09.05.11, Andersson, ed., Construction the Medieval Sermon

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Kimberly Rivers

The Medieval Review baj9928.0905.011


Andersson, Roger, ed.. Construction the Medieval Sermon. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. xiii, 334. ISBN: 978-2-503-52589-1.

Reviewed by:
Kimberly Rivers
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

The thirteen essays in this collection edited by Roger Andersson arose from a conference entitled "Constructing a Sermon," held in Stockholm at the National Archives (Riksarkivet) on 7-9 October 2004 and sponsored by the "Sermo group." This scholarly network started in Berlin in 1996 with the aim of fostering comparative studies in medieval vernacular sermons and preaching in Europe, but has since expanded its scope to include Latin sermons, and has organized a number of conferences on medieval preaching (1). The expansion of the Sermo group's purview reflects the growth of the discipline of sermon studies in the past two decades. [1]

The common topic of the conference and thus of the book is the construction of sermons. As Andersson points out in his introduction, the conception goes beyond sermon composition and comes to mean a broad approach to sermon studies, including preachers' use of homiletic aids, such as artes praedicandi, distinction collections, and model sermons, as well as linguistic approaches and the exploration of sermon structure (2). The preachers and texts studied come from England, France, Norway, Italy, Flanders, Sweden, and Germany, while the book covers the chronological period from the late tenth to the seventeenth century.

Although the book itself has no formal sub-divisions, a number of clear sub-themes emerge from the essays' topics. One is the question of what influenced preachers' sermon composition. David d'Avray's The Preaching of the Friars questioned the importance of the (in his opinion) over-studied artes praedicandi and pointed to the importance of model sermon collections instead. [2] Yuichi Akae takes up this question in "Between artes praedicandi and Actual Sermons: Robert of Basevorn's Forma praedicandi and the Sermons of John Waldeby, OESA." While acknowledging d'Avray's criticisms, he notes Siegfried Wenzel's claim that "surviving sermons that have the length and fullness one might expect to find in oral delivery are built precisely on the pattern taught by artes praedicandi." [3]

To test this relationship, Akae systematically compares the Forma praedicandi of Robert of Basevorn and the sermon collection of John Waldeby, an Austin Friar at York. Akae compares the twenty-two preaching techniques that Robert calls "ornaments" to a specimen sermon from Waldeby's Novum for the second Sunday after Epiphany (W20). Akae concludes that they both "deal with one identical and specific type of the modern sermon form, rather than just the general modern form" (24). He then contrasts their practices with that of six thirteenth-century, Parisian marriage sermons on the same thema as Waldeby's Sermon W20 (25). Both the French and English versions share the general structure of the modern sermon. However, the French sermons lack the division of the thema and the declaration and confirmation of parts of the English experts (26). Akae thinks that the works of the two English authors are "the product of the same intellectual milieu" and sees this connection as more important than trying to show a direct influence of one upon the other (26). Akae's final conclusion is that his study rehabilitates the artes praedicandi for understanding techniques of sermon composition (27).

Silvia Serventi's essay, "Did Giordano da Pisa Use the Distinctiones of Nicolas Gorran?", employs a similar approach to determine whether Nicholas Gorran's distinction collection was an influence on the sermons of Friar Giordano of Pisa (86). She compares Gorran's collection, written between 1272 and 1295 and widely distributed in the thirteenth century, to Giordano's complete sermon corpus, especially the cycle of sermons that he gave in Florence during Advent 1304. While Serventi does not find any literal quotations, she sees affinities in structure and image. In addition, like Akae and Ricardo Quinto (see below), she stresses the connections between the preaching of Giordano and the Latin culture to which he belonged (94). Serventi also includes a useful appendix with a description of the manuscripts containing the Distinctiones of Nicolas Gorran, a table of the Distinctiones, and an edition of three entries.

