The Deeds of God through the Franks is either staggeringly inept or fiendishly brilliant.
It’s hard to determine which, though.
I am convinced that Guibert de Nogent counts among the oddest writers of the twelfth century. He was not a famed intellect in his lifetime, or for a long time after it; but he wrote a lot, including histories, theological treatises and his best-known work, the Memoirs, and he had a small following devoted enough that his works were copied and recopied and survived. Only his Latin style was famously twisty and difficult, probably deliberately so, and his works, even at the time, were considered…weird. Interest in him increased with scholars in the 80s like Colin Morris turning to the Memoirs as a shining example of the twelfth century “discovery of the individual.” Those scholars, largely, glossed over the actual contents, which include bizarre episodes like the story of the man who ate his own semen, Guibert’s encounters with demons and the Devil, a historical account that has little if anything to do with Guibert taking up the latter half of the manuscript, and a set of unrelated tales taking up the end. The Memoirs are open, Guibert introduces threads and themes but never resolves them, his writing shifts between circular and disjointed, punctuated by a singular sense of humour that I’d best describe as “dark.”
Guibert fancied himself a fastidious historian. His history of the First Crusade consolidates earlier eyewitness chronicles and throws in various stories he’d heard from crusaders who came back home to France. In his own words:
In proceeding to offer a model to correct (or perhaps corrupt) the history, I have first attempted to consider the motives and needs that brought about this expedition, as I have heard them, and then, having shown how it came about, to relate the events themselves. I learned the story, related with great veracity, from the previous author whom I follow, and from those who were present on the expedition. (25)
“Corrupt” is an apt word choice here, though Guibert also declares that his history is superior in style and content precisely because he wasn’t there: he will weigh the various stories impartially, and let the spiritual authority of the truth shine through. If that doesn’t work, well, that’s perfectly natural, isn’t it?
[N]o clever critic may accuse me of lying…How can it be surprising if we make errors when we are describing things done in a foreign land, when we are clearly unable not only to express in words our own thoughts and actions, but even to collect them in the silence of our own minds? What can I say then about intentions, which are so hidden most of the time that they can scarcely be discerned by the acuity of the inner man? (25-26)
Already you can see that this isn’t an easy text to grapple with.
Historians for many years ignored The Deeds of God through the Franks as a useful source mainly because it’s a mess. It’s a fascinating mess, which is why I’m writing about it. Robert Levine’s English translation only appeared in 1997[*], and since so much of the content comes from The Deeds of the Franks and other Pilgrims to Jerusalem and Fulcher de Chartres’ Chronicle (both are first-hand accounts), its usefulness to Crusade historians is questionable. Most of Guibert’s sources are readily available to us, his actual words tell us more about French attitudes towards crusading than about the Crusades–and even then, we can’t see Guibert’s ideas as common ones. The literary aspects of The Deeds of God make it compelling rather than its historical content. Guibert constantly undermines himself in his chronicle (as you’ve already seen), declaring his intentions and then achieving the exact opposite effect whenever he actually gets to narrating the events themselves. Guibert begins by saying he will tell the glorious history of God’s deeds through the crusaders and praise their divine mission. By the end he has condemned many of the Crusade’s heroes for their cruelty, repudiated the mission to Jerusalem as a selfish one, tut-tutted the foolishness of pilgrims, and hinted that the mission was all for naught since the Muslims will recapture the Holy Land regardless.
The result wasn’t popular with contemporary audiences, or afterwards. It’s easy to see why. It doesn’t really occur to us that a medieval Frenchman (let alone a priest like Guibert!) would be less than enthused by the crusading venture. I mean, it’s hardly surprising to find such dissenters–what’s surprising is how Guibert was so vocal about it. And his words are daring and provocative even today, seeming to goad the reader into objecting, often drawing attention to the text’s contradictions instead of trying to mask them, and thus also questioning the sources he drew from at length.
I don’t know if Guibert undermined himself this way deliberately as a bait-and-switch or if he simply discovered his own feelings on the Crusade in the course of writing his chronicle. It might’ve been a bit of both.[†] Guibert takes the neat, self-contained crusader narratives of the Fulcher and The Deeds of the Franks and explodes them, showing that such coherency was imposed and wasn’t the natural expressions of those events. The “spiritual truth” of the Crusades is that there isn’t one. And this would be an overwhelmingly clever thing to present if only Guibert’s readers recognized it–and some must have, since his style of history hearkened back to the chronicles of Gregory of Tours which likewise have a non-narrative structure which seems alien to readers of history today.
And so, where Guibert tells us at first that the crusaders were transformed from individual nobles into spiritual arms of God with unity of purpose by the crusading spirit (a transformation not even enacted by the urgings of priests, but received directly from the divine), we expect that praise to continue and their mission, God’s will achieved through the Franks, to bring about their salvation. Yet after the knights capture Jerusalem, another transformation takes place:
Let us look carefully at those who take pride in having been present at the capture of Jerusalem; we shall see that none permitted himself to be second to anyone else in committing crimes, betrayals and perjuries. […] These others, because they had seen Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre, thought that they could safely commit any crime, offering their own example as a reproach to holy men who had retreated, without considering how much they themselves should be blamed for the stinking crimes they had committed. But laying these matters aside, let us continue in the direction in which we set out. (104-105)
The ending is glib, how can you just lay these matters aside? The knights didn’t achieve salvation by capturing the Holy Land, but instead became worse! Likewise, Guibert has a penchant for being charitable towards knights who gained ill repute for cowardice or otherwise, while judging those lauded elsewhere rather harshly, “so that divine judgement may show that those men whom public repute has made famous are worse than everyone else, and are less capable of bearing difficulties.” (79)
Strangest of all, considering the tendency in other medieval texts to praise violence or else remain indifferent to it, Guibert is not impressed by crusader “victories” that were, in fact, massacres, and he doesn’t gloss over their cruelty or make excuses.
