The Unknown Monk Meme


Cisterian monksThis pseudo-poem popped up on Facebook today. It’s been around the Net for a few years, without any source attributed to the quote, but it seems to be making its comeback in the way these falsely-attributed things do:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town.
I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself,
and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself,
I could have made an impact on my family.
My family and I could have made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation and
I could indeed have changed the world.

It’s recently credited to an “unknown monk” from 1100 CE, and sometimes just to “anonymous.” Since the latter can be anyone, any time, anywhere, it’s less than helpful. Citing the source – at the very least where you found it – is helpful. Anonymous could as easily be one of those crank posters who reply to news stories with snippets about the New World Order or conjure up conspiracies about the local rec facilities.

And the monk from 1100 CE? Not likely. It reads to me like New Age piffle, something regurgitated without understanding.

So let’s look at the attribution. First 1100 CE is in the High Middle Ages. It was shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, so if the monk was in England it was a time of chaos, while the Normans dispossessed the English aristocracy (those few left) and took the lands for themselves.

Not as much secular literature survives from that era as religious writing, in large part because the majority of literate people were in the church. Keep in mind that everything was handwritten, mostly on sheepskin: vellum or parchment. Printing was another 450 years away.

The 12th century literature shows nothing like this “poem” anywhere.

Second, a monk would have practiced asceticism, a lifestyle…

…characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals.

Celibacy was one of those practices. Hence the monk would not likely have had his own family – wife and children. Parents of course, but likely left behind at an early age to be a novice initiate. How much “impact” – a word that didn’t appear in English until 1601, derived from the Latin impactus: to push against (not the same meaning as today’s usage) – a child could have had on his family is unclear, but I’m guessing little.

We of course don’t know if this alleged monk came from a wealthy or poor family. If the latter, their impact on their town – more likely a village  at that time – would likely have been minimal at best, non-existent at worst. Twelfth century village life isn’t what we think of today. There was no central governing body like a municipal council. All land was owned by the lord, and villagers rented from him. Those who were free and not bound to service:

The 12th Century society and village
What defined your status in medieval England was whether you were free or unfree, and how much land you had.
Some rough proportions: About –
15% of people were free
40% of people were Villani (villeins) – they had substantial land (c. 30 acres) but owed service
35% were cottars or bordars – unfree, less land
10% were slaves or as near as darn it
Not all villages were the nucleated village that we think of today – but it’s far and away the most common model. Each village was composed of a number of tofts (or crofts) – areas of 1/4 – 1 Acre, rented from the lord. each croft held the medieval house – typically 24 x 12 feet, 2 rooms, 5+ people and not a lot else.

Nor would he have had a town: he would have lived in a monastery with other monks. It would not have been “his” town. Few monks before 1200 were mendicants – travelling from place to place, sometimes assigned by a superior to a region or a location.

In larger towns, there was more organization, although everyone still owed fealty to the lord. It’s a century before the Magna Carta would lay out some rules for governance. As the National Archives tell us:

By 1066 towns were already a recognisable feature in England. Many, for example Colchester, Lincoln and York, had their origins in Roman Britain. Domesday Book records 112 towns or boroughs, a term with its origins in the Anglo-Saxon ‘burh’. A burh referred to a fortified town, rather than to a town’s size or economic status. The Anglo-Saxon King Alfred had encouraged the development of burhs in the ninth century as a form of defence against Danish invaders. In Norman England these grew in importance as military, religious and administrative centres.
A town’s burgesses would be involved in trade, craft and industry. Specialist guilds were beginning to emerge. Among the crafts were groups of weavers, goldsmiths and leatherworkers, among the trades were groups of bakers, butchers and fishmongers. The burgesses also had judicial and administrative responsibilities although levels of autonomy varied across the kingdom. Towns often had their own courts to handle the legal proceedings otherwise covered by those of the shire or the hundred. In Domesday one of the few references to this is for Lincoln, where 12 lawmen are noted as holding such roles.

I’ve had the honour of seeing the real Domesday book at the National Archives. It’s an impressive work and a remarkable feat of bureaucracy.

I digress: what influence could a young monk have had on these town  burghers and their business? None, I expect. And, as the National Archives add, village life was nowhere near as organized as in towns:

The villages were comparatively undeveloped. Many were still little more than scattered hamlets, not yet settled into the nucleated pattern of the medieval village. However, some settlements like Isham, Northamptonshire, had been replanned by the lord and peasants, with a green and a church in the centre, surrounded by houses, with arable land combined into two or three large open fields.
Life for the Domesday peasant was harsh. Peasant houses were made of wood, wattle and mud and needed frequent rebuilding. People shared a single large room with their animals for warmth in winter, and cooking was over an open fire. Clothes made of wool, flax and skins were rarely changed. Only the elite, the lord, the priest and the reeve – the lord’s steward – and perhaps some of the wealthier peasants enjoyed superior housing and clothes and more to eat.

The “world” for a typical 12th century European was small, hardly more than the local geography. They had no knowledge of North and South America, Australia, Antarctica or much of the rest of the world. Their knowledge of Africa was really limited to its northern fringe, and a few places along the coast. Most of Asia and India were unknown lands, and it wouldn’t be for another century and a half before Marco Polo travelled to the East and brought news back about the trade and wonders he found there.

Most people walked to get anywhere, and only the rich could ride horses – this wouldn’t change for many more centuries. A day’s hard walking would barely get them 20 miles, usually less. And many serfs were forbidden to travel off their own land without their lord’s approval.

The average person’s world view was tied to a small piece of land they worked and lived on.  Their world was narrow, and cosmologically constrained by church teachings  that the earth was the centre of the universe.

Besides for a monk, the church, or his monastery would be his world. While there were eight monastic orders founded in the 12th century, most of them were after 1100 CE. There were numerous monastic orders by 1100, each with its own rules and structure, most however were isolated from the populace.

If he was a Cisterian – a new sect in founded in 1098 CE, although the reforms that drove it were a century earlier – he would have tilled the monastery’s fields and lived in great austerity. The popular Benedictines lived in autonomous, self-governing communities where a contemplative lifestyle was practiced. However, they tended to be isolated from the rest of the polity:

Perceived disadvantages comprise geographical isolation from important activities in adjacent communities. Other perceived losses include inefficiency and lack of mobility in the service of others, and insufficient appeal to potential members.

Neither a Benedictine nor a Cisterian monk would likely have been able to influence the political sphere outside their monastery. Carthusians – founded in 1084 – were more isolated and tended to be hermits tucked away from the rest of the world:

The (Carthusian) hermit spends most of his day in the cell: he meditates, prays the minor hours of the Liturgy of the Hours on his own, eats, studies and writes (Carthusian monks have published scholarly and spiritual works), and works in his garden or at some manual trade. Unless required by other duties, the Carthusian hermit leaves his cell daily only for three prayer services in the monastery chapel, including the community Mass, and occasionally for conferences with his superior. Additionally, once a week, the community members take a long walk in the countryside during which they may speak; on Sundays and feastdays a community meal is taken in silence. Twice a year there is a day-long community recreation, and the monk may receive an annual visit from immediate family members.
The Carthusians do not engage in work of a pastoral or missionary nature. Unlike most monasteries, they do not have retreatants and those who visit for a prolonged period are people who are contemplating entering the monastery. As far as possible, the monks have no contact with the outside world. Their contribution to the world is their life of prayer, which they undertake on behalf of the whole Church and the human race.

The Dominican order, a more peripatetic group, wasn’t established for another century.

If he were a Clunian, however, he might have spent his day in constant prayer, or singing in a choir, while serfs worked the monastery’s fields. Abbots and higher members of the Cluniac order had influence in the royal houses of Europe, but not monks. As Wikipedia tells us:

Cluny spread the custom of veneration of the king as patron and support of the Church, and in turn the conduct of 11th-century kings, and their spiritual outlook, appeared to undergo a change. In England, Edward the Confessor was later canonized. In Germany, the penetration of Cluniac ideals was effected in concert with Henry III of the Salian dynasty, who had married a daughter of the duke of Aquitaine. Henry was infused with a sense of his sacramental role as a delegate of Christ in the temporal sphere. He had a spiritual and intellectual grounding for his leadership of the German church, which culminated in the pontificate of his kinsman, Pope Leo IX. The new pious outlook of lay leaders enabled the enforcement of the Truce of God movement to curb aristocratic violence.
Within his order, the Abbot of Cluny was free to assign any monk to any house; he created a fluid structure around a central authority that was to become a feature of the royal chanceries of England and of France, and of the bureaucracy of the great independent dukes, such as that of Burgundy. Cluny’s highly centralized hierarchy was a training ground for Catholic prelates: four monks of Cluny became popes: Gregory VII, Urban II, Paschal II and Urban V.

The average monk would not hobnob with royalty. Nor would he (monks in early Christianity were all male) have had a nation as we think of it – he would have lived in a kingdom, possibly not even that large: a fiefdom. This was the high water mark for feudalism, after all. But as a monk he would have had little contact with the political realm and its rulers.

What “impact” can you have from a spartan monastery cell?

Another point: he would likely have written in Latin, the language of the church. So he would have written something like, “Dum essem iuvenis voluisse mutare mundi.” While the change to the vernacular for much secular writing happened in the 12th century, the church still wrote most of its documents in Latin. The Goliards wrote poetry and some satirical verse in Latin, but they weren’t monks, mostly clerical university students – and were somewhat later than 1100.

However, since illiteracy rates were high back then, it’s another stretch to believe any average monk could even read and write, let alone write something so secular. Unless, of course, he worked in the monastery’s scriptorium. But most didn’t.

Also keep in mind that 1100 CE is just after the First Crusade, which spurred in its aftermath, new trends in arts and culture:

The success of the crusade inspired the literary imagination of poets in France, who, in the 12th century, began to compose various chansons de geste celebrating the exploits of Godfrey of Bouillon and other crusaders. Some of these, such as the Chanson d’Antioche, are semi-historical, while others are completely fanciful, describing battles with a dragon or connecting Godfrey’s ancestors to the legend of the Knight of the Swan. Together, the chansons are known as the crusade cycle.
The First Crusade was also an inspiration to artists in later centuries.

This is the start of the high romantic tradition – courtly love -of literature. Philosophically, it saw the change of perspective from Plato to Aristotle (thanks in great part to Peter Abelard’s somewhat later writing), and great mood swings in theology. It wasn’t the origin of New Age navel-gazing folderol.

“Old man?” Life expectancy at birth in the Medieval period was about 30 years., That doesn’t mean people were old at 30, just that most people didn’t live to their 30th year because of famine, war, illness, accident, plague, etc. Childhood mortality was very high, perhaps as high as one third of all children born. If you made it to 21, and had access to sufficient food and safety, you could reasonably expect to live until your early 60s. Or until your mid-late 40s if you were a peasant and crops were good.

Sarah Woodbury wrote,

How long did people live in the Middle Ages?
That, of course, varied according to diet, climate, location, relative wealth, etc., but the answer is surely not as long as we do now. For starters, infants and children died at a horrific rate (some say up to 1/3 of all died before the age of 5) and a significant percentage of women died in association with childbirth: 5% perhaps from the birth itself, often dying with the child, and a further 15% from childbed fever–the infections that followed a poorly managed delivery (by our standards).
Following that, if a person made it out of childhood, they could be expected to live into their middle forties, provided they maintained good health and weren’t killed in war. Both those, of course, are big ‘ifs’.

But more to the point, an older monk would have been long distanced from his family (parents and any siblings). He would have spent the majority of his life in a monastery, celibate, with no interaction with his family for decades.

And then there’s the sentiment and syntax. Neither fit any 12th century religious writing; most secular writing of the time is more of the high romance style, philosophical and theological writing is quite dense, and this “poem” is very modern in style.

As this lecture tells us, vernacular works tended to be written outside the church:

The growth of vernacular literature happened most readily in those places where the authority of the Church seemed to be weakest. But there were other reasons why we can observe this shift from medieval Latin to the vernacular. In the south of France, professional scribes were finding it more and more difficult to write official documents in Latin. The words of the spoken language, the langue d’oc came much easier to them. After all, it was the spoken language which had grown and so literature, whether an official document or poem, had to reflect this change. By 1200, most official documents were now composed in the vernacular. Other examples of vernacular texts abound: the Chanson de Roland is perhaps the best French example. From Germany we have the Kaiserchronik. And of course, the 14th century could almost be called the golden age of vernacular literature for there we find Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1345-1400) Canterbury Tales, Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313-1375) Decameron, William Langland’s (c.1332-c.1400) Piers Plowman, Jean Froissart’s (c.1333-c.1405) Chronicles and Dante’s (1265-1321) Divine Comedy.

The best example I can think of for typical 12th century writing by a religious initiate is actually by the nun, Hildegard of Bingen. You can read some of her works here. In 1150 CE, she wrote:

And behold, in the forty-third year of my passing course, while I was intent upon a heavenly vision with great fear and tremulous effort, I saw a great splendour, in which a voice came from heaven saying to me:
‘O weak mortal, both ash of ash and rottenness of rottenness, say and write what you see and hear. But because you are fearful in speaking and simple in explaining and unlearned in writing these things, say and write them not according to human speech nor the understanding of human creativity nor according to the will of human composition, but according to this rule: that you reveal by interpreting the things you see and hear among heavenly matters from above, in the wonders of God, just as also a hearer receiving his teacher’s words makes them known according to the tenor of his speech, as he wishes, shows, and teaches. So then you also, o mortal — speak the things you see and hear; and write them not according to yourself or any other person, but according to the will of the One Who knows, sees, and disposes all things in the hidden places of his mysteries.’

In 1175 CE, she wrote,

A human being is both heavenly and earthly: heavenly, through the good understanding of the rational soul, but weak and shadowy through its evil understanding. And as much as he knows himself in good things, so much the more he loves God. For, if a person sees his face in a mirror, dirty and spotted with dust, he is eager to clean and scrub it. So also, if he understands that he has sinned and was embroiled in a variety of vanities, he weeps, because he knows through his good understanding that he has been made unclean and with the Psalmist he laments, saying, ‘O daughter of Babylon, mourn’ [Ps 136.8] Why is this? Human desire has been disordered by the Serpent’s venom. For of itself it is poor and needy, since it lacks an honourable reputation through contemplative knowledge. This is because human desire does not long, by seeking God, for the glory of the eternal life that it tastes through the soul’s good understanding.

Doesn’t exactly lend itself to New Age-ism, nor trip lightly over the tongue.

Like the falsely-attributed Desiderata poem, this “unknown monk’s” piece is probably something quite modern, even likely very recent, but ascribed to antiquity because that gives it a patina of authority that new material lacks.*

I haven’t found the actual source yet – although this site (and others) suggests it came from the 19th century Talmudist, Rabbi Israel Salanter, without citing the proper source – but it’s certainly not a 12th century monk. I’ll keep looking.**

* Desiderata, that poster for saccharine New Age sentimentality, is usually credited to a church from 1609, but it was actually written in 1927. Myself, I prefer the satirical Deteriorata:

Go placidly
Amid the noise and waste.
And remember what comfort there may be
In owning a piece thereof.
Avoid quiet and passive persons
Unless you are in need of sleep.
Rotate your tires.

Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself
And heed well their advice,
Even though they be turkeys.
Know what to kiss…..and when!

** Interesting that it has changed attribution from a Jewish to Christian source of late. However, these quotes from Salanter and similar ones I’ve seen don’t read at all like the pseudo-poem above. A good bio of him is here. Fascinating man, but is he the real author? I have my doubts.

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  2. I received an email today about this old post and it confirmed, albeit anecdotally, the source as Rabbi Salanter:

    The correct attribution for the “1100 AD anonymous monk” quote is, indeed, Yisroel Salanter.

    “I tried to change the world and I could not. I tried to change the city where I live, and without success. Finally I tried to change my neighborhood, also without success. Until I concluded: I changed myself and my light will change others around me …”.


    The source in the link is a piece from 2009, and is in Hebrew. I’m afraid I cannot read it, but Google does a fair job of translating it into something recognizable:

    “…great Rabbi Israel Salanter l – the godfather of morality (died 100 years ago) said: “I tried to change the world and I could not. I tried to change the city where I live, and without success. Finally I tried to change my neighborhood, also without success. Until I concluded: I changed myself and my light will change others around me …. ”

    Which encourages me to read more about, and the works of, Rabbi Salanter. I’m not as familiar with the Jewish philosophers as I should be, so perhaps this will get me learning more.

    • Samuel Englender

      First off, thanks for the incredible research. I came at this wanting to know if it is a legit quote from Rabbi Israel Salanter (I’m a Rabbi and it is relevant if I can use the quote in sermons, teaching etc.). The article you linked to isn’t great proof. It’s just a former member of the Israeli parliament using the quote with the same attribution. All it proves is that the attribution has made its way to Israel. Rav Salanter did not leave very much writing at all and from what I can tell this quote isn’t to be found in his writing. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a legit quote. R’ Salanter had many disciples and they have passed down quite a few quotes and stories in chains of transmission that seem likely legit (remember he wasn’t that old! only a couple of hundred of years). However, I too am skeptical about this particular quote as it doesn’t seem to fit the rest of his style, even if the self-work part is accurate. My guess is that it is a new-age quote that some Jews started attributing to Rav Salanter since he is the Rabbinic figure that focused the most on “internal work”. Also, fyi, Rav Salanter wasn’t a philosopher. He was an ethicist and communal leader and founder of the Musar movement (a modern Jewish movement focusing on personal ethics).

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