12.11.21, Mcalhany, Guibert of Nogent: Monodies and On the Relics of Saints

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Scott G. Bruce

The Medieval Review 12.11.21

Mcalhany, Joseph and Jay Rubenstein. Guibert of Nogent: Monodies and On the Relics of Saints. The Autobiography and a Manifesto of a French Monk from the Time of the Crusades. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books, 2011. Pp. xxxix, 395. ISBN: 978-0-14-310630-2.

Reviewed by:
Scott G. Bruce
University of Colorado at Boulder

Nobody knows Guibert of Nogent better than Jay Rubenstein. Most medievalists first encountered this prolific twelfth-century author during college through John Benton's translation of his most accessible work, the Monodies, which appeared in 1970 as Self and Society in Medieval France: The Memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent (1064-ca.1125). As Benton's title suggests, Guibert's uneven, yet often riveting, account of his own upbringing and life in the church provides a window not only onto the personal and spiritual development of a Christian prelate in the aftermath of the Gregorian Reform, but also onto the social world of northern Europe in the decades around 1100. Still, Guibert garnered very little attention from historians until the publication in 2002 of Rubenstein's monograph Guibert of Nogent: Portrait of a Medieval Mind, which was the first modern study to examine in tandem the many texts composed by this abbot in order to identify and understand the common strands of thought braided through the whole of his surviving oeuvre. [1] In the volume under review, Rubenstein and Joseph McAlhany provide new translations of two of Guibert's most important compositions, the Monodies and On the Relics of the Saints, along with a short introduction to this author's life and works.

Guibert's Monodies (c. 1115) is a much more complicated composition than it first appears to be. Divided into three books, this work is part memoir, part history of cities and events in northern Europe, and part unrestrained digression on a variety of themes. Book I presents the author's upbringing, his relationship with his parents, relatives, teachers and patrons, and his personal struggles with lust, pride and self-loathing. It relates the story of his life from his childhood to his entry into the abbey of Saint- Germer-de-Fly to his election in 1104 as abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy. It ends with a series of digressions, most of which are moral tales about the failings of monks. A very short Book II provides a history of the city of Nogent, with a brief aside concerning the death of Guibert's mother. Book III abandons all discussion of the author's personal life and relates instead, in vivid detail, the urban destruction and horrible violence that resulted from the communal uprising in the city of Laon in the spring of 1112. The Monodies has often been called the first work of autobiography written in Latin since the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo (c. 400). Aside from the fact that both works are unusually self- referential they do not merit such close comparison (cf. ix). As many historians have shown, Augustine's work is not primarily about Augustine at all; it is about Augustine's God. [2] The "autobiographical" narrative of the early books of the Confessions cannot be fully grasped without the final epistomological chapters on the meaning of Scripture, creation and redemption. In contrast, while Guibert's insights into his upbringing and his theories about the workings of the human mind in Book I are fascinating in their own right, they are not easily wedded to the narrative of unrest, murder and destruction that he relates in Book III. In short, Guibert's work lacks both the internal coherence and the incantatory power of Augustine's Confessions. Literary comparisons aside, Guibert's Monodies does offer an unparalled account of the anxieties attendant with the implementation of the Gregorian Reform among church prelates and the explosive tensions surrounding the rise of urban commerce and social reorganization in northern Europe in this period.

The second work translated here, Guibert's On the Relics of the Saints (c. 1119), is just as complex and enigmatic as his Monodies. This is first and foremost a polemical treatise, in which Guibert openly ridicules the boast of the rival abbey of Saint- M├ędard of Soissons to possess a baby tooth of Christ. But the work is also full of digressions on the abuse of the cult of relics by greedy prelates, the nature of Christological relics and their relationship to the Eucharist, and the role of material objects in general in the quest for communion with God. As Rubenstein points out in his introduction, Guibert's disdain of dubious relics has made it easy for readers to view him as "a Counter-Reformation apologist or a proto- modern mind" (xvii). But as Rubenstein notes, Guibert did not disavow the miraculous in principle. Rather, what bothered him most were "pointless wonderworks perpetrated through obvious fraud and spread by clerics mainly anxious to collect cash" (xvii). The translation of this treatise is particularly welcome, because it has never before appeared in English in its entirety, and its topic is directly relevant both to the study of relics--always a subject of interest to historians of medieval religion--and to the more general "material turn" in recent medieval scholarship. [3]

Translations of important works of medieval history and literature in the Penguin Classics series are always a cause for celebration and this volume is no exception. The translations of these two texts by Guibert of Nogent are clear, accurate, and accessible to North American undergraduates. The introduction to the volume does a good job of presenting the author and his intellectual mileau, but scholars will want to visit (or revisit) Rubenstein's monograph for a more sustained and nuanced treatment of the relationship between Guibert's compositions. If I have one complaint about the volume, it is the tendency of the introduction to over-emphasize the importance of Guibert's work. The abbot of Nogent was indeed a prolific author, but I cannot agree that any of his texts represents an achievement "comparable to Anselm of Bec's demonstration of God's existence in the Proslogion, or to Bernard of Clairvaux's monumental series of sermons on the Song of Songs" (viii). His contemporaries evidently did not think so either. The Monodies only survives in an early modern exemplar; On the Relics of the Saints in a single autograph manuscript of the twelfth century. In short, there is no evidence to suggest that Guibert's writings had any lasting impact on his contemporaries or any postumous legacy until the discovery of his work by the Maurists in the seventeenth century. Moreover, the introduction could have done more to help the reader to understand the contradictions between these two works. How are we to reconcile Guibert's narrative of a relic translation as a pious event in the Monodies with the criticism of the same kind of ritual voiced only a few years later in On the Relics of the Saints? Finally, students in particular would have benefitted from a bit more guidance regarding the respective genres of these texts and what pitfalls to avoid while reading them. The claim that "[his] books speak for themselves" (viii) is not very helpful in this regard; they are both very complex and require a good deal of elucidation to make them intelligible, especially for the uninitiated. The value of these translations for those of us who teach upper-division courses on the history of medieval religion or the so-called Renaissance of the Twelfth Century is not in question, however. This volume is a very welcome addition to the Penguin Classics series and I look forward to using it in the classroom.



1. Jay Rubenstein, Guibert of Nogent: Portrait of a Medieval Mind (New York and London: Routledge, 2002).

2. See, for example, Paula Fredriksen, "The Confessions as Autobiography," in A Companion to Augustine, ed. Mark Vessey with the assistance of Shelley Reid (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), pp. 87-98, with references to earlier literature; and Gary Wills, Augustine's Confessions: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

3. See, most recently, Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (New York: Zone Books, 2011).

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Author Biography

Scott G. Bruce

University of Colorado at Boulder