09.03.19, O'Mara and Paul, eds., A Repertorium of Middle English Prose Sermons

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Laura Iseppi

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.019


O'Mara, Veronica and Suzanne Paul, eds.. A Repertorium of Middle English Prose Sermons. 4 volumes.. Sermo: Studies on Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation Sermons and Preaching. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. 2895. ISBN: 978-2-503-52738-3; 978-2-503-52739-0; 978-2-503-52740-6; 978-2-503-52741-3.

Reviewed by:
Laura Iseppi
Istituto di Istruzione Superiore "Don Lorenzo Milani", Rovereto

A Repertorium of Middle English Prose Sermons stems from an ongoing supranational project--SERMO: Studies on Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation Sermons and Preaching--with counterparts in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden working to create catalogues of sermons in medieval vernaculars. Dating mostly from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the prose sermons are classified according to the categories the editors, Veronica O'Mara and Suzanne Paul, deemed most useful for enabling future research on the subject. Aiming to present the genre in its widest range, O'Mara and Paul reviewed an impressive number of texts (1481 sermons in 162 manuscripts), collected from mainly British libraries and a few North American ones, to present an amply indexed tool which no doubt will become indispensable to all students of Middle English preaching material. In other words, a dream come true.

Thus, after familiarizing myself with the format of the descriptive entries, I happily set to work. I was quickly able to trace ten sermons containing references to one of the themes I am currently working on (swearing) and to find the number, whereabouts, dating, format, contents (and much more) of the manuscripts touching on this subject. I was also furnished with cataloguing references numbering not only manuscripts, but also the single sermons they contain (one, BL/Add 40672, lists almost three hundred, filling pages 464-886 of vol. 1), again a precious tool that will definitely facilitate scholarly exchanges. I found that only four sermons treat the subject directly and that they all tackle a different aspect of the main theme: one focuses on the exemplum of the Bloody Christ Child; another uses the metaphor of the houndes to convey the violent act of tearing apart; a third concentrates on the parallels between swearers and adders with venomous tongues; and the fourth--an amplified version of the former--brings the argument full circle equating swearing to the crucifixion of Christ. I was able to find an additional sermon dealing with this theme by searching for a line (Exhibete membra vestra seruire iusticie) from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (6:19) that warns against the misuse of body parts, and five more by checking the biblical citation itself (Rom 6:19). I found though that this second set of sermons is less relevant to my work and now I know I won't need to take great pains to see them. At the same time, it is clear that a close look at the four I mentioned above will be necessary, thus fulfilling the editors' wish that their work's "ultimate purpose" could be that of "sending readers back to the texts themselves and on to future research" (lx).

I was able to conduct my brief inquiry thanks to a solid corpus of indexes which allow for a swift search. For manuscripts, these include indexes of owners, scribes and provenance, and, for sermons, indexes of authors, occasions, themes, biblical citations, proper names, place names, concepts, exempla and verse. Similarly, the editors provide extremely useful cross-references to other catalogues, such as the Index of Middle English Prose or Peter Beidler's A Manual of Writings in Middle English, or even to the forthcoming edition by Susan Powell of Mirk's Festial, which may contain additional information that could not be included in the four already bulky volumes of the Repertorium. This collection provides a very much needed companion to the early pioneering works on Middle English sermons and sermonizing-- G.R. Owst's Preaching in Medieval England and Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England--just as to the much more recent critical investigations of the genre, such as Helen Spencer's English Preaching in the Late Middle Ages, or to the various editions of collected sermons published in the past decades. The Repertorium provides a reference grid whose practical use is not limited to listing sermons by heading, provenance or theme, for it will also effectively stir the interest and raise the curiosity of scholars who might have otherwise shunned such irksome readings as we know sermons can be.

Conducted under the aegis of O'Mara and Paul, the project no doubt must have benefited from the advice of a number of scholars (Anne Hudson, among others), researchers, librarians, archivists, computer scientists, publishers and editors whose help--duly acknowledged in the introductory comments--must have been invaluable given the amount of work required to complete such an arduous, "gargantuan" (xxiv) task. It seems to me, in fact, that the fascination of an enterprise like this one, apart from its obvious practical benefits, must lie in the number of questions it raises and, at times, answers regarding this rather understudied genre, and in the number of lines of research it inevitably opens up. Having to catalogue texts that are often repetitive, fragmented, allusive, highly patterned from a rhetorical point of view, and at times hopelessly uncategorizable (to say the least) O'Mara and Paul were faced with many issues that range, for instance, from the technical ("How long should the incipits and explicits be? [...] How are the exempla to be described?" xxiii), to the substantial ("Apart from anything else, all that was preached cannot be labelled sermons, and that which is now in written treatise form may once have been preached" xxvii), to the temporal ("The real problem [in choosing which manuscripts should be included in the catalogue] lies [...] in deciding the final cut-off point" xxxiv), while always being aware of dealing with material endowed with great potential for research. Paradoxically then, by stating that "this work is not to be seen as an end in itself but simply as a stepping-stone to future research and it is on this basis that we now make it available" (xxiv), they also admit the limits their cataloguing efforts necessarily imply and the necessity that this catalogue be used to undo some, if not all, of the Gordian knots they at times had simply to cut.

Some readers in fact may find some of the editors' decisions unreasonable--referring to still unpublished editions, for instance, or to other catalogues whose entries may admittedly "not be completely correct" (xxxix). Still, as a user of the catalogue, I prefer getting as much information as possible which, when I am warned of possible inaccuracies, I will check and recheck. Similarly, when trying to define what a sermon is, some readers may find that excluding a text headed Sermo de oracione dominica (in BL Harley 4172, ff. 50r- 53r) because "it is not in a sermon manuscript and is in fact more treatise-like than sermon-like" (xxx) might be unfair, but at the same time we cannot but appreciate the editors' efforts to establish some necessary boundaries and rules when dealing with such frayed matter. There is one instance, though, where I would have liked more precision: I am referring to the description of the historiated initial reproduced on the cover of the four volumes taken from the copy of Mirk's Festial in Durham Cosin V.iii.5 (and not, as indicated on p. xlix of the Introduction, from "Dur/Cosin V.iv.5") which, as the editors point out, is "the only example of an illumination in any Middle English sermon manuscript" (xlix). Exactly because of its uniqueness, or at least its extreme rarity, I think this initial should have merited more than the simply decorative role on the title page and the discouraging comment "there is a historiated initial depicting a preacher in a pulpit on f. 1r" (285) in the entry describing the manuscript. Why couldn't an art historian be asked to have a look and provide a technical description? By looking closely, for instance, anyone may notice that the pulpit is surrounded by grass, thus suggesting an outdoor location for the preaching--not at all unusual in the Middle Ages, as we know mainly from Owst and Spencer--but probably worth a longer, more detailed comment on the topography of preaching, on the wallpaper-like red background (which apparently contradicts the naturalistic surroundings suggested by the grass), on the curious (at least to me, but I am not an art historian...) frontal position of the joined hands, on why this particular manuscript was at all decorated, on the relationship between the miniature and the text next to it, and so on. I realize the editors were certainly constrained by space limits (and rightly so), but the often wished for "interdisciplinarity" may have gained some ground if more attention had been devoted to the pictorial qualities of this little (?) image.

Apart from these marginal notes, I was very much satisfied with this Repertorium. I found it easy to consult and sufficiently detailed to allow for a quick, though full, overview. Hopefully the already on-going attempts at making this work available in an online searchable database will be successful and will contribute even more to encourage future research.

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Author Biography

Laura Iseppi

Istituto di Istruzione Superiore "Don Lorenzo Milani", Rovereto