An Ode to Monks

Chapter 30

Monks[1][2] are interesting people.  In Greek times, philosophers spent their time finding new things to care about, and changed the world.  In modern times, computer scientists spend their time building new things we care about that change the world.  In between, there were many generations of people who would have been philosophers or computer scientists, who were not the latter because computers weren’t invented yet, and were not the former because the Romans[3] came along and mucked up almost everything for about fifteen hundred years.  All those generations spent their time being monks, living generally quiet lives with a lot of nothing in particular to occupy their time.

All that spare time left a substantial footprint on European history.[4] You can see it from space, in fact.  It’s called Burgundy.  Most farmers there sensibly assumed it was too cold to grow grapes that made interesting wine in those places, contenting themselves with local quaffing wine.  But then Benedictine monks set up shop, looked around, did some perfunctory chanting, and realized they were going to have to think of something to do for the next seven hundred years.[5] Brother Carl asked “what’s the nuttiest thing we can do around here.” Father Otto suggested they try growing grapes.  But not just any grapes, they would grow Pinot Noir grapes, which are the hardest grapes to get right, and they were damn well going to get them right.

And they did.  It took a very long time, but now Burgundy is basically covered with vineyards.  Every plot, every row, every vine is carefully spotted to take advantage of soil, wind and sun.  What looks to any sane man like a pretty field came to look to medieval Burgundian monks like a complicated tapestry of microclimates.  This particular shelf is distinguished from that because the slope is 5˚ sharper and the vines receive 1.4% more sun over the year, and that vineyard is excellent because that old Roman limestone birdbath over there is leaching minerals into the soil.  During the French revolution, ownership passed to secular farmers, but the science of the place remained, the absurd detail that is measured on the bottle by cru level – from regional, on to villages, up through premier cru and into grand cru – and is measured on the ground in yards and in individual vines.  It’s something of a tangled mess.

Of course, it’s also all pretty wonderful wine.  The reason people kept at the work once the monks were done was that Burgundy wine is incredibly good and pretty hard to duplicate.  It turns out you have to work hard to squeeze from these plants[6] something as complex and as balanced as Burgundy.  Good thing we had monks to figure all this out.


[1] I am into linguistics, so I know neat things about words and their evolution.  Our word monk comes to us originally from the Greek monachos, which means “solitary person”.  I also know there is no convincing theory concerning the origin of the word nerd; but if you dig a little deeper, interesting things turn up.  When monachos left Greek and moved into Latin, where slang terms abounded, one form of the word lost the first phoneme mo-, and became nachum, which was a slang term for “exceptionally lonely man”, as in this snippet from a letter Crassus wrote to his henchman Clodius concerning Cicero after the republican’s enforced exile, “Tulit nos in civitatem et factus nachum” (we have taken away his city, and he has become very lonely.)  Once the word moved across the Rhine into Gothic and Old German that word became naddac, or “outcast” and survived in a very obscure local dialect in Yorkshire as nurd, and crossed the ocean to the United States and gained currency as we know it today in the 1970s.  The reason for all this will become clear.

[2] Some of the above is true.

[3] Who were unbelievably violent and afraid of women, or as I call them, history’s ultimate frat boys.

[4] They became the richest people in Europe at Cluny for a while, or they became the deadliest of medieval Christian soldiers, the Templars, Hospitalers, and Teutonic Knights, orders that were more powerful than most kingdoms.  Also, they founded the modern concept of universities.  This is what happens when you put the healthiest, most educated portion of society together in a room and tell them to spend all their time thinking.

[5] And the nuns were tired.

[6] Most wine producing grapevines in the world are still trying to figure out why they’re not growing in Syria, where a right thinking grape vine should grow.

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