The June 21 History Thread Celebrates Elmer the Flying Monk

Elmer of Malmesbury — also spelled Eilmer and about a million other different ways — was an English Benedictine monk who lived in the 11th century. I’ve probably posted about him here before, because I love him. He made a bold early attempt at human flight by jumping from the tower of his abbey wearing birdlike wings he had made out of unknown materials. His flight was a partial success, according to a later monk from the same abbey, the historian William of Malmesbury:

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. 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. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.

If the distance of “more than a furlong” (220 yards) is accurate, it’s estimated that he was airborne for about fifteen seconds. That’s not bad! And he lived to tell the tale.

This source points out that the mechanics of flight and wind power were the subject of quite a bit of investigation and experimentation around this time, as medieval Europe developed the understanding that “air was something that could be ‘worked.’ Flying was thus not magical, but could be attained by physical effort and human reasoning.”

Good luck with your physical efforts and human reasoning today, and don’t forget your tail.