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Medieval Sourcebook:
Guibert de Nogent:
Autobiography


from Guibert de Nogent, Own Life, from Migne PL 156:856 ff

[Coulton Intro] Guibert de Nogent, from the first publication of his works in the seventh century, has been known as one of the most interesting autobiographers of the Middle Ages:. His style, especially in his Own Life, is involved and obscure, quite apart from the corruptions of the text; but he was one of the most honest and learned writers in an age of great intellectual activity; and, though he took St. Bernard's side against Abelard, he shows a critical acumen which can seldom be paralleled in any period of the Middle Ages. Born near Beauvais in 1053, of noble blood, he lost his father in childhood and his mother at age of twelve by her retirement to a convent. His old master having at the same time become a monk, Guibert ran wild for a few years. At last, through his mother's and master's influence, he took the vows at St. Germer, that magnificent abbey-church which may still be seen between Gournay and Beauvais. The regularity of his life and his fame as a student earned him the honorable position of abbot at Nogent-sous-Coucy. After playing a conspicuous part in the Church politics of 1106 and succeeding years, he retired again to the peace of his abbey, wrote several books of great value, and died between 1121- and 1124.

[Additional Note] Guibert has only become more interesting to historians in the years since Coulton wrote. His Own Life has been translated and most recently revised by Robert Benton in his Self and Society in Medieval France. For those interested in the individual psychology of people in the past, there is scarce information available. Guibert's writings seem to provide evidence of such processes - for instance in his relationship with his mother, his sense of sexuality, and his sense of his own self..

AN ABBOT'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY

My mother, while yet scarce of marriageable age, was given to my father, then a mere youth, by my grandfather's provision, Though intelligence was written plainly on her face, and nobility shone through the natural and decent gravity of her features, yet from her earliest childhood she conceived the fear of God's name. For she had learned so to loathe sin, not by experience but by a certain impulse of divine dread, that (as she was wont to tell me) it had so steeped her mind in the fear of sudden death, that in her later and riper age she mourned to have lost those pricks of godly fear which had been so lively in her rude and ignorant childhood. Now it befell that, at the very beginning of her married life, her husband was so bewitched that their matrimony was not consummated. For it was said that this union had aroused the envy of a stepmother who, having herself very many fair and noble nieces, strove to cast one of these into my father's arms; failing which, she is said to have bewitched him by her magic arts. Wherefore, after three years of silent suffering, my father was at last summoned by his kinsfolk and compelled to reveal the truth. Think now in how many ways his kinsmen labored to procure his divorce; moreover, they would have urged my father to enter a monastery little as they spoke then of such religious Orders; a counsel which was given not for the sake of his soul's salvation but in the hope of succeeding to his possessions. When therefore this suggestion proved vain, then they began to bark daily at the girl herself; that she, far away from her own kindred, and harassed by the oppressions of others, might at last grow so weary of this injustice as to depart from him without formal divorce. Meanwhile she suffered all; bearing all the words that were aimed at her with unwrinkled brow, and, whenever they led to strife, dissembling as though she knew it not. Besides which, some of the richest of our neighbors, seeing her subject to this mockery of married life, began to work upon her mind; but You, O Lord, from Whom comes the purity of the soul did breathe into her a holiness foreign to her nature and her age; of Your gift it was that she passed through the fire unscathed ... Lord, You know how hardly - nay almost how impossibly - that virtue [of chastity] is kept by women of our time: whereas of old there was such modesty that scarce any marriage was branded even by common gossip! Alas, how miserably, between those days and ours, maidenly modesty and honor have fallen off, and the mother's guardianship has decayed both in appearance and in fact, so that in all their behavior nothing can be noted but unseemly mirth, wherein are no sounds but of jest, with winking eyes and babbling tongues, and wanton gait and all that is ridiculous n manners. The quality of their garments is so unlike that of the frugality of the past that the widening of their sleeves, the tightening of their bodices, their shoes of cordovan morocco with twisted beaks - nay, in their whole person we may see how shame is cast aside. Each thinks to have touched the lowest step of misery if she lack the regard of lovers, and measures her glory of nobility or courtliness by the ampler number of such suitors. God is my witness, that there was in those days more modesty in marrying men (who would have blushed to be seen among such maidens) than now among marrying women, who certainly love the market-place and the public all the more for these shameful matters. Why should this be so, my Lord God? but that no man blushes at his own levity and wantonness seeing that all the rest are branded with the same mark, and knowing that he himself follows the same affections as his fellows. Whence, I ask, could he feel shame at such pursuits when he sees all around him aspiring at the same time? But why do I speak of shame, when such folk are ashamed only of falling below the rest in indulgence of their lusts? ... Thus and in such-like ways is this our modern [modernum] age corrupted, thus again does it spread corruption, scattering wide the seed of its own evil conceits; while, by an infinite progression, all such seed transmits its own filthiness by propagation to the rest.. . .

