Eilmer of Malmesbury, the flying monk, was a contemporary of William the Conqueror and made a moan about Halley’s comet which was seen in the spring of 1066. At that time, William was building ships for his adventure in England. Whether Eilmer was afraid William would come or afraid that he would not come but leave the English church in the hands of Harold Godwinson’s appointees, one might justly speculate, but in fact we know: War is never nice and never a favorite event of religious people. Brother Eilmer was already an old man, and he feared that William would destroy England. William of Malmesbury, a historian of the next generation, says Eilmer wrote of the comet:
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.
The comet was indeed bright, reputedly about four times the brightness of Venus. Everyone who looked up must have seen it.
But did he see it as a child? He says, “It is long since I saw you…”
Perhaps. But the periodic return of comets was not understood in those days, so possibly he saw another one. If he actually saw the 990 visit of Halley’s, which returns every 76 years, he must have been born in the 980’s. Long life, but those medievals who survived infancy and were not in the saddle (were not soldiers) generally lived as long as we do.
However that may be, even more than for his record of seeing the comet, Eilmer is known for his effort to fly. Somehow, after reading the story of Daedalus, he thought he would give it a try. He fastened wings to his hands, feet, and took a great jump off the top of one of the towers of Malmesbury Abbey. He says he glided 200 km, but the wind was unsteady and he had “forgotten” to provide himself with a tail to stabilize his flight. The crash landing broke both legs, and he was somewhat lame the rest of his life, though not bedridden. That distance of gliding means he was probably airborne for as much as 15 seconds, probably the most intense 15 seconds of his life.
He did not try again. He studied astrology, which in those days would have been a mix of astronomy and astrology. In other words, he knew the stars. The Church permitted astrology so long as it was not practiced in a manner that would deny free will or our first obligation to take our future from the hands of Jesus.
Brother Eilmer’s efforts at flight are interesting from the perspective that they show his curiosity and they also mean that the possibility of flight was actively on men’s minds, not as magic, but as something to be understood. They studied the wing shapes of birds – we know this from their drawings of angel wings – and they believed that air could provide a lift if properly understood.