desert monk John the Dwarf learned to be good as man, not angel

Not living with mobile phones embedded in their faces, medieval men were sensitive to sensuous impressions around them. Many medieval men, not surprisingly, ardently loved women.[1] Yet the reality of true, enduring love for women can be difficult for men. So too is a husband’s burden of work. Not surprisingly, some men and women yearn to escape from this world. If they would read the life of the fourth-century desert monk John the Dwarf, they would know that hoping to live without experiencing mundane worldly existence is foolish.

Alas! Alas! Life of the world,
how do you so delight me?
Since you cannot remain with me,
why do you compel me to love you?

Alas! So quickly fleeting life,
more deadly than any wild beast,
since I couldn’t hold you back,
for what have you seduced my heart?

Alas! Life to be called death,
to be hated, not loved,
since no good would ever be in you,
for what do I await your gift?

Life of the world, diseased matter,
more fragile than a rose,
since you would be all weeping,
for what are you so charming to me?

Life of the world, matter of labor,
anxious, full of fear,
since you would be always so wearing,
for what am I grieving for you?

{ Heu! heu! mundi vita,
quare me delectas ita?
Cum non possis mecum stare,
quid me cogis te amare?

Heu! Vita fugitiva,
omni fera plus nosciva,
cum tenere te non queam,
cur seducis mentem meam?

Heu! Vita, mors vocanda,
odienda non amanda,
cum in te sint nulla bona,
cur expecto tua dona?

Vita mundi, res morbosa,
magis fragilis quam rosa,
cum sis tota lacrymosa,
cur es mihi graciosa?

Vita mundi, res laboris,
anxia, plena timoris,
cum sis semper in langore,
cur pro te sum in dolore? }[2]

John the Dwarf {Ἰωάννης Κολοβός} was born about 339 near Thebes, an ancient Egyptian city. His parents were Christians and poor. John told his older brother that he wished to live free from life’s demands:

“I wish,” he said, “to live as carefree as an angel,
not to need clothing nor food from work of human hands.”

{ “Volo” dicebat “vivere secure sicut angelus,
nec veste nec cibo frui, qui laboretur manibus.” }[3]

John sought to live like an angel in the wilderness. Like the Lombard wife warning her husband against attacking a snail, John’s older brother counseled him:

The older said: “I warn you not to begin hastily,
brother, what it might be wiser for you not to have started.”
But the younger declared: “He who doesn’t fight, neither falls nor triumphs.”
And naked he moves into the interior wilderness.

{ Maior dicebat: “Moneo, ne sis incepti properus,
frater, quod tibi postmodum sit non cepisse sacius.”
At minor: “Qui non dimicat, non cadit neque superat”
ait et nudus heremum interiorem penetrat. }

The older brother offered the timeless wisdom of a bureaucrat. The younger brother thought like the irrational warrior-hero Achilles.

The younger brother survived in the wilderness for seven days by feeding on grass. Then late on the eighth day, starving, he returned to the house of his older brother. He knocked on the door and called out that he was John and that he needed food:

From within the other responds: “John has become an angel.
He marvels at the poles of Heaven. He cares no more for mortals.”

{ Respondit ille deintus: “Iohannes factus angelus
miratur celi cardines, ultra non curat homines.” }

The older brother didn’t treat his younger brother like the biblical father did his prodigal son. John spent that night sleeping outside the door of his older brother’s house.

The next day John’s older brother let him come inside. The older brother rebuked him:

If you are a man, you must have work to labor once again so you would be fed and live.

{ Si homo es, opus habes iterum operari ut pascaris et vivas }[4]

John repented his attempt to live like an angel:

Doing penance, he said, “Forgive me, brother, for I have sinned.”

{ ille poenitentiam agens, dixit: “Ignosce mihi, frater, quia peccavi.” }[5]

The poetic version of John the Dwarf’s attempt to live as an angel concludes poignantly:

Since he could not be an angel, he learned to be good as a man.

{ cum angelus non potuit, vir bonus esse didicit. }[6]

Men need not attempt to become angels or women. Men can be good as men.