(Col. 839 ff) I have already related, roving and holy God, gratitude to You for Your benefits. First and foremost, therefore, I thank You that You endowed me with a mother fair indeed, yet chaste, modest, and God-fearing: indeed it would have been worldly and foolish in me to write that word fair, had I not confirmed this idle epithet with the stern aspect of assured chastity. For as, among the poor. fasting would seem mere compulsion, and therefore the less laudable (since they have no sufficiency of food to do other-wise), yet again the frugality of the rich, in the face of their great abundance, has its own price; so also beauty, the more desirable it may be, the more highly must we extol it with every title of praise, if it harden itself as a flint against all seducers.. . And certainly, although this fleeting beauty be ready to turn with the shifting currents of our blood, yet we cannot refuse to call it good, according to the wonted measure of goodness, after the fashion of an image. For if whatsoever has been ordained to all eternity by God is beautiful, then all that is temporally beautiful must be as it were a mirror of that eternal beauty: since the Apostle says: " For the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made: His eternal power also and divinity; so that they are inexcusable." Moreover the angels, in appearing to. human sight, have always borne a most comely countenance, as Manoah's wife said, "A man of God came to me, having the countenance of an angel, very awful." Therefore the devils, on the other band (of whom St Peter says, "These are fountains without water and clouds tossed with whirlwinds, to whom the mist of darkness is reserved"), are wont to appear under the blackest faces (except indeed when they transfigure themselves treacherously into angels of light); nor is that unfitting, since they have fallen from the glory of their noble fellow-citizens [in heaven]... For this cause, O God, I thank You that You did instill virtue into her comeliness; for the very gravity of her demeanor might have suggested contempt of all earthly vanity, since a sobriety of glance, a scantiness of speech, and a motionless calm of the features, by no means condescends to the levity of onlookers. You know, O Almighty. that You had imbued her with the lifelong fear of Your name as a bulwark against all seductions of the soul. Moreover she bad one quality which is seldom or never found among women of great profession; for, by how much she was more chaste through Your grace, by so much was she the more sparing in her blame of the unchaste; nay, when such tales were sometimes spread abroad by strangers or by those of her own household, she would avert her face, move away from the speaker, and show as much pain at such whisperings as though her own person also were at stake. O God of Truth, know that I tell this not from private love, as of mine own mother, but that the thing itself was greater than these poor words of mine could express; especially seeing that the rest of my race were either brute beasts that knew not God or fierce soldiers stained with blood-guiltiness, and such as must become utter strangers to Your face, unless You have mercy upon them according to Your wont.

From this lady then, the truest (as I firmly believe) of all women, You did grant me to be born, the worst of all her offspring. I was her last child in both senses of the word; since my brothers and sisters of better promise are dead and I alone survive whose life was so sorely despaired of.. . . Well nigh all Lententide my mother had passed in unwonted anguish before my birth, (an anguish which she would oftentimes recall to my shame when my wayward youth erred in devious paths,) until at last the solemn Sabbath of Easter Eve dawned upon the earth. She therefore, shattered by her long pains, and torn with more bitter agony, as the hour drew near, even when men hoped in the course of nature for my birth, felt her travail to be more and more in vain. My father, with his friends and kinsfolk, were in despair, since they feared no less for her life than for mine. It was a day whereon no private services were held beyond the one divine office that was celebrated at its own fixed hour; wherefore necessity, the mother of good counsel, drove them to the altar of God's Mother, to whom, the Only Virgin before and after her Son's birth, they made these vows and laid this oblation as a gift upon the altar that, if the child should prove to be a male, he should for God's sake and his own be shorn a cleric; but if of the less noble sex [sin deteriorl, that she should be sealed to a suitable [religious] profession. Whereupon, at that very moment a sort of sickly abortion was born, so abject that men rejoiced only at the mother's deliverance. For this new-born creature was so miserably lean that it seemed like a corpse born out of due season; so lean indeed that the frail rushes-of those parts (for it was then almost mid-April) were laid side by side with my fingers, and seemed less meager. Nay, on that very day, as men bore me to the baptismal font, a certain woman turned me from hand to hand (as has oftentimes been told me in sport during my boyhood and youth), saying, "Think ye that this creature can live, whom half-hearted Nature has put forth almost without limbs, and with a thread rather than a body?. . . "

(Col 843) Thus then I was born; and scarce had I begun to play with childish toys, when You, loving Lord-for You were thenceforth to be my Father-when You did make me fatherless. For, after the lapse of some eight months, my fleshly father gave up the ghost; wherefore I thank You most heartily that You did make this man to die in the mood of a Christian, who, had he lived, would doubtless have hindered Your purpose in me. For, seeing that my childish prettiness, and a certain vivacity natural to that tender age, seemed proper and fit for this world, therefore no man doubted but that, when the time for school-learning should come, he would break the vow which he had made for me. But You, in Your good providence, did wholesomely dispose that I should not lack this early teaching in Your laws, and that he should not break the vow once made to You.

