Guibert of Nogent in Heloise’s light: dark nights of internalized misandry

Guibert presents to Christ his commentary

In France early in the twelfth century, Heloise of the Paraclete became a famous author and religious leader. Guibert of Nogent lived and died there and then as an obscure abbot. Those who dare to defy orthodoxy readily recognize that gynocentrism has privileged women throughout history. Yet Guibert’s lack of recognition relative to Heloise doesn’t simply reflect structural gender oppression. Guibert himself internalized misandry. In his despair, he failed to appreciate his own being.

Even when the eminent twelfth-century abbot Peter the Venerable was a youth, the fame of Heloise’s “distinguished and praiseworthy studies {honesta et laudabilia studia}” were known to him. Many years later Peter the Venerable wrote to Heloise:

I heard then that a woman, though still not freed from worldly ties, was deeply devoted to literary studies, which is most unusual, and to the pursuit of wisdom, albeit wisdom of the world. I heard that she could not be prevented by worldly pleasures, frivolities, and delights from the useful purpose of learning the arts. In a time when detestable laziness keeps almost everyone from these studies, and when the progress of wisdom can come to a standstill — I do not say among women, by whom it is entirely rejected, but it can hardly find virile minds among men — you, through your praiseworthy zeal, have completely excelled all women, and surpassed almost all men.

{ Audiebam tunc temporis, mulierem licet necdum saeculi nexibus expeditam, litteratoriae scientiae quod perrarum est, et studio licet saecularis sapientiae, summam operam dare, nec mundi voluptatibus, nugis, vel deliciis, ab hoc utili discendarum artium proposito retrahi posse. Cumque ab his exercitiis detestanda desidia totus pene torpeat mundus, et ubi subsistere possit pes sapientiae, non dicam apud sexum femineum a quo ex toto explosus est, sed vix apud ipsos viriles animos invenire valeat, tu illo efferendo studio tuo, et mulieres omnes evicisti, et pene viros universos superasti. } [1]

Men love to praise women. Some men even experience a certain pleasure from imagining women beating men. In contrast, men compete aggressively with other men. Guibert recounted his own experience of religious study in a monastery:

While some in my monastery once saw me as far beneath them in age and education as well as influence and understanding, they realized now that the gift of Him alone, who is the key of all knowledge, had instilled into my senses an appetite for learning, and that I had begun to equal them, or, if I may say so, completely surpass them. Their scornful wickedness flared up against me with great fury, and I grew exhausted from the constant debates and controversies. I wished I had never seen literature, much less learned any of it. They made every effort to disrupt my studies. Many times, seizing on an opportunity from the literature itself, they would stir up quarrels through constant questioning. It seemed that the only purpose behind their exertions was to make me shrink away from my eagerness in this study and to shackle my talents.

{ Nam nostratium aliqui, cum me olim longe infra se aetate ac literis, potentia et cognitione vidissent, et, solius ejus dono ipso discendi appetitum meis sensibus instinguente, qui totius est clavis scientiae, me sibi exaequari, aut omnino, si dici fas est, excellere persensissent, tanto furore adversum me eorum indignabunda excanduit nequitia, ut me, frequentibus controversiis et simultatibus fatigatum, multoiens et vidisse et scisse literas poeniteret. Studium plane meum ab eis tantopere turbabatur, ac tot, de ipsis literis sumpta occasione, per continuas quaestiones jurgia motabantur, ut ad hoc solum, quatinus ab ea cura mea resiliret intentio meumque praepediretur ingenium, eniti viderentur. } [2]

Guibert lacked encouragement and support for his learning. His fellow monks’ attacks on him, however, spurred Guibert to more intensive learning:

But just as oil poured on a fire intensifies the flames it seems to extinguish, so in the same way the more my enthusiasm was gripped in this difficult work, the more it heated up as in an oven, and the better it functioned. Questions in which I was judged to be dull served only to sharpen my mind. The difficulties contained in their objections forced me to ponder assiduously about hypotheses. I perused books of all kinds to comprehend the multiple meanings of words and to find adequate answers. This behavior of mine made them hate me even more. But you know, O Lord, that I did little if anything to return their hate.

{ Sed, sicut oleum camino additum, unde putatur extinguere, inde flamma vivaciore proserpit, eo instar clibani quo amplius mea super eo labore solertia premebatur, tanto suis reddita valentior aestibus in melius agebatur. Quaestiones, quibus aestimabar obtundi, intelligentiae plurimam mihi acrimoniam ministrabant, et objectionum difficultates crebra conjecturarum mearum ruminatione et diversorum versatione voluminum, multiplicitatem sensuum et respondendi mihi efficaciam pariebant. Hoc itaque modo, etsi gravissime eis invidiosus eram, tu tamen nosti, Domine, quam parum aut nihil tali bus invidebam } [3]

Overcoming the hostile environment that he experienced, Guibert surpassed nearly all women and men in learning. Moreover, he was from a noble family, and he had a handsome appearance. Yet Guibert became much less famous than Heloise.

Peter the Venerable praised Heloise for her worldly literary studies and for her pursuit of worldly wisdom. Perhaps hoping to gain more appreciation from his peers, Guibert turned to study of worldly poetry:

I left aside all the seriousness of scared Scripture for this vain and ludicrous activity. Sustained by my folly, I had reached a point where I was competing with Ovid and the pastoral poets by striving to achieve an amorous charm in well-crafted epistles and in the way of arranging images. Forgetting the proper rigor of the monastic calling and casting away its modesty, my mind became so enraptured by the seductions of this contagious indulgence that I valued one thing only: that what I was writing in a courtly manner might be attribute to some poet.

{ ut universa a divinae paginae seria pro tam ridicula vanitate seponerem, ad hoc ipsum, duce mea levitate, jam veneram, ut Ovidiana et Bucolicorum dicta praesumerem, et lepores amatorios in specierum distributionibus epistolisque nexilibus affectarem. Oblita igitur mens debiti rigoris, et professionis monasticae pudore rejecto, talibus virulentae hujus licentiae lenociniis lactabatur, hoc solum trutinans, si poetae cuipiam comportari poterat quod curialiter dicebatur } [4]

Writing courtly love poetry is an activity for ignorant, desperate men living in fantasies. Guibert both read courtly love poetry and produced it himself. His body relished this imaginative action:

I was being seized from both directions. The sweet-sounding words that I took in from the poets, and then spewed forth myself ensnared me in their wanton frivolity. Since I kept coming back to them and things like them, immodest stirrings of my flesh all too frequently held me captive.

{ Cujus nimirum utrobique raptabar, dum non solum verborum dulcium, quae a poetis acceperam, sed et quae ego profuderam lasciviis irretirer, verum etiam per horum et his similium revolutiones immodica aliquotiens carnis meae titillatione tenerer } [5]

Heloise delighted in remembering her actual sexual intercourse with Abelard. Guibert engaged only with amorous words and himself.

One night, Guibert’s tutor had a holy vision of an old man with white hair. The old man indicated that Guibert, with understanding of God’s judgment of him, would turn away from secular love poetry. Guibert nonetheless felt for some time what he described as “inner madness {interior rabies}.” He longed for love and praise:

And yet you know, Lord, and I confess it, that at that time neither fear of you, nor shame at myself, nor respect for this holy vision made me behave with any more self-restraint. Indeed, I did not refrain at all in my inner life from the scandalous indecencies of my trifling compositions. In secret I composed the same poems, not daring to show them to any, or scarcely any, of my companions, and yet I often recited them to whom I could, under the name of a false author. I took joy in the praise they received from those who shared religious vows with me. I thought it would be inappropriate to admit that the poems were mine. Since their author could not profit from the fruits of their praise, all that was left to rejoice in were the fruits — or rather the disgrace — of sin.

{ Et tu nosti tamen, Domine, et ego confiteor, quia tunc temporis nec tuo timore, nec meo pudore, nec sacrae hujus visionis honore castigatiora peregerim: et nempe irreverentia , quia interius me habebam, et scriptorum nugantium nequaquam scurrilitatibus temperabam. Latenter quippe cum eadem carmina cuderem, et nemini aut vix omnino meis consimilibus illa prodere auderem, saepius tamen mentito auctore, ipsa quibus poteram recitabam, et laetabar ea a voti mei consortibus collaudari: quae mea fore rebar prorsus inconveniens profiteri, et quod ad fructum ullius auctori suo non proderat laudis, solo restabat fructu, immo turpitudine gaudere peccati. }

As a Christian man, Guibert should have understood that in God he lived, and moved, and had his being. He should have understood that he was a child of God. Guibert and all men, who are God’s creation, are very good.[6] God loves men. Men living under gynocentrism and internalizing misandry often don’t love men. The relatively hostile environment in which he strove to acquiring learning wasn’t the worst social injustice that Guibert experienced. Worst of all, Guibert was deprived of love for himself.[7]

While Guibert condemned himself merely for studying and writing secular love poetry, the eminent twelfth-century abbot Peter the Venerable didn’t condemn Heloise for having sex with Abelard before their marriage. Peter wrote to Heloise to console her after Abelard’s death:

Now, venerable and dearest sister in the Lord, this man to whom you were bound first first by the ties of the flesh and later by the stronger and better bond of divine love, with whom and under whom you have long served the Lord — this man, I say, in your place and as another you, the Lord cherishes in his own embrace. At the coming of the Lord, when He descends from heaven with the singing of archangels and the sound of the trumpet, the Lord, who holds him, will restore him to you by His grace.

{ Hunc ergo venerabilis et carissima in domino soror, cui post carnalem copulam tanto validiore, quanto meliore divinae caritatis vinculo adhesisti, cum quo et sub quo diu domino deservisti, hunc inquam loco tui, vel ut te alteram in gremio suo confovet, et in adventu domini, in voce archangeli, et in tuba dei descendentis de caelo, tibi per ipsius gratiam restituendum reservat. } [8]

A scholar perceptively noted:

The great abbot of Cluny {Peter the Venerable} does not shun a language rich in erotic connotations. At this solemn moment he uses sexual expressions consciously and daringly: in the compass of a single sentence, the words carnalis copula, vinculum, adherere, gremium, confovere all serve to establish a perspective which is both human and divine, and which brings with it profound optimism: the lovers Abelard and Heloise will be reunited in heaven as lovers. The heavenly bond of caritas is stronger and finer (validior, melior) than the physical bond (carnalis copula) — yet Peter feels no need to disparage that bond. Not a word about their being washed clean of the foulness of earthly lust [9]

Heloise didn’t even have to shed tears to have Peter the Venerable overlook her sexual sin. Disparagement of human sexuality throughout history has overwhelmingly been disparagement of men’s sexuality. Peter Abelard himself addressed such gender injustice in his Planctus Dine filie Iacob. Yet from Abelard’s time to our own time, persecution of men’s sexuality has expanded to an absurdly irrational extent.

Both women and men must address reasonably the reality of gynocentrism. An influential work on marriage in medieval France ended with these sentences:

It is necessary nonetheless, amid all these men who alone, shouting, proclaimed what they had done or what they aspired to do, not to forget the women. We personally have talked a lot about them. What do we know about them? [10]

Women and men continually strive to uphold women’s interests. Lucretius long ago pointed out that many husbands don’t even know the truth about their own wives. That’s not from lack of attention to them. In contrast, despite the relatively prolific output of men writers throughout history, men’s writers are virtually unknown. The few that have arisen have been treated mainly with ignorant, hateful name-calling. We know less about men, as distinctively gendered persons, than we know about women. To build a more humane and gender-egalitarian future, students should study Guibert of Nogent’s memoirs and other vital works of medieval Latin literature.

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[1] Peter the Venerable, letter to Heloise of the Paraclete, Latin text from Constable (1967) 1.303-8, via Heloïsa und Abaelard; English trans. (adapted slightly) from McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) pp. 293-8. Abelard died in 1142. Peter the Venerable probably wrote this letter in 1143. Id. p. 293.

Peter the Venerable served as abbot of the large, rich, and important Benedictine abbey at Cluny. The Cluny Abbey had a basilica larger than that in Rome and one of the largest libraries in Europe. Guibert became the abbot of a small, poor abbey at Nogent.

[2] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 2.16, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) (adapted slightly). In subsequent quotes from the Monodiae, the Latin text is always from Bourgin (1907).

[3] Guibert, Monodiae 2.16, English trans. from Archambault (1986) (adapted slightly). Cf. Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27-8. Guibert became a monk in the monastery at Saint-Germer de Fly. That monastery was a place “where a multitude of literary scholars flourished {ibi literatorum floreat multitudo}.” Monodiae 2.5.

