The Medieval Review 10.06.18

Zacher, Samantha. Preaching The Converted: The Style And Rhetoric Of The Vercelli Book Homilies. Toronto Anglo-saxon Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Pp. 348. $75 ISBN 978-0-8020-9158-1. .

Reviewed by:

Juliet Mullins
University College Cork

Preaching the Converted represents a welcome addition to a growing corpus of scholarly material devoted to preaching and homiletics in England before the Conquest. Evidence for preaching in the vernacular does not appear until the tenth century, but as this volume demonstrates, in those manuscripts such as the Vercelli Book which were copied at this time the style and sources adopted and adapted by anonymous homilists suggest that an English preaching tradition was already fully formed. Historically, the anonymous homiletic tradition has been compared unfavourably with the work of lfric and Wulfstan, whose collections have been taken as representative of the scholarly rigour and theological orthodoxy of the tenth-century Benedictine Reform. Zacher's work offers an important contribution to the reassessment of anonymous homilies. With her heavy emphasis upon source study and stylistics, she illustrates the strong sense of tradition that imbues these texts and, perhaps paradoxically, the rhetorical skill with which this tradition is transformed into the vernacular idiom.

The first two chapters of Preaching the Converted provide a comprehensive introduction to the codex, date, and origin of the Vercelli Book, and to the scholarly debate as to the manuscript's audience and purpose. The impression given is of a disparate and diverse series of texts devoted to an undetermined audience that might have included secular clergy (Wright), women (Dockray-Miller), or an abbot or bishop (Treharne). [1] In the chapters that follow, however, Zacher argues that despite the differences between the individual homilies preserved in the Vercelli Book (and she stresses that the differences are often greater than their similarities), there remains a consistency within the manuscript and across the anonymous vernacular tradition as a whole that has often been obscured by the claimed eccentricity of the codex as a collection. The supposedly unconventional position of the Vercelli Book is due in part to its preservation of pieces of poetry amongst homiletic prose, but also because of its apparently haphazard ordering, the inclusion of multiple homilies for the same feast, and the repetition of material across the compilation. To counter this view, Zacher provides a number of case studies in which sample homilies are compared and select passages analysed in detail. In the process, she demonstrates how material that is replicated across the codex has been manipulated and transformed to provide evocative rhetorical variations that can reveal the differing agenda of the individual homilists. Each chapter stands alone as a study of a particular theme, approach, or rhetorical device (such as the soul and body tradition, genre, and figurative language) that together provide a series of paradigms for re-evaluating rhetorical figures and tropes that suggest new approaches that might be applied to the wider corpus of Old English homiletics.

The Vercelli Book homilies have often been considered unorthodox and apocryphal, yet many of them draw upon patristic and orthodox Latin writings for their core material. In homilies X and XXII, for instance, Isidore's Synonyma provides material on the soul and body which is then adapted to echo many of the concerns familiar from Old English poetry: society and the exile, deprivation, and the ubi sunt catalogue. The importance of vernacular paradigms is reiterated throughout the volume, with particular emphasis in chapter three, "Seeing Double: The Repetition of Themes and Text in the Vercelli Book." Here, we find one of the most challenging arguments put forward in Preaching the Converted which questions the aesthetic criteria by which the homilies have been judged, suggesting that many of the perceived stylistic anomalies would not be seen as such were the material poetry: "while a rich and descriptive vocabulary has been generated for discussing repetitions in poetry at the level of word, phrase, and scene (using terms like "ring composition," "nonce-formula," and "envelope-patterning"), this language has rarely been applied positively to prose" (65-66). The need to re-evaluate the relationship between homiletics and poetry runs throughout the volume, and the point is made that although poetry is often described as homiletic, the opposite is, tellingly, rarely the case. In later chapters, it is argued that features previously seen as metrical aberrations provide verbal echoes that link original Old English sections with those parts of the homily translated directly from a Latin source so as to create unity across the whole. Although the homilists' skill in integration and synthesis is far from consistent across the collection, Zacher contends that, in pieces such as homily X, it is evidence of the homilist's considerable confidence in the vernacular prose style and in the application of vernacular poetry's idioms to a variety of Latin texts.

The questioning of boundaries between poetry and prose leads in the final chapter to a discussion of homily XXIII, an epitome of the life of St Guthlac which has rarely received the consideration it deserves as part of the Anglo-Saxon Guthlac corpus. Zacher argues that this piece represents a fitting ending to the collection and not simply an afterthought, demonstrating several instances--at the level of theme and style--in which there is coherence with the concerns expressed elsewhere in the compilation. As in earlier chapters, close reading of the text is used to unlock the intricacies of the homily and the rhetorical skills of the homilist, and in this instance the homily is related in terms of word and theme to poetic texts beyond the manuscript (as was the case in an earlier chapter where the relationship between homily XXI and the Exhortation poem was examined). It is not until the conclusion, however, that the poems of the Vercelli Book are related to the homilies in any detail, offering new directions of enquiry for future research. It might be noted that there is little sense of the performance of these pieces: the primary concern of Preaching the Converted, despite its title, is with the Vercelli Book as a literary artefact, as made explicit in the opening chapters and reflected in the definitions of "rhetoric" and "style" used throughout (59). As such, Preaching the Converted offers a thorough and sustained study of the Vercelli homilists' fusion of Latin tradition with vernacular expression and illustrates the permeability between poetic composition and homiletic discourse.


1. Charles D. Wright, "Vercelli Homilies XI-XIII and the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform: Tailored Sources and Implied Audiences," in Preacher, Sermon and Audience in the Middle Ages, ed. Carolyn Muessig (Leiden: Brill, 2002). Mary Dockray-Miller, "Female Devotion and the Vercelli Book," Philological Quarterly 22 (2004): 337-54. Elaine Treharne, "The Form and Function of the Vercelli Book," in Text, Image, Interpretation: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Its Insular Context in Honour of Éamonn Ó Carragáin, ed. Alastair Minnis and Jane Roberts (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007).