self-divided, Guibert of Nogent lacked his mother’s ideological purity

Like Dhuoda’s ninth-century Liber manualis, Guibert of Nogent’s twelfth-century Monodiae intimately concerns a mother-son relationship. Liber manualis is an artifact of Dhuoda’s presence, a book that she bequeathed to her son in her absence. Guibert’s mother, in contrast, was with Guibert in his everyday life and guided him in person. Both Dhuoda and Guibert’s mother had an ideological purity like today’s earnest reader of the New York Times. In a way nearly unimaginable today, Guibert recognized his impurity and trusted in God’s mercy.

Illumination beginning Guibert's commentary on Amos

Guibert’s mother was closest to him in his ladder of hope for salvation. She was his biological mother in the model of Mary, the Mother of the Church. Guibert declared to God:

To be born from this woman, who to speak as I believe and hope, was the best in truth, was what you granted me, the worst of all her children. I was her last child in two understandings: my brothers, who offered better hopes, have died, but I, living a life in all ways prompting despair, have survived. It was as if, after Jesus, the mother of Jesus, and his saints, she was the reason that I, still in the midst of these evils, held on to the hope for salvation promised to all. Indeed, I know, and to disbelieve would be sacrilege, that as lovingly as she treated me, as openly as she tended to me while she was in this world — for mothers are more affectionate for their last-born children — now in the presence of God she cares for me no less. From the earliest age she was filled with the fire of God in Zion. Not even when she slept, to say nothing of when she was awake, did she cease to care for me in her soul. Now she is overcome by death, the joints of her flesh broken. But I know that in Jerusalem the fire of her love for me burns beyond what can be said, especially since there she is filled with God, nor is she unaware of the miseries that torment me. She is happy, but the farther from the warnings so often she repeated to me, the farther from the her habits and from her footsteps she thinks I have strayed, the more she groans for me when I stumble. Lord God and Father, you know how and of how much evil I am — you gave me my origin from this woman, who is not falsely, but truly good. You offered me hope in her merits, a hope I would in no way presume to possess if I did not find under your grace at least temporary relief from fear of my sin.

{ Ex hac, inquam, uti credo et spero, verissima mihi omnium quos genuit ipsa, deterrimo tribuisti nasci. Proles ejus bifariam postrema fui; decedentibus enim sub spe meliore germanis, ego vita omnimodis desperatione supersum. In his adhuc mihi agenti malis, ut ejus merito, post Jesum et, Jesu matrem sanctosque ejus, spes salvationis universa resedit. Scio nempe, nec discredere fas est, ut sicut me in saeculo posita carius habuit, clarius coluit (erga enim extreme natos matres affectuosius agunt), magis Deo praesens non negligit. Ignis plena Dei ea a juventute fuerat in Sion, cum ne dormiendo quidem, nedum vigilando, solicitudo mei in ejus animo cessabat. At nunc morte sibi obita, interstitio carnis abrupto, scio in Hierusalem potentius quam dici queat fervere caminum, praesertim cum illic Deo plena, meas in quibus volvor miserias non ignoret, et tanto mihi oberranti, licet felix, ingemat, quanto a suis quae totiens ingeminabat, monitis, moribus atque vestigiis me exorbitare considerat. Pater et Domine Deus, qui ex hac, non fallaciter sed vere bona, mihi qualiter et quantum nosti malo originem tribuisti, spem quoque in ejus mihi merito praebuisti, quam tamen nullatenus habere praesumerem, nisi ad te, ex mei timore peccati, aliquantisper sub tua gratia respirarem. } [1]

The delivery of Guibert from his mother’s womb was painful and precarious. She was expected to die. To save her life, the family vowed to dedicate the newly born child to the Mother of God. Her life was saved. Thus Guibert was set on the life path of a cleric dedicated to the Mother of God. When Guibert strayed into sin, which was frequent, his mother reminded him of the pains he had caused her in his birth. She acted then as if she were groaning to have him born again to God.[2] She did all she could to ensure Guibert’s salvation according to Christian understanding.

Guibert’s mother was beautiful, chaste, and pious. When Guibert’s parents were adolescent newlyweds, a wicked stepmother cast a spell on his father so that he was unable to have sex with his bride for seven years. She remained faithful to her husband through seven years of sexless marriage until the wicked spell was penetrated. Before that happy resolution, her husband at the urging of friends tested his potency extra-maritally. His infidelity engendered a child who died before being baptized. Guibert’s father himself died about eight months after Guibert was born. Fearing that her husband was suffering in Purgatory for his sexual sin, Guibert’s mother adopted an orphan child who cried incessantly. Guibert’s mother bore the burden of that crying orphan out of loving concern for her dead husband’s soul. She also had masses said for him, regularly gave alms to the poor, attended the daily offices of the church, including the night office, and wore a hair shirt next to her skin day and night. She spoke lovingly of her dead husband despite their marital difficulties.

When Guibert was twelve, his mother left him to live a monastic life with another woman in a small house next to the church of the monastery at Fly. Guibert felt emotionally neglected from the ensuing loss of contact with his mother, but he understood and supported her choice:

Although she knew I would suddenly become an orphan and that I had no resources to fall back on — we had, in fact, numerous relatives and in-laws, but none of them would carefully tend to the needs of a boy at that tender age. Even though I had no need of food or clothing, still, a lack of the guidance and discipline necessary for that vulnerable age, care that only women can provide, often troubled me. Even though she knew I would be condemned to such neglect, her fear and her love of you, God, hardened her heart … No wonder if she felt as if her own limbs were being torn from her body! She began in fact to believe — or rather she heard it from others — that she was utterly wicked and cruel. She had barred from her soul, and sent away without any support, a child such as this, so deserving of affection. That at least is what people said, because not only our relatives, but also people outside the family, adored me. And you, good God, holy God, in your sweetness, in your charity, you miraculously hardened her heart, surely the most loyal heart in the world, so that it wouldn’t be loyal to its own detriment. Softening of her heart would have caused her soul harm. She would have put me before her own salvation and would have neglected God because of me and because of care for the things of the world.

{ cum sciret me prorsus orphanum, et nullam omnino habere sub qua niterer opem (parentum enim et affinium multiplex erat copia, at vero nullus, qui puerulo in omnibus tenerrimo pro indigentiis aetatulae sollicite curam ferret: victualium enim ac indumentorum etsi esset nulla necessitas, earum tamen providentiarum, quae illius aevi impotentiae conveniunt, quae sine foeminis administrari non possunt, me saepius vexabat inopia), cum ergo me sciret his addictum incuriis, timore et amore tuo, Deus, sua obdurante praecordia … Nimirum plane si veluti ab ejus corpore membra propria viderentur abrumpi, cum impiissimam et crudelem se profecto cognosceret, immo audiret vocari, quae tantam sobolem, tanto, ut ferebatur, affectu dignam (multum enim non modo a nostratibus, sed etiam ab exteris excolebar) ita ab animo exclusisset, subsidiique inopem dimisisset. Et tu, Deus bone, Deus pie, tua dulcedine, tua caritate jecur illud certe in saeculo piissimum, ne esset contra se pium, mirabiliter indurueras: contra se nempe mollesceret, si, nos suae saluti praeferens, Dei negligens pro nobis, mundana curaret. }

Guibert become a monk in the monastery at Fly. With his mother living in house next to the church at Fly, he could interact with her throughout much of his adult life.[3] Even through her leaving him as a child hurt him personally, Guibert regarded his mother as having admirable Christian ideological purity and strength,

Guibert lacked his mother’s Christian ideological purity and strength. He perceived that “my soul, titillated with worldly life, itched with desires and lusts {animam in concupiscentiis pro suo modulo et cupiditatibus prurientem saecularis vita titillaret}. ” Guibert had none of his mother’s firmness of resolve:

I have in serving you {God} no firmness, no constancy. Whenever it seemed that I had performed some proper work, my ambivalent intention reshaped it into something less and insignificant.

