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Medieval Sourcebook:
Guibert de Nogent:
On Relics

[Coulton Introduction] Guibert de Nogent, from the first publication of his works in the seventeenth century, has been known as one of the most interesting autobiographers of the Middle Ages: his Treatise on Relics and God's Dealings the Franks [in the Holv Land] are no less interesting. His style, especially in his Own Life, is involved and obscure, quite apart from corruptions of the text; but he was one of the most honest and learned writers in an age of great intellectual activity; and, though he took St. Bernard's side against Abelard, he shows a critical acumen which can seldom be paralleled in any period of the Middle Ages.

Born near Beauvais in 1053, of noble blood, he lost his father in childhood and his mother at the age of twelve by her retirement to a convent. His old master having at the same time become a monk, Guibert ran wild for a few years. At last, though his mother's and master's influence, he took the vows at St. Germer, that magnificent abbey-church which may still be seen between Gournay and Beauvais. The regularity of his life and his fame as a student earned him the honourable position of Abbot at Nogent-sous-Coucy. After playing a conspicuous part in the church politics of 1106 and succeeding years, he retired again to the peace of his abbey, wrote several more books of great value, and died between 1121 and 1124.


Guibert's Treatise on Relics, bk.1, chap. i, col. 614-

What shall I say of those [saints] whose fame is supported by no shred of testimony from without, and who are rather darkened than illustrated by the fact that they are believed to be celebrated in certain worthless records? What shall I do in their case whose beginnings and middle life are apparent to no man, and whose latter end (wherein all their praise is sung) is utterly unknown? And who can pray for their intercession when he knows not whether they possess any merits before God?... I have indeed known some men possessed of a certain saint, as they called him, brought from Brittany, whom they long revered as a confessor; until, suddenly changing their minds, they celebrated him as a martyr. When I inquired closely into their reasons, they had nothing better to plead for this man's martyrdom than for his aforesaid confessorship. I call God to witness, that I have read - and read again in utter loathing to them that were with me - in the Life of Samson, a saint of great reputation in France and Brittany, concerning a certain abbot whom that book names St Pyro. When, however, I sought into the latter end of this man whom I held for a saint, I found his special mark of sanctity to be this: to wit, that he fell into a well while drunken with wine, and thus died. Nor have I forgotten the question propounded by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, to his successor Anselm, then Abbot of Bec, concerning one of his predecessors who had been cast into prison, and was slain because he would not ransom himself ... Let the pontiffs therefore see to it, let the guardians of God's people see to it, and provide that, if the people have a zeal of God, they may at least have it according to knowledge, lest they sin by offering aright and not dividing aright. [Coulton note: referring to Lev. 1:17 and 2: 6, with a play upon divide, which might also mean discern. See also St Bernard, Epp. 4., # 3 and 87, #3.] If the prophet say truly, "Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil," [Isaiah 5:20] then what perversity can be greater than to thrust men upon the sacred altars who perchance, in their lifetime, deserved to be thrust forth from the Church itself!

I have indeed seen, and blush to relate, how a common boy, nearly related to a certain most renowned abbot, and squire (it was said) to some knight, died in a village hard by Beauvais .on Good Friday, two days before Easter. Then, for the sake of that sacred day whereon he had died, men began to impute a gratuitous sanctity to the dead boy. When this had been rumoured among the country-folk, all agape for something new, then forthwith oblations and waxen tapers were brought to his tomb by the villagers of all that country round. What need of more words? A monument was built over him, the pot was hedged in with a stone building, and from the very confines of Brittany there came great companies of country-folk, though without admixture of the higher sort. That most wise abbot with his religious monks, seeing this, and being enticed by the multitude of gifts that were brought, suffered the fabrication of false miracles. Even though the covetous hearts of the vulgar herd may be impressed by feigned deafness, affected madness, fingers purposely cramped-into the palm, and soles twisted up under men's thighs, what then does the modest and wise man, who professes to aim at holiness, when he makes himself the abettor of such things? Oftentimes we see these things made trite by vulgar gossip, and by the ridiculous carrying round of sacred shrines for the sake of collecting alms; and daily we see the very depths of some man's purse emptied by the lies of those men whom St Jerome calls rabulas in mockery of their rabid eloquence; who shake us so with their rogueries, and bear us along with such religious flattery that (to quote the saintly Doctor again) they gobble more busily than parasites, gluttons, or dogs, and surpass ravens or magpie with their importunate chatter.

