Main piece: There’s this, in the Abbey where my Gramps works, there’s a legend of Eilmer the Flying Monk. From what I remember, he is supposedly a monk who in the thirteenth century tried to fly by jumping off the roof of this abbey. And I don’t think he succeeded, but they call him the flying monk nonetheless.
I definitely think it’s kind of farcical, it’s so British. Apparently he tried really hard… it is kind of referred to around Malmesbury, like there’s pubs named “Flying Monk” and there’s like, on the “Welcome to Malmesbury” sign, they have a sign about it. I think people just find it funny.
People like to talk about him. He’s a fun kind of figure about the town that people know about. They’re like “this guy jumped off a roof in the 1200s and we’re never going to let him forget it”. You know, Malmesbury’s really small, it’s got a lot of history though, and I think that people just really like the image of a flying monk. Religion has a kind of social function there, but it’s pretty individual in their own take on spirituality and religion, but the center of the town is the abbey. The main street branches right off from that [the abbey]. And it’s kind of what people come to Malmesbury for. It’s a very small-scale tourist operation, people just don’t really come to Malmesbury. But when they do- I mean, the queen has been there – to the Malmesbury Abbey. My gramps met her there, once.
I don’t think they have commercialized it that much. I mean, they have a 10k called the Flying Monk, there’s a beer, but I was never super aware of it being commercialized when I was there. It was just a story my dad told me. It might not even be Malmesbury companies that make it
Background: O’s father grew up in Malmesbury, a town in Wiltshire, England. O has been visiting her grandparents (her grandfather is the town’s organist) and aunt, who still live there, once every year or two for a few weeks since as long as she can remember. He was the one who told her the story of Eilmer, and she finds it incredibly funny.
Context: When talking about Malmesbury, O immediately launched into a description of Eilmer the Flying Monk. Her grandfather (referred to as “Gramps” in the transcript) has been an organist at Malmesbury Abbey for decades, and O has spent a lot of time at the abbey with him, either spending time in the garden or in the graveyard of the church.
Analysis: Malmesbury Abbey has a population of a little over five thousand, and much of its history occurred in the pre-Enlightenment era. As O said, the abbey is the center of a lot of the social life in Malmesbury, so it makes sense that their unofficial mascot would both connect to the historic events of the town, as well as the Church, even if it is in a fun, subversive way. Eilmer of Malmesbury was a real monk who in 1010 made an unsuccessful flying attempt using a primitive hang glider. It is believed that he broke both legs in the attempt (this was documented by historical William of Malmesbury). Although this is not widely known outside of Malmesbury or seen as a tourist attraction, the symbol of Eilmer of Malmesbury is seen as both a joke and a proud symbol of the Malmesbury people, an example Michael Herzfeld’s “cultural intimacy”, which is described as “the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered as a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with the assurance of common sociality” (Ginnging, 2)
Gingging, Flory Ann Mansor. “‘I Lost My Head in Borneo’: Tourism and the Refashioning of the Headhunting Narrative in Sabah, Malaysia.” Cultural Analysis 6 (2007): 1–29.
“Eilmer the Flying Monk,” February 27, 2020. https://www.athelstanmuseum.org.uk/malmesbury-history/people/eilmer-the-flying-monk/.