Eilmer of Malmesbury was a man about whom we know virtually nothing. He is mentioned in an aside by the chronicler William of Malmesbury in his Gesta Regum Anglorum. From William we know that Eilmer was of 'mature age' in 1066 when Halley's Comet made its regular appearance. Because William quotes Eilmer as saying that he had seen the comet before, it has been argued that Eilmer had been a boy in 989 when Halley's Comet had put in its previous appearance. Of course, comets are not terribly unusual sights in the course of a lifetime; Eilmer may have seen a different comet earlier and so, would have been much younger than almost 90 in 1066 when he saw Halley's return.
The Flying Monk
It is not Eilmer's astronomical observations, however, that have made him famous. Eilmer is sometimes argued to be the first human to fly. William describes it, as he chronicles the succession to the French throne:
Eodem anno Henricus rex Francorum, miles strenuus et bonus, potionis haustu interiit. Non multo post, cometes stella, ut ferunt, mutationes regnorum praetendens, longos et flammeos crines per inane ducens, apparuit; unde pulchre quidam nostri monasterii monachus, Eilmerus nomine, viso coruscantes astri terrore conquiniscens, 'Venisti', inquit, 'venist, multis matribus lugende; dudum est quod te vidi, sed nunc multo terribiliorem te intueor patriae hujus excidium vibrantem.' Is erat litteris, quantum ad id temporis, bene imbutus, aevo maturus, immanem audaciam prima juventute conatus: nam pennas manibus et pedibus haud scio qua innexuerat arte, ut Daedali more volaret, fabulam pro vero amplexus, collectaque e summo turris aura, spatio stadii et plus volavit; sed venti et turbinis violentia, simul et temerarii facti conscientia, tremulus cecidit, perpetuo post haec debilis, et crura effractus. Ipse ferebat causam ruinae quod caudam in posteriori parte oblitus fuerit.
The same year, Henry1 king of the French, a soldier strong and good, passed away because of poison. Not many [years] after, a hairy star2 appeared, it is said portending regime change, leading its long and flaming train through the sky; so, a certain pretty monk of our monastery, Eilmer by name, trembling with terror at the sight of the star bowed down and said 'You've come, you come with many mothers lamenting; it's been some time since I saw you3, but now I see you much more terrible brandishing destruction of this land.' He was lettered, for those times, instructed well, of mature age; in the blush of youth with great bravery [he'd been through] a trial: for by some art he wove feathers to hands and feet, that he might fly like Daedalus, embracing the fable as the truth, and collecting air from the top of a tower, for the space of a stadium4 and more he flew; but trembling from the violence of the wind and turbulence, and also from awareness of the rash attempt, he fell, and ever after was disabled, and broke his legs. He said the cause of his ruin was that he forgot to put a tail on his posterior parts.
William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum Anglorum, Vol. I, ed. William Stubbs (London, 1887), p. 276-277.
There is no other record of Eilmer or his flight.
The Cordovan With No Tail
Interestingly, Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari, writing in the early 17th century, tells of a gentleman of Cordoba, Abul Qasim Ibn Firnas, who performed a disturbingly similar aerial feat in 875, long before Eilmer could possibly have leapt from the Malmesbury tower. Although al-Maqqari's account was written long after both Eilmer's flight and William's account, he refers to a poet contemporary of ibn Firnas who describes the aviator as dressed in vulture feathers. Al-Maqqari also refers to the testimony of several unnamed witness to the flight who apparently recorded that Ibn Firnas himself claimed that the reason his flight had ended in a crash was that he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail. While it is a possibility that Ibn Firnas' adventure was some sort of inspiration for Eilmer's, it seems more likely that William's description of Eilmer's flight coloured al-Maqqari's description of the gentle fall of Ibn Firnas.
Embracing the Fable
William of Malmesbury spends a good deal of time in his Gesta Regum Anglorum recounting events of Spain. He also recounts travellers' tales of trips into the Iberian Peninsula while it was in the control of Islamic states. William does not, however, mention stories of flight from anywhere but his own monastery of Malmesbury. Perhaps the truth of who made the first human flight can never be known. But sometimes it is fun to embrace the fable as the truth. In 2010 Malmesbury will be embracing Eilmer's story with an elaborate celebration of 1,000th anniversary of the flight of the monk, including an attempt to recreate Eilmer's feat from the top of Malmesbury Abbey.