But why do I accuse the multitude, without citing specific examples to rebuke this error? A most famous church sent its servants thus wandering abroad [with its shrine]. [Coulton note: probably the Cathedral of Laon, which our author knew very well. It was burned down in 1112 and sent round its shrine to beg for help; cf. Guibert's autobiography col. 938, and Herman's Book of Miracles performed on this tour, ib. col 963. It is noteworthy that the large majority of the miracles there described belong precisely to the three classes which Guibert describes as most easily feigned]. It engaged a preacher to seek alms for repairing its loss. this man, after a long and exaggerated discourse on his relics, brought forth a little reliquary and said, in my presence, "Know that there within this little vessel some of that very bread Lord pressed with His own teeth; and, if you believe not, here is this great man" - this he said of me - "here is this great man to whose renown in learning ye may bear witness, and who will rise from his place, if need be, to corroborate my words." I confess that I blushed for shame to hear this; and, but for my reverence of those persons who seemed to be his patrons, which compelled me to act after their wishes rather than his, I should have discovered the forger. What shall I say? Not even monks (not to speak of the secular clergy) refrain from such filthy gains, but they preach doctrines of heresy in matters of our faith, even in mine own hearing. For, as Boethius says "I should be rightly condemned for a madman if I should dispute with madmen."…

If, therefore, it be so doubtful a matter to judge of the claim to martyrdom, how shall we decide in the matter of confessors, whose end is often less certain? What though the common consent of the Church agree in the case of St. Martin, St. Remy, and such great saints, yet what shall I say of such as are daily sainted and set up in rivalry to them, by the common folk of our towns and villages? Let them tell me how they can expect a man to be their patron saint concerning whom they know not even that which is to be known? For you shalt find no record of him but his mere name. Yet, while the clergy hold their peace, old wives and herds of base wenches chant the lying legends of such patron saints at their looms and their broidering-frames; and, if a man refute their words, they will attack him in defence of these fables not only with words but even with their distaffs. Who but a sheer madman, therefore, would call on those to intercede for him concerning whom there is not the merest suspicion left in men's minds to tell what they once were? And what avails that prayer wherein the petitioner himself speaks in utter uncertainty of him whom he would make into his intercessor with God? How (I say) can that be profitable, which can never be without sin? For If you pray to a man whose sanctity you know not, then you sin in that very matter wherein you should have prayed for pardon; for though you offer aright you divide not aright…But why should I labour this point at such length, when the whole Holy Church is so modest of mouth that she dares not to affirm even the body of the Lord's Mother to have been glorified by resurrection for the reason that she cannot prove it by the necessary arguments! [Coulton note: This question has never, in fact, been officially decided, though the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of the favourite themes of medieval art. "Melchior Canus sums up the general teaching of theologians on this head when he says: 'The denial of the Blessed Virgin's corporal assumption into heaven, though by no means contrary to the faith is still so much opposed to the common agreement of the Church, that it would be a mark of insolent temerity." Arnold and Addis, Catholic Dictionary, s.v. Assumption.. Additional note 1996: this doctrine was defined as de fide by Pope Pius XII following a world wide petition in 1952] If, therefore, we may not affirm this of her whose glory no creature can measure, what must we enjoin but eternal silence for those of whom we know not even whether they be saved or damned? Moreover, there be some things written concerning certain saints which are far worse than old wives' fables, and with which we ought not to pollute the ears even of swineherds. For indeed, since many attribute the highest antiquity to their patron saints, they demand in these modern times that their lives should be written: a request which has oftentimes been preferred to me. Yet I may be deceived even in that which passes under mine own eyes; how then can I tell the truth of those things which no man ever saw? Were I to say what I have heard said (and I have been besought also to speak the praises of such unknown saints-nay even to preach them to the people-) then I, who say what men ask of me, and they who have suggested it to me, would be alike worthy of a public reprimand.

