sacredness of sex highlighted in Guibert’s medieval metamorphoses

Dr. Faustus

Hebrew scripture fundamentally teaches that God blesses with more life. In covenants with his chosen people, God promised to make their descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.[1] Sex generates descendants. In Jewish, Christian, and Islamic understanding, sex is not only good, but also sacred. Consistent with that understanding, the abbot Guibert of Nogent in his twelfth-century autobiography represented the sacredness of sex in bizarre metamorphoses.

According to Guibert, a monk at a famous monastery learned about some non-Christian medicine. He then became interested in the evil arts {malae artes} of the devil. In mentioning that the monk lived at a famous monastery, Guibert probably meant to signal that the monk’s motive was pride. Like Dr. Faustus centuries later, medieval monks sought to excel in learning. This monk probably sought to learn the evil arts of the devil in order to become more illustrious than renowned monks of his monastery.

The monk met with the devil. He requested of the devil to be made a fellow authority {auctor} in the devil’s learning {doctrinae}:

Abominable ruler that he is, the devil replied that this could not be done in any way unless the monk repudiated Christianity and offered him a sacrifice. The monk asked what the sacrifice should be. “What is most delectable in a man,” the devil responded. “What is that?” “You will make to me a libation of your sperm,” the devil said, “When you have poured it out for me, you will taste it first, as those offering a sacrifice are obliged to do.”

{ Refert praeses ille nefandus neutiquam hoc fieri, nisi Christianitate negata sibi sacrificium deferatur. Interrogat ille quod. “Quod delectabilius est in homine.” “Quid illud?” “Sperma libabis,” ait, “tuum; quod cum mihi profuderis, inde quod sacrificantibus est debitum praegustabis.” } [2]

Men’s sperm is essential for realizing the fundamental blessing of Hebrew scripture. Men’s sperm should be understood as very good. While the devil described a man’s sperm as the most delightful part of him, the devil incorporated the monk’s sperm into a bizarre metamorphosis of the Christian mass and its promise of eternal life. Guibert commented:

What a crime! What a shameful act! And this was demanded from a priest! And to your priestly order and to your blessed host your ancient enemy does this as a vile sacrilege, Lord. Do not be silent, nor restrain your vengeance, God. What can I speak? With what words can I speak? He did what was requested, that wretched one, whom you had — O would that it were only for a time — deserted. With this horrible libation came the abandonment of his profession of faith.

{ Proh scelus! proh pudor! Et is a quo haec exigebantur erat presbyter! Et haec ad tui ordinis et tuae benedictae hostiae sacrilegam ignominiam fecit tuus antiquus hostis, Domine. Ne sileas, neque compescaris a vindicta, Deus. Quid dicam? Quomodo dicam? Fecit quod petebatur infoelix, quem tu, o utinam ad tempus! deserueras. Fit itaque cum horribili libamento super fidei relegatione professio. }

More than four hundred years before the Faust legend developed in Germany and Christopher Marlowe wrote The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Guibert described a monk’s foolish deal with the devil. Guibert’s devil is more daring than Marlowe’s Mephistophilis, a mere purveyor of learning. Guibert’s devil brought into the bargain sex and the matter of Hebrew scripture’s fundamental blessing.

With his keen appreciation for men’s disadvantaged social position, Guibert told more. After his sperm libation for the devil, the monk began having a sexual affair with a nun. One day the monk and his woman-lover were sitting together in his cell. They saw the monk’s cellmate returning. The woman despaired that when she left, his cellmate would see her. The monk, a newly trained sorcerer {novus incantator}, said to her confidently:

“Go,” he said, “straight toward him, and look neither right nor left, and don’t be afraid.”

{ “Vade,” ait, “in occursum venientis, nusquam dextra levaque respiciens, nil verearis.” }

This the woman did. Meanwhile, using incantations that he had learned from the devil, the monk transformed his woman-lover into an enormous dog. The monk’s cellmate saw only this giant dog leaving the cell. When his cellmate asked about it, the monk said that it was a neighbor’s dog. At an allegorical level, this story challenges disparagement of men for having dog-like sexuality. Men’s sexuality is no more dog-like than is woman’s sexuality. Perhaps Guibert understood Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis better than most modern scholars have.

After his deal with the devil, the monk’s life didn’t go well from either a godly perspective or his own. After living without God {sine Deo} long enough, the monk became gravely ill. Willingly or unwillingly, he confessed all that he had done. A church leader then defrocked him. The monk nonetheless harbored the belief that one day he would be made a bishop. He died a few years later, never having been made a bishop. He thus became “an ex-priest in eternity {in aeternum expresbyter}.”[3]

In recounting a metamorphosis of the Christian mass into sperm libation and a metamorphosis of a woman into a giant dog, Guibert of Nogent wasn’t just narrating demons, sacrileges, and bodies changed into new forms. In his own conflicted way, he was grappling with the goodness of men’s sexuality. To many persons, Dr. Faustus’s deal with the devil is now banal and meaninglessly abstract. Yet in our age of rape-culture culture, childless women and men might at night raise their eyes to the stars and ponder whether they have made a deal with the devil.

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[1] Genesis 13:16, 15:5, 22:17, 26:4, Exodus 32:13, 1 Chronicles 27:23.

[2] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 1.26, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), my English translation benefiting from those of McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) and Archambault (1996). All story details and quotes are from Monodiae 1.26 and are similarly sourced.

The ancient Greco-Roman understanding of libation included tasting. In the Christian mass, the priest offers wine as a sacrifice that becomes the blood of Christ. The priest then first drinks a small amount of it and in turn invites the congregation to do the same.

[3] Cf. Hebrews 7:17, “You are a priest in eternity in the order of Melchizedek {Vulgate: tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech}.” The church leader who defrocked the monk-priest was Anselm of Bec, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. No case record for this case has survived in Anselm’s papers.

[image] Dr. Faust. Oil on canvas painting by Jean-Paul Laurens, c. 1900. Preserved in Rio Grande do Sul Museum of Art (Porto Alegre, Brazil). Via Wikimedia Commons.


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.

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.

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