Medieval people could fly. However, landings were another matter.
The history of flight seems to start well after the Middle Ages, as the inventions of the balloon and the airplane are more modern creations. But we can find various attempts at flight throughout the medieval world, some of which had a measure of success. Moreover, people did believe that they could devise ways to fly, and were eager to try out these methods.
Medieval people could first turn to stories from ancient times if they wanted to know about trying to flying. There was the Greek myth of Daedalus, who crafted wings for himself and his son Icarus, only to see his child soar too high into the sky, and have his wings melt as he got too close to the sun. There were also early Christian accounts of a Simon Magnus, a religious figure that confronted Saint Peter in Rome. Simon apparently tries to prove himself to be a god, and in the middle of the Roman forum began to levitate himself. Peter prayed to God to stop this, upon which Simon fell back to the ground. The onlookers then turned on Simon and beat him.
A more successful early legend involves Alexander the Great, who wanted a way to see the entire world. The story goes on to say that he harnessed large birds or griffins to a carriage, where he could sit as they flew high into the sky. This particular story has been depicted by medieval artists across Europe and the Middle East.
In the western part of the medieval world, attempts to fly were often centred around copying the flight of birds. The earliest recorded attempt involved a physician named in ‘Abbas ibn Firnas from around the year 875. The chronicler al-Maqqari reports that Firnas was an inventor working in al-Andalus:
Among other very curious experiments which he made, one is trying to fly. He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when, according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but in alighting again on the place whence he had started his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come back down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one.
We know of a handful of other attempts that were very similar. The English chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote about a man named Eilmer, who was also a monk at Malmesbury Abbey. Around the first decade of the eleventh-century, he made his flight:
By the standards of those days he was a good scholar, advanced in years by now, though in his first youth he had taken a terrible risk: by some art, I know not what, he had fixed wings to his hands and feet, hoping to fly like Daedalus, whose fable he took to be true. Catching the breeze from the top of a tower, he flew for the space of a stade and more; but with the violence of the wind and eddies, and at the same time his consciousness of the temerity of his attempt, he faltered and and fell, and even thereafter he was an invalid and his legs were crippled. He himself used to give as a reason for his fall, that he forgot to fit a tail on his hinder parts.
If the account is accurate, Eilmer was able to travel over 200 metres, which meant that the flight lasted about 15 seconds. If you visit the town of Malmesbury you can even find the actual spot where he landed – on Olivers Lane – according to local lore. This account proved to be popular enough that several other medieval chroniclers added it to their works.
Others who made such an attempted had a worse fate. One scholar tried to fly from the top of a minaret in the Iranian town of Nishapur. However, his two large wooden wings failed immediately, and he crashed into the ground killing himself.
We even have a practical joke from the Middle Ages that revolved around a man trying to fly. The thirteenth-century chronicler Salimbene de Adam wrote about a teacher at Bologna named Boncompagno of Florence. Apparently, this Boncompagno was “a notorious trickster” and one day he decided to announce that he would make a flight. The news spread throughout Bologna, and a large crowd of men, women and children came to a nearby mountain to watch him. Salimbene explains what happened next:
Boncompagno had constructed wings for himself, and he stood on top of the mountain looking down at them. And after they had been gazing at each other for a long period of time, he shouted down to them audaciously, “Go, with God’s blessing, and let it suffice that you have looked upon the face of Boncompagno.” Then they had all departed, realizing full well that he had been mocking them the whole time.
Kites in Asia
On the eastern side of the medieval world, attempts at flying revolved around a totally different method – using kites. Made of paper, this invention dates back to ancient China, but by the medieval period it had become a popular object, used even recreationally. There are accounts of kites being used in warfare – for example in the thirteenth-century Chinese troops fighting against the Mongols sent kites with messages written on them to their fellow soldiers that had been taken prisoner, urging them to revolt and escape.