Another sub-theme of the book is the convergence between structure and message in medieval sermons. Kirsten Berg's "On the Use of Mnemonic Schemes in Sermon Composition: The Old Norwegian Homily Book," starts with the observation from Kimberly Rivers's work on memory and preaching that structural devices based on concepts learned in the schools, such as the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the four causes, could function as mnemonic schemes in sermons for both preacher and audience. [4] These devices could be used for "generating and remembering preaching material," serving the rhetorical functions for inventio, memoria, and dispositio (221). Berg applies this idea to the Old Norwegian Homily Book, a collection of Old Norse sermons written in Bergen in the first quarter of the thirteenth century (222). A number of these sermons use theological ideas and precepts as structures for the sermons that may also have had a mnemonic function. These "textual structures" are often lists, some numbered, that "could easily be stored in the memory and used later when composing sermons ex tempore or in writing" (223). Examples of such lists include the Four Evangelists, the virtues of the dove, and the hierarchy of the angels. In addition to lists, descriptions of structures, such as the human body or the church, offer textual and mnemonic structures for sermons. Like Rivers, Berg emphasizes that the habit of using theological concepts as lists provided preachers with a way of teaching these ideas to the laity (232-33).

Jussi Hanska's article,"Uidens Iesus ciuitatem fleuit super illam: The Lachrymae Christi Topos in Thirteenth-Century Sermon Literature," also explores the convergence between structure and message by examining the role of topoi in the construction of medieval sermons. Hanska begins with a proposition by d'Avray that writers of medieval Sunday sermons repeated certain themes and topoi that became typical of individual Sundays. [5] Hanska investigates the tenth Sunday after Trinity, whose Gospel reading is Luke 19.41-48. It has two main parts: first, Jesus sees Jerusalem from a distance and weeps and makes a prophecy about it; second, he drives the moneylenders out of the temple (238). Hanska examines a large corpus of thirteenth-century Sunday sermons and focuses on one of the topoi arising in them, i.e. how many times did Jesus cry during his earthly life, which Hanska refers to the lachrymae Christi topos. Although it is not clear when the topos started, it had been introduced into the sermon literature by the early thirteenth century. Hanska traces the treatment of the topos throughout the century, noting how the number of times that Jesus cried, the interpretation of the topos, and the way the topos was incorporated into sermons changed. Hanska concludes that in the thirteenth century literary topoi often had a major impact on the structure of the sermon. "For a medieval preacher, constructing the structure of a sermon was essentially about making decisions on the content at the same time" (251).

Riccardo Quinto also considers questions about the content of sermons and the ultimate origins of some of the major themes in mendicant preaching. In "Peter the Chanter and the 'Miscellanea del Codice del Tesoro' (Etymology as a Way for Constructing a Sermon)," Quinto begins with the edition by Laura Gaffuri and Cecilia Passarin of a miscellany in Padua, Biblioteca Antoniana MS 720, also known as the Codex of the Treasure and viewed as the "oldest and most complete witness" of the sermons of Anthony of Padua for Sundays and feasts (33). Quinto focuses on the structure of Text IX, a sermon built on the theme from Matt 12.8 (Ecce puer meus) and Isaiah 42.1 (Suscipiam eum electus meus complacuit sibi in illo anima mea) (34). He analyzes the text of the sermon, noting the importance of the idea of preparing the house for the Christ by hearing the Word of God (36). Quinto notes how similar the text is to a work attributed to Stephen Langton: Prologue generalitatum magistri Stephani de Longatonia et aliorum qui apposuerunt [6] and gives a number of similarities in parallel passages (37-39). Quinto does not think that Langton's text is the source of Text IX; rather, he posits a common source for both. He posits that the common source might be Peter the Chanter's Distinctiones Abel, "Sacra scriptura" (40).