{ Nihil in te solidum, nil constans habui; si quid in evidentia visus sum exhibuisse operis, intentio multomultotiens reddidit minus recta pertenue. }

Guibert lamented his “inveterate zeal for depravity {inveterata pravitatum studia}” and his “great persistence in self-defilement {perseverantissimae impuritates}.”[4]

Guibert regarded his mother as God’s servant, like a priest and a prophet. Guibert’s mother preached to him:

God, you know how many warnings, how many prayers she daily poured into my ears, that I listen not to words of corruption. Whenever she had time alone free from family cares, she would teach me how and for what I should pray to you. You alone know how great were the pains she bore to prevent my unhealthy soul from ruining the healthy beginnings, the brilliant and distinguished youth, which you had given me.

{ Deus, tu scis quanta monita, quantas auribus meis preces quotidie instillabat, ne corruptionis cujuspiam verba susciperem. Docebat, quotiens a curis familiaribus solitudo vacabat, quomodo et super quibus te orare deberem. Tu nosti solus quantis angoribus parturibat, ne initia florentissimae ac spectabilis, quam tu dederas, aetatulae animus male sanus sana perverteret. }

God communicated Guibert’s failings to his mother through her dreams:

whenever my unstable conscience shifted from one state to another, sane or insane, by your judgement, Lord, an image of it then came to her in a vision. It is said that dreams come from many cares, which is certainly true, yet her cares did not arise from inner heat sparked by greed, but rather were born of sincere striving after inner goodness. She was quite an astute and discriminating interpreter of visions, and thus whenever a troubling one touched her most pious mind, whenever she understood that a disturbance in her dream was an omen, she would summon me and examine my studies, reviewing what I was doing alone with myself, how I was spending my time in private. I always obeyed her, and could in no way withhold the understanding that I shared with her. My soul seemed attached to her dreams. Everything in them that I recognized, I readily confessed to her. When she warned me to correct my ways, with a sincere desire I promised to do so immediately.

{ in quemcunque statum sanum utique vel insanum conscientia labilis vertebatur, visionem ejusdem species non sine tuo, Domine, judicio sequebatur. At quoniam multas curas prohibentur sequi somnia, et verum indubie constat, hae tamen curae non avaritiae aestibus citabantur, sed ex vera interni boni aemulatione creabantur. Mox igitur, ut piissimam ejus mentem visio importuna tangebat, et sicut erat in talibus exolvendis admodum subtilis et perspicax, — mox, ut id incommodi suo sibi somnio portensum intellexerat, accito me, super meo studio, quid agerem, quid tractarem apud me secretius rogitabat. Cui, cum sic morem gererem, ut ei meam nullatenus unanimitatem negarem, omnia illa quae secundum tenores quae audieram somniorum, in quae lentescere meus animus videbatur, alacri confessione prodebam, et, cum de correctione moneret, veris profecto statim affectibus id spondebam. }

In hearing his confessions and guiding him to amendment, Guibert’s mother effectively acted as a priest for Guibert. She also served as a prophet for him:

You also know, Lord, how with her inner sight she spoke of the good and bad that would happen to me if I were promoted to any kind of position. Even today I experience these things, and they do not pass unnoticed by me or by others. She also foresaw in numerous visions, where I appeared along with others, what would happen to me long afterward. Some of these events I regard without a doubt as occurring or as having already occurred, while some of the rest I expect no less to occur, but I have deliberately refrained from adding them here. God, what warnings she gave me to keep lusts away from my mind, assuring me in no uncertain terms of misfortunes (which I have since experienced) that were sure to come. She was always lamenting the immorality of youth, and she restrained my mind as it wandered along various paths of thought.

