Guibert de Nogent

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the web site of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Book One


To Thy Majesty, O God, I acknowledge my endless wanderings from Thy paths, my turning back so oft to the bosom of Thy eternal mercy, prompted by Thee in spite of all. The wickedness I did in childhood and in youth, I acknowledge, wickedness that yet springs up in ripened age, my ingrained love of crookedness, that in a body sluggish and worn yet lives on. Whenever I call to mind, O Lord, my persistence in unclean things and in what manner Thou didst vouchsafe remorse for the same, I am amazed at the long-suffering of Thy compassion beyond all that man may conceive. If repentance and a prayerful mind may not be, but by the entrance of Thy Spirit, how dost Thou so graciously suffer these to creep into the hearts of sinners and grant so much favour to those that turn away from Thee, ay, even to those who provoke Thee to wrath? Thou knowest Great Fatherhood, all too well, how stubbornly we set our hearts against those who incur our anger and how hardly we are appeased towards those that have often given us fierce words or looks.

But Thou art good, ay, goodness itself and the very fount of goodness. And since Thine aid cometh to all in general, shalt Thou not have power also to succour each single being? Why not? When the world lay in ignorance of God, when it was wrapped in darkness and the shadow of death, when, as night went on its course, a universal silence prevailed, by whose merit, by whose cry could Thy Almighty Word be summoned to come forth from Thy royal seat? But since Thou, when all mankind gave no heed to Thee, couldst not even then be turned from pity on them, no wonder that Thou shouldst show Thy compassion on one single sinner, great sinner though he be ! 'Tis not for me to say that by men severally Thy pity is more easily won than by men in general, for in either case there is no halting in Thy willingness, because with Thee than willingness itself there can be nothing more willing. Since Thou art the fountain, and since Thou owest to all what flows forth from Thee, manifestly Thou dost not withhold from any, what belongs to all.

Ever therefore sinning, and between sins, ever, returning to Thee, fleeing from truth and traitor to it, when I turn back to goodness, shall goodness destroy itself and, overcome by manifold offences, shall it then become estranged? Is it not said of Thee that in Thy wrath Thou will not withhold Thy mercy? The same psalmist sings that this mercy shall abide both now and for ever. Thou knowest that I do not sin because I see that Thou art merciful, but I fearlessly avow that therefore art Thou called merciful, because Thou dost offer pardon to all who seek for it. I do not abuse Thy mercy whenever I am driven to sin by the necessity of sinning; but impious indeed would be the abuse of it, if, because return to Thee after sin is so easy, sin's waywardness should ever give me joy. I sin, 'tis true; but when reason returns, I repent that I have yielded to the lust of my heart when my soul, with unwilling heaviness, sinks as on a dunghill for its bed.

But between times, after the sorrow each day of recovery from a fall, what was I to do? Is it not far wiser to climb up in Thee, for a time only, to take breath in Thee even for a moment, than to forget all healing and to despair of grace? And what but despair is it of set purpose to wallow in every sort of shame? For when the spirit no longer strives with the flesh, the very substance of the unhappy soul is squandered away on pleasure. It is as one plunged in stormy waters, swallowed up by the abyss and driven over the mouth of the pit to the heaping up of a reprobate mind.

While therefore, Holy God, my wits, recovering from the drunkenness of my inner being, come back to Thee, although at other times I go not forward, yet at least meanwhile I turn not away from knowledge of myself. For how could I catch even a glimpse of Thee, if my eyes were blind to see myself? Surely, if, as Jeremiah saith, I am a man that hath seen my affliction, it follows that I should shrewdly search for those things by which my want may be supplied. And, contrariwise, if I understand not what is good, how shall I know evil, much less forswear it? If I know not beauty, I shrink not from foulness. Since therefore I am doubly resolved to seek knowledge of Thee through knowledge of myself and enjoying that not to fail in self-knowledge, it is a worthy act and singularly for my soul's good that the darkness of my understanding should be dispersed through these confessions with the searching rays of Thy 1ight cast ofttimes upon it, by which being lastingly illuminated it may for ever know itself. . . .


Now after birth I had hardly learnt to cherish my rattle when Thou, Gracious God, henceforth my Father, didst make me an orphan. For when almost eight months had passed, the father of my flesh died: for that great thanks to Thee, who didst cause that man to depart in a Christian state, who would undoubtedly have endangered, had he lived, the provision Thou hadst made for me. For because my person, and a certain natural quickness for one of such tender age, seemed to fit me for worldly pursuits, no one doubted that when the proper time came for beginning my education he would break the vow which he had made for me. O Gracious Disposer, for the well-being of both didst Thou dispose that I should by no means lose instruction in Thy discipline and that he should not break his solemn promise for me.

And so with great care did the widow, truly Thine, bring me up, and at last choose the day of the festival of the Blessed Gregory for putting me to school. She had heard that that servant of Thine, O Lord, had been eminent for his wonderful understanding and had abounded in extraordinary wisdom Therefore she strove with bountiful almsgiving to win the good word of Thy Confessor, that he to whom Thou hadst granted understanding, might procure for me a zeal for the pursuit of knowledge. Put, therefore, to my book, I had learnt the alphabet, but hardly yet to join letters into syllables, when my good mother, eager for my instruction, arranged to pass me on to grammar.

There was a little before that time, and in a measure there is still in my time, such a scarcity of grammarians that in the towns hardly anyone, and in the cities very few, could be found, and those who by good hap could be discovered, had but slight knowledge and could not be compared with the itinerant clerks of these days. And so the man in whose charge my mother decided to put me, had begun to learn grammar late in life and was the more unskilled in the art through having imbibed little of it when young. Yet of such sobriety was he, that what he wanted in letters, he made up for in honesty.

My mother, therefore, through chaplains conducting divine service in her house, approached this teacher, who was in charge of the education of a young cousin of mine, being a kinsman of his parents and boarded in their house. He, taking into consideration the woman's earnest request and favourably impressed by her honourable and virtuous character, although afraid to give offence to those kinsmen of mine, was in doubt whether to come into her house. Whilst thus undecided, he was persuaded by the following vision:

At night when he was sleeping in his room, where I remember, the whole of the teaching of our town was conducted, the figure of a white-headed old man, of very dignified appearance, holding me by the hand, seemed to lead me in by the door of the room. Halting within hearing, whilst the other looked on, he pointed out his bed to me and said, " Go to him, for he will love you very much.'' And when he, loosing my hand, let me go, I ran to the man and, as I kissed him again and again on the face, he awoke and conceived such an affection for me, that putting aside all hesitation, and shaking off all fear of my kinsfolk, on whom not only he, but all that belonged to him, were dependent, he agreed to go to my mother and live in her house.

