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.

Queer Saints: Marinos the Monk, A Transgender Saint

Content Note: Brief Mention of Sexual Violence

If you haven’t read my preface to the Queer Saints series, I recommend doing do. There I explain why I’ve chosen to use the term “queer” as well as why I am focusing on saints in particular. You can find the preface here.

Marinos and his father entering the monastery | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today’s saint will be Marinos the Monk. Before we begin, I would like to make a few notes. Because Marinos lived before the word transgender came into the English language in 1974, we really cannot say for certain whether or not he would call himself such. That being said, in multiple hagiographies he does show quite a few traits that trans people today can sympathize with. So while he may not have called himself trans, I think more than a few trans people can relate to how he felt. Due to this, I argue that Marinos can be read as a trans man and/or trans masculine. Because Marinos can be read as a trans man and/or trans masculine, I will be referring to him with male pronouns.

If you are interested in doing further research about Marinos, you should be aware he is called by many different names, including his dead name. I believe this is partially due to the amount of hagiographies dedicated to him, the amount of translations, and the fact he lived before the year 1000. If you can only find limited information about “Marinos the Monk” you may have to look up “Marina the Monk.” The main source I used for this article refers to him as “Marina” and “Mary.” However, both of these names are feminine, so I will be referring to him with the masculine form of the name: Marinos.

There is some debate over what century Marinos lived in. Sources vary, but he probably lived sometime between the fifth and eighth centuries in the Byzantine Empire. To be more specific, Marinos lived in either modern-day Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. Despite the differing opinions on where and when exactly he lived, the main elements of his story are pretty much always the same.

In all of the texts I’ve found, Marinos’ mother had passed away while his father, Eugenius, lived on. In my main source, Marinos is raised until adulthood in the secular by his father, but in others once his mother dies Eugenius wants to join a monastery. Either way, at some point in Marinos’ life, his father decided to give all of his possessions to the poor and become a monk.

Marinos is doesn’t want to be left alone in the world, so he begs Eugenius to take him with him. Eugenius is reluctant at first. After all, he’s not going to a double monastery where there are monks and nuns. Marinos clarifies by saying that he will cut off his hair and dress as a man. After some convincing, he agrees and Marinos is finally allowed to embrace a more masculine appearance. But before they go to the monastery Eugenius warns his son of the dangers of what they are doing. Marinos is to keep himself out of trouble and be on his best behavior at all times so the risk of him being outed is kept to a minimum.

Once at the monastery, the other monks decide that Marinos is probably a eunuch due to his lack of facial hair and soft voice. They also speculate that his appearance may have to do with all the fasting he’s doing. Marinos’ fasting may have had a double purpose. Not only is fasting considered holy, but if a menstruating person’s body gets under a certain fat percentage, their period stops.

Marinos wasn’t just considered holy because of his fasting. He took Eugenius’ words to heart and as a result he was the perfect monk. He was admired for his humility, obedience, and devotion to God. After his father died, Marinos’ dedication to the monastic life increased. In fact, he was so pious that God gave him several gifts. This included the ability to banish demons and heal others by laying his hands upon them. Clearly Marinos was in God’s favor if he was able to do that!

Despite Marinos’ reputation for piety and holiness, he does get wrapped up in a horrible scandal. The monastery he lived in had about forty or so monks living there. Due to the size, monks were often sent out into the secular world on business. Because their errands may be far away, sometimes the monks had to stay over night at an inn. The local innkeeper did his very best to show the monks as much hospitality as possible. His hospitality is important to remember later on.

One day, the abbot chose Marinos to go on a business trip. He was specifically chosen as Marinos was known for his piety, humility, and over all good behavior. After all, if you want to send someone out to represent your organization, you want to choose the person known for their ability to behave themselves. And if your organization is a religious one, it’s vital to maintain a good and pious appearance. You don’t want to have a troublemaker ruin your monastery’s reputation! It’s also important to note that according to several sources this was Marinos’ the very first trip outside the monastery.

So Marinos and three other monks go on their trip, stay at the inn, and return home. To their knowledge, it’s a successful and uneventful errand. Unfortunately, during their stay, things are not going so well for the innkeeper’s unmarried daughter. Depending on the source, she either had a one night stand, was seduced, or sexually assaulted by a soldier. Aware of the possibility of pregnancy, the soldier told her that if she did conceive a child, she should blame the handsome young monk Marinos. And the daughter did become pregnant.

(I will note that in another hagiography, it’s not an innkeeper’s daughter that becomes pregnant, but a random peasant’s daughter. In this version, Marinos goes out to get wood and stays at the peasant’s house for the night, thus giving the daughter a reasonable explanation on why she was interacting with Marinos. Here the biological father is still a soldier.)

Needless to say, when her pregnancy becomes obvious the innkeeper is not happy. After all, he’s been going out of his way to give the monks a nice place to stay and in return one of them impregnates his daughter. To give some cultural context, his daughter has basically been defiled forever and will never be marriageable material. To add to the scandal, monks take a vow of celibacy. Not only is the innkeeper under the impression a monk has slept with his daughter, left her with an illegitimate child, he is also a massive hypocrite. To compound the seriousness of the situation further, Marinos has a reputation for piety, blessed by God with holy gifts, and the first thing he supposedly does on his first trip out into the secular world is sleep with someone. Or depending on the source the first thing he does is rape someone, which is obviously far, far worse than a consensual one-night stand.

When the innkeeper discovers the pregnancy, he immediately goes to the monastery and demands to see the abbot. Once the abbot hears the accusation he is appalled and vows to throw Marinos out once he returns from his trip. (Though in some sources the abbot doesn’t believe the innkeeper and waits for Marinos’ side of the story before making any decisions.) While they are waiting, the innkeeper goes out of his way to make sure everyone knows what kind of monks are at the local monastery.

It’s never specified how long he was gone for, but eventually Marinos and the other monks return. The abbot has words with him. Instead of outing himself or even saying that he didn’t do it, Marinos takes all the blame. Again, depending on the source he either doesn’t say anything at all (which the abbot takes as an admission of guilt), throws himself sobbing on the floor saying he had sinned as a human, or he says he has sinned as a man. No matter what he does the end result is always the same: he is thrown out of the monastery, with no one the wiser about the fact he cannot actually father children. However, Marinos does not leave town. Instead, he sits outside the monastery’s gates no matter the weather and tells everyone who asks why he’s there. He tells them that he has sinned and that sin was fornication.

Eventually the child is born. The innkeeper takes the baby, finds Marinos, and throws the baby boy at his feet. I don’t know if the innkeeper literally threw the baby or not, but either way Marinos now has the child. Not wanting to punish the boy for his parents’ sins, Marinos decides to raise him as his own. Some sources say the baby was given to him immediately after birth while others say he was weaned first. In the texts that say Marinos was given a newborn, he leaves the monastery’s gates to find milk. He’s able to get some from a few local shepherds. And as the caretaker of a new baby, Marinos has to deal with everything that comes with being a new father. This includes the baby’s crying and soiled diapers.

After about three years, the monks at the monastery are starting to get uncomfortable with this arrangement. They think that he’s been punished enough. So they go to the abbot and ask him to let Marinos back. The abbot says no. Fed up, the monks threaten to leave. Not only are they are sick of seeing Marinos suffer, they say that if Marinos can’t be forgiven after three years how can they be forgiven at all? Finally the abbot concedes. Marinos and his son are let back into the community. However, there is a condition. He loses all status (the monastic life has a hierarchical structure) and has to do all the degrading and humiliating chores as well as take care of the child and his duties as a monk. Marinos agrees, doing everything with no complaint.

Years pass. His son grows up and becomes a monk as well. Then one day Marinos doesn’t show up for services. And then he doesn’t show up the next day. Or the next. Disturbed, the abbot sends some monks to looking for him. Marinos is found in his cell, dead. The abbot orders him to be prepared for burial. It is only then that they discover Marinos was born female, thus he was innocent the whole time. Absolutely horrified at what they had all done to poor Marinos over the years, the entire monastic community freaks out. The abbot especially. He is so horrified at what he did he spends three days sobbing at Marinos’ corpse. He only stops when Marinos’ voice basically tells him to calm down, he’s forgiven because he didn’t know, but if the abbot did know about his innocence then he would not be forgiven. But he didn’t, so all is forgiven.

Quickly the innkeeper is told that Marinos has died. At first he kind of shrugs it off, saying he hopes God forgives Marinos. The abbot reveals the truth. Needless to say, the innkeeper is also horrified and he prays for forgiveness over what he has done. His daughter, who is possessed by a demon, is summoned. She admits that Marinos was never the father and it was actually a soldier. Once she confesses, the demon leaves her body. Depending on the source, the daughter either spends the rest of her life repenting at Marinos’ grave or she and the soldier make a pilgrimage to the grave to confess what they did before all. Also apparently after a monk touches Marinos’ body the blindness in one of his eyes is cured.

Based on this story, it’s safe to say that Marinos was gender nonconforming at the very least. He had the opportunity to out himself and clear his name, but instead he chose to stay true to the man he was.

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Main Source:

Stouck, M. (1999). Medieval saints: A reader. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press.

You can purchase this book here on Amazon. (Though I will note that I found my copy at a used book store!)

Other Sources:

Roland Betancourt’s Transgender Lives in the Middle Ages through Art, Literature, and Medicine

The Golden Legend’s Entry on Saint Marinos the Monk

John Sanidopoulos’ Blog Post About Saint Marinos the Monk

QSpirit’s Article About Saint Marinos the Monk

Vidi Aquam Lebanese Saints

Wikipedia’s Entry on Saint Marinos the Monk