After the long consideration of sources of the ideas contained in Text IX, Quinto moves on to an insightful discussion of what these sources tell us about the culture in which the author was trained. His overall point is that much more attention should be given to the influence of twelfth-century Parisian secular masters on early mendicant thought, pointing out that the originality of Franciscan preaching cannot be measured "against an indeterminate 'twelfth century theology'" or a "monastic spirituality" that is supposed to have influenced preachers (68). Rather, the secular masters were sources for the mendicants, because their "'cultural project' was the air breathed by the first mendicant friars arriving to study at the University of Paris" (69). Quinto thinks that this stage of theology has not been adequately accounted for in the historiography (70), though one could point to Franco Morenzoni's work on Thomas of Chobham and Joseph Goering's work on William de Montibus, as well as John Baldwin's well-known, Masters, Princes and Merchants. [7] Quinto also includes some useful appendices on Peter the Chanter's Distinctiones Abel, and Stephen Langton's prologue.

Another sub-theme of the book is the importance of model sermon collections in medieval sermon composition. Monica Hedlund and Eva Odelman worked on related research projects devoted to the question of editing model sermon collections. The projects show the influence of d'Avray in that the participants started with the assumption that model sermon collections were more important than artes praedicandi because of their widespread distribution throughout Europe, with hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts extent, in addition to many early printed editions (166).

Hedlund worked on a short-term project called "Model Sermons of the Middle Ages: Commencing the Publication of a Forgotten Mass Medium" that was completed in the Department of Classical Philology of Uppsala University. It was set up as a pilot project with the aim of finding a way to edit a large body of medieval texts (117). The group chose the de tempore collection by the French Franciscan Nicolaus de Aquaevilla (fl. c. 1300), which was printed in several fifteenth-century editions, with the two oldest in Uppsala Library (119). The group edited one sermon by two different methods: one in a critical edition and one in a "semi-critical" edition proposed by d'Avray (119). The editions were presented to a panel of experts, who found that the results of the two methods were about the same. Since the semi-critical edition is a lot less work, it was chosen as the preferable method. The group concluded that a semi-critical edition is a good enough tool for research, but should not used for linguistic investigations. The pilot project was successful enough that it became an on-going project, with the goal of applying the method that was found best in the pilot project to editing one model sermon collection in Latin and one in Old Swedish. The Swedish version was completed by Dr. Roger Andersson, while Odelman is working on a Latin collection of Nicolaus de Aquaevilla's sermon collection.

Odelman's paper, "Editing the Sermones moralissimi de tempore by Nicolaus de Aquaevilla," reports on the progress of the on-going project titled "Medieval Model Sermons--in Latin and Swedish," which was supported for two years by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation (165). Odelman argues for the usefulness of the semi-critical edition (or critical transcription) as proposed by d'Avray (167). She outlines the proposed procedure: choose a sermon collection; collate part of texts in a sample of manuscripts; transcribe the text from a good manuscript or an early printed book; and publish the transcription after correcting obvious errors and adding brief critical apparatus based on a few manuscripts from independent branches used for correcting the transcribed source (167). These should be chosen by means of West Tables, which list agreements in errors between manuscripts, proposed by Martin West. Hedlund's and Odelman's papers should be read carefully by anyone interested in editing medieval texts with large numbers of manuscripts.

In addition to looking at how sermons were constructed by preachers and what materials they had at their disposal, a number of papers examine how sermons were performed and how preachers' presentations were affected by their audience and their recorders. The first topic is tackled by Mary Swan, in her essay, "Constructing Preacher and Audience in Old English Homilies." Acknowledging recent scholarship on performance in medieval preaching, Swan uses the concept of performativity to consider how a homily fosters certain identities in preacher and audience (177). Swan sets up three case studies, all Old English homilies for the First Sunday in Lent, written between the last quarter of the tenth century and the second half of the twelfth (180). In each, she analyzes the homily's performativity through its style by looking at "the positioning of the speaker of a homily and its audience relative to each other" (179). The kinds of devices through which this positioning happens, she calls examples of "positional rhetoric." These are "linguistic markers, in the form of pronouns and verbs, of the position of the preacher and of where the preacher positions the audience, in physical rather than ideological terms" (179). Swan claims, as one might expect, that in a homily, the preacher is seen as a person who has more power than the audience, at least during the preaching event. He possesses the right to speak, the control of the text, and the authority to expound sacred text and teach the audience (179). However, Swan also notes that the preacher's voice is meaningless without the audience. The preacher is thus always trying to maneuver the audience into a certain position, with the result that there is always a certain tension going on (179).