{ Tu etiam, Domine, nosti quo interiori oculo et bona et mala, si uspiam promoverer, mihi eventura loquebatur, quae hodieque experior nec me nec alios latent. Visionibus quoque quamplurimis, sub mea et aliorum specie, longis post futura temporibus praevidebat; quorum aliqua indubie fieri contemplor, et facta, nec minus residua quaedam fienda praestolor, quibus tamen attexendis supersedendum ex industria reor. Deus, quibus illa monitis cupiditates a mente arcere monebat! adversitatum infortunia, quae expertus sum, certissime pollicens, lubricam semper suspirare juventam, per varios cogitationum ambitus animos froenare vagantes }

But Guibert’s mother didn’t foresee Guibert’s actions and perceive him to the depth of his soul in the way that he did:

Good Lord, good God, if she had foreseen the heaps of filth in which I would bury the handsome appearance that you had given me, which with you had decorated me at her request, what would she have said? What would she have done? How she would have groaned beyond any consolation! … If her purest of eyes had penetrated to the recesses of my soul and seen there what’s utterly offensive to the pure of sight, it would be a wonder if she had not died at once.

{ bone Domine, bone Deus, si tunc praesciret quanto sordium cumulo obliteraturus eram bonas illas donorum tuorum superficies, quibus me, illa impetrante, ornaveras, quid dictura? quid actura? quam irremediabiles gemitus emissura! … Plane si penetralia animi mei mundis adeo indigna conspectibus mundissimus ejus oculus irrupisset, miror si ilico exanimis non fuisset. }

Guibert conflated his mother and God. He also conflated his mother and the mother of God — “O Lady, mother of the heavenly realm {o Domine, coelestis Mater imperii}.”[5] Men tend to imagine women as god-like beings. Guibert apparently ridiculed gyno-idolatry. But his mother was different.

Guibert recognized his impurity and trusted in God’s mercy. Guibert wrote of a dream he had and his hope:

One night I dreamed that I was in a church dedicated to your name {the name of the “heavenly Lady {coelestis Domina}”}, and it seemed to me that I was carried to the roof of the basilica by two demons. Then they fled, leaving me unharmed within the walls of that same church. I often recall this vision as I reflect upon my incorrigibility. While I keep committing the same sins, or rather add worse sins to ones that were the worst, I run back to you, most pious Mother. I do this not because I mistakenly rely on too great a hope or little faith in someone, but only to escape being lost in desperation. Although I always fail, that is because weakness drives me, not because pride hardens me. I never lose hope of amending my ways.

{ nocte quadam per visum in ecclesia tui nominis eram, et videbatur mihi, quod a duobus ab ipsa auferebar daemonibus, cumque ad basilicae me fastigium extulissent, aufugerunt, et intactum intra ejusdem septa ecclesiae dimiserunt. Haec multotiens, dum meam intueor incorrigibilitatem, reminiscor, et eadem peccata saepius repeto, immo pessimis pejora superfero, ad te, Piissima, pro evitando solum desperationis periculo, non nimiae spei aut alicujus parvae fiduciae abusione recurro. Etsi enim semper ex impulsu fragilitatis, non superbiae obstinatione delinquo, spem tamen nullatenus correctionis amitto. }

Guibert understood himself to be divided, with his fidelity to Christian ethics existing above his sordid inclinations:

I am always sinning and always returning to you from amid my sin. When I flee from piety or desert it, does piety lose any of its essence? Will piety choked by many offenses become something different? … You know that I do not sin because I know you are merciful. I am confident in stating that you are said to be merciful because if someone asks for forgiveness, you are there. I do not abuse you in your mercy every time I succumb to my compulsion to sin. It would be an abuse and truly sacrilegious if I always found pleasure in excessive sinning because it is so easy to return to you after sinning. Indeed, I do sin, but when I have recovered my rationality, I am ashamed to have yeilded to my heart’s desires. My spirit, entirely against its will, beds itself in baskets full of manure.

{ Semper ergo peccans, et inter peccandum semper ad te rediens, an pii fugax, piumve deserens, cum ad pietatem recurrero, perdet pietas quod est, et etiam, offensione multiplici obruta, invenietur insolens? … Tu scis quia non ideo pecco, quod te misericordem sentio, sed secure profiteor te ideo misericordem dici, quod sis veniam postulantibus praesto. Non te miserante abutor, quotiens per peccandi necessitatem peccare compellor; verum profana nimis esset abusio, si, quia perfacilis post peccatum ad te est reditus, semper me peccandi delectet excessus. Pecco siquidem, sed, ratione recepta, in affectum cordis transisse me poenitet, tamque stercorosis cophinis mens graviter invita succumbit. }

Guibert knew without illusions the divisions within himself. Self-conscious of the risks of rationalizing his wrongs, he had pure and unshakeable faith in God’s mercy.[6]

To retain a communicative identity distinctive from machines, humans must communicate with creativity, complexity, and self-consciousness. Recent advances in artificial intelligence and natural language processing enable massive-scale production of machine-generated texts that are indistinguishable from most news articles and social-media posts made today. Guibert of Nogent, writing in the twelfth century about his mother and himself, left a record of a distinctively human consciousness. Every real, flesh-and-blood human should aspire to nothing less.

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[1] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 1.3, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. mainly from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011), with the benefit of Archambault (1996), and modified to follow the Latin more closely in some instances. Monodiae, Book 1, contains Guibert’s autobiography. Like Augustine’s Confessions, Guibert began his Monodiae with a confession to God: “I confess to your greatness, God {Confiteor amplitudini tuae, Deus}…”

All subsequent quotes from Guibert’s Monodiae are similarly sourced. The ones above are from Monodiae 1.14 (Although she knew I would suddenly become an orphan…), 1.16 (my soul, titillated…), 1.3 (I have in serving you no firmness, no constancy…), 1.1 (inveterate zeal for depravity; great persistence in self-defilement), 1.12 (God, you know how many warnings…), 1.16 (whenever my unstable conscience…), 1.19 (You also know, Lord, how with her inner sight…), 1.12 (Good Lord, good God…), 1.16 (O Lady, mother of the heavenly realm; One night I dreamed…), 1.1. (I am always sinning…).

[2] John 3:3-5, 1 Peter 1:3, Romans 8:22-3.

[3] Suffering from fellow monks’ envy for his learning, Guibert sought at one point to go to leave the abbey of Fly, called Saint-Germer, and go to another monastery. But his mother, with the force of interpreting her dream, dissuaded Guibert from leaving. Monodiae 1.16.

[4] Speaking of himself and other men, Guibert observed: “in us the disobendience of concupiscence reigns, calling us against our wills to indecent movement {in nobis concupiscentialis inobedientia regnat, quae etiam nolentes ad motus nos indecoros invitat}.” Guibert of Nogent, Moral Commentary on Genesis {Moralia in Genesim} 1.1, Latin text from Migne (1880) col. 33, English translation adapted from Benton (1970) p. 14. Guibert subsequently elaborated further on men’s difficulties with erections:

Certain people ask why we clothe the genitals so carefully, since we cover no other parts of the body with such attention. Not only do we hide them, but we also scarcely permit the places near them, including the navel and the thighs, to be seen. Why is this? When my finger, my eyes, or my lips move, they move at my direction, by my will. Since they act docilely under my authority, they cause me no shame. But those parts we are considering are driven against the rules of reason by a certain liberty toward unrestrained action. It is as if there were a separate law in our genitals, as St. Paul puts it, fighting against the law of our mind and leading us captive in the law of sin that is in our genitals. Therefore, quite properly we blush, since whether we like it or not, we appear to be shamefully erected out of passionate desire.

{ Quaeritur proinde a quibusdam quid causae sit, quod tantopere ea membra velamus, cum nullas corporis nostri partes ea intentione tegamus. Non enim ea sola celamus, sed etiam propinqua eis loca, uti sunt umbilicus et crura videri vix patimur. Quare hoc? Cum moventur digilus meus, oculi moi, labia mea, meo nutu, mea voluntate moventur; et quia placide sub meo agunt imperio, nullum mihi pudorem incutiunt. At quia partes, de quibus agimus, contra jura tolius rationis effreni quadam libertate feruntur, et quasi quaedam diversa lex est, juxta Aposlolum, in membris nostris repugnans legi mentis nostrae, et captivos nos ducens in lege peccali, quae est in membris nostris; idcirco juste erubescimus, quia velimus, nolimus, turpiter haec erigi ex desiderii passione videmus. }

Guibert of Nogent, Study on the Incarnation against the Jews {Tractatus de Incarnatione contra Judaeos} 1.5, Latin text from Migne (1880) col. 496, English translated (modified for clarity) from Benton (1970) pp. 13-4. Guibert refers in this passage to Romans 7:23.

In contrast to men’s unwilled erections, both men and women could engaged in willful sin. Guibert told of a monk “irrestibily drawn to abnormal vices, from which no form of human supervision could restrain him {viciis enormibus, a quibus custodia humana abstineri non poterat, irretractabiliter deditus}.” Recognizing that women are no less sinful than men, Guibert also told of a nun who “allowed herself to fall under some fithy sins, and no kind of admonishment could compel her to confess {sub peccatis aliquibus foedis sese receperat, nec quocunque monitu ad confitendum cogi potuerat}.” Monodiae 1.24.

[5] Guibert moved seamless between speaking about his mother and about the mother of the heavenly realm or God. Guibert spoke of God knowing his mind (and his mother’s mind) and of confessing to God. See, e.g. Monodiae 1.17, 1.19. To Guibert, the church was “the mother church {mater ecclesia}.” Monodiae 3.16.

[6] Archambault perceptively observed:

Guibert shares with some of the greatest ecclesiastical writers of his age an intense preoccupation with the sinfulness of his soul. … Like Augustine’s, Guibert’s belief in the corruption of the soul is matched by his overwhelming confidence in Christ’s infinite mercy. … There is something moving about his recurring confidence, his spiraling emergence from the depths of despair, his ultimate victory over the forces that might have crushed such a fragile but sensitive psyche.

Archambault (1996) pp. xxiv-xx. Unlike Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions {Confessiones}, Guibert described the sinfulness of his soul within extensive details of his relationship with his mother, whom Guibert regarded as not having a sinful soul. That makes Guibert sense of his conflicted self distinctive and particularly interesting.

Non-meninist literary critics have failed to understand adequately women in relation to men. They have anachronistically disparaged Guibert’s mother:

Guibert’s mother was a domineering person with puritanical {sic} ideas about sex; it seems reasonable to consider that she was responsible for her husband’s impotence during the early years of her marriage.

Benton (1970) p. 26. Blaming Guibert’s mother for her husband’s impotence isn’t reasonable. It’s an ideological projection. Guibert’s mother is best regarded as Guibert regarded her. She was in his view an ideological pure and strong Christian woman.

[[image] Prologue page for Guibert’s moral interpretation (tropology) for the biblical Book of Amos in his on Tropologies in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Amos {Tropologiae in Osee, Jermiam, et Amos}. Illumination from folio 100r, MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 2502.


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

Benton, John F., trans. 1970. Self and Society in Medieval France: the memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

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

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.

Migne, Jacques-Paul. 1880. The Venerble Guibert, Abbot of St. Mary of Nogent, Collected Works {Venerabilis Guibert, Abbatis S. Mariae de Novigento, Opera omnia}. Patrologiae cursus completus: Series latina (Patrologiae latina). Vol. 156. Garnier Fratres: Paris.

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