A literary genre comprising manuals on the art of preaching. In the period from 1200 to 1500, with the rise of the great preaching orders and the spread of scholasticism, preaching flourished both in practice and in theory. Special manuals proliferated; well over 200 are known, although most of them are still in manuscript form, unpublished. Many are anonymous. These systematic treatises are quite different from the sketchy and rudimentary attempts of the earlier period to give outline to the art, a period when the direct and uncomplicated homily was the common type of preaching.
The professed aim of the preacher was to win souls to God, to provide instruction in faith and morals. He was advised to feed the mind rather than charm the ear, to confer profit rather than delight, and not to make a vainglorious display of his powers. Yet eloquence could be the handmaid of Christian truth and secular learning could be made use of by the preacher. Several of the best treatises on the ars praedicandi were devoted to sermons to be delivered to the clergy and students in the theological schools of the great universities, and they therefore reflect the taste of learned audiences.
The influence of classical rhetoric on the ars praedicandi is in some degree apparent, but the scholastic foundation goes even deeper—dialectical topoi abound in the method of developing the sermon. The most common method of sermon development in this period was the thematic, and this embraced a variety of types.
The thematic sermon was generally constructed of the following parts: the theme, drawn from the Bible; the protheme (or antetheme), likewise from the Bible, which should render the hearers attentive, receptive, and well disposed, and lead to a prayer invoking God's aid; the reintroduction of the theme, beginning with a citation from Scripture, the Fathers, or a moral philosopher, and then proving by scriptural authorities the terms present in the theme, employing for the purpose argument, narration, example, or other means of explication; finally, the development, in which the parts of the theme are divided and subdivided and the process is carried out with application of a great variety of hermeneutical principles. Recourse to the concordant points in the authorities is constant. The sermon was often compared to a tree, the theme corresponding to the root, the protheme to the trunk, the main divisions to the larger branches, the subdivisions to the smaller, and the development to the rich foliage, flowers, and fruit.
Development by expansion was an important feature of preaching theory. Among the numerous means are maxims, the exemplum, etymology, the four senses of scriptural interpretation, rhythm, metrical consonance, and cadence (the last three serving also a mnemonic purpose), multiplication of synonyms, interpretation of a name, the logical categories, cause and effect, syllogisms and enthymemes, and opportune humor. The preacher's ethical qualities, personality, and deportment, and the psychology of many different kinds of audience are often considered, and advice of practical value is offered for the delivery of the sermon. Occasionally homiletical aids are recommended, such as biblical commentaries, glosses, concordances, tracts on vices and virtues, collections of exempla, homiletic lexica, and text-materials—all storehouses on which the preacher could draw.
The highly schematized nature of the artes, with their serrated tissue of texts and divisions and their tendency to encourage mechanical artifice, verbal dexterity, and often false subtleties, induced an adverse reaction on the part of some critics both at the time and later. Others, however, praised the ingenuity of the inventional scheme, the adherence to good order, the firm foundation in Scripture, and the shrewd and sound observations. When allied to talent, the rules doubtless trained many effective preachers in their day.
See Also: preaching, i (history of); preaching, ii (homiletic theory).
Bibliography: É. gilson, "Michel Menot et la technique du sermon médiéval," Revue d'histoire franciscaine 2 (1925) 301–350. g. r. owst, Preaching in Medieval England (Cambridge, Eng. 1926). t. m. charland, Artes praedicandi (Ottawa, Canada 1936). w. o. ross, ed., Middle English Sermons (London 1940). c. h. e. smyth, The Art of Preaching: A Practical Survey of Preaching in the Church of England, 747–1939 (New York 1940) 1998. d. roth, Die mittelalterliche Predigttheorie und das Manuale Curatorum des Johann Ulrich Surgant (Basel 1956). h. caplan, "Classical Rhetoric and the Mediaeval Theory of Preaching," in Historical Studies of Rhetoric and Rhetoricians, ed. r. f. howes (Ithaca, NY 1961) 71–89, 387–391; "Rhetorical Invention in Some Mediaeval Tractates on Preaching," Speculum 2 (1927) 284–295; "The Four Senses of Scriptural Interpretation and the Medieval Theory of Preaching," ibid. 4 (1929) 282–290; Mediaeval Artes praedicandi: A Hand-List (Ithaca, NY 1934); Mediaeval Artes praedicandi: A Supplementary Hand-List (Ithaca, NY 1936).