Eilmer of Malmesbury was an 11th-century English Benedictine monk best known for his early attempt at a gliding flight using wings.
He is known to have written on astrology. All that is known of him is written by the eminent medieval historian William of Malmesbury in about 1125. In his words:
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 [201 metres]. 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.
Eilmer typified the inquisitive spirit of medieval enthusiasts who developed small drawstring toy helicopters, windmills, and sophisticated sails for boats. Church artists increasingly showed angels with ever more accurate depictions of bird-like wings. This led to a general acceptance that air was something that could be “worked.” Flying was thus not magical, but could be attained by physical effort and human reasoning.
image: (x) Detail from Edwardian Stained glass in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire. This image is the work of Bell & Co of Bristol. It dates from 1921.