Preaching, Medieval English

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Medieval English sermon literature (c. 10001500) was founded on the beginnings of English Christianity; the importance attached to the preaching function produced a pulpit literature important to the development of the English language and established literary traditions recognizable centuries after the close of the Middle Ages.

Early Collections. Among the earliest surviving collections of sermons in English is the Blickling Homilies, 19 sermons recorded c. 970 and named by scholars after an early home of the MS. In these sermons, the homilist is concerned more with exhorting his audience than with expounding doctrine. The sermons of aelfricgrammaticus (d. 1020), a monk of Cerne Abbas and later abbot of Eynsham is perhaps the most important of the Anglo-Saxon sermon writers. He prepared a large body of sermons for delivery to the laity. Two homiletic collections have survived: Sermones Catholicae and Lives of the Saints. The first consists of two series of 40 sermons each, intended for use throughout the liturgical year. The second, describe saints "whom monks honor." Many of his sermons had a catechetical purpose. Their contents, following an English paraphrase of the gospel pericope, were adapted from the writings of the Latin church fathers. If Aelfric's sermons were intended for instruction in doctrinal matters, those of his contemporary, wulfstan, are calculated to stir their hearers to repentance.

From the earliest times, the sermon following the Gospel of the Mass could be replaced by the reading in the vernacular of a homily of one of the Fathers. Although little evidence survives from the 11th and 12th centuries, it is likely that the sermons of this time, however infrequent, were in English. See, for instance, Goulburn and Symonds, Life, Letters, and Sermons of Bishop Herbert de Losinga [of Norwich] (Oxford 1878), the Homilies of the Vercelli Book (c. 1100), and the sermons of MS Bodley 343 (c. 1175). Examples could be multiplied, although one should note that the existence in MSS of vernacular sermons does not demonstrate that they were preached in English. They may have been reproduced to edify or to serve as models for clergy not proficient in Latin. robert grosseteste, however, shortly after he became bishop of Lincoln in 1235, issued constitutions requiring the clergy of his diocese to teach their parishioners, in English, the Decalogue, the seven deadly sins, the seven Sacraments, and the Creed. His example apparently inspired others: in 1281 john peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, issued the Constitutions of Lambeth, commanding every pastor, personally or by deputy, to explain to the people four times a year in their own tongue the 14 articles of faith, the ten Commandments, the two precepts of the Gospels, the seven works of mercy, the seven deadly sins, the seven cardinal virtues, and the seven Sacraments.

Whereas "the edicts of the Lateran Council in 1215 imply that the office of preaching was generally at that time either badly performed or totally neglected" (see A. Lecoy de la Marche, 3031, in bibliography; the author is describing conditions in France, but the state of preaching in England was similar). However, the advent of the friars to England transformed that situation. "It seems clear that church-going increased in the later Middle Ages, and it is reasonable to attribute the growth of this situation. Sermons were no longer delivered infrequently, or even as seldom as four times a year." The importance medieval England attached to preaching is attested by the great number of manuals and books of models that survive. More than 80 MSS of 30-odd artes praedicandi (arts of preaching) have been discovered in English libraries, 12 of them from the 13th century. A number of the identifiable authors were Dominicans and Franciscans, and it is clear that the friars were responsible in large measure for the flowering of the preaching art that was such a force in England for 300 years after their coming.

The friars were not the only ones who preached in the vernacular. There is ample evidence of preaching in English by clergy of all kinds from the 13th century onward, and for those who needed them, there were abundant models, manuals, and collections of sermons and exempla. The sermon books were often in Latin, but there was no lack of them in English. Indeed, it is often difficult to determine whether a collection or cycle of sermons was intended for pulpit delivery or to serve as models. Instances are the Northern Homily Cycle, written in short couplets, presumably of single authorship; or the sermons of British Museum MS Royal 18 B. xxiii, which include a famous sermon preached by Thomas Wimbledon at Paul's Cross in 138889; and three sermons from John Myrc's Festial; besides 51 others. Some were apparently for pulpit use and others seemingly served as models.

Later Manuals. Among the interesting manuals besides the Festial are Instructions for Parish Priests, also by Myrc, largely a translation from the Latin of William de Pagula's Oculus Sacerdotis; Jacob's Well (early 15th century), developing in 95 sermons an elaborate allegory in which man is likened to a well that must be cleaned and protected from pollution entering through the five senses; the Lollard translation of the Speculum Christiani, prepared, doubtless, for the many unlearned Lollard preachers (see lollards). Two centuries earlier, c. 1200, Orm, or Ormin, a canon regular of the Order of St. Augustine, wrote the Ormulum. He states that he planned to present in English the Gospels in the Mass book for the year, with interpretations and applications, so that simple men might understand Church doctrines. He never completed his project, but his achievement is monumental; it is valuable today for linguistic study more than as sermon literature, but surely it was used as a sermon manual.

There are many other collections. Some are translations from Latin or French, and the authors of many of the individual sermons are identifiable. The Lambeth Homilies (MS Lambeth 487, c. 1200) include material from Aelfric, and the five Kentish sermons of MS Laud 471 (late 13th century) survive along with their French originals by Maurice de Sully. There is a large body of Wyclifite sermons; however, it is difficult to separate the writings of Wyclif from those of his followers. Most of the two volumes of sermons are probably his, but they are brief, and perhaps were meant as sermon notes for poor priests. G. R. Owst's great studies, Preaching in Medieval England and Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, identify a large number of medieval preachers by name and affiliation.

Structure and Matter of the Sermons. The manuals are specific on the structure of the sermon, although not all sermons followed the directions set forth. First came the text or thema, taken from the Lesson, the Epistle, or the Gospel of the day, except on feast days, when any Bible text could be used. Next followed the prothema or antethema, an apology, which could be made elaborate; and a prayer (sometimes a prayer alone); sometimes the prothema was replaced by a "prelocution" that cited authority for proof of the thema, followed by a statement of the divisions of the sermon, and a prayer. Next came a restatement of the text, or thema, and the "process," a statement of the divisions in which the text was to be treated. In the 13th century, at least, there were two types of division: infra, when the sermon was addressed to clerks; extra, when addressed to the people. Each division of the "process" was a "principal," and each subdivision of the "principal" was a "part," or socius. The amplification of the "parts" could be highly complicated. Traditionally, the rhetorical modes were the historical or literal, the allegorical or personified, the tropological or moralized, and the anagogical or mystical. The development often included citations of authority, parallels from natural history, and analogies from the Bible or saints' lives. Caplan lists 20 forms of amplification ("Classical Rhetoric ," 88; see also his "The Four Senses of Christian Interpretation ," 282290, and Bowers, Publications of the Modern Language Association 65 (1950) 590600).

The mode and tone of the sermon varied with the audience, the occasion, and the talent of the preacher. Although the subject might be the same, the discourse would be different if the preacher addressed a popular audience at the crossroads than when his audience was a congregation of clerks, or when he preached before the king.

Sermons could be very short or very long. The prose "Lithir lok" in Trinity College, Cambridge MS 43 (a Dominican MS, printed by Carleton Brown, Bulletin of the Modern Humanities Research Association, 2.5, September 1926) is about 400 words; the verse sermon on the Lord's Prayer from Cambridge University Library MS Dd XI. 89 [printed by Frank A. Patterson in Journal of English and Germanic Philology 15 (1916) 406419] is 592 short lines in couplets; whereas the "Per Proprium Sanguinem" of Austin Friar John Gregory (printed by Pfander, The Popular Sermon of the Medieval Friar in England, 5464) runs to more than 5,000 words.

Sermons are frequently in pedestrian verse, intended apparently to be mnemonic rather than artistic; often a popular sermon would begin with a few lines from a popular song (St. Francis himself once used a secular couplet as a sermon text). Friar Nicholas Phillipp (15th century) interlards his prose sermons with rhymes and short poems; and Carleton Brown believed that the Franciscan Herebert's (d. 1333) translations of Latin hymns "were designed primarily for pulpit use" [English Religious Lyrics of the Fourteenth Century (Oxford 1924) xiv].

The subject matter of the sermons was also varied: interpretation of the Scriptures, the Creed, the Pater Noster, and the Decalogue was of first importance; exposition of the vices and virtues; reproofs for wrongdoing and commendation of uprightness; setting forth the rewards of right conduct and the punishment of evilthese made up the substance of the sermons.

When the Dominicans and Franciscans reached England in 1221 and 1224, they immediately addressed themselves to the neglected common man, and he responded with an enthusiasm of which there is abundant record. This concern for the common man led the preachers to learn his idiom, his hopes and fears and frustrations. They developed a new kind of vernacular sermon that was instrumental in bringing about the upsurge in church attendance from the 13th century onward.

Influence on Secular Literature. It is impossible to assess this influence adequately. To begin with, the popular preacher must have been a force during the later 11th and the 12th century, as he demonstrably was during the 13th, in the preservation of English as a worthy medium of expression; and he clearly was a major instrument during the 13th century in the fusion of the diverse elements that became the language of Wyclif and Chaucer. He dealt with the commonplace realistically and in picturesque, forceful language, and it cannot be doubted that the realism and vigor of the literature of the 14th and later centuries owes much to his style.

The association of the Church and early drama is a commonplace of literary history; and from pulpit treatment of life and death came the plots of morality plays and a tradition that is still recognizable in the speech on the Seven Ages of Man of Jacques in As You Like It. (see drama, medieval) The allegoric characters of Evil found in Langland are familiar in the homily books; the abstractions of Good and Evil in Pilgrim's Progress have their prototypes in the personified vices and virtues of medieval sermons and religious poems; the symbolic castles that dot the landscapes of 14th-and 15th-century literatureLangland's Tower of Truth, "Maudelyn" Castle in the Digby play, the Castle of Perseverance, and many morewere first homiletic symbol and metaphor. Chaucer's and all other attacks on corruption both within and without the Church have their counterparts in the Summa Predicantium of the great Dominican John bromyard.

Indeed, the whole body of the literature of satire and complaint reflects directly what Owst (Literature and Pulpit, 213) calls " at once the profoundest and most abiding influence of the English pulpit." To cite but one of many available examples, the great collection of homiletic tales, the gesta romanorum, is a storehouse drawn on by Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, and Hoccleve; it supplied Elizabethan dramatists with the plots of some of their best-known plays. Wherever one turns in examining the growth of secular literature in England, from the most sedate to the most ribald, one finds it firmly rooted in popular pulpit oratory and in homiletic writings.

See Also: preaching, i (history of).

Bibliography: j. e. wells, A Manual of Writings in Middle English, 10501400 (New Haven 1916; 9 suppls. 191952). g. r. owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (2d ed. New York 1961); Preaching in Medieval England (Cambridge, Eng.1926). r. h. bowers, "A Middle English Treatise on Hermeneutics: Harley MS 2276 32v35v," Publications of the Modern Language Association 65 (1950) 590600. h. caplan, Mediaeval Artes praedicandi (Ithaca, N.Y. 1934); Supplementary Handlist (Ithaca, N.Y. 1936); "Classical Rhetoric and the Medieval Theory of Preaching," Classical Philology 28 (1933) 7396; "The Four Senses of Scriptural Interpretation and the Medieval Theory of Preaching," Speculum 4 (1929) 282290; "Rhetorical Invention in Some Mediaeval Tractates on Preaching," ibid. 2 (1927) 284295. b. jarrett, The English Dominicans, rev. and abr. w. grumbley (2d ed. London 1938). h. g. pfander, The Popular Sermon of the Medieval Friar in England (New York 1937). a. g. little, Studies in English Franciscan History (Manchester 1917); The Grey Friars in Oxford (Oxford 1892). a. lecoy de la marche, La Chaire française au moyen âge (2d ed. Paris 1886). m. mcc. gatch, Preaching and Theology in Anglo-Saxon England: Aelfric and Wulfstan, (Toronto 1977). d. l. d'avray, The Preaching of the Friars. (Oxford 1985).

[j. e. carver/eds.]