Now that same boy, whom he had been educating so far, was handsome and of good birth, but with a dislike for virtuous conduct and unsteady under all instruction, a liar and a thief, as far as his age would allow, so that under an ineffective guardianship he was hardly ever in school, but could be found playing truant almost every day in the vineyards. But my mother's friendly advances being made to him at the moment when the man was tired of the boy's childish folly, and the meaning of the vision fixing still deeper in his heart what he already desired, he gave up his companionship of the boy and left the noble family with whom he was living. This, however, he would not have done with impunity, had not their respect for my mother, as much as her power, protected him.


Placed under him I was taught with such purity and checked with such honesty in the excesses which are wont to spring up in youth, that I was kept well-guarded from the common wolves and never allowed to leave his company, or to eat anywhere than at home, or to accept gifts from anyone without his leave; in everything I had to shew self-control in word, look or act, so that he seemed to require of me the conduct of a monk rather than a clerk. For whereas others of my age wandered everywhere at will and were unchecked in the indulgence of such inclinations as were natural to their age, I, hedged in with constant restraints, would sit and look on in my clerical chasuble [l] at the troops of players like a beast awaiting sacrifice.

Note: [1] Clericaliter infulatus, -Infula in medieval Latin is used sometimes for a mitre, sometimes for a chasuble. In classical Latin it is the fillet with which the victim for sacrifice was adorned. There is a play on the two meanings of the word. The sense obviously requires the emendation of peritum to periturum.

Even on Sundays and Saints' Days I had to submit to the severity of school exercises; on no day, and hardly at any time, was I allowed to take holiday in fact, in every way and at all times I was driven to study. But he, on the other hand, gave himself up solely to my education, being allowed to have no other pupil.

And whilst he was working me so hard, and anyone looking on might suppose my little mind was being exceedingly sharpened by such driving, the hopes of all were being defeated. For he was utterly unskilled in prose and verse composition. Meantime I was pelted almost every day with a hail of blows and hard words, whilst he was forcing me to learn what he could not teach.

With him in this fruitless struggle I passed nearly six years, but got no reward worth the expenditure of time. Yet otherwise in all that is supposed to count for good training in the behaviour of a gentleman, he spared no effort for my improvement. Most faithfully and lovingly did he steep me in all that was temperate and pure and outwardly refined. But I clearly perceived that at my expense he had no consideration and restraint in urging me on without intermission and at much pains under show of teaching. For by the strain of undue application, the natural powers of grown men, as well as of boys, are blunted and the hotter the fire of their mental activity in unremitting study, the sooner is the strength of their understanding weakened and chilled by excess and its energy turned to sloth.

It is necessary, therefore, to treat the mind with greater moderation whilst it is still burdened with its bodily covering; for if there is stillness in heaven for half an hour, so that even the gift of contemplation cannot be unresting whilst it goes on, so, too, the intellect, when wrestling with some problem, will not without rest maintain what I may call its obstinacy. Hence we believe that when the mind has been fixed exclusively on one subject, we ought to give it relaxation from its intensity, so that after dealing by alternation with different subjects we may return with renewed energy, as after a holiday, to that one with which our minds are most engaged. In short, let wearied nature at times get refreshment by varying its work. Let us remember that God has not made the world without variety, but in day and night, spring and summer, winter and autumn, has delighted us by changes in the seasons. Let everyone, therefore, who has the name of master, see in what manner he may regulate the teaching of boys, and young men too, for we consider that those who have the full rigour of earnestness such as you see in older men, must be treated in the same way.

Now the love that this man had for me was of a savage sort and excessive severity was shewn by him his unjust floggings; and yet the great care with Which he guarded me was evident in his acts. Clearly I did not deserve to be beaten, for if he had had the skill in teaching which he professed, it is certain that I was, for a boy, well able to grasp anything that he taught correctly. But because his elocution was by no means pleasing and what he strove to express was not at all clear to himself, his talk rolled ineffectively on and on in a commonplace, but by no means obvious, circle, which could not be brought to any conclusion, much less understood. For so uninstructed was he that he retained incorrectly what he had, as I have said before, once badly learnt late in life, and if he let anything slip out (incautiously, as it were), he maintained and defended it with blows, regarding all his own opinions as certainly true; but I think he would certainly have been spared such folly . . . for before, says the same teacher, a man's nature has absorbed knowledge, he may win greater praise by keeping silence on that he knows not than by telling of what he knows.

Whilst, then, he took cruel vengeance on me for not knowing what he knew not himself, he ought certainly to have considered that it was very wrong to demand from a weak little mind what he had not put into it. For as the words of madmen can with difficulty, or not at all, be understood by the sane, so the talk of those who know not, but say that they know, and pass it on to others, will be darkened the more by their own explanation. You will find nothing more difficult than trying to discourse of what you do not understand, which is bewildering to the teacher, but more to the pupil, making both look like blockheads. This I say, O my God, not to put a stigma on such a friend, but for every reader to understand that we should not attempt to teach as a certainty every assertion we make, and that we should not involve others also in the mists of our own conjectures. For it has been my purpose, in consideration of the poorness of my matter, to give it some flavour by reasoning about things, that if the one deserves to be reckoned of little value, the other may be regarded sometimes as worth while.


Although, therefore, he crushed me by such severity, yet in other ways he made it quite plain that he loved me as well as he did himself. With such watchful care did he devote himself to me, with such foresight did he secure my welfare against the spite of others and teach me on what authority I should be ware of the dissolute manners of some who paid court to me, and so long did he argue with my mother about the elaborate richness of my dress, that he was regarded as exercising the guardianship not of a master, but of a parent, and not over my body only, but my soul, too. As for me, considering the dull sensibility of my age and my littleness, great was the love I conceived for him in response, in spite of the many weals with which he marked my tender skin so that not through fear, as is common in those of my age but through a sort of love deeply implanted in my heart, I obeyed him in utter forgetfulness of his severity. Certainly this same master and my mother, when they saw me paying to both alike due respect, tried by frequent tests to see whether I should dare to prefer one or the other on a definite issue.

