Eilmer, The Flying Monk (by Connor Bevan)

It seems apparent that the ambitions of man have always had a striking tendency to probe beyond the extent of standard physical and cognitive capabilities. These desires are manifested and entrenched within the oldest of mythologies and woven within the most novel fantasies. Among these is the seemingly age-old vision of flight. In the West, this notion can be seen manifest in the continuity of Greek thought, through the Medieval Catholic world. It prominently captures ours and the imaginations of scholars, writers and thinkers as an arrogant, romantic and inexorable dream. One such attempt and focus on human aviation can be perceived strikingly obtrusively among the eclectic and extensively rich history at Malmesbury Abbey.
In the year 1010 AD the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury (Also known as Oliver or Elmer) attempted one of the earliest recorded instances of flight from the top of Malmesbury Abbey tower. Eilmer, in the tradition of rediscovering knowledge held by the ancient Greeks (alongside others in academic circles of the time) began to observe of the natural world; particularly creatures of the air. In study of bird-life he became captivated by the concept of flight and envisaged this ability possible for humans. Concluding from his avian examinations that he would attach wings to his arms, utilising both wind and gravity he successfully flew over 200 meters only to crash-land in Oliver’s Lane, breaking his legs and crippling him for the rest of his long life. Also Eilmer had a strong familiarity with the tale of Daedalus and Icarus of Greek myth and subsequently drew influence from this – It was thought he ‘might fly as Daedalus’[1]. Moreover, it is said he witnessed the passage of Halley’s Comet. The sight of a heavenly body (of which little beyond religious context was known) may have aided in prompting this endeavour. As a case study we can perceive in Eilmer a certain fascination with ‘The Above’ when we consider also his work on astrology. He later claimed his failure was simply due to the absence of a tail to guide his course, even planned a second flight in determination of this.
Here we stumble upon broader themes, notably a distinct attempt at revival and continuation of Greek thought, culture and ideas, particularly among academic culture – not isolated to this one event in Malmesbury. Indeed, various clergy would identify with doctrine of dominion over animals demanded in Genesis (typifying an ideal of human self-importance, righteous command over animals and provoking a notion that beasts should have no feat over divine man). It would seem this notion of pushing man to the limit of his dreams and aspirations overpowers the more seldom-found pious humility which would deem flight a sinful desire, upsetting the natural order by succeeding the God-given physical restrictions we possess. Many would dabble with ideas of flight, such as Giovanni Damiani in Galloway, 1507, emanating the mythical Daedalus – attempting flight with feathers alone. The conclusion of this brave and foolhardy endeavour is evident of course… he was not successful. We see further wishes and attempts of flight in the Middle East, the designs of Da Vinci and even Ancient China. In Eilmer’s ‘epic flight’[2], we see some degree of scientific method alongside a driven faith and awe; observation, aerodynamic design, logical positioning and post-flight analysis – rather than daring a fairy tale unarmed.
It is striking that Eilmer is remembered and revered so when the other achievements of the Abbey throughout its history were comparatively great; surviving the dissolution and holding the first organ and largest library in England and being the resting place of King Æthelstan. Yet William of Malmesbury, heralded with ‘justice to be the greatest medieval monastic historian’[3]chose to write extensively of Eilmer. Furthermore, Eilmer was hardly a Wright brother and it was not his only accomplishment, with his work at the abbey including having produced several astrological treatises which remained in circulation until the 16th Century. Even the abbey focuses on him to commercial and historiographical effect; including him at the forefront of historical summaries, art, celebration, even re-enactment, not to mention revering the ‘hero’[4] by depiction on the stain glass windows of its north side, holding a place among abbots, commanders, saints and messiahs. Perhaps his idolisation owes to his bold facing of the perils and dangers during his attempt, seemingly unfased by the foreshadowed warning inherent in myth of Daedalus of man flying too close to the sun.

Connor Bevan is a second-year RPE student. This is a reflection piece written after a visit to Malmesbury Abbey during the Philosophytown festival on 10th October 2014.


Bartholomew, Ron, A History of Malmesbury Abbey, (Malmesbury: Friends of Malmesbury Abbey, 2010)


Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition, White, Lynn, Jr., Technology and Culture, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring, 1961), pp. 97-111 (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3101411?uid=3738032&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104815674567)


Willis, Roy, World Mythology, (London: Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd, 2006)

Cotterell, Arthur, The Encyclopaedia Mythology, (Surrey, Anness Publishing Limited, 1996)

Knowles, Dom David, The Monastic Order in England: A History of Its Development from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council 940-1216, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

William of Malmesbury, Allen Giles, John, William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the kings of England. From the earliest period to the reign of King Stephen (H.G. Bohn, 1847)(Reprinted Blackwell: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004)pg. 252

[1] William of Malmesbury, Allen Giles, John, William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the kings of England. From the earliest period to the reign of King Stephen (H.G. Bohn, 1847)(Reprinted Blackwell: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004)pg. 252
[2]Bartholomew, Ron, A History of Malmesbury Abbey, (Malmesbury: Friends of Malmesbury Abbey, 2010) pg. 69
[3] Knowles, Dom David, The Monastic Order in England: A History of Its Development from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council 940-1216, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) pg. 499
[4] A History of Malmesbury Abbey pg. 70

Upcoming talks at Gloucestershire Philosophical Society: RPE students welcome..

All meetings will be held at Room HC203 Francis Close HallUniversity of Gloucestershire,Swindon Road, Cheltenham.between 7.30 and 9.30pm 

Wednesday, November 12th. 2014. Dr. Roy Jackson, University of Gloucestershire will give a talk on ‘A Philosophical Novel: Hayy ibn Yaqzan’

The philosophical tale ‘Hayy ibn Yaqzan’ , named after the hero of this story and written by the Muslim philosopher Ibn Tufayl (1105-1185), was the first Arabic novel, and anticipates such European works as Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and Jean- Jacques Rousseau’s ‘Emile’, as well as the thought of a number of western philosophers including Locke and Kant. The talk will discuss some of the philosophical themes contained within the novelRoy is Reader in Philosophy of Religion at the University. He has lectured in Philosophy and Religion at various universities, including Kent, Durham, Roehampton, and King’s College, London. Among his various publications are ‘Nietzsche and Islam’ (2007); ‘What is Islamic Philosophy?’ (2014); and ‘The Complete Introduction to Nietzsche’ (2014). His ‘Complete Introduction to Plato’ is forthcoming.

Wednesday, November 26th. 2014. Dr. Graham Spencer, Gloucestershire Philosophical Society, will speak on ‘British Philosophers and the American Revolution’.
For Americans the word ‘freedom’ is almost sacred. No other country on earth places such store by it. The need for political and religious freedom was the driving force of the American Revolution, and its centrality in American political discourse remains to this day. What is overlooked, however, is the extent to which the founders drew upon the work of British philosophers to develop their ideas of political freedom. The talk will explore the contributions made by a few notable British philosophers to American ideals of freedom.
Graham has presented papers on a number of occasions to the Society and to the related ‘Piggy’ weekly seminar group. Most of his working life was spent in the area of local authority social housing: e.g.,  homelessness  and policy development at the London Borough of Havering and Westminster City Council. After retirement he spent five years in Adult Education at Essex County Council. He has studied politics, philosophy and history at Birkbeck, London University and the University of Winchester.

The Stained Glass Windows of Canterbury Cathedral (by Neil Salvesen)

Canterbury cathedral is one of the oldest churches in England. A place of renown, it is the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury and forms part of a World Heritage Site. Amongst its many distinguishing features, its stained-glass windows are amongst the oldest and finest in the western world. The cathedral has had a long and torrid history and as such not all of these beautiful pieces remain but these lost works have since been replaced with more modern works, many of which replicate the traditional, medieval style.

A group of windows depicting many important Biblical characters. The central bottom three are Isaach, Adam and Joseph.

The windows depict and show various things; important historical events and figures such as Thomas Beckett and St Dunstan; biblical scenes like Lot’s family fleeing Sodom and even indications to what life was like and general knowledge and attitudes of the time. This can be shown by the hairstyles, clothing, building shapes etc.

Many of the windows and / or sequences of windows have their own specific theme such as the ‘Redemption Window’, row 3 of which focusses on resurrection. This series contains Noah releasing the dove from the Ark after 40 days of floating after the flood. The dove returns with an olive leaf signifying the return of dry land to the world. The central panel shows Jesus emerging from a tomb, heralded by angels either side signifying his resurrection. The final image, on the far right of the window depicts Michal helping her husband escape from Saul (1 Samuel 19:8-18)    

Not all of the windows recount passages through a single pane. The Becket Miracle windows (in the northern aisle of the Trinity Chapel) show many series of images. One of these series tells the tale of the plague in the house of Sir Jordan Fitz-Eisulf. Through these conjoined panes we get a feel of the entire tale of the suffering of Jordan’s family and the compounding and worsening attributing factors.[1]

Despite the sombre tone of many of these windows, one cannot help but be moved by the beauty of each of the windows and impressed by the intricacy that the artists manage to achieve in their creation.
The modern windows are as aesthetically striking as they are ancient. From the image of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and their children at the Queen’s coronation to Christopher Whall’s window of Uriel the light-bringer, there is a range of different styles, colours, tones and purposes in these newer windows.

The above pieces display a more realistic, almost photographic approach to character depiction, emphasising the pale skin that so drew Pope Gregory the Great to the English people. The below piece, by Harry Stammers, shows a markedly different, more colourful style:

In my opinion the most outstanding pieces are those done by Ervin Bossanyi. His works are based on the theme of peace: 

The use of colour in this window is truly spectacular and there is something akin to a modern animation production in Bossanyi’s character depiction. It is a remarkably beautiful and intricate piece.

The stained glass windows at Canterbury Cathedral improve and complete what can already easily be regarded as a masterpiece of a building. They are a truly stunning testament to Christian history, Christianity’s impact on art and English culture.

Neil Salvesen is currently completing his RPE degree, and spending a lot of time in Canterbury

[1]A summarisation of the tale can be found here: http://www.geograph.org.uk/snippet/10534

Visit to Crucible 2 exhibition / Gloucester Cathedral

Hot on the heels of the Diwali trip, we are having an RPE (all years) visit to Gloucester Cathedral to see the Crucible 2 Sculpture event before it closes..

For some background on the event see http://www.crucible2.co.uk/ 

The plan is to visit on Wednesday 29th October. We will meet at 2pm – in Gloucester – outside the Cathedral. You can (if you have transport) drive there – but otherwise get the bus: the Gold 94 is your best option – see http://www.stagecoachgold.com/cheltenham-gloucester.aspx – more details to follow here (and the RPE Facebook group).

The cloisters of the Cathedral (Harry Potter fans may recognise)

Cheltenham Literature Festival..

Our students at the University of Gloucestershire, are involved with Cheltenham Literature Festival – they attend (we have some free tickets for students across Humanities subjects), they tweet, and – in this case – they interview.

Over the fence in English Literature here (over the quad, technically, but we’re all in the Humanities!) a student interviewed one of the event organisers – and you can read the interview HERE