Embedded Hagiography: Teaching the vita of Guibert de Nogent’s Mother


One of the many fascinating features of Guibert de Nogent’s Monodies is the remarkably detailed portrait Guibert paints of his mother, whom he represents in distinctly hagiographical terms. I have twice now incorporated the Monodies into an upper-level course in medieval women in the English Department at The Ohio State University. When we arrive at the Monodies, my students have already read some saints’ lives, including Hrotsvitha’s Dulcitius and Abraham. Their assignment reads as follows:

Circa 1115, when he was about fifty years old, Guibert, abbot of the monastery of Nogent-sous-Coucy in northern France, wrote his memoirs (Monodies). This remarkable book is considered the earliest medieval autobiography, but it relates not only Guibert’s life story but also his mother’s. Your assignment has two parts. First, from the bits of information Guibert supplies in his Monodies, tell story of his mother. Second, analyze the portrait of Guibert’s mother that emerges from his Monodies. What can you deduce about Guibert’s emotions towards and relationship with her from what he does, and doesn’t, say? Be prepared to discuss your findings in class.

This assignment has been tremendously successful in teaching students close-reading skills
and in prompting them to think deeply about holiness, relationships (parental,
heterosexual, heterospiritual), and the complexity of medieval women’s experiences. It
hooks students by asking them to be detectives. Close reading, they learn, is not a boring
academic exercise but rather the discovery and interpretation of clues.

On the day the assignment is due, I run the class as a roundtable. Or rather, I don’t run it.
One of the students presides and scribes as everybody shares their findings. Together, they
reconstruct the mother’s biography and consider Guibert’s strategies of representation.
Questions that have arisen during the roundtable include: Why, if Guibert values his
mother so highly, does he omit to name her? Can we detect resentment and jealousy as
well as admiration in Guibert’s portrait? How does a Freudian lens impoverish this text?
How does Guibert’s anger towards his tutor affect his attitude towards his mother? Must
we speculate that his mother and tutor are lovers—can’t they just be good friends? How
do the mother’s behaviors defy the son’s attempt to sanctify her? I do not weigh in until
the very end, when I share my thoughts on their thoughts and praise what I learned from

This assignment reinforces the idea that hagiography is not indiscriminate praise. It
teaches students how much can be learned by pondering what authors do not say and by
contrasting what they say with what they show. It gives them practice with an essential
feminist tool, namely, deducing the experience of medieval women from texts that are not
explicitly about them. Students come to appreciate hagiography as a complex and nuanced
literary form and to understand its value to cultural historians.

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