At last, without any intention on the part of either, an opportunity occurred for a test which left no room for doubt. Once I had been beaten in school- the school being no other than the dining­hall in our house, for he had given up the charge of others to take me alone, my mother having wisely required him to do this for a higher emolument and a better position. When, therefore, at a certain hour in the evening, my studies, such as they were, had come to an end, I went to my mother's knees after a more severe beating than I had deserved. And when she, as she was wont, began to ask me repeatedly whether I had been whipped that day, I, not to appear a tell­tale, entirely denied it. Then she, whether I liked it or not, threw off the inner garment which they call a vest or shirt and saw my little arms blackened and the skin of my back everywhere puffed up with the cuts from the twigs. And being grieved to the heart by the very savage punishment inflicted on my tender body, troubled, agitated and weeping with sorrow, she said: " You shall never become a clerk, nor any more suffer so much to get learning." At that I, looking at her with what reproach I could, replied: " If I had to die on the spot, I would not give up learning my book and becoming a clerk." Now she had promised that if I wished to become a knight, when I reached the age for it, she would give me the arms and equipment.

But when I had, with a good deal of scorn declined all these offers, she, Thy servant, O Lord, accepted this rebuff so gladly, and was made so cheerful by my scorn of her proposal, that she repeated to my master the reply with which I had opposed her. Then both rejoiced that I had such an eager longing to fulfil my father's vow, whilst I, the more quickly to acquire learning, badly as I was taught, did not shirk the church offices, nay, when the hour tempted or there was need, I did not prefer even my meals to such place and occasion. Then indeed it was so: but Thou, O God, knowest how much I afterwards fell away from that zeal, how reluctantly t went to divine services, hardly consenting even when driven to them with blows. Clearly the impulses that constrained me then, were not religious feelings begotten by thoughtfulness, but only a child's eagerness. But after the bloom of youth was gone through conception of wickedness within, rushing on to loss of shame, then that older zeal entirely faded away. Although for a brief space, my God, good resolve, nay, the semblance of good resolve, seemed to shine forth, it was soon fated to die away overshadowed by the storm clouds of evil imaginations. . . .


Why say more? Whilst she, as I have described, was thus divorcing herself from the world, I was left deserted by mother, guide and master For he who had so faithfully trained and taught me, fired by my mother's example, love and counsel, betook himself to the monastery of Fly. And I, now possessed of a baneful liberty, began most immoderately to abuse my power, to laugh at churches, to hate school, to love the company of my young lay cousins devoted to knightly pursuits, and, whilst cursing the clerk's garb, to promise remission of sins, to indulge in sleep in which formerly I was allowed little relaxation, so that by unaccustomed excess of it my body began to waste. Meantime the agitating news of my doings fell on my mother's ears, and surmising from what she heard, my immediate ruin, she was half­dead with fear. For the fine clothing which I had in the church processions, provided by her in the hope that I might be the more eager for the clerk's life, I wore everywhere in wanton pursuits natural at my age, rivalling the boldness of older youths, utterly careless and intemperate

Whilst therefore the looseness, ay, the madness of my behaviour was all the worse, because I had lived before a strict and guarded life, my mother, unable to endure what she heard, had recourse to the Abbot and begged him and the brotherhood that my master might be al lowed to resume my training. The Abbot, brought up by my grandfather and under obligation for benefits received from his house, gave me a ready welcome, when I went to him, and followed up his kind reception with still kinder treatment thereafter. I call Thee to witness, Holy God and Disposer, that from the moment I entered the monastery church and so soon as I saw the monks sitting there, at that sight a longing for the monk's life seized me, which never grew cold, and my spirit had no rest until its desire was fulfilled. And so living with them in the same cloister and thinking on their whole existence and condition, as the flame increases when fanned by the wind, so by contemplation of them my soul yearning to be made like unto them, could not but be on fire. Lastly I was urged by the Abbot of the place by entreaties daily repeated to become a monk there, and although I passionately desired so to do, yet could not my tongue be loosed by the prayer of those who desired me to make such a promise and what would be most difficult now that I am older, to be silent with a full heart, yet boy as I was, that silence I kept without much difficulty.

At length I opened the matter to my mother, and she fearing the instability of boyhood, tried by reasoning to dissuade me from my purpose, which made me not a little sorry I had revealed my intention; and when I also told my master, he opposed it still more. Deeply annoyed at the opposition of both, I determined to turn my mind elsewhere; and so I began to act as if I had never had such a desire. Having put the matter off from the week of Pentecost until Christmas day, and being both eager and anxious to bring the matter to an end, I impatiently threw off my respect for my mother and my fear of my master, and betaking myself to the Abbot, who was eager for this to happen but had failed to draw any promise from me, I cast myself at his feet, begging him earnestly and with tears in such terms as a sinner would use, to be received by him. He gladly granting my prayer provided the necessary habit, as soon as he could, that is, on the next day, and invested me with it, my mother in tears looking on afar off, and ordered that alms should forthwith be offered that day.

Meanwhile my former master, not being able to teach me any longer because of the strict rule of the brotherhood, at least took care to urge me to search diligently those holy books which I was reading, to study those less known by more learned men, to compose short pieces of prose and verse, warning me to apply myself the more closely because less care was being expended by others on my instruction. And, O Lord, True Light, I well remember the inestimable bounty Thou didst then bestow on me. For so soon as I had taken Thy habit at Thy invitation, a cloud seemed to be removed from the face of my understanding and that wherein I had wandered blindly and in error, began to be apprehended by it. Besides I was suddenly inspired with such love of learning that for this above all I yearned and thought the day was lost on which I did not engage in some such work. How often did they think me asleep and resting my little body under the coverlet, when my mind was concentrated on composition, or I was reading under a blanket, fearful of the rebuke of the others.

And Thou, Holy Jesus, knowest with what motive I so acted, chiefly to win glory, that greater honour in this present world might be mine. My very friends wrought certain harm to me, for although they gave me good advice, yet oft they plied me with talk of fame and literary distinction and, through these, the winning of rank and wealth. And so they put into my short sighted mind, hopes worse than the egg of asps, and as I believed that all their promises would quickly come to pass, they only mocked me with the vainest expectations. For, whereas they spoke of things that might befall in the fulness of age I was counting on their certain attainment in youth or early manhood. They forsooth set before me the getting of knowledge, which by Thy gift was daily growing up in me, with the worldly advantages of birth and a handsome person, but they remembered not Thy command that by such steps a man may not climb to Thy altar, for thus is baseness wont to be revealed. For he that climbeth by any other way, is a thief and a robber, which is baseness.

