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Guibert of Nogent (c. 1055 – 1124): On the Saints and their Relics

One of the most famous critiques of the cult of saints' relics in the middle ages was provide by Guibert of Nogent. But Guibert was the abbot of a traditional monastery who was personally deeply devoted to the cult of the saints. On closer examination, his work is not the work of a proto-rationalist or an iconoclast, but rather of a cleric who is very concerned to impose the veneration of saints' relics by the laity to clerical supervision.

It should be noted that this is a particularly difficult text to translate into modern English. Guibert wrote in an extremely convoluted style; his Latin is marked by lengthy sentences, periodic construction, complex dependent clauses, rhetorical questions, and subtle (not to mention parenthetical) allusions. The complexities of translation have been considerably attenuated, however, by the extraordinary improvements made over earlier editions through the loving care of R. B. C. Huygens in his recent edition of the text. In attempting to render the abbot of Nogent's words into acceptable English, I have often had to expand upon their literal meaning. I have placed the most obvious expansions within brackets. I should add that I have made frequent reference to an earlier, unpublished translation of Guibert's work, that is a master's thesis submitted to the University of Washington in 1941 by a Dominican nun named Louise Catherine Nash or, in religion, Sr. Mary Edwardine: "Translation of De pignoribus sanctorum of Guibert of Nogent with Notes and Comments," Master's Thesis, University of Washington (1941).

For further reading on this text, see: Caroline Bynum, "Bodily Miracles and the Resurrection of the Body in the High Middle Ages," in Belief in History: Innovative Approaches to European and American Religion , ed. Thomas Kselman (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1991), pp. 68-106; Klaus Guth, Guibert von Nogent und die hochmittelalterliche Kritik an der Reliquienverehrung (Studien und Mitteilungen zur Geschichte des Benediktiner-Ordens und seiner Zweige, Supplement 21; Augsburg: Winfried, 1970); Marie-Danielle Mireux, "Guibert de Nogent et la critique du culte des reliques," in La piété populaire au Moyen Age (Actes du 99e Congrès national des sociétés savantes, Besançon, 1974. Section de philologie et d'histoire jusqu'à 1610, volume 1; Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1977), pp. 193-302; Colin Morris, "A Critique of Popular Religion: Guibert of Nogent on The Relics of the Saints," (Studies in Church History, 12; Oxford, 1975), pp. 95-111.

A set of descriptive notes follow the text.

If it is wrong to hold erroneous beliefs about the general resurrection of all people, it is much more perverse to detract in any way from the rising of Christ, who is the head of all people. Since the efficacy of any hope of resurrection hinges upon his example, all the consequences of Christ's promise would doubtless be called into question if there was no hope of others doing as he who made the promise did or if Christ's own promise were in any other way broken. For when people make promises and their promises are not kept, then those people are either accused of falsehood or they gain a reputation of being unable to do that which they say they will do for others. Let no one under the pretense of piety imply that God has any lack of ability or any infidelity in carrying through on promises. One would shudder even to have such a thought, one which would with good reason be considered impious in the minds of everyone and would seem to insult universal beliefs. For if people ascribe some excellance of their churches to their own selves-a practice through which the laws of our faith lose their power-then that very honor comes to be thought detestable and causes a everyone's hopes to falter and fail.

