Monks vs. Demons! Part 2: A Novice’s Demonic Dreams

Today I return back to A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent for more stories about the fight between the holy and the demonic. In my last post about this topic, I shared a few stories about demons and the Devil tormenting dying monks. However, the dying were not their only targets. Demons seemed to be more than happy to target monastic children as well. Guibert of Nogent was one such monastic child. When Guibert was twelve, his mother moved to the Abbey of Saint-Germer-de-Fly. (Retiring to a monastery was all the rage in the Middle Ages.) He followed her there soon after. And surprise, surprise, when a young person is raised in a monastery, it increases the likelihood that they want to join the monastic life. (After all, it is what they know, they have a social circle there, and being raised in a monastery gives you an extremely limited amount of secular career options.) During his time as a novice, Guibert was tormented by the demonic.

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Our first story comes from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. Here Guibert recounts an instance where the Devil tormented him in his sleep. How did the Devil do that, you ask? By giving Guibert horrible nightmares of course! Unlike other monks, Guibert didn’t dream of beautiful women. Instead, his dreams were plagued by images of dead men. Specifically, men Guibert had either seen killed or had heard about their gruesome deaths. (Guibert does not specify where he saw people killed in the first place, but evidently, it was something he witnessed in his childhood.) These dreams disturbed young Guibert so badly that his tutor often had to come into his bedroom to comfort him. In fact, if it wasn’t for his tutor checking up on him, Guibert insists that would have gotten out of bed, screamed, or perhaps even had a mental breakdown.

Guibert describes the massive amount of anxiety he felt during these occurrences. He acknowledges that his fears sound might silly and childish, but explains that unless you have gone through the terror yourself, you can’t understand or even imagine how overwhelming it is. Sometimes his nightmares were so bad that it was impossible for him to go back to sleep. To add to the horror of it all, even if he had someone with him it didn’t make the terror go away. When you are alone, the nightmares are either equally as bad or worse than before. I will note Guibert’s claim about having someone nearby contrasts with his previous statements about his tutor. Perhaps he meant that even if someone is there with you while you sleep, you’ll still have nightmares? Either way, the Devil plagued young Guibert’s dreams and nothing really seemed to help.

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Our second story is also from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. It begins immediately after the first story. One winter night, young Guibert woke up due to “an intense feeling of panic.” At first, he’s not too scared because he has a lamp in his room and it allows him to see everything. Then things take a turn. Above his bed, Guibert hears whispers. A lot of whispers. And he does not know what they are saying, nor can he see who or what they are coming from. Suddenly Guibert falls back asleep. This brings him absolutely no peace. In his dream, he sees a dead man standing in front of him. According to one of the many voices Guibert hears, the dead man died (or was killed, depending on the translation) in the baths. Seeing another dead man is too much for young Guibert. He wakes up and jumps out of bed, screaming.

Now things become even worse for poor little Guibert’s psyche. His lamp suddenly goes out. Guibert is engulfed in darkness. That is when he notices the enormous shadow of the Devil. This really frightens him. Once again, he claims he would have gone mad if it weren’t for the help of his tutor. Apparently, his nightmares were frequent enough that his tutor started staying with him to comfort him when they happened. Luckily, the tutor was there that night and that is exactly what he did.

Guibert goes on to reflect why he believes the Devil targeted him. His conclusion is he was too devout and the Devil wanted to corrupt him. According to him, the Devil succeeded. Guibert spends a few sentences lamenting over how he would have been much more successful in life if he had only stayed true to God.

Main Source:

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Other Sources:

de Nogent, Guibert. “Medieval Sourcebook: Guibert De Nogent (D.1124): Autobiography.” Internet History Sourcebooks, 2021, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/guibert-vita.asp. 

Monks vs. Demons! Part 1: The Devil and Dying Monks

If there was anything that medieval monks were terrified of, it was demons. As monks were dedicated to God that meant they were good and holy. (Well, in theory at least. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series for examples of monks not behaving themselves!) Demons do not like it when people are good. Following this logic, it’s only natural that demons would look at a monk and decide to tempt him away from God. Or if the demon didn’t feel like tempting anyone, they would cause some mischief instead. There are a lot of medieval primary sources recording just that. This series will share stories of medieval monks and their run-ins with demons. Today’s source is A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent.