But in these beginnings of mine under Thy inspiration, had its wisdom been of another sort, my mind might have been prepared for temptation; in truth my wisdom at that time was in a manner only foolishness. Childish indeed as were my stirrings then to joy or fear, would that I now so feared Thy judgments, O Lord, so hated my great sins, as then I did those that were little, or scarcely sins at all. I did indeed with much eagerness strive to imitate those whom I saw weeping bitterly for their sins, and whatever came of Thee, was dear to my sight and hearing. And I, who now search the Scriptures to find matter for display and mere words, and even store in my mind the ill­famed works of pagan writers to make mere babbling, in those days got from them tears and cause for sorrow, and thought my reading vain, if I found in it no matter for meditation, nothing leading to repentance, so unwisely

But that old Foe, who by ages of experience has learnt exactly how to deal with the varying conditions of heart and age, he, I say, according to the measure of my little mind and body, conceived for me new conflicts. For by presenting to my gaze in sleep many visions of dead men, chiefly those whom I had seen or heard of as slain with swords or by some such death, he so terrified my spirit, when relaxed in sleep, by such sights that but for the watchful protection of that master of mine, I could not be kept in my bed, or from calling out, or even from losing my wits. And although this trouble may seem childish and ridiculous to those who have not felt it, by those who are oppressed by it, it is regarded as a great calamity, so that fear itself, by most men thought foolish, can by no reasoning, no counsel, be held in check, and whereas the sufferer himself values not a straw that which he suffers, the spirit, when once for a brief moment plunged in sleep, cannot by its mastery shake off the horrid sights, nay, his soul deeply disturbed by its terrors, dreads the return of sleep itself. To this emotion crowds or solitude are the same, the company of others being no defence against fear, whilst dwelling alone makes it worse or leaves it as bad as before.

Far different, Lord God, was my condition then from my present state; then certainly I lived in great fear of Thy law and in unbounded loathing of all sin, and eagerly I drank in all that could be said or heard or known from Thee. I know, Heavenly Father, that by such aspirations of the child the devil was savagely enraged, later, alas, to be appeased by the surrender of all my pious fervour. Hence one night, when awake with wretched grief-in winter, I believe-I was lying in my bed, seeming to be safer with a lamp close by that gave a bright light, when suddenly and close by, from above, I thought, there arose a shouting of many voices in the dead of the night, and a voice without words, but full of woe. Thereupon, dizzy with the shock, I was rapt from my senses and fell on sleep, in which I thought I saw a dead man, who, some one cried out, had been killed at the baths. Crying out with the terror of the phantasy, I leapt from my bed, and looking round, as I leapt, I saw the lamp extinguished and in the midst of a cloud of gathering darkness fell on my eyes, a devil in his own shape standing near. At that horrible sight I should have gone almost mad, had not my master, who was usually on guard to control my terrors, adroitly soothed my perturbed and wandering wits.

It was not unknown to me even in the tender years of childhood that the desire for a right mind then burning in my heart, enraged the devil in no small measure to stir up wretchedness in me. Gracious God, what victories, what crown for victories should I have won now, had I stood fast to the end in that struggle ! By many conclusions drawn from tales I have heard, I find that devils are most fiercely embittered against recent converts or those who continually aspire to a godly life. Hence I remember that in the time of Guy, the Bishop of Beauvais aforesaid, there was a certain young knight in his household, for whom the Bishop had a special affection above almost all his retainers. This man repenting with horror of his vices, resolved at all costs to fly from contact with the world. Whilst torn with anxious thought on his strange condition, one night he was sleeping in the Bishop's dormitory and with him were one Ivo, a native, I believe, of St. Quintin and a god­fearing man, another a distinguished scholar even more famous for his eloquence, besides a monk of Cluny, who under the Abbot Hugh of blessed memory, filled in that place the office of Prior, with certain others of holy life and good birth, all sleeping there, as well as the Bishop. And one of the nobles of a neighbouring town, a very courtly and discreet man, lay awake whilst the rest slept in the dead of the night. And as his thoughts wandered at will and his eyes roved hither and thither, behold the figure of a tall devil with a small head and a hunched back appeared advancing, who looking at each of the beds in turn proceeded to walk right round the room. And when the great Deceiver came to the bed of the young man, whom I mentioned as being most beloved by the Bishop, he halted and turning his gaze on the sleeper, said: " This fellow with his uneasy mind troubles me more than all the rest who sleep here." Saying that and directing his steps to the door of the rere­dorter he entered therein.

Now he who was looking on, whilst noticing all this, was oppressed with such a burden as made speech or movement impossible. But when the Adversary went out, both faculties returned to him and in the morning, on relating his vision to the wiser men and enquiring with them into the condition and disposition of that young man, he found that his heart was earnestly set on entering a holier life. If therefore there is joy in heaven over one sinner that is converted more than over the ninety and nine good men that need no repentance, without doubt we may fully believe that the enemies of the human race are vexed with the most bitter hatred at the rescue of those who change for the better. And just as I, who began so well, am in my later stages so desperately bad, so he, after the devil's testimony to him, henceforward gradually fell away and grew cold, returning to his worldly cares; yet one may believe how painfully that sudden stirring of our good intentions must sting the hearts of devils. And no wonder that the Devil is grieved by the sudden though barren aspirations of any penitent, when the shallow self­abasement of that wicked king Ahab turned upon him the regard of God before the regard of men. Hence the Lord of Elijah, if I am not mistaken, said, " Hast thou not seen the abasement of Ahab before me? Because therefore he has been abased because of me, I will not bring evil in his day."