One of the most remarkable accounts of the use of a kite comes from the sixth-century, when Emperor Gao Yang of Northern Qi Dynasty conducted a purge of rivals. From his palace at the city of Ye, the Emperor had some of his prisoners executed in a novel fashion:
Gao Yang made Yuan Huang-Thou and other prisoners take off from the Tower of the Golden Phoenix attached to paper (kites in the form of) owls. Yuan Huang-Thou was the only one who succeeded in flying as far as the Purple Way, and there he came to earth. But then he was handed over the President of the Censorate, Pi I-Yun, who had him starved to death.
By one estimation Yuan Huang-Thou was able to fly for two-and-a-half kilometres and survive, although it seems he did not get to enjoy his achievement.
The popularity of using kites to fly people was even reported by Marco Polo. The Venetian merchant included this account in his Book of the Marvels of the World to explain how Chinese ship captains would determine if their voyages would have good fortune:
And so we will tell you [he says] how when any ship must go on a voyage, they prove whether her business will go well or ill. The men of the ship will have a hurdle, that is a grating, of withies, and at each corner and side of this framework will be tied a cord, so that there be eight cords, and they will all be tied at the other end to a long rope. Next they will find some fool or drunkard and they will bind him on the hurdle, since no one in his right mind or with his wits about him would expose himself to that peril. And this is done when a strong wind prevails. Then the framework being set up opposite the wind, the wind lifts it and carries it up into sky, while the men hold on by the long rope. And if while it is in the air the hurdle leans towards the way of the wind, they pull the rope to them a little so that it is set again upright, after which they let out some more rope and it rises higher. And if again it tips, once more they pull in the rope until the frame is upright and climbing, and then they yield rope again, so that in this manner it would rise so high that it could not be seen, if only rope were long enough. The augury they interpret thus; if the hurdle going straight up makes for the sky, they say that the ship for which the test has been made will have a quick and prosperous voyage, whereupon all the merchants run together for the sake of sailing and going with her. But if the hurdle has not been able to go up, no merchant will be willing to enter the ship for which the test has been made, because they say that she could not finish her voyage and would be oppressed by many ills. And so that ship stays in port that year.
Kite technology would spread from China to other place in East Asia. In Japan a dictionary from the late tenth-century described kites as Kami Tobi meaning paper hawks. Several accounts describe people using large kites to fly – for example to get over the walls of a fortress. However, kites would not be introduced to Europe until after the Middle Ages, although a similar device, known as a windsock, was well-known. The historian Clive Hart describes a few cases where windsock-type kites were used in European warfare. A sketch in De nobilitatibus, sapientiis, et prudentiis regum, written by Walter de Milemete in 1326, shows men using this device to drop an incendiary onto a town.
Meanwhile, in the Bellifortis, by Konrad Kyeser in the early fifteenth-century, one can find a description of this flying weapon of war:
The flying dragon may be made with parchment for the head, the middle of linen, but the tail of silk, the colours various. At the end of the the head let a triple harness be attached to the wood, moved by the middle of the flail. Let the head be raised into the wind, and when it has been lifted two men may hold the head while the third carries the reel. It follows him while he rides. The movement of the line causes the flight to vary up and down, to right and left. Let the head be coloured red and made to look real, the middle should be of moon-silver colour, the end of several colours.
The sky ships in Ireland
The Annals of Ulster recorded that in the year 749: “Ships with their crews were seen in the air above Clonmacnoise.”
