Painting of a group of medieval monks praying for the Abbot's death.

The Monk and the Abbots, a Medieval Christian Folktale

The Monk and the Abbots is an old Christian parable first recorded by a 13th-century cleric named Odo of Cheriton. He wrote over a hundred fables and parables, usually Aesopic, and often with Christian sermons tacked onto the ends of them. This is one of my favourites.

In keeping with tradition, this is a retelling in my own words.

The Fable

The fable begins at a monastery long ago, with a generous abbot who gave his monks ample three-course dinners. The monks, though, had appetites that were not so easily quenched, and they grumbled about having too little to eat, saying, “Let us pray that he will die soon.”

Some time later, the abbot died, and a new abbot took over. He was a conservative man, so he gave his monks two-course meals. The monks complained yet again, saying, “Let us pray that he will die soon.”

Sometime in the future, the second abbot died, and a third took his place. This abbot was more austere with his rations, giving his monks paltry one-course meals. The monks were livid, and they prayed to God for the abbot’s quick demise. But one of the monks said, “Meanwhile, I shall pray that the abbot stays strong and safe.”

The others were aghast. “Why would you say such a thing?”

The monk explained, “Our first abbot gave us three meals, the second gave us two, and now we have one. If this trend continues, the next abbot will give us none, and we will starve.”

The Moral

The moral of The Monk and the Abbots is Seilde comed se betere, or, in more contemporary English, bad situations seldom get better.

Perhaps you’re hoping for the next politician to be better than the last, for a dastardly corporation to lose its monopoly, or for Google’s next core algorithm update to start sending more traffic to this website. But so far, the changes haven’t been good, and there’s no reason to think the next change will be any different.

I told this fable to a friend of mine, and he said that we ought to take matters into our own hands. If the abbot isn’t giving you enough food, perhaps it would be best to leave the monastery and strike out on your own, making your own good fortune. Perhaps that’s so. Or maybe I need to find some fables about the foibles of revolution.

Anyway, Odo wrote a medieval fable that’s quite good: Belling the Cat.

You might also like an old Russian fable: The Two Horses.

Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

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