixth century do the earliest penitentials start to appear in Ireland and Wales. From the seventh century onward penitentials start showing up in the British Iles and continental Europe. The attitudes towards penitentials changed over time. In the early ninth century, people were not super crazy about the idea of them. But this attitude shifted. Soon enough priests were actually required to use penitentials until around 1100 CE.

The texts themselves vary, but generally speaking a penitential would have two parts. The first part is called the ordo confessionis/the introduction. This part explained the different aspects of the ritual. It included “how to administer confession, interrogate penitents, determine their spiritual disposition and sincerity in repenting, and weigh the seriousness of their sins” (Frantzen). It might also instruct the priest to question the penitent about their faith and their beliefs. The second part was a list of sins and the penances for each sin. These were called tariffs.

Depending on the manual, the penitent’s social status, age, gender, job, health, etc. a penance could be harsher or more lenient. For example, if a member of the clergy murdered a person, how long they had to fast for depended on their position in the church hierarchy. A bishop had to fast for twelve years, a priest or monk had to fast for ten years, and a deacon had to fast for seven years. And no matter the clergyman’s status, they were defrocked. Another example is sodomy. (Sodomy here meaning any kind of sex act that cannot possibly result in the creation of a child.) If you were younger and confessed to committing to it your punishment would be significantly less long compared to an adult’s penance. The reasoning behind this was that if you were an adult you were supposed to know better. And if you were an adult over forty (and married!) you were really supposed to know better! That being said, it’s interesting to look at penances for sodomy and how much they varied. Different acts were given different penances in different penitentials.

There are a lot of penitentials out there. Here is a list of some of the existing ones. (Please note that this is not an exhaustive list by any means!)

  1. Old English Introduction
  2. Excarpsus Cummeani
  3. Penitential of Finnian
  4. Scriftboc
  5. Canons of Theodore 
  6. Old English Penitential 
  7. Egbert’s Penitential
  8. Old English Handbook 

Overall, penitentials are an excellent way to observe medieval attitudes towards aspects of social life and how they changed over time as well as in different parts of Europe.

Sources:

Frantzen, A. (n.d.). Introduction to The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from http://www.anglo-saxon.net/penance/?p=index

Frantzen, Allen J. “The Tradition of Penitentials in Anglo-Saxon England.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 11, 1983, pp. 23–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44510760. Accessed 11 Apr. 2021.

Oakley, Thomas P. “The Penitentials as Sources for Mediaeval History.” Speculum, vol. 15, no. 2, 1940, pp. 210–223. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2849050.

Quinn, P. A. (1989). Better Than The Sons of Kings: Boys and Monks in the Early Middle Ages (Vol. 2, Studies in History and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing,.

Book Review: Medieval Medicine, Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount

I’m fascinated by the history of medicine so I was excited to have the chance to read Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount. Needless to say, the book is about medieval medicine and the science behind it (as well as the not-so-scientific parts). The text starts off with a quick introduction explaining how forms of treatment can be found in animal behavior as well as evidence of prehistoric medicine. Each chapter after that covers a specific aspect of medical practices in the Middle Ages. Some such aspects include (but are not limited to!) miasmas, astrology, the Church, and malpractice. The book includes pictures as well, which I found quite nice. (This is a personal preference, but I liked how the photos were printed on the same type of paper as the rest of the book. I’m not a fan of the glossy paper other books use for their illustrations. I’m not a fan of the texture of the glossy paper.)

I appreciated how easy to read the prose was. In my personal opinion, too many academic texts are non-accessible for the average reader. When you have accessible prose, your work reaches a wider audience, thus allowing more people to learn things they would not have otherwise. Thanks to Mount’s writing style, it was much easier for me to remember what was explained. When I’m reading non-fiction that is exactly what I want.

Another thing I liked was that a good chunk of Mount’s sources came from the web. This makes it easier for readers to do further research without having to buy a bunch of $100 books if their local library does not own a copy. That being said, I was not a fan of how often Mount cites Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is a good source for getting the gist of something as well as finding primary sources in the references, it’s not a reliably accurate enough place to use in your book. Luckily, she usually only uses Wikipedia for basic explanations of things such as gemstones, but she is still using it. I would recommend doing further research into anything she has cited from Wikipedia.

Overall, Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount is a good jumping-off point for readers who want to know more about medieval medicine but aren’t quite sure where to start.