Christoph Burger's article, "Preaching for Members of the University in Latin, for Parishioners in French: Jean Gerson (1363-1429) on 'Blessed are they that mourn'" examines the differences seen between two sermons given by Jean Gerson: one preached in Latin to a university audience at Paris on the Feast of Saints, 1 Nov. 1401 (or 1402), and one preached in French to a lay audience a day later. Burger demonstrates that Gerson accommodated himself to his audience in an able manner. The Latin version clearly shows its connection to the university culture, as Gerson flatters his listeners about their learning. It uses a theme construction, and boasts an indescribably elegant introduction of the theme. Burger notes that Gerson shows off his learning, employing a number of classical allusions to Aristotle, Terrence, and Cicero. On the other hand, the French sermon, while very clearly structured, with classical allusions and the like, plays more on the emotions than the Latin version. Gerson also provides a short, memorable French verse to help his listeners understand the biblical phrase, "Ceulx yci sont bieneureux/ Qui les cuers ont doloreux," which he repeats many times for his listeners' benefit (216). Overall, Burger finds the Latin sermon to be an "oratorical tour de force" and more about instruction than edification, while the opposite is true for the French one (220). Though these conclusions are hardly surprising, it is instructive to see them laid out so clearly.

Thom Mertens's piece, "The Sermon of Johannes Brugman OFM (d. 1473): Preservation and Form," demonstrates the contrast between a preacher's reputation and what the preserved written record reveals. Johannes Brugman is known to most Dutch speakers because of the expression praten als Brugman, "to speak like Brugman" (253). He was by far the most famous Dutch preacher, best known for his attempts to reform Conventual convents and to preach to the people. Though Brugman has such a good reputation as a preacher in the historical record, his presence is far more elusive in his recorded sermons. These are preserved in two collections, along with a scattered tradition of sermons by him in some twenty manuscripts (258). Mertens's main conclusion is that almost all of Brugman's extant sermons were delivered before convent sisters (268). His preaching to townspeople, which made him famous, was not preserved at all, with only one passage left that even hints at how good a preacher he was (268). Mertens thus concludes that constructing a sermon was not just about the preacher or author, but also about medieval editors. "Therefore the construction of sermons, as they are transmitted to us through writing, for a large part was a matter of editing texts, complying with the laws and habits of this profession. This also means that the issue of constructing a sermon was also a matter of constructing sermon collections" (269).

Patricia Stoop's article, "The Writing Sisters of Jericho: Authors or Copyists?", essentially takes a more focused look at the same question. She examines three collections of sermons delivered by preachers to the sisters of the Brussels Augustinian convent of Our Lady of the Rose in Jericho, but written down by the sisters themselves in the mid-fifteenth century (275-76). In particular, the sisters copied down 121 sermons delivered by the convent's first father confessor and rector, Jan Storm (d. 1488). Some of the sisters relied on their memories to reproduce the sermons, while others had written material to aid their efforts. Stoop notes that all of the sermons have an "authoritative I" who addresses the sisters, making it seem as though they were written down by the preacher himself. This authorial voice then raises the question "to what extent are the writing sisters of Jericho personally responsible for the texts as we know them today? Were they merely copyists or--on the contrary--were they the true authors of the sermons?" (276). To help answer this question, Stoop analyzes the prologues to the volumes of sermons written by the copyists, focusing on three sisters, Maria van Pee, Mergriete van Steenbergen, and Janne Colijns. Stoop concludes that the three sisters showed "modest authorship based on personal initiative" (280-82). Stoop also notes that the initiative did not stay with the sisters, pointing to the prologue to another collection of sermons from Jericho, stemming from the period 1632-1714. Like the other collections, it has a long prologue, as well as an epilogue from 1685, for which Stoop provides editions in the Appendix. By the seventeenth century, the initiative in preserving the sermons seems to have passed from individual sisters to the convent's librarian, Catharina van Oyenbrugghe, who encouraged the sisters to write down the sermons.