Men are generally viewed less favorably than women. That effect extends to children. A recent econometric study found that in French middle schools, teachers grade girls higher than boys. Terrier (2016). Despite popular media myth-making, that finding is consistent with a variety of other empirical findings. The tremendous gender disparity among elementary school teachers attracts shamefully little concern among those purporting to be concerned about gender equality.

When Guibert entered the monastery at Saint-Germer, he eagerly sought learning:

Henceforth a strong desire for learning filled my spirit, and only this matter alone I sought to inhale, and I considered a day wasted if I did not accomplish any learning. O how often I was thought to be asleep, keeping my fragile body warm under its sheet, when really my spirit was concentrating on reciting texts or else, fearing the complaints of others, I was reading under my blanket. And you, dear Jesus, knew my intention as I did these things. I sought to garner as much praise as possible and to acquire the greatest possible honor in this world.

{ Praeterea tanto discendi affectu repente sum animatus, ut huic soli rei unice inhiarem, et incassum me vivere aestimarem, si diem sine tali quolibet actu transigerem. O quotiens dormire putabar, et corpus sub pannulo fovere tenellulum, et spiritus meus aut dictaturiens arctabatur, aut quippiam objecta lodice, dum judicia vereor aliena, legebam. Et tu, Jesu pie, non nesciebas qua intentione id facerem, conquirendae utique gratia laudis, et ut praesentis saeculi honorificentia major occurreret. }

Monodiae 2.15, English trans. from Archambault (1986) (adapted). Guibert deeply regretted having those worldly motivations.

[4] Guibert, Monodiae 2.17, English trans. from Archambault (1986) (adapted slightly). The pastoral poets surely would have included Virgil’s Eclogues. The well-crafted epistles were probably imitations of Ovid’s Heroides. The arranging of images may have been composing a descriptio puellae {description of a young woman}.

Guibert wrote his Monodiae about 1115. The men-abasing ideology of courtly love was then gaining force. Courtly love was exemplified later in the twelfth century in Chrétien de Troyes’s manlet Lancelot. Boncompagno da Signa’s early-thirtheenth-century debunking of courtly love has had regrettably little influence.

[5] Guibert, Monodiae 2.17, English trans. from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) (adapted slightly). The subsequent quote above has the same source.

[6] Acts 17:28, Genesis 1:26-31.

[7] Archambault stated:

Even in an age when it was common to present a dramatically heightened picture of one’s sinfulness, Guibert seems harsh on himself compared to famous contemporaries like Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot Sugar, Anselm of Canterbury, or Abelard. These religious personalities might have discerned in his hyperbolic professions of abjectness a subtle, familiar form of monastic hubris. What is unmistakeable about Guibert’s confession is that, whatever else his early life might have taught him, it never taught him to love himself.

Archambault (1986) p. xxiv. Guibert didn’t achieve the fame of those famous men contemporaries, or the fame of his famous woman contemporary Heloise. Men raised under gynocentrism have long been taught that achievement is central to their worth as men — their virtue. Guibert suffered from gynocentric society refusing to recognize that men have intrinsic virture. Men are intrinsically good and worthy of love.

[8] Peter the Venerable, letter to Heloise of the Paraclete, Latin text from Constable (1967) 1.303-8, via Heloïsa und Abaelard; English trans. (adapted slightly) from McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) pp. 293-8.

Heloise herself showed considerable concern about sin and sexual sin in the forty-two exegetical questions she posed for Abelard in a work known as Heloise’s Questions {Problemata Heloissae}. See, e.g. question 8, concerning the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11); question 11, concerning the extent of the Lord’s joy over a sinner repenting (Luke 15:7); question 16, concerning how love is the fulfillment of God’s law (Romans 13:9); question 19, concerning judging others (Matthew 7:1-2); question 42, “whether anyone can sin in doing what the Lord has permitted or even commanded.” Cf. Genesis 1:28. For an English translation of Problemata Heloissae, McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) 213-67.

[9] Dronke (1992) p. 267. Epitaphs apparently written in the twelfth century celebrated Heloise and Abelard’s sexual unity of persons:

This is sufficient as an epitaph: here lies Peter Abelard,
his beloved Heloise held at his side.

One now in the tomb, as before one in the marriage bed,
one in declaring professions of monastic life.
One is their eternal life at home in the stars above. Amen.

{ Est satis in titulo: petrus his iacet Habaelardus,
Dilectumque tenens huic Heloisa latus.

Unus nunc tumulus, sicut et ante thorus,
Unum propositum viteque professio sacre,
Una perennis eis sit super astra domus. Amen. }

Est satis in titulo: petrus his iacet Habaelardus, Latin text from Dronke (1992) p. 285, my English translation. The epitaph survives in whole only in MS Zürich, Zentralbibliothek C 58/275, s. XII, f. 5va. Another epitaph similarly celebrates Heloise and Abelard’s sexual unity of persons:

One was their flesh, one is the tomb that contains them,
the spirits of both were no less the spirit of one.
Now together they are given a common marital bed of good earth.
Here is Abelard; here also Heloise is there:
in the depths both to be known by your Christ. Amen.

{ Una fuere caro, tumulus quos continet unus,
Nec minus amborum spiritus unus erat.
Nunc quoque communem dat bene terra thorum.
Habelardus his est; hec illius est Heloysa:
Imo utrosque tuos, Christe, fuisse scias. Amen. }

Epitaph of Peter Abelard that he himself composed {Epitaphium Petri Baiolardi a semet conpositum}, incipit Servi animam servans, ancillis redde cadaver, Latin text from Dronke (1992) p. 285, my English translation.

Some epitaphs of Heloise and Abelard concern them only as individuals. One is a couplet which, compared to the first epitaph above, differs only in its second verse:

This is sufficient as an epitaph: here lies Peter Abelard,
to whom alone was evident whatever was knowable.

{ Est satis in titulo, Petrus hic jacet Abaelardus,
Cui soli patuit scibile quidquid erat. }

Latin text from the epitaph page of Heloïsa und Abaelard, my English translation. For additional individualistic medieval epitaphs of Abelard and Heloise in English translation, McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) pp. 305-7.

[10] Duby (1981) p. 304, my English translation of the French:

Il faudrait toutefois ne pas oublier parmi tous ces hommes qui seuls, vociférant, clamaient ce qu’ils avaient fait ou ce qu’ils rêvaient de faire, les femmes. On en parle beaucoup. Que sait-on d’elles?

Barbara Bray’s translation softens the anti-men rhetoric:

But amid the clamor of all these men asserting what they had done or wanted to do, we must not forget the women. Much has already been said about them. But how much do we really know?

Duby (1983) p. 284. This claim evidently was so attractive that it was included in the marketing blurb for the book and on the back cover of the book in a laudatory quote from Ken Turan of the popular magazine Time.

Not surprisingly, Duby interpreted “the rules of courtly love” as being usefully “designed to impose a degree of discipline” on unruly young men. Id. That sexist view is associated with the idea that women are necessary to “civilize” men and that men servilely abasing themselves to women “ennobles” men.

[image] Christ receiving from Guibert his commentary on the biblical books Hosea, Jeremiah, and Amos. The figure labeled Abbot Guibert (lower left) in a black monk’s robe raises his book to the central figure of Christ. On the lower right the prophet Hosea holds a scroll. St. Jerome, the figure on the upper left, may be figuratively feeding the Holy Spirit with scripture. Illumination from folio 1, MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 2502. This manuscript, which comes from Guibert’s abbey at Nogent, is a unicum for Gilbert’s commentary. Guibert’s Monodiae has survived in full in only a seventeenth-century transcription, MS Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, Baluze 42.


Archambault, Paul J., trans. 1996. A Monk’s Confession: the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

Constable, Giles, ed. 1967. The Letters of Peter the Venerable. Harvard Historical Studies, v. 78. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1992. Intellectuals and poets in Medieval Europe. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura. Ch. 9 (pp. 247-294) reprints Dronke, Peter. 1976. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval testimonies: the twenty-six W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Glasgow 29th October, 1976. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press.

Duby, Georges. 1981. Le chevalier, la femme et le prêtre: le mariage dans la France féodale. Paris: France Loisirs.

Duby, Georges. 1983. The knight, the lady and the priest: the making of modern marriage in medieval France. New York: Pantheon Books.

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books. (review by Scott G. Bruce, review by Bruce L. Venarde)

McLaughlin, Mary Martin, and Bonnie Wheeler, trans. 2009. The Letters of Heloise and Abelard. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Terrier, Camille. 2016. “Boys Lag Behind: How Teachers’ Gender Biases Affect Student Achievement.” MIT Department of Economics, School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative (SEII) Discussion Paper #2016.07. (related studies)

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