There peace will be eternal
and joy established,
the flower and grace of youth,
and perfect health.

No one is able to ponder
how much one will be exulting
dwelling then in Heaven
and reigning with angels.

Call me to this reign,
just judge, you who deign.
That I await, that I request,
towards that I anxiously sigh.

{ Ibi pax erit perennis
et laetitia solemnis,
flos et decus juventutis,
et perfectio salutis.

Nemo potest cogitare
quantum erit exultare.
tunc in coelis habitare
et cum angelis regnare.

Ad hoc regnum me vocare.
juste judex, tu dignare,
quem expecto, quem requiro,
ad quem anxius suspiro. }[7]

Saint John the Dwarf

John the Dwarf lived an austere life in the fourth-century Egyptian desert. He was humble enough to realize that he couldn’t live as an angel. He lived as a good man who came to be regarded as a saint.

In the journey of our life, if you find yourself in a dark wilderness, you must continue to eat and drink and defecate and urinate so as to go through to the light. Human life is necessarily life in this world.

* * * * *

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[1] Writing in 56 BGC, Cicero astutely observed:

So if by chance you find any man who despises the sight of beautiful things, whom neither scent nor touch nor taste seduces, whose ears are deaf to all sweet sounds — such a man perhaps I and some few will account Heaven’s favorite, but most will regard him as the object of its wrath.

{ Quam ob rem si quem forte inveneritis, qui aspernetur oculis pulchritudinem rerum, non odore ullo, non tactu, non sapore capiatur, excludat auribus omnem suavitatem, huic homini ego fortasse et pauci deos propitios, plerique autem iratos putabunt. }

Cicero, For Caelius {Pro Caelio} 17 (42), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Gardner (1958). Here’s an alternate, freely available English translation of the whole speech. Cicero had in mind young men’s love for alluring women like the Roman courtesan Clodia.

[2] “Alas! Alas! Life of the world {Heu! heu! mundi vita},” vv. 1-20 (of 400), Latin text from Du Méril (1847) p. 108, my English translation, benefiting from that of Waddell & Corrigan (1976) p. 295. Du Méril’s text comes from a manuscript written in the twelfth century: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 2389, folios 37r-38r. Two other medieval manuscript instances are known. An excerpt appears in Salimbene de Adam’s chronicle for the 1160s. This poem apparently has a variant that begins “Alas! Alas! Evil is the life of the world {Heu! Heu! mala mundi vita}.”

This poem has been attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (based only on temporal and thematic relevance), to the thirteenth-century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi / Peter Gonella of Tortona (impossible; poem was known in the twelfth century), and to the great twelfth-century poet Hugh Primas. Salimbene attributed it to Primas. That’s the most plausible authorial attribution.

Du Méril titled this poem “About the miseries of the human life {Des misères de la vie humaine}.” He described it as “the most complete and the most lofty expression of the monastic spirit {la plus complète et la plus haute expresion de l’esprit monastique}.” Du Méril (1847) p. 108, note 1. This poem is a biblical cento.

A thematically similar poem “Short are man’s days {Breves dies hominis}” has a refrain “life of the world {mundi vita}.” “Breves dies hominis” was copied into folio 19r of Tours, Bibliothèque municipale MS 927 between 1225 and 1250. Chaguinian (2017) pp. 94-5, 173.

[3] Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 42, title (varies by manuscript) “About Father John {De Iohanne abbate},” incipit “In the deeds of the ancient fathers I read a certain amusing story {In gestis patrum veterum quoddam legi ridiculum},” stanza 3 (of 13), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 118-9. The Latin abbas was used in its original meaning of “father,” not “abbot.” Id. p. 296.

The author and date of this particular poem about John the Dwarf isn’t known for certain. The oldest manuscript containing it dates from the eleventh century. The poem has been attributed to Bishop Fulbert of Chartres, who lived from c. 960 to 1028, but that attribution is contested. The poem seems to have been composed in France in ecclesiastical circumstances. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 295.