The monastery of Clonmacnoise was one of the most important religious sites in medieval Ireland, and the epicentre of legends about flying ships. There are some scattered accounts, and even an eighth-century carving that offer pieces of this story. For example, the Konungs skuggsjá, written in Norway around the year 1250, includes this description of the “most wonderful” thing that happened at Clonmacnoise:
And there it thus befell on a Sunday, when people were at church and were hearing Mass, there came dropping from the air above an anchor, as if it were cast from a ship, for there was a rope attached to it. And the fluke of the anchor got hooked in an arch at the church door, and all the people went out of the church and wondered, and looked upwards after the rope. They saw a ship float on the rope and men in it. And next they saw a man leap overboard from the ship, and dive down towards the anchor, wanting to loosen it. His exertion seemed to them, by the movement of his hands and feet, like that of a man swimming in the sea. And when he came down to the anchor, he endeavoured to loosen it. And then some men ran towards him and wanted to seize him. But in the church, to which the anchor was fastened, there is a bishop’s chair. The bishop was by chance on the spot, and he forbade the men to hold that man, for he said that he would die as if he were held in water. And as soon as he was free he hastened his way up again to the ship; and as soon as he came up, they cut the rope, and then sailed on their way out of the sight of men. And the anchor has ever since lain as a witness of the event in that church.
To learn more about this topic, please read Michael McCaughan’s article, “Voyagers in the Vault of Heaven: The Phenomenon of Ships in the Sky in Medieval Ireland and Beyond”
As the Middle Ages moved on, we can see writers who were curious about the possibility of creating a machine that could propel people into air. For example, the thirteenth-century scholar Roger Bacon noted that “an instrument for flying can be made, such that a man sits in the middle of it, turning some sort of device by which artificially constructed wings beat the air in the way a flying bird does.”
There would soon be devices that could fly in medieval Europe, except they were just toys. A manuscript dated to the year 1325 is our first evidence of a toy helicopter, basically powered by a pull-string. One of these toys can also be seen in the sixteenth-century painting, Children’s Games, by Pieter Bruegel.
When it comes to designing flying machines, it is Leonardo da Vinci that gets most of the attention. The Italian artist and inventor was keenly interested in flying, and drew up plans for several inventions to fly. Many of them were based on the movements of birds, a topic he devoted much study to, but he also created concepts for a helicopter, glider and parachute.
Da Vinci would explain in his notebooks:
An object offers as much resistance to the air as the air does to the object. You may see that the beating of its wings against the air supports a heavy eagle in the highest and rarest atmosphere, close to the sphere of elemental fire. Again you may see the air in motion over the sea, fill the swelling sails and drive heavily laden ships. From these instances, and the reasons given, a man with wings large enough and duly connected might learn to overcome the resistance of the air, and by conquering it, succeed in subjugating it and rising above it.
There were others at this time that were also trying to create flying machines. The sixteenth-century would see another dozen recorded attempts at flying. For example, Giovanni Battista Danti created in a machine, which he tested out by lying over a lake. In 1503 (or 1498 according to some sources) Giovanni made his first public performance during a wedding celebration in Perugia. According to a chronicler:
When a crowd of people were gathered in the great square for jousting, behold, suddenly there was Danti, flying through the air from a high part of our city with a great rushing sound, enveloped in various kinds of feathers, crossing from one side to the other of the square with his great pair of wings, so astonishing everyone, and indeed terrifying quite a few, that they thought they were witness to some great and portentous monster. But when, having left the low earth behind, he was trying with his proud limbs to attain the high air of the summit of his genius, envious Fortune, indignant at so much audacity, broke the iron bar which controlled the left wing, and as Danti could not sustain the weight of his body with the help of the other wing alone, he fell heavily on to the roof of the church of St Mary, and to his great distress, and that of everyone, hurt his leg.
While Danti and the others who attempted to fly found that it could be a dangerous venture, the efforts of medieval pioneers at taking to the skies showed their determination and ingenuity. The dream of flight was very real in the Middle Ages.
Tom D. Crouch, Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age (W.W. Norton and Company, 2003)
Lily Ford, Taking to the Air: An Illustrated History of Flight (British Library, 2018)
Richard P. Hallion, Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity through to the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Clive Hart, The Dream of Flight: Aeronautics from Classical Times to the Renaissance (Faber and Faber, 1972)
Clive Hart, Kites: An Historical Survey (Paul P. Appel, 1967)
Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China – Volume 4, Part 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1965)
David W. Wragg, Flight before Flying (Osprey, 1974)
Top Image: Leonardo da Vinci’s aerial screw – his version of the helicopter