Now with the gradual growth of my little body, as its carnal life began to stir my itching heart with fleshly longings and lusts according to its stature, my mind oft fell to remembering and thinking on what and how great I might have been in the world, in which my imaginings often travelled beyond the truth. These thoughts, Gracious God, Thou didst reveal to Thy servant, my mother. Whatsoever the state, healthy or diseased, to which my unstable heart changed, thereafter there came to her in a vision by Thy will, O God, an image of the same. But whereas dreams are said to follow upon much care, and that is verily true, yet her cares were not aroused by the heat of greed, but were created by a real eagerness for inward holiness. Soon therefore when the troubling vision was impressed on her pious mind, as she was very subtle and clear sighted in the interpretation of such matters, soon, I say, when she had perceived that this trouble was betokened by her dream, she summoned me and in private questioned me how and what I was doing. And since I was in such submission to her that my will was one with hers, I readily confessed all those things which I had heard as in a dream, into which my mind seemed to relax and fall, and after her counsel concerning amendment, I at once gave her my promise with true affection.

O my God, oft did she declare in dark sayings that state in which I now am, and what she believed I had done or must do in that earlier condition, that I now experience every day and see it filling up the secret places of my heart. Nay, even my master himself with the same ever-present anxiety, enlightened by Thee, saw through many kinds of phantoms what was happening at the time and what might come to pass in the future. By God's goodness therefore in alarming, and again in comforting me, adversity and success were foretold, so that whether I would or not, I refrained from secret vice, because by Thy wonderworking so much was revealed to those who loved me; and sometimes I rejoiced in the promise of a better hope.

Now at a time when I was swayed by a spirit of sullenness by reason of the envy which I endured from my superiors and equals, I was eager with the aid of my kin to be transferred to other monasteries. For some of our brotherhood, seeing me once far below them both in age and learning, in ability and understanding, and afterwards perceiving that I equalled them, or, if I may say so, altogether surpassed them through His gift alone who is the key of all knowledge instilling into my heart a hunger for learning, with such rage did their wrathful wickedness blaze forth against me, that, wearied with everlasting disputes and quarrels, I often regretted I had ever seen or known letters. Certainly my work was so much upset by them and so many brawls started, when occasion arose, about those letters by their constant questions, that they seemed to have this single object in view, to make me change my resolve and to embarrass my understanding. But as, when oil is poured on a fire, it bursts into a livelier flame with that which was supposed to put it out, the more that, like an oven, the capacity of my mind was overtaxed in such labours, the better it became, rendered stronger by its own heat. The questions by which they thought to crush me, gave exceeding keenness to my intelligence, and the difficulty of their objections, through much pondering to find answers and the turning over of various books, begat a strengthening of my wits and ability in debate. And so, although I was thus bitterly hated by them, yet Thou knowest, O Lord, how little, if at all, I hated them, and when they could not, as they wished, put any stigma upon me, they everywhere affirmed in disparagement that I was too proud of my little learning.

Amid these annoyances that I took very hardly, although by difficulties of this sort was begotten abundant good, yet my spirit grew weak, languishing under the endless torture of its thoughts. With fearful heart and failing powers of reason I began to consider what profit there was in hardship and eagerly decided to seek retreat whither my carnal weakness prompted me. When therefore I made my proposal that I should leave the place, not so much with the kindly permission of the Abbot, as at the suggestion and demand of my kinsfolk, the assent of my mother also being given in the belief that I was doing this from pious motives (for the place to which I wished to retire, was considered very holy), the following vision appeared to her to witness to the good and evil in me.

She thought she was in the church of that convent, that is, of Fly, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and looking more closely she saw it was naked and desolate, the monks too were not only ragged and covered with wrappers huge beyond belief, but all alike were shortened to a cubit in height like those called dwarfs. But because, where the treasure is, there is the heart also, and where the gaze is turned, there is love, after fixing a long look on me, she saw that I stood no higher than the rest and was covered with no better apparel. And as she was sorrowful at my plight and that of the church, behold a woman of surpassing beauty and majesty advanced through the midst of the church right up to the altar, followed by one like a young girl and having all the appearance of a respectful attendant upon her. Being very curious therefore to know who the lady was, she was told she was the Lady of Chartres. At once she interpreted this to mean the Mother of God, whose name and relics there are venerated throughout almost all the Latin world. Now going up to the altar she bent her knees in prayer; and that too did the noble attendant behind her. Then rising and stretching out her hand with much passion she said, " This church I founded, how can I suffer it to be deserted? " Thereupon the Standard­Bearer of Piety turning her tranquil gaze on me and pointing with her shining hand said, " I have brought him here and made him a monk, whom I will by no means suffer to be taken hence." These words in like manner the attendant repeated. No sooner had that powerful one spoken than in a moment all that ruin and waste was changed and became anew what it had been at first and the dwarf stature both of the rest and of myself was by the power that attended her command amended and made normal. After my mother looking into the future had given me an orderly narrative of this dream, I receiving it with much remorse and tears, so subdued the license of my wandering thoughts to the meaning of that welcome vision, that no longer was I drawn by a desire for another convent.

O Lady, Mother of Heaven, these and like commands after the horror of my sins and my countless revolts from thy love and service, gave me a handle for returning to thee, a song breaking forth from my heart, that the wide bosom of thy mercies cannot be closed against me even by mountains of ill deeds. . . . Ever shall I remember too, Lady of Heaven, that when, as a boy, I was eager to put on this habit, one night in a vision I was in a chapel dedicated to thee and I thought I was carried from it by two devils. And when they had taken me to the roof of the church, they fled away and let me go uninjured within the walls of that church. These things I oft recall, when I consider how little I amend, and often as I repeat those sins, adding to them sins worse than the very worst, with thee, most holy one, I take refuge to flee from the peril of despair, but not in abuse of too much hope or any hope at all.

For although I am ever sinning, compelled by my weakness, and not through pride's wilfulness, yet I no wise lose hope of amendment. Seven times indeed falleth the just man and riseth again If the number seven here stands, as it usually does, for an infinitely large number, then in however many ways a man falls by sin, if he has but a resolve to rise again to righteousness, however much his weak flesh trips him up, if he show but the grief of a penitent, he doth in no wise lose the name of a righteous man. For to what end do we cry aloud to God to bring us out of our distresses, but that the corruption of our nature condemns us, whether we will or no, to the service of sin? " I see it," says he, " bringing me into captivity to the law of sin, which is in my members, for the good that I would, I do not, but the evil that I would not, that I do," There is therefore a deep of certain evils, into which if a man come, then cometh contempt, and yet over other deeps cry is made unto God and the petitioner doubteth not that his voice is heard. There is indeed a scorn of despair begotten by excess of sinning, in which there is no standing, in which misery standeth not. There is lastly the deep out of which Jeremiah was drawn by a rope of rags, and although that be deep, yet farther on it hath bottom; for despite the loosening of the understanding by much sinning, yet reason gives some little check, that it be not swallowed up in the bottormless gulf never to return to a knowledge of all its iniquity.


