What Happened When An 11th Century Monk Was Only A Little Sick

Imagine this: you are an 11th-century monk in Canterbury. You wake up only to discover you are not feeling very well. However, you don’t feel so awful that you think you need to go to the monastery’s infirmary but you are definitely too sick to function normally today. So what are you to do?

A monk sitting on the ground near a cliff and a tree | Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Comites Latentes 15, f. 2r – Liturgical Psalter | (https://www.e-codices.ch/en/list/one/bge/cl0015)

Luckily, we don’t have to wonder what your next steps should be! The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc (hence the name) tells you in detail what to do next.

The first thing a monk needed to do was announce his predicament in chapter. (Chapter was the monastery’s daily meeting.) After all, he couldn’t just not do his daily tasks without explaining why he was skipping them! So the monk would lay prostrate on the ground until the abbot/prior/whatever superior was running chapter that day gave him permission to stand up. Once he got to his feet, the monk would explain he was not feeling well and was unable to complete his duties for the day.

Lanfranc’s original Latin uses the word “fateatur” to describe the monk’s announcement. Here “fateatur” is translated as “confess.” (It can also mean admit, disclose, acknowlege, and praise.) I find it interesting that a monk was to confess he was sick instead of simply telling the superiors he was not feeling well. By using the word “confess” it almost implies that the monk did something wrong by not feeling well.

After he made his confession/announcement the superior was supposed to tell him he hoped God would make him well as fast as He thought was appropriate and the monk was to do whatever he needed to do to feel better as soon as possible. This included staying away from his normal duties as he felt was appropriate. The monk would do this until he got better or if his illness became worse. If it became worse he would go to the infirmary. In my next post I will go into detail about that, so keep an eye out for it!

Main Source:

Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 118–119. Medieval Classics. 

Secondary Sources:

“Fateor.” Wiktionary, en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fateor#Latin. 

I also used the app Latin Words to double-check translations of words.

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.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 15 September 2005.
Website: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/

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! You can see it here.

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.

Early Medieval English Charms: Paganism, Christianity, and Medical Science

In early medieval England, the line between paganism, Christianity, and magic was much blurrier than one might think. This is especially evident in Anglo-Saxon charms. This particular genre of Old English literature can be found in both prose and poetic forms. Depending on the text, the charm may be comprised of both. While there are a lot of charms from the early medieval period, when one scholar, Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, selected twelve specific charms for his book The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, these ones became well known. As a result, they are commonly given as examples in academic writing. However, there are many more out there. Two good sources for Anglo-Saxon charms are Bald’s Leechbook and the Lacnunga. Both works are early medical texts. (I will note that I haven’t read through the entirety of these yet, so I’m not sure how many remedies are actual charms, compared to other herbal cures.)

In the big twelve, about half of them are medical charms. I say about half because it’s not exactly clear what “Against A Dwarf” is supposed to be for, though the guess is that it’s supposed to be a cure of some kind. Another medicinal charm is called “For The Water-Elf Disease.” This one is clearly a cure for an illness. The first paragraph lists some symptoms (fingernails turning black, eyes getting watery, and the patient looking down), then it lists herbs the healer should use, and finally, it has the spell the healer needs to say as they prepare the remedy. While the verbal component is obviously magical, it does have some science to it. There were no reliable clocks in early medieval England, so reciting a charm is a great way to make sure the herbs have enough time to brew. (Some charms opted to have a person recite a prayer instead of a spell. I will go more into Christian elements later on in this post.) Finally, some medical charms had no scientific elements at all. For example, the charm designed to help a woman have a healthy pregnancy relies on religious and magical beliefs.

The other half is designed to make rural living easier. For example, there is the charm called “For a Swarm of Bees.” Like the charm for water-elf disease, this one has magical and scientific elements. Apparently, if your bees start to swarm one way to fix that is to throw dirt or gravel at them. That is the scientific part of the charm. Then there are two magical parts. The first part is the extremely specific instruction to step on the dirt with your right foot. The second part is the two spells you need to recite. The other rural living charms are for fixing barren land and what to do if your cattle are lost or stolen.

Interestingly enough, the cattle theft charm and the barren land charm have both pagan and Christian references. (As well as the medicinal “Nine Herbs Charm!”) Here are some examples:

***

“For Unfruitful Land”

Sing the Benedicte, arms stretched out, and the Magnificat and the Pater Noster three times, and commend it to Christ and to holy Mary and to the Holy Rood in praise and worship and grace for them who own that land and to all those who are subject to them.

[…]

Yrce, Yrce, Yrce, mother of the earth,
grant us that the All-Wielder, the Eternal Lord,
of the growing and sprouting fields,
propagating and growing strong,
of lofty creation, shining blossoms,
and of the broad barley-crops,
and of the white wheaten-crops,
and of all the other fruits of the earth.

(Of course, it’s possible that The Eternal Lord could be the Christain God, but the surrounding context makes me think that is unlikely.)

***

“The Nine Herbs Charm”

These nine herbs can avail against nine poisons.
The worm comes creeping, tearing into the man—
then Woden took up nine glorious boughs,
striking then the serpent—it flew into nine pieces.
There the apple and the venom were destroyed,
so that it never wished to bring down your house.

Thyme and fennel, a mighty powerful pair,
the wise Lord shaped these herbs,
holy in heaven, those he hung up—
set up and sent down into the seven worlds
for the wretched and the blessed, as cure for all.

***

“For the Theft of Cattle”

Nothing was stolen or concealed, after I owned it, any more than Herod could do to Our Lord. I thought Saint Eadelena and I thought Christ was hung upon the Rood—so I intend to find these cattle—they were not taken away, to be known and not harmed, and to be loved and not led away.
Garmund, the thane of God,
find those cattle and bear those cattle
and keep those cattle and hold those cattle
and bear those cattle home.

(It’s not clear who exactly Garmund is, but he may be a mythological figure.)

***

Due to the lack of written records, we don’t know a lot, if anything, about early medieval English gods. That being said, it’s fascinating that people called upon both Christian and pagan gods for help when they desperately needed it. (I suppose it’s a “Well, I really need help so I don’t want to anger anyone by slighting them!” kind of thing.) This implies that in the early days of Christianity, people worshipped the old gods along with the new ones. Or if they didn’t outright worship them, they were still a part of their lives.

If you’re interested in learning more about later medieval charms, I wrote an academic paper touching upon it a few years ago. You can find it here.

Sources:

Foys, Martin, et al., eds. Old English Poetry in Facsimile (Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019): https://uw.digitalmappa.org/58

Garner, Lori Ann. “Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance.” Oral Tradition 19 (2004): 20 – 42. https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/64982/OralTradition19-1-Garner.pdf;jsessionid=165F067E65F7EF873466D5A678DB2802?sequence=1

Anglo-Saxon Paganism by Philipp J. Rackl https://www.academia.edu/10540548/Anglo_Saxon_Paganism

Tornaghi, Paola. “ANGLO-SAXON CHARMS AND THE LANGUAGE OF MAGIC.” Aevum, vol. 84, no. 2, 2010, pp. 439–464. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20862333. Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

Anglo-Saxon Medicine https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/10/anglo-saxon-medicine.html