Guibert de Nogent, Vampire Slayer

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Guillaume de Degulleville. The dream of the pilgrimage of human life; Torture in Hell, Detail, Flanders, circa 1380-1390
Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Manuscript Cabinet, Brussels, ms. 10176-8, folio 150v

One of my more serious scholarly achievements this weekend was finding the source for Joss Whedon’s Angel plot.

Whedon is getting it in the neck at the moment – justifiably so, really – and so the more dodgy elements of his work are at the forefront of my mind right now. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Buffy and it had a lot of positive aspects. But it’s also hard to look back on some elements without being a little bit creeped out, one of those elements being the Angel plotline, neatly taken down in this blog post. As I was idly browsing through an eleventh-century theologian’s autobiography, as you do, I came across a storyline that made me sit and up snigger. Because I’m pretty sure I’ve just discovered where cursed-to-hell-for-the-sex Angel comes from.

In his autobiography, written sometime around 1115, the medieval monk Guibert de Nogent describes his parents’ relationship. One day, his mother had a nightmare that she had looked into the mouth of hell and seen her late husband, Guibert’s father, lying there tormented by the sound of a screaming baby. Ok, this just sounds like any downtrodden medieval mother’s revenge fantasy, but bear with me. It turns out that Guibert’s father was, in his youth, cursed by an evil spirit who prevented him from achieving that moment of true happiness with his beloved, Guibert’s mother. So, obviously, he decides to test the limits of the curse, and discovers he’s perfectly free to sleep around with other women. As a result, he gets someone else pregnant, and her baby dies before it is baptized. In medieval theology, this means that the baby’s soul is consigned to limbo, unable to find peace.

Unfortunately, because we’re talking about the eleventh century, Guibert’s mother doesn’t run her husband’s cheating-ass corpse through with a sword and send him packing. She tries to atone for his sin by adopting another child in place of the one who died.

Guibert doesn’t tell us whether or not this is a valid strategy for getting your dead husband let off time in the devil’s Big House, but the implication is that it was an exemplary act of wifely devotion on his mother’s part. There is something disturbing about the way that Guibert doesn’t quite realize that, when he approvingly praises his mother for her charitable attempts to redeem his father’s soul and to take in an orphaned child to atone for the lost soul of her husband’s illigitimate baby, he’s really praising her for being badly treated.

Guibert reckons his mother is pretty much perfect, in rather the same way, I imagine, Joss thinks Buffy is, you know, totally awesome. Both of them are creating a fiction of the Good Woman Suffering For Her Evil Man. And in both cases, these men may have written about praiseworthy strong women, but they’ve both also done plenty of dining out on their reputation as supporters of strong women, too.

I think this was my basic issue with Buffy – much as I love it. For one, it’d be awfully nice to find stories about strong women that don’t come with an approving male author self-aggrandizing himself in the background.

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