Here is the massacre at the temple rooftop after the end of the siege of Jerusalem as related in The Deeds of the Franks:
Some of the Saracens threw themselves headlong from the Temple…Tancred was extremely angry when he saw this. (92)
In Guibert’s version, “a general slaughter of pagans took place…[n]o one was spared because of tender years, beauty, dignity or strength: one inescapable death awaited them all,”(131) the crusaders then “invaded the heights of the temple and cut the Saracens to pieces.” Tancred was angry, “because he and the Gaston had given their pledges of security,” and he “was much disturbed by this killing” (132). The Deeds of the Franks leaves that promise of clemency out, and Guibert shows something far more sinister. This passage goes hand-in-hand with Guibert’s account of the siege of Antioch, where “no one was spared because of sex; young children were killed, and, since those weak with age were not spared, there can be no doubt about the ferocity with which those who were young enough to be fit for battle were killed.” (93) Or religion, for the matter–Guibert doesn’t shy away from noting that Christians were slaughtered along with Muslims and Jews.
Guibert’s distaste for these actions no doubt informed his disenchantment with the crusading knights, who he mainly saw as a pack of villains France was better off without.
It isn’t just knights who fall under Guibert’s ire, either. It’s clear Guibert didn’t think too highly of Peter the Hermit, even if his first description seems favourable:
He was very generous to the poor with the gifts he was given, making prostitutes acceptable for husbands, together with generous gifts, and, with remarkable authority, restoring peace and treaties where there had been discord before. Whatever he said or did seemed like something almost divine. Even the hairs of his mule were torn out as though they were relics, which report was not as truth, but as a novelty loved by the people. (47-48)
Which seems well enough, unless you know from Guibert’s theological writings that he hated false relics with a fiery passion, and there’s already something off in this descriptions with the mentions of prostitutes and gifts. Later on, Guibert’s feelings become clearer:
even as you compelled people to go on this journey, and have made them paupers, so you should go before them, carrying out the commandments you have taught them.” (79-80)
He makes them paupers by taking advantage of foolish beliefs in superstition. Guibert might pity the pilgrims who followed Peter, but also points out their foolishness. The legend of the goose is a particular topic for ridicule, since the goose “filled with I do not know what instruction, clearly exceeding the laws of her own dull nature,” (156) was, to Guibert, clearly just a goose even though pilgrims thought geese were flocking to liberate Jerusalem. There’s a reason Guibert mentions this,
We have attached this incident to the true history so that men may know that they have been warned against permitting Christian seriousness to be trivialized by belief in vulgar fables. (156)
Which ties right back in to Guibert’s characterization of Peter the Hermit as, ultimately, a charlatan. It gets weirder, though–an unabashed charlatan priest who pretends to bear the mark of Christ receives praise because, while his intentions were bad in that he just wanted money, still “[h]e who provides encouragement that strengthens a wavering mind certainly is greater than the person to whom his exhortation provides strength” (89)! Guibert’s attitudes are slippery, his presentation ultimately more destabilizing with his inconsistent approach to characterizing people and their actions.
Most shocking of all in The Deeds of God is a relatively short passage, where Guibert states that “[t]he pagans admit they had received a prophecy…that they would be subjugated to the Christian people,”(150) and this astrological prediction proves true. There’s more, though, since “it is very clear that these men, whom celestial judgement has permitted to conquer our people…will, at a later time, be conquered by us, and will be driven out from the lands which they usurped” (150).
It seems Guibert believed (rightly) that this would happen, because unlike the other two chronicles, his doesn’t end with the triumph at Jerusalem and victory at Ascalon. Instead of ending with a coherent arc, The Deeds of God withers away into an interminable account of later campaigns and doings with no clear direction before simply ending. The expedition to the Holy Land is not “over” in any narrative sense, but that’s because The Deeds of God takes every opportunity to depart from the narrative, to question the popular stories formed from the Crusade’s events. Guibert’s characters are ambiguous, contradictory, and so is his history, which carries several conflicting messages that Guibert makes no attempt to weld into a whole.
That’s a lot of words to expend on this text, and the problem with reading something like this is that a good chunk of the text’s effect might very well be accidental, only apparent many hundreds of years after the fact because it touches on questions historians explore about the nature of history now. Yet, if we assume Guibert really was that clever, he did nothing short of taking the carefully-constructed narratives of earlier chronicles and breaking them down, de-narrativizing them (to use a clunky term), and so expose history as a much more chaotic affair than a simple set of circumstances for moral instruction, the more common twelfth-century viewpoint.
And that’s pretty remarkable.
[*] All quotes from the text are taken from there, obviously.
[†]To whit, Guibert wrote, “Please, my reader, knowing without a doubt that I certainly had no more time for writing than those moments during which I dictated the words themselves, forgive the stylistic infelicities; I did not write on wax tablets to be corrected diligently later, but I wrote them directly on parchment, exactly as it is, harshly barked out.” (26)