[Note: Bland omits this chapter heading; Benton restored it]

Meantime having steeped my mind unduly in the study of verse­making, so as to put aside for such worthless vanities the serious things of the divine pages, under guidance of my folly I went so far as read the poems of Ovid and the Bucolics of Virgil and to aim at the airs and graces of a love poem in a critical treatise and in a series of letters. My mind therefore forgetting a proper severity and abandoning the modesty of a monk's calling, was led away by these enticements of a poisonous license, giving weight only to this whether some courtly phrase could be referred to some poet, with no thought how much the toil which I loved might hurt the aims of our holy profession. By love of it I was doubly taken captive, being snared by the wantonness of the sweet words I found in the poets and those which I poured forth myself and caught by immodest fleshly stirrings through thinking on these things and the like.

For since my unstable mind, unaccustomed now to hard thinking, spent itself on these trifles, no sound could come from my lips, but that which my thought prompted.

Hence it came to pass that, from the boiling over of the madness within me, I fell into certain obscene words and composed brief writings, worthless and immodest, in fact bereft of all decency. This having come to the knowledge of that master of mine, and he being much grieved thereat, it chanced that he fell asleep in the bitterness of his annoyance. And as he slept, there appeared to him the following vision. An old man with shining white hair, in fact that very one, I dare to say, who brought me to him at the beginning and had promised his love for me in the future, appeared to him and said with severity, " I wish you to give account to me for the writings that have been composed; but the hand which wrote them, is not his who wrote." When this had been related by my master, he and I gave much the same interpretation to the dream; for we sorrowed but with joy in Thy hope, O Lord, seeing Thy displeasure in that fatherly rebuke, and from the meaning of that vision taking some ground for trust that my frivolity would undergo a change to greater piety. For whereas the hand that wrote the letters, is said not to be his who wrote them, it is without doubt meant that it would not continue in such shameful doing. For it was mine and now is not, as it is written, " Change the wicked and they shall not be," and that which was mine in the practice of vice, when applied to the pursuit of virtue, became of no effect in that unworthy use of it. And yet Thou knowest, O Lord, and I confess, that at that time neither by fear of Thee, by shame, nor by respect for that holy vision was my life chastened. I put no check on that irreverence I had within me, and refrained not from the vain jests of frivolous writers. Hammering out these verses in secret and daring to show them to no one, or at least only to a few like myself, yet I read them out when I could, often inventing an author for them and I was delighted when those which I thought it inconvenient to acknowledge as mine, were praised by those who shared such studies, but whereas their author gained no praise by them, he had to be content with the enjoyment, or rather the shame of making them. But these acts, O Father, in Thine own good time Thou didst punish; for misfortune coming on me for such work, Thou didst fence in my wandering soul with much affliction and hold me down by bodily infirmity. Therefore did a sword pierce through even to my soul, while trouble touched my understanding.

And so, when the punishment of sin had brought understanding to my hearing, then at last the folly of useless study withered away, yet since I could not endure to be idle, and was compelled, as it were, to cast aside vain imaginings, with renewal of my spiritual being I turned to more profitable exercises. I began therefore all too late to pant for that knowledge that so oft had been instilled in me by many good teachers, to busy myself, that is, with commentaries on the Scriptures, frequently to study the works of Gregory, in which are best to be found the keys to that art, and according to the rules of ancient writers to treat the words of the prophets and the Gospels in their allegorical, their moral and even their mystical meaning. In this work I had to encourage me Anselm, the Abbot of Bec, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, an Italian from across the Alps the country of Augustus, a man of sublime example and holiness of life. Whilst still holding office as Prior in the aforesaid convent, he admitted me to his acquaintance and, utter child as I was in knowledge as well as age, he readily offered to teach me to manage the inner self, how to consult the laws of reason in the government of the body. He both before and during his abbacy, being a familiar visitor to the monastery welcomed for his piety and his teaching, bestowed on me so assiduously the benefits of his learning and with such ardour laboured at this, that it seemed as if I alone was the reason for his frequent visits.

He taught us then to divide the mind into three or four parts, to treat the whole of the operations of this inner mystery under sensation, will, reason and perception, showing that the first two, regarded by most and by myself as one and free from definite divisions, were not identical, which however can readily be shewn to be the same as either of those coming third or fourth. And after he had discussed certain chapters of the Gospels on this principle and most clearly explained the difference between will and sensation, which however it was plain he did not originates but got from books at hand, which did not so explicitly deal with these matters, I then began to imitate his methods in similar commentaries, so far as I could and everywhere in the Scriptures to examine carefully with all the energy of my mind anything that was morally in agreement with those ideas.

Hence it came to pass that on a day when I travelled with my Abbot to a certain convent in our province, I suggested to him as a man of great piety, that on coming to the chapter meeting, he should there preach a sermon; and he turned upon me what he was asked to do, exhorting and ordering me to do it in his place. Now the birth of Mary Magdalene is celebrated on that day. Therefore taking the subject of my discourse from the Book of Wisdom, I contented myself with that single word for the address that was required. " Wisdom," that is, " overcometh malice, reacheth from end to end and disposeth all things agreeably." When I had explained this with such oratory as I could, and had pleased my audience by the suitability of my language, the Prior of the church, no mean student of sacred literature within the limits of his understanding, in a friendly way asked me to write something which he might use for the matter of a sermon. Since therefore I knew that my Abbot would be annoyed by my writings, I approached him with caution and begged him to give me permission to please one whom he professed to love and as though I came straight from the man himself, but did not care much about it. Supposing therefore that I should write very briefly, he consented; then having snatched his consent from his mouth, I began to work at what I had in mind.

Now I had in mind to attempt a moral commentary on the beginning of Genesis, that is the Six Days. To the Commentary I prefixed a treatise of moderate length shewing how a sermon ought to be composed I followed up this preface with a figurative exposition at length of the six days with poor eloquence, but such as I was capable of. But when my Abbot saw that I was commenting on a chapter of that sacred history, he no longer took a reasonable view of the matter and when he with much anger warned me to put an end to these writings, I, seeing that such works only put thorns in his eyes, avoided both his presence and that of any who might report it to him, and completed my task in secret. For I made no notes in my tablets for the composition and writing of this or any other of my works, but committed them to the written page without alteration, as I thought them out. In that Abbot's time therefore my studies were carried on in complete secrecy. But when he was gone, finding my opportunity when the pastoral office was vacant, at last I attacked and quickly finished my work. This was contained in ten books arranged according to the above­mentioned four activities of the inner man and I so carried out the moral treatment in all of them that they went from beginning to end with absolutely no change in the order of the passages. Whether in this little work I helped any one, I know not, although I have no doubt that some learned men were pleased with it; but this is certain that I gained no little profit from it myself, insomuch as it saved me from idleness, that servant of vice.

Meantime I wrote a little book in chapters on various passages in the Gospels and the prophets, including some from the books of Numbers, Joshua and Judges, the completion of which I am putting off, because after finishing what I have in hand, I propose, if I am still alive and God prompts me, to engage at times in similar exercises In most of these I followed a figurative, in a few an allegorical treatment in the same manner as in Genesis. Moreover, in Genesis I gave my attention chiefly to morals, not that there was wanting matter for thought on the allegorical side, had I equally worked that out, but because in my opinion morals were in these times more important than allegory, when faith by God's help stands intact, but morals are universally debased by the many forms of vice, and because it was neither within my power nor my wish to enlarge my book to excessive length. . . .

Book Two


Aided by the growing strength of the Christian law, this church which, in the earliest times, had good rule, became under the name of the Mother of God a shining light to the world. Situated in the aforementioned town of Coucy it was closely surrounded by rich manors of great antiquity, and it became a venerated resort for crowds from the neighbouring districts. It was said also that whilst it was only a small place, it was frequently illumined by light from heaven and honoured by miracles; rightly so indeed, since it retained its humility, so rare a thing amongst men. Moreover, the lordship of the castle itself, under flourishing chiefs, was extended far and wide, and its nobles being endowed with much wealth and generosity, determined on the advice of the devotees of the place to hand it over to monks, induced by the fame of the church, the renown of its sanctity being in good odour everywhere. Since there was no expectation that the institution would grow much larger, as there were not sufficient revenues in hand for the support of much more than six monks, an attempt was made by unskilful and uninstructed persons to extend or build anew parts of the church. And since they had no architect or instructor of any skill in the building, the work done was very defective. At an age, therefore, when there was greater abundance than there is now, their treasure chest became filled with the gifts of the castle nobility, for these lords made it the first object of their bounty, bestowing on it of their best and a similar preference was shewn by others in their offerings. Then by the counsel of the brotherhood and their patrons, very fitting measures were taken to appoint as head of the convent, Henry, at that time Abbot of the Blessed Remigius, for a long time presiding over the monastery of Homblieres, a distinguished man indeed. He was famous neither for learning nor birth, but his pre­eminent qualities in the management of worldly business were equalled by the zeal of his godly care for the maintenance of its internal discipline. Presiding, therefore, over these three monasteries, from the abundance of the two richer ones he supplied the needs of the third, which was beginning to thrive. By the great liberality which he shewed towards that church, he made a rich occasion of its consecration, the church being dedicated by Helinandus, Bishop of Laon, a man abounding in wealth which he used in the foundation of churches, and very zealous in their adornment, and it was enriched by him with many privileges and by others with exemption from dues and splendid gifts.

But as this Abbot was of advanced age and had weak eyes, he devoted himself to the richer ones which could easily be governed by his own powers; the third, which could not be administered without toilsome strain, he decided to relinquish. And when he was arranging to entrust it to a nephew monk, and had invited the brothers in the church to do this, he failed to get what he wanted, but the choice (to the annoyance of the Abbot) fell on one who was then a young man, named Godfrey, a native of those parts and formerly a monk at le Mont St. Quintin, near Perona. When, therefore, he saw that the votes of the electors were being given to another man, he abandoned the place, which he had most worthily and with indulgent generosity maintained, and made legal surrender of it to him whom they had chosen.

After his election and advancement to the charge of that place, as he behaved with great caution and the people and nobles alike had both the will and the power to enrich the churches, much wealth in lands and revenues subsequently poured into this one. For the man knew how to adapt himself to the manners of the outside world, being courteous and liberal in his dealings with others and in the management of their legal business, in the details of which he spent much care on their behalf. And in fact at the time of which I spoke at the beginning of this book, men with a generous desire to found monasteries bestowed on them lands and money, spending their substance on such works more freely and gladly than their sons favour us now with good words. Since, therefore, in the monasteries lying around there was less zeal for religion than there should have been, whereas he and his monks seemed to be busy with such matters, as a tiny light in the midst of darkness, so the times were such as to throw a favourable light on the governing powers of the rulers and the obedient submission of the ruled, when compared with the same in other institutions.

And so he forbade any simony in that church in act or thought and debarring all purchase, admitted influence only, regarding the fact or name of such disgraceful barter as an accursed thing. And so since this man was considered shrewder than most of his abbots in legal business and was therefore better known in towns and cities, first there was talk of one of the richer abbacies for him and later measures were taken to get him a bishopric. At that time the Bishopric of Amiens had been vacant for nearly two years. Now, he had himself put forward as candidate an archdeacon of that city, whose election was desired by a certain party of the clergy and people. Then his worldly shrewdness and the fact that he was a monk, brought a demand for his own election, whilst seeking it for another, and under Richard, formerly the Bishop of Autil and now a legate of the Apostolic See in France at the time, who had summoned a Council at Troyes, he was appointed Bishop of Amiens and translated from Nogent.

There, at the height of his fame and success, in such general esteem that even the prelates who ranked above him, regarded him with special respect and, to be brief, everywhere venerated as the mirror of all religion, he suddenly attained either his desire or his dread, God knows which. But I have learnt that an inheritance eagerly desired at the outset, in the end may prove no blessing. His earlier career was attended with the usual plaudits and for years his fame had been his herald, but now it seemed that the bright flame of the man's splendour burned low and was even extinguished. When on the first day of his reception in the city he used an elevated place for a pulpit to address the people, he declared that in like manner he would always scale the heights, since he was unwilling that the words of the poet should ever be aptly applied to his failure:

" The mountains are in labour - an absurd little mouse shall be born."

These words, true prophecy of what would follow, sank into the minds of all. For his reputation, beginning rapidly to decline without any check to its decay, soon proved his performance to be far lower than his promise. But let us say no more of that, as I intend perhaps later....


Into the place which he left, filled by him with such capability and fitness, where, had he been content with what he had, he might have gone on living in the greatest happiness and independence, to this, as I said above, it was my lot to be chosen. Whether my election was against the will or by the suffrance of God, I know not; this only I fearlessly declare that neither by influence nor with my knowledge, nor through the power of my kinsfolk was the office sought for me. But however well the matter went in that respect, yet herein, that I was unknown to any of them and they to me, perhaps it was not so fortunate or right, as the reader of what follows, may think. For in coming to them I am not certain myself that, being a stranger to them and they to me, we might not have taken a dislike to one another for that very reason Some people did think so. This in other circumstances has happened and may happen, but that it did in this case is not a matter for conjecture. Now no one can doubt that acquaintance with a man and familiarity are wont to breed boldness, and boldness easily breaks out into rashness. And certainly we are wont to shew greater respect for those we do not know; still, when I entered upon that office, they by no means hid from me their innermost feelings, but by faithful confession so much did they reveal their hearts and by revealing them become one with me, that I who thought I had seen good monks elsewhere, had never known any to be compared with them in this respect.

Thou knowest, most merciful God, that I began this work not in the spirit of pride, but wishing to confess my wickedness, which I would most plainly acknowledge did I not fear to corrupt the minds of many of my readers by my horrible acts. I confess, I say, my wickedness and much more rightly Thy mercy that answered to the call not of my iniquity but of Thy grace within me. And if I happen to speak of anyone, I will set forth his character to shew Thy judgments and the final issues; for Thou knowest that in these works that are Thine and dedicated to Thee, I do not with pleasure utter words of defamation and hatred. Because, therefore, I have taken in hand to tell the tale of my fortunes and misfortunes for the help, it may be, of others, on the very day of my installation, a monk with a good knowledge of the divine page, and curious, I suppose, about my future, when they were preparing to meet me in procession, purposely opened the Gospels on the altar, meaning to take the first chapter that met his eye as an omen concerning me.

Now the book had been written by hand, not in pages but columns. In the middle, therefore, of the third column, his eye fixed on the passage which ran as follows: " The light of thy body is Thine eye." And so he tells the deacon who was to carry the Gospel before me in the procession, after kissing the silver image attached to the cover, to put his finger between the pages at the place which he had marked and suddenly opening the volume before me to note carefully where my look fell. He opened the book, therefore, on the outside of which he had, according to custom pressed his lips, and whilst he was guessing where my glance would fall I looked neither at the beginning nor the end of the page, but fixed my eyes steadily on that very verse. The monk who had guessed that this would be so and had seen me unwittingly do as he had expected, some days afterwards came and told me both what he had done and how my prompting had been wonderfully in harmony with his. O God, who lightest the lamp of all that believe in Thee, Thou knowest how Thou didst bestow on me the light of motive and how amid the troubles brought on me, my will towards them is good. And although through my fault, as far as depends on me, my heart is foul and wretched, yet Thou art not ignorant how much my soul yearns for the well-being of those whom Thou didst put under me. In such measure as I think on my evils, so much am I cheered by the good that has smiled upon their works. For I know that I have the freer access to the throne of Thy grace, in so far as I have shewn myself gracious to the desires of men of goodwill.

Being instituted, therefore, by them and brought before the assembled chapter, I preached a sermon on that prophetic passage and as it was the Sunday in Christmas week when Isaiah is read, I said: " Isaiah the prophet said what you have just heard, ' A man shall take hold of his brother of the house of his father, saying, Thou hast clothing, be thou our ruler, and let this ruin be under thy hand: And he shall answer: I am not a healer and in my house there is neither bread nor clothing: make me not a ruler of the people. For Jerusalem is ruined and Judah is fallen.' He is a man who is not timid in the face of the Devil. He takes hold of his brother, when he unites himself to one born of God. That one ought also to be of the house of his father, because he who is taken for the office of a pastor ought not to be found ignorant of the mysteries of the house of God. For he who knoweth not the sacraments of the church is unworthy of its administration, because, that is, ' a scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven,' ' faithful ' also in preserving its mysteries, ' prudent ' in expenditure, cannot be ranked as a ' servant.' And how shall he preside over the church, who knows not the church? Therefore let him be of the house.

"What is meant by clothing but the fine dress of outward works? Therefore let him be demanded for ruler, who hath clothes; because oft­times it befalls that he is sought for rule, who by his gait, by word and deed, shows his self-control. It is forbidden, too, that ruin should be under his hand, because whatever hurt there may be among the ruled is discerned as coming into the reckoning of the ruler. As if he were to say, ' Thou seemest to be fair to the eye, yet see by what merit thou art pre­eminent within . ' Knowing in particular that you must hold up all from falling, and hence becoming more cautious, he brings in this, ' I am not,' says he, ' a healer that I may have power to resist the growing ruin of disease.' You are looking at the outer garment, that which is not within the house, because there is not the same dress of the mind as there is of the body. Hence he confesses he is not a healer; for it is difficult to penetrate to the causes and effects of any vice or virtue by the keenness of the discernment. And this might be the result of poverty because that there is not in the house the daily bread of him who is today sought from God, the comfort of that divine refreshment which is spiritually poured in, or the strengthening of that love in the inner man, without which there is nowhere good rule.

"And so he lightly refuses to be made ruler, whose spirit gives him no strength through inspiration from on high. ' For Jerusalem is in ruins'; that is, the experience of inner peace has perished. Also ' Judah has fallen'; that is, the confession of sin after the loss of inward calm has broken down in utter despair, the worst of all evils, and a good reason in itself for refusing the office of pastor. For where the mind is disquieted by the appearance of vices, the attack on it is passing foul, nor does the mind when evilly blinded by these, forswear them by confession and when it has no strength to rule itself, it is rightly prevented by others, more rightly by itself, from ruling over other men." Thus I spoke to them, now explaining, now rather using exhortation, and again adducing Scripture to support the argument.

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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© Paul Halsall December 1997

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