If you so weigh down your right hand with gold jewelry that as a result you weaken your whole body by means of the ornament, then such a form of beauty, which harms the whole through the decoration of the part, is most impractical. In a similar fashion, when too many twigs emerge from a branch, they cause it to wither and with it the whole body of the tree. Just so, in those matters which are held and taught as doctrine with ecclesiastical approval, such moderation has hitherto been shown that no one would dare to promulgate any doctrine except one which a careful examination confirmed to be consistent both in concept and in practice with Catholicism. There are also, however, other things which are practiced by the church, but not taught as doctrine, such as the customs of fasting or psalm-singing. Even if such things may be diverse in practice, they should never disagree with the understanding of the faith nor should manners of fasting or singing be allowed which lack compelling motivation. People who defend a diversity of methods of asceticism or of the divine office within the same faith are called-and with reason-schismatics for the singularity of their practices. If you sing psalms or fast in some different manner, it is not right or suitable for you to impose your way on others or for you to say that others are inferior to you in their practices. For hear the words of the apostle: "He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord . . . and he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord." [Rom. 14:6] Concerning similar matters, a similar judgment is readily made. On the other hand, there are those things which are held and taught as doctrine, such as baptism and the sacrament of the Lord's host, which are so much the commonplaces of Christianity that our faith would be unable to endure without them. These two are authoritatively maintained to be always the same and everywhere unchangeable, so that in all times and all places the same doctrine and the same practice accompanies, precedes, and follows them. The same practice, I say, so that the form of what is performed publicly may proceed directly from the intentions of those who teach the doctrine. There is, however, a difference between the two: without baptism through water or blood (1) a Christian cannot exist, but without the eucharist a Christian is able to exist, if that Christian persists in constancy to the faith. This can be proven by the example of many martyrs and hermits, some of whom never received the eucharist, others only once or twice. They instead incorporated this holy work into themselves through their long solitude and were thus sanctified.(2) There is a similar maxim which teaches that holding to faith is sufficient for salvation even when other practices are lacking. Thus the Apostle says: "And to one who does not work [. . .] his faith is reckoned as righteousness." [Rom 4:5] Even greater stature is attributed to charity than to faith: since it is placed before faith and hope, it is valued above all other things. It is said of this "work" of charity: "establish thou the work of your hands upon us" [Psalms 90:17], these "works" being the actions common to any good profession. It continues: "yea, the work of our hands establish thou it" [Psalms 90:17], that is, teach us the better gifts, or, so to speak, the more noble path. These truths are taught because we believe them, and they continue to be believed through being taught.

Unlike these things of which we have been speaking, which are believed and preached in the churches and without which it would not be possible to live an upright life, there are other things which are not counted among the very highest necessities for our salvation, without the use and presence of which many people have led and continue to live good lives. In this second category are numbered the bodies of the saint, as well as lesser relics taken from them which are put to the same use. These are things worthy of our reverence and honor in exchange for their example and protection. In these matters the only method for calling a person a saint which should be considered authentic is one which relies not on opinion, but on timeworn tradition or the evidence of trustworthy writers. For why would you think that someone I sanctioned was a saint,(3) if nothing was remembered of that person's dignity, still more if there were no texts or reliable reports of miracles to shore up [the claim of sanctity]? By texts I mean those which are suitable for strengthening faith! For there are many stories [circulating] about the saints which would be more likely to cause their reputation to suffer an impious fate among unbelievers than in any way to make them illustrious. And even when stories about the saints are true, they can expressed in such a ragged, pedestrian, or-if I might use a poetic expression-serpentine style and delivered with so much confusion that they are believed to be false, even though they are quite true.(4) And why should the tales of such authors, who put the very truth in doubt by means of their unbecoming crudeness, not be assigned [a place among those works] which ring falsely? Should we not regard it a slight upon the apostles when we read in the place of their true Lives some inanities about them which extinguish the light [offered by their example]? What should we call the Acts of Thomas-a work to which Augustine objects not just once, but in many places-except a dinning in the ear? Perhaps either God or the saints had need of a lie so that, in the words of Job [13:7] "they might speak deceitfully for him"! The holy apostles themselves, who were as close to Christ as a beard or hair are to the head,(5) would not have need of such falsehoods. Such figments of the imagination might disturb the spirits of some people, were not our traditions [about the apostles] taken from the very gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. What should I say about [those saints whose lives] are not illuminated by any testimony or, even more, about one [whose life] is actually shadowed over by the very writings which are thought to celebrate it? What should I say about those saints whose births and mature lives are not known to anyone, and [the manner of] whose deaths, [the event] in which all praise is to be sung, are also completely unknown? And who would ask people, about whom it is unknown what they have merited before God, to intercede on their behalf? Would not the conscience of a man offer grave offence if he obtained as an intercessor with God someone who was not to be particularly trusted? Would not the sharpness of his prayer be blunted in its intention if he did not know whether the person whom he asked for help had anything in common with God? I knew some people who a long time ago brought the body of a man whom they took to be a confessor down from Brittany; then they suddenly underwent a change of heart and celebrated [the confessor] as a martyr. When I demanded their reasons, they had nothing more dignified to say about this man's martyrdom than they that which they had previously to say concerning his status as a confessor. I swear to God that in the life of Saint Samson, who is most famous among the Franks and the Bretons, I have read-and even had to reread with utter loathing to those who happened to be with me-a story about a certain abbot who was called Saint Pyro in the story. When I enquired into the death of this man, whom I thought to be a saint on the basis of what I had read, I discovered the pinnacle of his sanctity, namely that he had drunk past the point of being sober, fallen down a well, and thus died. Nor has the question escaped my memory which Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury in England, posed to his successor Anselm, then abbot of Bec, concerning one of his own predecessors who had been cast into prison and, since he was unable to pay money to ransom himself, died there.(6) What am I to say about those saints who are discovered to have died in sin, or about whom it is uncertain whether they died a good or evil death, or about whom there is some other doubt? Sweet Jesus! Is a person [to be considered] a saint, the manner of whose death remains ambiguous? Therefore, before one asks for the intercession of such a person, it is necessary that one ask about the truth of that person's sanctity. I dare say that it is a profanity to persist in placing among the highest thrones of heaven those people of whom no memory remains among the living as to their era, their birth, their life, the day of their death, or the manner in which they died. If the faithful honor such people with the name of sanctity, then priests (I say this for their own good) fail to act in an upright manner when they hear such vulgar opinion wafting on the breezes and fail to correct it. For if people are lawfully raised to the highest ranks [of sanctity] without written testimony and they are thus accidentally granted false, even sacrilegious, titles, then [it may be the case that] people are lifted up to a place of eminence among mortals who have, in fact, been relegated to a place of punishment or even been led to oblivion in Tartarus, people who would-like that rich man [see Luke 16:19-25]--beg help from ordinary mortals, if they knew their fate and were given a chance. The bishops, as the guardians of the people of God, ought to oversee [such matters]. They ought to care for their people so that, if [the people] have a "zeal for God," then [their zeal] is an enlightened one [see Rom. 10:2], and so that they not err in offering righteous praise [to the saints] by failing to separate [the unrighteous] from the righteous. For, according to the prophet, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil." [Is. 5:20] What greater perversity is there, than to place on the sacred altars those very things which ought to be kept outside the very church itself? Those who work miracles posthumously through their bodies were not free from punishment during their lifetimes; for we learn from our readings that the just are only saved with difficulty when they are put to trial. Ought we then to believe [in the sanctity] of someone for whom there is no evidence of holiness: neither what we see nor what we hear, neither written evidence nor miracles? And surely it would be difficult to believe in the miracles of anyone who had not lived a good life from birth to death. There are, I will admit, some ambiguous events, when the [unrighteous] on God's left hand seem to be given as much glory as the [righteous] on God's right hand. For the same God who divided the Red Sea for the children of Israel, also held back the Pamphylic for Alexander the Great. Read Suetonius, who tells how Vespasian cured a lame man by touching him with the toe of his foot. Miraculous signs have also surrounded the births of princes, such as the abovementioned Alexander, Julius Caesar, Octavian, and others. At the time of their deaths, Charles the Great and his son Louis saw visions. In our own times, we have often seen comets marking the deaths and even births of the kings of our own land, as well as of Lotharingia and England. And what are we to make of the fact that we regularly witness our lord king Louis working wonders? I have myself seen those who suffer from scrofula about the throat or elsewhere on their bodies crowd around him, seeking his touch and the added sign of the cross. I clung to the king and shrunk back, but he, with an inborn and elevated liberality, signalled them to come with his hand. His father Phillip at one time frequently worked the glory of this same miracle, but he lost the power through some sins. I omit what some other kings do in a like manner, but I do know that the English king never dares to try such things. . .

We have spoken of these miracles not because of their novelty, but in order to give a sense of the difference between the two cases. It ought to be added that, just as what is evident and undoubted must be accepted wholeheartedly, so too that which is not factual but fraudulent must be severely punished as lies. For a person who ascribes to God that which not even God has thought, that person, inasmuch as it is possible, makes God out to be a liar. If anyone should accuse me, an insignificant man, of some falsehood or suggest that I had done what I had not, that person would be despicable and odious to me. And who can be more destructive, more hopeless, or more damnable than one who of his own accord dishonors God, the fountainhead of all that is pure. Once I saw-and it pains me to retell it-how a boy of the vulgar class, who was said to be the armor-bearer of some knight, fell into a well on Good Friday, [that is] two days before Easter, near the city of Beauvais. This event happened to occur in the jurisdiction of a very well known abbot. Sanctity began to be imputed to the dead [boy] just because of the holiness of the day on which he died. Since country folk are anxious to celebrate novelties, they came from all the neighboring districts to his tomb bearing offerings and candles. What more can I say? His tomb was covered [by the offerings]; a structure was built to surround the place. Whole battalions of countryfolk, but without anyone from the better classes, came there on pilgrimage, even from the furthest reaches of Brittany. The [above-mentioned] learned abbot, along with his religious monks, saw these things and, seduced by the gifts which the pilgrims frequently brought with them, allowed faked miracles to occur. Vulgar common people are able to be duped in their greedy hearts by feigned deafness, affected madness, fingers pushed back into the palm on purpose, and feet twisted up under thighs. What should a modest and wise man do when a proposal of sanctity comes to his attention before allowing himself to become the promoter of such a cult? We repeatedly see [the cult of saints] trivialized through gossip and made an object of ridicule through the dragging around of reliquaries. Daily we see someone's pockets completely emptied by the lies of those whom Jerome called ranters from their style of speech. We are bothered by their worthlessness but are also carried away by their praise of divine matters because they-according to that same learned man [Jerome]--excel fools, gluttons, and puppies in their appetite, and surpass ravens and magpies with their troublesome chatter. But what should we number as a crime if not the erroneous [transformation] of something rather improbable into something special?(8) A certain very famous church became involved in this sort of circumlocution, when it sought to raise funds for the repair of some damages by hiring a spokesperson.(9) And when on one occasion he had gone on at length about the church's relics, he produced a pyx and said-for I was among those present-"You know that inside this little box is a piece of the very bread which our Lord chewed with his own teeth. If you do not believe me, behold this distinguished man (he referred to me) whom you know to be very learned. On my word, he will provide a witness for my claim." I confess that I blushed when I heard this. If it were not for the presence of those who seemed to be his employers, and for the fact that I would have seemed to have been attacking them rather than the man who spoke, I would have exposed the falsehood. What can I say? Neither monks nor clerics restrain themselves from [taking] such shameful profits, [with the result that] in my hearing they proclaim heretical things about our faith. As Boethius said, "I would rightly be judged a fool, if I were to fight against fools."

In order that the matter at hand may be seen more clearly, it is necessary to consider first those people who are called "saints." We number as saints first the apostles, and then those whom the whole church recognizes as martyrs. Surely the latter judgment can be extended to confessors as well.(10) The mark of blood is enough to distinguish martyrs, even if later writings are silent about them. Nor is it asked in the case of martyrdom what sort of life preceded it, since blood is sufficient to cleanse away the worst crimes. Sweet Jesus, why should it not? For is not such suffering capable of wiping away all sin and bringing the fullness of glory? Just as baptism is the agent for the full clearing away of all prior faults, so after baptism martyrdom negates sins and washes away vices [and thus leads to] salvation. I should add that only a righteous cause removes all penalty. For in the canons it says that, should someone be apprehended while destroying idols and then be slain because of that action, that person should not be accounted a martyr for such a death. Surely the result of such an action seems a worthy one, but cannot a bad intention pervert a good cause? Donatists suffered in the same manner as the martyrs, but, since they were excommunicated, they died in vain. The relics of the Manichaeans [burned at] Soissons shone with the zeal of God's people, but, as they had been likewise excommunicated with just cause, they were damned and placed with the bodies of criminals. I have spoken about these things at greater length in my Monodiae. If such ambiguities may be encountered in the sanctioning of martyrs, then what careful investigation must be made into confessors, [the manner of] whose death provides less of a guarantee? Even if the common wisdom of the church agrees on the cases of Martin [of Tours], Remigius [of Reims], and similar people, what will I say about those whom the common people daily make into saints in villages and small towns, cases similar to those I have already discussed? When some people see that others have important patrons, they first wish that they could have similar patrons, and then they simply make them up. In the same way poets first produce noble works, and later others are led into unskilled work through imitation. As Horace said, "The unlearned write, while here and there the learned make poetry." In ancient times artistic creators, who thought that they lived in the golden age, raised up human beings as gods and goddesses. Over time so many deities accumulated that eventually some were deprived of honor, while others were set aside and called select. When the Jews were exiled in Babylonia, the Samaritans made gods for themselves: "Every nation still made gods of its own. . . The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal" [2 Kings 17:29] and others made other gods. According to Gregory the Great it is evident that "when a person in disfavor is sent to intercede, it only provokes the spirit to greater wrath."(11) But everyone denies that they have chosen patrons who are in disfavor. Let them tell me, then, how they can take as their patron someone about whom they don't even know the first thing, because they can find nothing written about their patron except a name. While the clergy keeps silence, old hags and crowds of vile little women chant fabricated stories about such patrons while working at their treadles and looms. If someone disputes their words, they will stand in defense of their patrons not only with cries, but even brandishing their shuttlecocks. Who, other than someone completely demented, would call upon such patrons-about whom there remains not the slightest trace concerning their identity-as intercessors? What good is a prayer in which uncertainty vexes the soul of the person praying, uncertainty concerning the very person held up as an intercessor with God? What profit is there, I say, in that which is never without sin? For, when you pray to someone whom you know not to be a saint, you sin in the very action through which you sought pardon, by failing to distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous, even though you are offering sacrifice in a righteous way. When you pray to a patron [whose sanctity] you doubt, you fail to please God. When you are distrustful of your petition, you irritate God, for God takes offence when you send as your spokesperson someone whom God does not know. Why should someone speak for you, about whom you harbor suspicions? If you do not hold a good opinion of your patron, why do you think you will gain merit through that patron? Somewhere Ambrose says, "The person to whom I commit myself ought to be of a higher station than myself."(12) In short, is it not the mark of a foolish mind to send a petition through someone of uncertain status? Why do you ask that someone should stand before God for you, when you are not even sure that that person is your better? See how the Lord has commended the power of faith to move mountains [see 1 Cor. 13:2] and has clearly opposed any uncertainty of spirit. And so it is said: if you place before yourself some [target], however large, and if you hesitate, even if just a little, then you will miss [the mark]. It is much more tolerable for you to lose trust in your own merits, than to despair of the patron through whom you have placed your hopes before God. Since you trust yourself less, you call upon the patron, but surely you know that if your advocate is convicted of falsehood, then you stand to lose all that you gained.

Why should I speak at such length on these matters when there is such modesty in the mouth of the whole holy church that it does not dare to say that the body of the mother of the Lord has been glorified by resurrection, on account of the fact that this cannot be proven by compelling arguments? It would be wicked to believe that [the body of Mary]--that vessel, more fair than any creature other than her son, who bore the universal lord of majesty, a privilege which has never been granted to anyone else, not even one of angelic nature-was put aside without reward or honor in order to undergo corruption. Christ would be obliged to renew that maternal body, the source of his own being to which he owed the glorification of his own body. Do we refrain from declaring that it was restored to life, as would be sensible, for any reason except that we are not able to offer convincing proofs of it? In commenting on biblical texts the exercise of reason alone sometimes suffices, indeed the examples cited from scripture often depend upon such a reasoned exegesis. Yet in this case, where the most exacting application of reason suggests that Mary was graced through the renewal of her body to wholeness, yet where the right sort of visible proof is lacking, we lack the authority to prove [the assertion], and so keep silent, even if we privately believe that she was so glorified. Reason, however, makes the truth of the matter evident. It is believed that the bodies of varied saints were resurrected along with her son. Yet Mary's flesh does not differ from that of her son, for we know that nothing extra was provided by a father in the conception of Christ, except for the holy spirit. How could she reside in the dust of the earth according to the ancient law of malediction [see Daniel 12:2], she who was personally selected to bear the author of benediction? She could not have [experienced corruption] without injury [to Christ's flesh], if I might dare to say so, if he abandoned the flesh of his mother to the common fate, and granted to the flesh of strangers a privilege which he denied to his own mother, the very source of his own flesh! Yet we are prohibited from asserting this [teaching] publicly, since eyewitness testimony is lacking, although we are in no way forbidden from accepting it privately. Yet if we are not able to teach these assertions concerning a woman whose glory creature are unable to value fully, are we able to enjoin anything except eternal silence concerning those people whose salvation or damnation is uncertain? There are some things written about saints which are worse than folk songs and which should not even enter the ears of swineherds. Since many people attribute the greatest antiquity to their patron saints, they urgently demand that modern versions of the lives of those saints be written down. I have often been asked to do such a thing. I, however, can make mistakes even about those things which happen before my very eyes. How can I claim to be truthful about those things which no one ever saw? If I were to relate things which I have only heard said-and I have been asked to speak the praises of ignoble saints, even to preach their acts to the people-then both I myself, were I to do as asked, and those who suggested that I say such things would be equally worthy of public censure.

But let us be finished with those [saints] whose very obscurity deprives them of authority, and turn instead to those [saints] whom the certitude of faith upholds. Surely the errors [told about] them are also endless! For some say that they have the relics of a certain saint, while others claim to have the same relics. Let us take the example of the head of John the Baptist, which the people of Constantinople say that they possess, but the monks of Angély claim to have the same head. What greater absurdity can be preached about this man than that he be said by two groups to have two heads? But let us be done with absurdities and attend to the matter at hand. Since it is certain that a head is not able to be duplicated, and thus that the two groups are unable to have [what they claim], it is obvious that one group or the other has resorted to lies. When two sides contend with each other arrogantly and falsely about a pious matter, they substitute a devilish for a God-like behavior. Thus both the deceivers and the deceived vainly venerate the very relic about which they boast. Behold how, when some unworthy object is venerated, the whole crowd of supporters is subjected to a long chain of false reasoning. And even if one head is not that of John the Baptist, but in fact that of some other saint, still the claims made about it are no less sinful lies.

Why am I going on about the head of John the Baptist, when each day I hear the same thing said about innumerable bodies of other saints? When my predecessor, the bishop of Amiens, transferred what he thought to be the body of St. Firminus the martyr from one casket to another, he failed to discover any document inside, not even a single letter of testimony as to who lay there.(13) I have heard this with my own ears from the bishop of Arras, and even from the [next] bishop of Amiens. For that reason the bishop forthwith had an inscription made on a leaden plate, which would lie in the reliquary: "This is Firminus the martyr, bishop of Amiens." Not long afterwards, the incident was repeated in a similar manner at the monastery of Saint-Denis. Relics were taken forth from their resting place in order to be placed in a more ornate shrine, which had been prepared by the abbot. When the skull was unwrapped along with the bones, a slip of parchment was found in the martyr's nostrils, on which it was written that this body was Firminus the martyr of Amiens. Things are not as those from Amiens claimed them to be in this matter, for testimonies give voice to a contrary claim and reason, if you please, takes the seat of judgment. Will not the inscription placed on that metal plate by the bishop be judged legally null and void? Does their claim become valid merely by being written down? Surely those from Saint-Denis would object, and they at least have [older] writings on their side. So we see that those people who venerate a patron about whom they are unsure are always in great danger, even if that patron turn out to be hold. For if that patron is not a saint, they have committed an enormous sacrilege. What is a greater sacrilege than to venerate as holy something which is not? For only those things which pertain to God are divine. And what pertains to God more than those who are united in one body with God? I have heard [at story] which will throw light on our concerns and help us to make judgments about those matters we are discussing. A certain Odo-bishop of Bayeux, bastard son of Robert count of the Normans, and thus the natural brother of William the senior king of the English-ardently wished to possess [the relics] of his holy predecessor Exuperius, which were enshrined with great honor in the city of Corbeil. He paid a hundred pounds to the guardian of the church in which the saint was enshrined in order that he might receive the [relics of the] saint from him. The custodian, cunningly asking the bishop to wait for him, dug up the tomb of a certain peasant named Exuperius. The bishop asked him whether what had been brought was Saint Exupery and even demanded an oath from the guardian. The guardian said, "I swear under oath to you that this is the body of Exupery, but I can say nothing about his sanctity, since that name has been given to many people whose reputation is far from being saintly." Thus the bishop, deceived by the thief, did nothing. When the townspeople learned how he had turned their patron into merchandise, the guardian became the object of scorn. When pressed by them, he responded, "Go back and check the seals of the saint's tomb, and if you do not find them unbroken, I will pay recompense." Behold how this acquisition of false [relics] by the bishop brought dishonor on all religion, by profanely promoting this peasant Exuperius to sanctity and placing his bones on the sacred altar of God, which may never be rid of this blasphemy. My memory is full of so many similar events done in every quarter, but I lack both the time and the strength to recount them. Fraudulent deals are frequently struck-not so much in the case of whole bodies, as in the case of limbs and parts of bodies-and common bones are thus distributed to be venerated as the relics of the saints. These things are clearly done by those who, according to the Apostle [1 Tim. 6:5], "suppose gain to be godliness" and turn those very things which should serve for the salvation of their souls into the excrement of money-bags.


  • (1) Martyrdom was considered to be baptism by blood.
  • (2) Guibert momentarily loses the thread of his argument, referring here specifically to hermits, not martyrs.
  • (3) This sentence employs a play on words: the similarity in meaning (not sound, as is moderately the case in my rendering of the phrase as an English pun) of "sanctioning" (ut ita dicam) and "being considered a saint" (sancintur).
  • (4) A paraphrase of a line from the Greek poet Horace (+), Ars Poetica, 28.8.20.
  • (5) Guibert here repeats a metaphor he had used earlier, a metaphor which I have had to expand greatly in translation.
  • (6) Guibert here refers to a famous conversation between Lanfranc and Anselm which was recorded by Eadmer, the latter's biographer. Lanfranc happened to question whether an Anglo-Saxon archbishop of Canterbury named AElfheah was actually a martyr, as the man had died, not for confessing the name of Christ, but for refusing to pay ransom. Anselm, who happened to be Guibert's former teacher, apparently defended Aelfheah's sanctity. See Eadmer of Canterbury, Vita s. Anselmi, I.30, ed. R. W. Southern (London, 1962), pp. 50-54.
  • (7) The Latin father Jerome used a similar phrase occurs twice in his writings: Epistola, 52.8 (Corpus Scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, 54, p. 428) and Apologia contra Rufinum, 1.15 (Corpus Christianorum, 79, p. 14).
  • (8) That is, the promotion of a false cult.
  • (9) Guibert refers to the cathedral of Laon which had suffered a disastrous fire in April 1112.
  • (10) Confessors were those who proclaimed the faith, but did not suffer martyrdom.
  • (11) Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care, 1.10.
  • (12) Ambrose, De officiis, 2.12.62.
  • (13) Godfrey, formerly abbot of Nogent and later bishop of Amiens, who died in 1115.

  • Source: Guibert of Nogent, De sanctis et eorum pigneribus in Opera varia, ed. R. B. C. Huygens (Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaeualis, 127; Turnholt: Brepols, 1993). The present translation is by Thomas Head. It is excerpted from the draft of a complete translation of Book I which is to be published in Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, ed. Thomas Head (Garland Press: New York, 1998). I have followed the paragraph divisions of Huygens' edition. The numbers of notes are in parentheses and the notes themselves follow at the end of the text.

    This translation by Thomas Head has been made available to fellow students and researchers for private or classroom use. All other rights are reserved. Duplication for any other purpose, including publication, is prohibited. This translation was last updated on June 10, 1997.

    From Thomas F. Head, An Anthology of Translated Texts Illustrative of the History of the Cult of the Saints (c 2000). [Link is to Internet Archive]. Thomas Head prepared these texts as part of the now defunct ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies [Link is to an archived and non-maintained version]. Dr. Head died on Nov 12, 2014 after an extended illness. I believe that he would have wanted his translated texts, marked for free personal use, and bibliographies to continue to be available and not just through the sometimes slow operation of the Internet Archive. They were marked "They may be reproduced for private use, but may not be reproduced for publication."


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