Another Orient: Guibert of Nogent

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 considered 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. In his monograph, John Tolan devotes some pages to the French abbot Guibert of Nogent (± 1055–1125), a theologian, historian and autobiographer who clearly drew the dividing line differently.1 In 1109 he wrote 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, but especially to the Greek-speaking Christians in the East — and he will not have been the only one to do so.

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 eccentric caliph al-Ḥākim had even demolished the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in that city, an act that reverberated in Europe throughout the century and became one of the motives for the First 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 the Orientals (orientalium fides), which had never been stable, but always erratic and unsteady, searching for novelty, always exceeding the bounds of true belief, finally turned away from the authority of the early fathers. Apparently, these men, because of the clean air and clear sky in their homeland, as a result of which their bodies are lighter and their minds more agile, have the habit of wasting their brilliant intelligence on numerous useless commentaries. Disparaging the authority of their elders or peers, they searched out evil, and searching they succumbed (Psalm 63 (64):7). This led to all kinds of heresies and pestilences
    […] were ground cursed for the sake of its teachers, bringing forth thorns also and thistles to those working it (Genesis 3:17–18). Out of Alexandria came Arius, out of Persia Manes. The madness of the one tore and bloodied the mantle of holy church, which had until then neither stain nor wrinkle […]. The fabrications of the other, although ridiculous, also dulled the sharpest minds far and wide with their trickery.2

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.’3

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

  • When we remember the early histories of the origins of their kingdoms and reflect on the ridiculous nature of their kings, we must be amazed at the Asian fickleness (asiaticam levitatem), with which rulers were suddenly deposed and replaced.4

Once excellent and fertile grounds for the expansion of Christianity, they have declined, whereas the vital West European Christians flourish, says Guibert:

  • The eminently famous cities of Antioch, Jerusalem and Nicea, and the provinces of Syria, Palestine and Greece, where the seedlings of the new grace came up, have lost their inner strength at the roots, while the Italian, Gaulish and British offshoots flourish.5

This opinion was expressed in 1109, about cities and regions in the East, where civilisation was still at a far higher level than in Western Europe. What was Northern France at the time? A sparsely populated, muddy country with here and there a chilly castle or monastery. Guibert’s words sound like the foreshadowing of colonial arrogance.

The Crusaders also experienced the insidiousness of the Easterners militarily, e.g. in Antioch. These hypocrites claimed to be Christians, but in Guiberts view they can hardly be described as such:

  • The Armenians and the Syrians, however, who formed the entire population of the city—unlike, as I said, the Turkish camel riders—, because they lived in the city itself, claiming to be Christians, often visited us and told [the Turks] whatever these had wanted to know. With the snare of their deceptive, repeated lies they misled the Franks and whispered all kinds of flattery in their ears, although they did not even let their own wives leave the city. When they left the Franks and returned, they conveyed to the Turks all the information they could gather about the weaknesses on the Christian side.6

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.7

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. Guibert, Dei gesta 89–90, Deeds of God 30.
3. Tolan Faces 49.
4. Guibert, Dei gesta 91, Deeds of God 30.
5. Guibert, Dei gesta 92, Deeds of God 31.
6. Guibert, Dei gesta 171, Deeds of God 75–6.
7. 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 in Germany it is not. I used this translation, but did not follow it everywhere.
– 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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