Thus she, Thy widow indeed, nurtured me with painful care. When I was set to learning, I had indeed already touched the rudiments, yet I could scarce put together the simplest elements when my loving mother, eager for my teaching, purposed to set me to Grammar [note: that is to learn Latin]. There had been a little before, and there still reigned partly in my time, so great a scarcity of grammarians, that scarce any could be found in the towns, and few indeed in the cities; moreover, even such as could be found were of slender learning, not to be compared even with the wandering hedge-clerks of modern days. This man therefore, to whom my mother was purposed to give me over, had begun to learn Grammar at an advanced age and was so much the more rude in that art, that he had known so little thereof in his youth. Yet he was of so great modesty that his honesty supplied his lack of learning.. . .When therefore, I was set under his care, he taught me with such purity, and guarded me so sincerely from the irregularities which are commonly begotten in that tender age, that he kept me altogether from the general games, never allowing me go forth unaccompanied, nor to eat away from home, nor to accept any gift without his leave; he broke me in to all temperance in word, in look, in deed, so that he seemed to demand from me that I should live not only as a clerk but monk. For, whereas the others of my age wandered everywhere at their own will, and the reins were loosed in all due liberty with respect to their age, I for part was shackled by constant restraints, sitting in my little clerical cloak and watching the bands of playing children like some tame animal.. . While, therefore, he lay so hard upon me, and all who knew us thought that my , little mind must be sharpened to its keenest edge by these incessant pains, yet all men's hopes were frustrated. For he himself was utterly ignorant of the arts of composition, whether in verse or in prose; so that I was smitten with a grievous and almost daily hail of fierce words and blows, while he would have compelled me to learn that which he himself knew not. With him, under this vain struggle, I spent almost six years, where from I gathered nothing worthy of so great and long-standing labors.. . For weary nature should sometimes find her remedy in some diversity of work. Let us bear in mind how God formed His world not in uniformity, but with vicissitudes of day and night, of spring and summer and autumn and winter, thus refreshing us by the changes of the seasons.. . Wherefore that man loved me with a cruel love.. . When he took so bitter a revenge upon me for not knowing that which he knew not himself, he might clearly have seen how great evil he had done; since he demanded more from my frail little mind than he himself possessed. For as a madman's words can scarce be understood, if at all, even by wise men; so when a man knows not, yet says that he knows, and would fain teach another, then his words are but darkened by the very earnestness of his explanation.. . . Yet, though my master chastised me with such severity in all other ways, he made it plain that he loved me almost as he loved himself.. . . And I, though dull and childish for my age, had grown to love him so in return, although he so often and so undeservedly bruised me with his rods, that I utterly forgot his severity and regarded him not with fear, as did other boys of my age, but with a deep and heartfelt love. Often indeed, and in many ways my master and my mother tested me (seeing that paid both a due and equal reverence) to see whether I should presume, under any compelling circumstance, to prefer the one to the other. At length opportunity brought experience, so that neither could doubt thenceforth. One day I had been beaten in my school, which was none other than a hall of our house; for my master, in his care for me alone, had now left the teaching of those others whom he had formerly undertaken, as my wise mother had required when she increased his salary and honored him with her patronage. So, after a few of the evening hours had been passed in that study, during which I had been beaten even beyond my deserts, I came and sat at my mother's knees. She, according to her wont, asked whether I had been beaten that day; and I, unwilling to betray master, denied it; whereupon, whether I would or not, she drew back my inner garment (such as men call shirt) and found my little ribs black with the strokes of the osier, and rising everywhere into weals. Then, grieving in her inmost bowels at this punishment so excessive for my tender years, troubled and boiling with anger, and with brimming eyes, she cried, "Never now-shall you become a clerk, nor shalt thou be thus tortured again to learn your letters !" Whereupon, gazing upon her with all the seriousness that I could call to my face, I replied, "Nay, even though I should die under the rod, I will not desist from learning my letters and becoming a clerk!" For she had promised that, if I would be a knight when the time came, she would endow me with arms and all that I needed for such a life. When, however, I refused all this with bitter scorn, then, O God that maidservant of Yours took so gladly these insults inflicted upon her, and was so rejoiced at this contempt of herself, that she revealed to my master this very answer and refusal of mine; and both exulted together that I should seem to aspire with all the ambition of my soul towards that life my father had vowed for me.

From C.G. Coulton, ed, Life in the Middle Ages, (New York: Macmillan, c.1910), Vol 4, 133-141 [slightly modernized]


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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(c)Paul Halsall August 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu