The research I’m doing for my article on medieval penitentials is taking much longer than I thought it would, so today I will be sharing stories of some misbehaving medieval monks! However, today I will be using a different primary source than the one I usually do. So instead of Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, I will be using The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Guibert of Nogent was a pretty interesting man. His memoirs tell us a lot about what life was like as a monk in 11th to 12th century northern France. He was also a total mama’s boy, which isn’t super relevant to this article, but I feel that is something you should know.
The first instance I’ve chosen to talk about can be found in Book One, Chapter Eight of A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Here, Guibert makes his problems with oblates known. In a previous post, I’ve explained what oblates are, but I would like to give you Guibert’s description as well:
“…monks brought there [to monasteries] in early life through the piety of their kin.”A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, pg. 25
These men have been brought up from early childhood in monasteries. So naturally, they are quite sheltered. If you’ve ever been to college, you’ve probably met someone who was extremely sheltered and has just tasted freedom for the first time. And once someone gets that taste of freedom, they tend to nuts as they absolutely do not know how to handle it. Well, according to Guibert, this was happening to former oblates as well! Apparently, it was quite common for these sheltered monks to be sent out of the monastery on errands and it was even more common for them to go wild when it came to spending money that they should not be spending.
However, going on shopping sprees weren’t the only way former oblates misbehaved. Guibert claims that they could be extremely self-righteous about their behavior. Allegedly, these monks were not particularly afraid of the sins they committed. Instead, they thought they never committed the sins they did! (Or at least they pretended that they had no idea what you were talking about if their sins were mentioned.) To make their hypocrisy worse, whenever these not-very-self-aware monks got any sort of power inside the monastery they were pretty rotten to everyone else. That’s certainly not a way a man of God is supposed to act!
Ironically, despite all their bad behavior, Guibert still thinks that former oblates are very important. (In my translation of the text, he calls them “precious.”) He is writing in the early 12th century and the Church has started giving oblation the side-eye. Fewer and fewer monastic orders are accepting child donations, so monks who grew up in monasteries are becoming increasingly rare. These kinds of monks are supposed to be more pure and innocent than monks who were exposed to the secular world. In theory, they should be better monks. In practice, we know that not to be the case thanks to Guibert’s description of them.
Our next story comes from Book One, Chapter Sixteen. In his early teens, Guibert joined a monastery. However, things were not all smooth sailing for young Guibert. He had a tendency to get into quite a bit of conflict with the older monks. Now, if you take Guibert’s words at face value, everyone else was jealous of him because he was so smart and loved learning so much and no one understood why he loved to learn and they were constantly attacking him because he was smarter and better than everyone else. However, if you read between the lines (and take into consideration a few conversations his mother and tutor had with him in previous chapters), it’s safe to guess Guibert was just being an annoying smug little know-it-all. Here’s a quote that I think displays the truth quite well:
“…they began to notice that I equaled them, or even, if I may say so, surpassed them. So they became so furiously, wickedly indignant with me that I became weary of incessant disputes and attacks; and more than once I regretted having ever become so interested in learning or having acquired it. Indeed, my concentration was so perturbed by these discussions, and so many quarrels sprang up from the ceaseless questions related to that learning, that it seemed to me that my colleagues were determined only to detract my attention and to create obstacles for my mind.”A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, pg. 55
Guibert goes on to lament about how everyone else was just trying to bring him down and they were all so cruel to him. He claims that they asked him questions that were supposed to make his “mind duller.” This did not work as apparently they just made him smarter. Furthermore, Guibert flat out admits that his fellow monks accused him of “letting a little learning go to [his] head.”
Now, perhaps what he was claiming was entirely true. Perhaps they were all jealous of him. However, I think it’s pretty clear that Guibert was being a smart-aleck. After all, monasteries were centers of learning and education. Guibert was just one of many, many boys throughout history sent to a monastery to get a good education. And if everyone around you is telling you off for being annoying, there’s a common denominator in that situation and that common denominator is you. At some point, you have to realize you are in the wrong. It seems like everyone was super annoyed with Guibert. Besides, even if they were in the wrong, Guibert was still bragging about how smart he was. According to The Rule of Saint Benedict, monks are supposed to be humble. In fact, humility is the most important trait for a monk! Guibert was most certainly not being humble here, thus he was not behaving as a good monk should.
Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.