Anette Löffler also considers the compilation of a sermon collection in her essay, "Die 'Postilla Evangeliorum' des Johannes de Sancto Laurentio." Starting with a sermon manuscript of unknown authorship and date in the University Library of Leipzig, Löffler determines that it is a compilation made by Johannes de Sancto Laurentio in Cologne (318-19). Like the sisters from Jericho, the author provides a prologue in which he describes how he put together his collection, thus shedding more light on the many ways in sermon collections could be put together.

Jonathan Adams's essay, "Language Difficulties in Some Medieval Vernacular Scandinavian Sermons," addresses the interesting question of the linguistic competence of preachers in non-native vernaculars. He notes the constant calls for clearer preaching and complaints about the use of foreign words in vernacular sermons and considers the use of Latin in Scandinavian sermons (190). He begins by examining two stories of clerics traveling outside their native lands for new positions in the church. In each, the cleric has great difficulty in mastering the new vernacular with rather dire effects on his preaching career. Adams then asks the question, "If clarity is arrived at through a successful combination of structure and language, what are we to make of sermons that although they may be theologically sound, well structured, straightforward, and uncomplicated, are written in a linguistic variety that does not appear to be that of any local population--a text in a confused or mixed vernacular form?" (194) Adams wants to know if this sort of sermon was intended to dazzle by its complexity or was perhaps written in a form intended for a specific audience?

To investigate this question, Adams examines three Scandinavian sermons in Codex Vindobonensis 13013, which date from the first half of the fifteenth century and seem to be a mixed linguistic type (196). Though the catalogue calls the language of the sermons "Suecica lingua" (Swedish), it has features similar to those found in fifteenth-century Danish manuscripts, as well as some rarer forms. Adams thinks scholars ignore mixed linguistic forms, dismissing things like this as danicisms in Swedish, when, in fact, study of these rare forms can help figure out questions like a manuscript's provenance (197). He notes that from a linguistic point of view, Swedish and Danish even today can be seen as dialects of a single Scandinavian language (198). He concludes that though the three sermons in Codex Vindobonensis 13013 could be seen as being written in a confused linguistic form, "it seems to me that they are the result of a considered, well-thought-out adaptation of a Swedish text for a local Danish audience" (204).

Overall, this volume of essays is a substantial contribution to the growing body of literature on medieval sermons and a model of interdisciplinary scholarship.


1. For an overview of recent scholarship, see Carolyn Muessig, "Sermon, Preacher and Society in the Middle Ages," Journal of Medieval History 28 (2002): 73-91, and B. M. Kienzle, The Sermon, Typologie des sources du moyen age occidental, 81-83 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000).

2. D. L. d'Avray, The Preaching of the Friars: Sermons Diffused from Paris before 1300 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

3. Siegfried Wenzel, Preachers, Poets, and the Early English Lyric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 69.

4. Kimberly Rivers, "Memory and Medieval Preaching: Mnemonic Advice in the Ars praedicandi of Francesc Eiximenis (c.1327-1409)," Viator 30 (1999): 253-84.

5. D'Avray, The Preaching of the Friars, 251.

6. Riccardo Quinto, "Stefano Langton e i quattro sensi della Scrittura," Medioevo: Rivista di Storia della filosofia medievale, 15 (1989): 67-109.

7. Franco Morenzoni, Des Écoles aux paroisses: Thomas de Chobham et la promotion de la prédication au début du XIIIe siècle, Collection des Études Augustiniennes. Séries Moyen-Age et Temps Modernes, 30 (Paris: Institut d'Études Augustiniennes, 1995); Joseph Goering, William de Montibus (c.1140-1213): The Schools and the Literature of Pastoral Care, Studies and Texts, 108 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1992); John W. Baldwin, Masters, Princes and Merchants: The Social Views of Peter the Chanter and His Circle, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).

Article Details

Author Biography

Kimberly Rivers

University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh