The Medieval Review 10.01.06

Wenzel, Siegfried, trans. Preaching in the Age of Chaucer: Selected Sermons in Translation. Medieval Texts in Translation. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008. Pp. 334. . $34.95 ISBN- 978-081-321-5297.

Reviewed by:

Laura Iseppi
New York University

Scholars who are also teachers of medievalia will be happy to know they have a new instrument at their disposal. Siegfried Wenzel's selected translations of medieval Latin sermons seem, in fact, to serve exactly this purpose: while a little too generic for scholars, especially in the Introduction, it is perfectly adequate, and actually rather useful, for students. Strictly linked, as one gathers by the number of textual references, to Wenzel's 2005 monograph on a similar theme (Latin Sermon Collections from Later Medieval England: Orthodox Preaching in the Age of Wyclif Cambridge: Cambridge U.P.), the present selection (Preaching in the Age of Chaucer. Selected Sermons in Translation) stands out mostly for its ability to organize, schematize and exemplify a matter which is often exposed in confused and obscure terms. Referring interested readers to other, more technical studies--though the final bibliographic suggestions (319) lack the poignancy of the endnotes found throughout the text and are unnecessarily concise--Wenzel manages to successfully divide his material in four major parts, which are then further subdivided, providing a summary of what we mean when we talk about medieval Latin sermons.

The four main parts provide a general survey of the subject and are made all the more memorable by their suggestive headings. Part I, From Scripture to Sermon, is the most effectively organized. It presents the different steps that would typically lead from the Gospel lection, through the Glossa ordinaria and a model sermon extracted from a cycle--in this case by a well-known preacher, John Felton--to a couple of anonymous sermons on the same thema conceived and shaped to be actually delivered respectively in "small parish churches in the English Midlands" (31) and to "a clerical audience" (40). This procedure allows readers to clearly understand and visualize the progression leading from the sacred text to the real sermon. A progression which does not only lead from what is usually called "ancient 'homily'" (x) to "the modern [beginning of the 13th century] university or thematic or scholastic 'sermon'" (x), but also from these types of learned commentary, often intermingled, to the actual, real, necessarily simplified sermons that were probably delivered in rural parish churches.

The remaining three parts, Through the Church Year, Saints' Feasts , and Special Occasions, provide examples of the ample range of themes and occasions sermons were dedicated to. Obviously, Wenzel's choice cannot but be partial and limited. I found, though, that his selection well represents the variety, and at times sheer complexity, of a genre which is all too often dismissed as simply boring. The selection not only allows us to perceive the amount of social, economic, political issues that can filter through a "simple" sermon--I am referring, for instance, to the two "wycliffite" sermons in Part II, or to the sermon delivered on the occasion of the enclosure of a nun (283-297), or to the "academic sermon" (298-315) filled with learned quotations from both the Church Fathers and Seneca, Cicero, Aristotle--but it also lets surface the range of rhetorical complexity which permeated the whole spectrum of sermon composition in the later Middle Ages. A number of interesting issues are also noticed when they appear in the sermons and they could well stir the curiosity of students. I am referring, for example to the occurrence of certain themes, such as the references to the dismemberment of Christ's body by swearing (35), to the "parchment" or "charter" of salvation (115), to the "image" of Love (119) or to the ubiquitous references to the seven deadly sins. Again, as I mentioned above, this selection does not appear to have been meant to investigate this multifarious subject in depth, but it certainly provides an excellent overview of the kind of material available.

This generic perspective is, equally predictably, what could raise the criticism of more experienced readers. For instance, I found that the title of this book should indicate that the sermons included are translated almost exclusively from the Latin and not from the Middle English, as one would likely expect by the reference ("[...] in the Age of Chaucer") to the Poet who is mostly known and celebrated for his works in the vernacular. As Wenzel states in his Introduction, the selection includes "translations of nearly two dozen Latin sermons and one from a Middle English source" (x), and even though the short commentaries to the single sermons repeatedly stress that some were written in a mixed language, which he calls "genuinely macaronic" (62) or were actually redacted both in Latin and in Middle English, the issue of language--not a minor one in this post-1215 period and environment- -is rather superficially dealt with in the Introduction so as to leave the impression that the majority of sermons in late medieval England were written exclusively, or at best mostly, in Latin. As we know this is not the case and I have the feeling that this is a really involuntary slip, even though I would have been more reassured if I had found in the endnotes or suggested further reading list a mention to the excellent 2007 O'Mara and Paul Repertorium of Middle English Prose Sermons which, in case there was any doubt, confirms the extraordinary abundance of late medieval sermon material written in the vernacular. Wenzel's statement that "sermons were the medium par excellence through which the dominant system of beliefs and ethics was formulated and presented to [a most diversified] audience. Though this was done in a language that could be understood by the listeners, the majority of surviving sermons have been preserved in clerical Latin" (ix) is thus, when applied to later medieval England, at least questionable. Perhaps what Wenzel means is that the Latin and the Middle English coexist as languages in which sermons were redacted, and that certainly in some cases--university sermons or lectures, for instance, or even any sermon addressed to a clerical audience-- Latin is the preferred one. But suggesting that this was the exclusive language in which they were written down--and regarding their oral delivery we know close to nothing--is simply incorrect.

Notwithstanding the concision and consequent lack of incisiveness of his Introduction, Wenzel produces an excellent didactic tool which hopefully will encourage young students to pursue the lines of interest which this book will have certainly opened up.