Another Orient: Guibert of Nogent (extended)

Where is the Orient? In an earlier contribution I made clear that the Orient is mainly a product of the European mind. Which Europeans were the first to speak of the Orient as a foreign and completely different part of the world? That the ancient Greeks, notably the Athenians, would have considered the Persians as essentially different and incurably oriental has already been exposed as a nineteenth century myth.

During the last centuries the Orient was supposed to begin at the Turkish border and to encompass the entire Islamic world and more. But the frontier between east and west was not always that between Christianity and Islam. John Tolan dedicated some pages to Guibert de Nogent (± 1055–1125), a theologian, historian and autobiographer who clearly drew the dividing line differently.1 He wrote in 1109 the treatise Dei Gesta per Francos, ‘The works of God through the Franks’. By this he meant in particular the European conquest of Jerusalem from the Muslim Saracens in 1099, during what is nowadays called the First Crusade. But when Guibert uses the word orientalis, he does not only refer to those pernicious Saracens.

In the eleventh century, the Saracens had indeed caused fear, irritation and disgust in Europe. The Fatimid Empire, that covered Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Palestine and Syria, was a formidable power. Christians from the West were sometimes prevented from making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and in 1009 the whimsical caliph al-Ḥākim even had demolished the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in that city, an act that had reverberated in Europe throughout the century and had become one of the motives for the Crusade. In Anatolia, the Eastern Roman Empire was overrun by Turkish Seljuks, notably after the Battle of Manzikert (now Malazgirt) in 1071.

What concerned Guibert perhaps even more was the situation in the Christian world. The Great Schism between the Latin church of Rome and the Greek church of Constantinople came to a conclusion in 1054, but was of course preceded by protracted theological and political conflicts, and haunted Christian minds long afterwards. Guibert did not have a high opinion of oriental Christians:

  • However, the faith of Easterners (orientalium fides), which has never been stable, but has always been variable and unsteady, searching for novelty, always exceeding the bounds of true belief, finally deserted the authority of the early fathers. Apparently, these men, because of the purity of the air and the sky in which they are born, as a result of which their bodies are lighter and their intellect consequently more agile, customarily abuse the brilliance of their intelligence with many useless commentaries. Refusing to submit to the authority of their elders or peers, they searched out evil, and searching they succumbed [Psalm 63:7].2 Out of this came heresies and ominous kinds of different plagues.
    [The Eastern regions] were lands cursed on earth in the work of its teachers, bringing forth thorns and prickly weeds for those working it. Out of Alexandria came Arius, out of Persia Manes. The madness of one of them tore and bloodied the mantle of holy church, which had until then no spot or wrinkle […]. The fictions of the other, although ridiculous, nevertheless deceived the sharpest minds far and wide with its trickery.3

According to Tolan, among the heresies are counted: ‘the use of leavened bread in the Eucharist, the lack of proper deference to the pope, clerical marriage and Trinitarian errors regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit. It is because of these errors God allowed the eastern empire to fall to the Arab invaders.’4

The Orient is not only weak in religion, but also politically:

  • If we examine the early histories of the beginnings of their kingdoms, and if we chatter about the ridiculous nature of their kingdoms, we must wonder at the sudden overthrowing and replacing of rulers brought about by Asiatic instability (asiaticam levitatem).5

Once glorious regions and cities are in decline and apparently recover only with the help of Western Europeans:

  • The most splendidly noble cities, Antioch, Jerusalem and Nicea, and the provinces, Syria, Palestine and Greece, the seed-beds of the new grace, have lost their internal strength at the roots, while the Italians, French, and Britons who migrated there, have flourished.”6

This opinion was worded in 1109, in the muddy fields of an almost uninhabited Northern-France. It sounds like a foreshadowing of colonial arrogance.

The Crusaders also experienced the insidiousness of the Easterners militarily, e.g. in Antioch. These people claim to be Christians, but they hardly are, according to Guibert:

  • The Armenians and the Syrians, who formed the entire population of the city […], since they inhabited the city itself, and were titular Christians,7 visited us in great numbers, and told them [= the Turks] whatever they had learned among us. They enticed the Franks with their deceptive, repeated lies, and, whispering in their ears, using the most flattering terms, they claimed that they shunned the Turks […] they reported to the Turks whatever news they had been able to gather about the weakness of the Christian side.8

For Guibert, Muhammad was the latest in a long list of heretics.

  • According to popular opinion, there was a man, whose name, if I have it right, was Mathomus, who led the Orient away from the belief in the Son and the Holy Spirit. He taught them to acknowledge only the person of the Father as the single, creating God, and he said that Jesus was entirely human.9

Muhammad was indeed the worst of the Eastern heretics, but not essentially different from them. At the same time he was sent by God as the scourge to punish them.

In Dei Gesta the West coincides with the Latin church of Rome, while the Orient includes both the Greek church of Constantinople and the Saracens.

1. Tolan, Faces, 48–54.
2. Scrutati sunt iniquitates, defecerunt scrutantes scrutinio, Vulgata Psalm 63:7, modern count 64:7.
3. Guibert, Dei gesta 89–90, Deeds of God 30.
4. Tolan Faces 49.
5. Guibert, Dei gesta 91, Deeds of God 30.
6. Guibert, Dei gesta 92, Deeds of God 31.
7. Italics mine. Christianae sese titulo conditionis efferrent.
8. Guibert, Dei gesta 171, Deeds of God 75–6.
9. Guibert, Dei gesta 94, Deeds of God 32.

– Guibert de Nogent, Dei gesta per Francos et cinq autres textes, ed. Robert B. C. Huygens, Turnhout 1996. An older, electronically accessible edition of the Latin text can be found in Migne, Patrologia Latina 156:0679–0837.
– Guibert de Nogent, The Deeds of God through the Franks. A translation of Guibert de Nogent’s Gesta Dei per Francos, trans. Robert Levine, Rochester NY 1997. It is said to be available online via Projekt Gutenberg, but not in Germany.
– John V. Tolan, Faces of Mohammed. Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today, Princeton & Oxford 2019.

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