A demon and a sleeping monk | Royal MS 10 E IV f.221r | Source: The British Library

A few notes before I begin. I don’t think it really matters whether or not these stories actually happened. I am recounting these cases as interesting stories that were important to the medieval people documenting them. I’ll be analyzing some of them, but as a whole, I’m not really concerned if Brother So-And-So actually saw the demon or if it was just a figment of his imagination.  Oftentimes, these stories were cautionary tales and/or moral lessons about how medieval people thought proper Christians should behave. (And sometimes they are just funny.) Second, I will include stories of nuns later on. (Who knows, I may also recount medieval stories about other Christian clergy and their encounters with demons as well.) At the moment, my sources focus on monks, so that’s why I’m calling this series “Monks vs. Demons!” For brevity’s sake, I will stick with this title.

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Our first tale can be found in Book One, Chapter Twenty. The setting is Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey after it was attacked by Danes. Guibert does not specify exactly how long it’s been since the attack, but he does tell us that the abbey has been restored. The prior of Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey is a monk named Sugar. Guibert mentions that this monk is “a man of good life.” Unfortunately for Prior Sugar, he’s not doing so well. In fact, he’s very sick and is actively dying. To make his situation even more unpleasant, the Devil himself has decided to pay Sugar a little visit on his deathbed.

While he’s in bed, the Devil appears beside Sugar with a book. He tells Sugar to take the book and read it because Jupiter sent it to him. Note that the Devil said Jupiter, not God. By doing so, the Devil is implying that pagan gods are real, which is a big no-no in Christianity. Needless to say, Sugar is horrified. But the Devil isn’t done tormenting Sugar just yet! He asks Sugar if he loves his abbey. Of course, Sugar says yes. Then the Devil oh so casually mentions that soon the monks of Saint-Germer de Fly are going to stray from following The Rule as strictly as they should and oh yeah, soon the abbey is going to fall into absolute pandemonium. (Though depending on the translation, the Devil says that the brethren will be broken up instead.) Sugar is devastated and manages to tell the Devil off, despite the fact he is dying. Guibert doesn’t say exactly what Sugar said, but it was enough that the Devil left.

Now, I’m not sure if Prior Sugar was at the abbey when the Danes attacked, but clearly, this event is fresh in his mind. As soon as he told others what he had just witnessed, Sugar promptly had a mental breakdown. It must have been extremely bad because Sugar had to be chained up. I find this is extremely upsetting for multiple reasons. One, it’s sad to think that a dying man was so scared of the future for his brethren that he completely broke down. And two, his monks knew of no other way to help him mental health-wise. To quote the SNL skit Rick’s Model Ts, “that’s just where medicine is at.” Luckily for Sugar, before he died he regained his senses and was able to say confession. Confession was mandatory in the medieval period if one wanted to get into Heaven.

Guibert ends this tale by reminding his reader that “the Devil is ‘a liar and the father of lies'” and he probably said what he did because he was jealous. He mentions that (so far) the Devil’s prophecy has not come true. Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey did well even after Sugar died and is still doing well.

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Our second tale is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Four. Similar to the first story, this one is also about a dying monk. The unnamed monk was a devoutly religious man while alive. Well, he was until he wasn’t. Guibert does not specify exactly what sins the monk had committed, but they weren’t good. Apparently, they were vices that no one could stop him from doing. (Which only narrows the list down slightly and opens the imagination up to so many more interpretations.) Immediately after the monk began to give in to his vices, he fell deathly ill. While on his deathbed, he was constantly looked around the room. His friends asked him what he was looking at. The monk replied he saw “a house full of barbarous men!”

His friends interpreted this to mean he saw demons. They were not fazed by this. They told him to make the sign of the cross and pray to the Virgin Mary for help. In reply, the monk said something quite blasphemous: he had neither faith nor confidence in her, but he would if the “barons” weren’t bothering him so much. Guibert is amazed by this. According to him, baron comes from the Greek word meaning ‘heavy’ and wow, these demons sure are heavy because prayer won’t make them go away. (In reality, the word “baron” comes from the romantic languages’ word for man/warrior, so Guibert’s etymology is completely wrong.)

Eventually, the friends asked the monk which of his ailments were the most painful. The monk complained, “he felt as if an enormous, red-hot iron rod were burning his throat and his insides.” Certainly not a pleasant sensation at all! To make things weirder, the windows of the house they were in started to violently rattle as if a bunch of people were slamming the doors. No one was slamming any door. And just in case you think it might have just been the wind, Guibert assures his reader that there was no wind that night. There wasn’t even a breeze. If the house was poorly built, it’s possible they might have been able to feel any wind coming in from the slats between the walls. This freaked out the two monks who were watching the dying monk. They were convinced that it was a bad omen of sorts. And they were sort of right. The sick monk ended up dying that night.

Main Source:

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Other Sources:

“Baron (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/word/baron. 

de Nogent, Guibert. “Medieval Sourcebook: Guibert De Nogent (D.1124): Autobiography.” Internet History Sourcebooks, 2021, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/guibert-vita.asp.