The underlying story comes from the ancient Greek life of John the Dwarf. At age 18, John went into the northern Egyptian desert Scetis (Wadi El Natrun) and studied Christianity under Father Pambo for twelve years. He was ordained as a Christian priest and became the founding abbot of a monastery. John is a spiritual figure renowned for his asceticism and obedience. Ward stated that the story of John wanting to live as an angel “clearly belongs to his youth at home before he became a monk.” Ward (1984) p. 73.

The influential life of John the Dwarf was translated from ancient Greek into many languages. Among the first translations were into Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, and Latin. For an English translation of the ancient Greek life of John the Dwarf, Ward (1984) pp. 73-82. The story of John trying to live as an angel is chapter 2 in the Greek life. For the Arabic life with an English translation, Davis (2008). The story there is section 10, chapter 34 (id. p. 152). The story was incorporated into the Latin Lives of the Fathers {Vitas patrum / Vitae patrum} as part of Book 10 (On discretion {De discretione}), saying 27, available in Patrologia Latina 73.916D-17A and Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 294-5. On Latin translations of ancient Greek texts, Vaiopoulos (2016).

The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from Carmina cantabrigiensia 42. They are stanzas 4-5 (The older said…) and 9 (From within the other responds…).

[4] From Jacobus de Voragine, Golden Legend {Legenda Aurea}, chapter 171, “About the holy Father John {De sancto Iohanne abbate},” Latin text from Maggioni (2007) p. 101. Vitae patrum has slightly different text: “If you are a man, you must have work to labor once again so that you would live {Si homo es, opus habes iterum operari, ut vivas}.”

[5] Vitae patrum 10.27, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Ziolkowski (1994) p. 295.

[6] Carmina cantabrigiensia 42, 13.2, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 120-1.

[7] “Heu! heu! mundi vita,” last three stanzas, Latin text from Du Méril (1847) p. 121, my English translation, benefiting from those of Brownlie (1896) and Charles (1858) p. 191. Charles titled the poem “One’s days, days of life {Dies illa, Dies vitae}.”

[image] Saint John the Dwarf (John Kolovos) depicted in an eleventh-century mosaic in the Daphni Monastery near Athens, Greece. This mosaic is in the monastery nave on the vault over the south-west bay. Source image via Wikimedia Commons.


Brownlie, John, trans. 1896. Hymns of the Early Church: Being Translations From the Poetry of the Latin Church, Arranged in the Order of the Christian Year. J. Nisbet: London.

Charles, Elizabeth Rundle. 1858. The Voice of Christian Life in Song; or, hymns and hymn-writers of many lands and ages. London: J. Nisbet.

Chaguinian, Christophe, ed. 2017. The Jeu d’Adam: MS Tours 927 and the Provenance of the Play. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.

Davis, Stephen J. 2008. “The Arabic Life of St. John the Little.” Coptica. 7: 1-185

Du Méril, Edélestand, ed. 1847. Poésies Populaires Latines Du Moyen Age: Latina Quae Medium Per Aevum in Triviis Nec Non Monasteriis Vulgabantur Carmina. Paris, Leipsick: Firmin Didot Frères; A. Franck. Alternate instance.

Gardner, R. 1958, trans. Cicero. Pro Caelio. De Provinciis Consularibus. Pro Balbo. Loeb Classical Library 447. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Maggioni, Giovanni Paolo. 2007. Jacobus de Voragine. Legenda Aurea {Golden Legend}. 2nd revised edition. Tavarnuzze-Firenze: SISMEL Edizioni del Galluzzo.

Vaiopoulos, Vaios. 2016. “Latin translations of Greek texts in Middle-Ages. Some characteristic cases.” Paper presented at Profilingua 2016. University of West Bohemia, Pilsen, Czech Republic.

Waddell Helen, trans. and Felicitas Corrigan, ed. 1976. More Latin Lyrics from Virgil to Milton. London: Gollancz.

Ward, Benedicta. 1984. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the alphabetical collection. Rev. ed. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.

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