But, omitting those whom their own authority proves to be unauthorized, let us touch upon those others which are attended with certain faith. Even among these, error is infinite; or perchance one and the same saint is claimed by two different churches; for example, the clergy of Constantinople claim to possess the head of John Baptist, yet the monks of Angers maintain the same claim. What greater absurdity, therefore, can we preach concerning this man, than that both these bodies of clergy should assert him to have been two-headed? But a truce to jest, since we are certain that the head cannot be duplicated, and therefore that either these or those are under a grievous falsehood. If, however, in this matter, which is altogether associated with piety, they contend together with mutual arrogance and lies, then they worship not God but the Devil. Therefore, both the deceived and deceivers the worship wrongfully that very relic wherein they make their boast. If, however, they worship an unworthy object, it is evident how great must be the peril to which all the worshippers are exposed. Even though, not being John Baptist's head , it be that of some other saint, even then there is no small guilt of lying. [Coulton note: Amiens also claimed to possess the Baptist's head: but this tradition was still without authority in Guibert's days.]

But wherefore speak I of the Baptist's head, when I hear the same tale daily concerning innumerable saints' bodies? In truth my predecessor, the Bishop of Amiens, when he would have translated the body of St. Firmin (as he thought) from the old shrine to a new, found there no shred of parchment - not even the testimony of a single letter - to prove who lay there. This I have heard with mine own ears from the bishops of Arras and Amiens. Wherefore the Bishop wrote forethwith on a plate of lead, that it might be laid in the shrine; FIRMIN THE MARTYR, BISHOP OF AMIENS. Soon afterwards, the same thing was repeated at the monastery of St Denis. The abbot had prepared a more splendid shrine; when lo! in the ceremony of translation, while his head and bones were from their wrappings, a slip of Parchment was found within his nostrils, affirming him to FIRMIN, BISHOP OF AMIENS…

Hear how an illustration of our complaints, which may pass judgment on these instances aforesaid. Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, eagerly desired the body of St Exuperius, his predecessor, who was honoured with special worship in the town of Corbeil. He paid, therefore, the sum of one hundred pounds to the sacristan of the church which possessed these at relics that he might take them for himself. But the sacristan cunningly dug up the bones of a peasant named Exuperius and brought them to the Bishop. The Bishop, not content with assertion, exacted from him an oath that these bones brought were those of Saint Exuperius. "I swear," replied the man, "that these are the bones of Exuperius: as to his sanctity I cannot swear, since many earn the title of saints are far indeed from holiness." Thus the thief assuaged the Bishop's suspicions and set his mind at rest. But the townsfolk heard of the bargain which the custodian had made with their patron saint, and called him before them; whereupon he replied: "Search again the seals on his shrine; and, if ye find them not unbroken, let me pay the penalty!" See now what disgrace this Bishop's bargain brought upon religion when the bones of this profane peasant Exuperius were thrust upon God's holy altar, which perchance will never more be purged of them. I can recall so many like deeds in all parts that I lack time and strength to tell them here; for fraudulent bargains are made, not so much in whole bodies as in limbs or portions of limbs, common bones being sold as relics of the saints. The men who do this are plainly such of whom St Paul speaks, that they suppose gain to be godliness; for they make into a mere excrement of their money-bags the things which (if they but knew it) would tend to the salvation of their souls.

From C.G. Coulton, ed, Life in the Middle Ages, (New York: Macmillan, c.1910), Vol I, 15-22

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(c)Paul Halsall August 1996
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