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In My Good Books

Guilty Confessions

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
10 June 2006

Tracing autobiography, tracing life-writing itself to its source, we would not necessarily expect to find something satisfying or even impressive. Do rivers look impressive at their source? What we like and expect to find in a modern autobiography - frankness, psychological acuteness, gossip, whatever it is - can hardly be expected from our earliest authors. Expectations have so radically changed over the centuries.

Amazing then to find that the earliest surviving autobiography in the medieval tradition, the early 12th-century memoirs of Guibert de Nogent, has everything we think of as modern, by way of psychological force and perceptiveness, while remaining fiercely alien to most modern ways of thinking. Guibert, an abbot in northern France, loses little time in telling us that his mother was frigid for many years after her marriage, a neighbouring stepmother's magic supposedly to blame.

His father eventually cracked this problem, on the advice of friends, by sleeping with another woman first, and making her pregnant. Fortified by the experience gained, and with the help of some wise old woman, he solves whatever the difficulty had been, and after seven years of non-consummation his wife begins bearing children. Guibert's birth, however, is so painful that she is expected to die. The father makes a vow that, boy or girl, the child being born will be dedicated (if it survives) to the religious life.

The new-born Guibert has "the corpse-like look of a premature baby; so much so that when reeds (which in that region are very slender when they come up - it being then the beginning of April) were placed in my little fingers, they seemed stouter in comparison. On that very day when I was put into the baptismal font ... a certain woman tossed me from hand to hand. 'Look at this thing,' she said. 'Do you think such a child can live, whom nature by mistakes has made almost without limbs, giving him something more like an outline than a body?'"

Mother and child survive. It is the father who, eight months later, dies, leaving the mother free from the detestable duties of the wifely bed. She finds a teacher for Guibert, a man whose learning is not of particularly high standard. So the boy enters on an intimate relationship in which love and unjust punishment are bound inextricably together.

His teacher beats him continuously for what Guibert sees, in retrospect, are simply the shortcomings of his education. But this is all done out of love. Indeed it appears that his mother and his teacher compete for his affection, although always within this punitive, God-fearing context in which brutality alternates with neglect. God hardens his mother's heart, and she knows that she is a cruel and unnatural mother. She abandons Guibert at the age of 12 to devote herself to the ascetic life.

Horror of sex combines with a hysterical sense of sin and the knowledge that the world he lives in is continually beset by Satan and his innumerable lesser devils. One of the worst things he can imagine is the story of a man who sells his soul to Satan, who demands a sacrifice of the man's seed. When he has poured forth his seed, he must then (this is the great blasphemy) be the first to taste it, just as the celebrant at Mass is the first to consume the bread and wine.

In Guibert's world, the devils haunt the monastery latrines, and many a fatal encounter seems to take place during a night-time trip to answer a call of nature. Dreams are scrutinised, and random passages of the Bible are used for divination. In all the obsessive account of the workings of sin, only one area of interest is protected: the author does not tell us the worst of his own shortcomings, although we are led to believe they too are shocking. The excuse given, that Guibert does not wish to encourage the same sins in others, does not for a moment stand up.

The memoirs were translated and published in a volume called Self and Society in Medieval France, edited by John F Benton. This is easily and cheaply found on the internet, as a paperback reprint. The climax of the third of its three books is an account of an uprising in Laon, in which a hated bishop is found hiding in a barrel, taken out and hacked to pieces. There is much lingering over the gory details, and the editor suggests that the author found it useful to channel some of his pent-up sadism into such writings. No one in their right minds would call this a very nice book, or the author an attractive man, but his turbulent psychology is vividly presented and, alternately, inconceivably remote and repulsively familiar.

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