14.04.24, Morrison, ed., A Late Fifteenth-Century Dominical Sermon Cycle

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Matthew Wranovix

The Medieval Review 14.04.24

Morrison, Stephen. A Late Fifteenth-Century Dominical Sermon Cycle edited from Bodleian Library MS E Musaeo 180 and Other Manuscripts vols., 1 and 2. Early English Text Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. cviii, 672. ISBN: 9780197265116.

Reviewed by:
Matthew Wranovix
University of New Haven

Stephen Morrison, the directeur-adjoint of the Centre d'Etudes Supérieures de Civilisation Médiévale in the University of Poitiers, has done students and scholars a great service with this edition of late medieval Middle English sermons. This collection, found in seven manuscripts and edited here in its entirety for the first time, is one of only roughly twenty complete Middle English sermon collections still extant. Totaling sixty-nine sermons in all, this collection includes a full dominical cycle with additional sermons for major feasts throughout the liturgical year.

In an extensive Introduction, Morrison explains the relationships among the surviving manuscripts, describes in brief the content of the cycle, identifies major themes and characteristics of the sermons, and raises some interesting questions about the sources of the sermons and their possible authorship.

Based on the language of the sermons, Morrison argues for an East Midland origin, perhaps in Leicestershire near the Staffordshire border. The nature of the collection suggests that the compilers were secular priests who intended their work to help parish priests fulfill their preaching duties. Four of the seven manuscripts of this sermon collection were copied by a single scribe, perhaps for the retail trade. The scribe clearly had either received a commission to produce multiple copies of the text or expected a ready market. Such activity suggests a lively demand for sermon material among the parish clergy. Morrison further argues that these sermons were, at least at some point, delivered orally and did not just exist as written literature. The simplified system of punctuation, the relative lack of abbreviations, and several turns of phrase all suggest oral delivery. For example, the compiler of Sermon 11 denounces the falseness that often takes place in buying and selling, but then admits that "it is to long and to gret a mater to expresse at (th)is tyme" (61). In Sermon 13 there is a reference to "personys present" (76). Finally on Pentecost Sunday, the compiler writes, "These wordys that I haue spoken in Laten be thus moche to sey in Ynglyssche to yowre vnderstondyng...[My] pes I leve with 3ow, and my pes I 3efe to 3ow" (217).

It is often stated that after Arundel's provincial constitutions of 1409 that English preaching shifted away from biblical exegesis towards more generalized pastoral teaching or meditations on Christ. Indeed, while preachers were permitted to make extemporaneous translations of biblical texts in their sermons, it was forbidden to make any written translations of scripture or to own a copy made after the time of Wycliff. Preachers were instead to limit themselves to Pecham's pastoral syllabus from 1281, which focused on the Creed, Ten Commandments, Lord's Prayer, the Seven Deadly Sins and the contrary virtues. This collection certainly contains no lack of such catechetical material. The Seven Deadly Sins are discussed extensively in four sermons, while four others discuss the sins briefly as group. The Ten Commandments are dealt with in two sermons, one sermon reproduces the baptismal rite, and nine sermons include instruction about confession and the eucharist. This is all fairly standard. The sermon compilers do, however, show a marked interest in social relations; three sermons take the Three Orders model of society as their focus, while the plight of the poor is highlighted in seven sermons. In contrast to the rigorous penitential message that Anne Thayer has identified in printed German sermon collections before the Reformation, this collection emphasizes the mercy of God, a theme in six sermons, and more often describes Christ as an intercessor, friend, and lover than judge.

Despite the catechetical instruction typical of late medieval sermon material, the collection does defy expectations in its extensive translation and exegesis. Forty-six of the sermons are based on gospel readings and fifteen on epistolary readings; the base text of each is given in Latin and translated into English. Beyond the base text most sermons are also sprinkled with translations of other relevant biblical passages. For example, when analyzing a passage from Second Kings (Moriar pro te, fili), the compiler writes, "Good men, (th)ese words (th)at I haue tane to speke, (th)ei ben wreton in (th)e secunde boke of Kyngis, and (th)ei ben (th)us moche to sey in Ynglyssche: 'Sonne, I schall dye for (th)e'" (153).

More remarkably, there is evidence that the compilers used the late-14th century Later Version of the Wycliffite Bible (WLV) to aid their translations of biblical passages into English. Yet the collection as a whole has not a whiff of Lollardy. The piety of the sermons is strictly orthodox, and Lollards are not mentioned directly. Over half of the sermons employ exempla as proof texts, a practice frowned upon by Lollards. In an article published in 1997, Morrison had himself already argued that the way in which the compilers strive to defend the doctrine of the real presence and the necessity of confession was a response to Lollard criticism of those two doctrines. Numerous sermons also adopt trinitarian language when it is not strictly necessary. The compilers often, and needlessly, identify Christ as the "secunde persone in Trinite." In the sermon for the first Sunday in Advent, the compilers insert trinitarian language into a translation of a passage from the Gospel of John, "Hec est vita eterna: vt cognoscant te, verum Deum, et quem misisti Ihesum Christum. That is to sey: This is (th)e lyfe that ever schall last: that they know (th)e, very God in Trinite, and whome (th)u sendist Ihesu Criste" (9). The orthodoxy of the compilers, therefore, is not in doubt. That orthodox sermon compilers both could and would use a Wycliffite translation suggests that the dividing line between heresy and orthodoxy could be quite thin.

The use of the WSV also raises questions about the availability of biblical texts and translations in the fifteenth century. How did the compilers access the text? Was ownership of it common among the secular clergy? Previous scholars, notably Peter Heath and Margaret Deanesly, have claimed that secular clergy only rarely possessed Bibles. Either the compilers were unusual or scholars need to reassess assumptions about clerical book ownership. My own work suggests that, at least in German-speaking lands, ownership of biblical texts, and even whole bibles, among the parish clergy may not have been as rare as once thought. Perhaps this issue needs to be reassessed in England as well.

Aside from the extensive Introduction, the edition includes a table that shows the contents of each of the seven manuscripts, indices of proper names and quotations, extensive explanatory notes for each sermon, and a glossary of Middle English terms. The explanatory notes list the manuscript(s) where the sermon appears, identify biblical texts quoted or referenced in the sermon, review quotations and references to other texts, and point out any distinctive features. Readers less familiar with Middle English will be saved by the glossary from unfortunate errors in interpretation. "Sogettis" are servants; an "egge-tole" is the cutting edge of a blade; and when the sermon compiler claims that Christ was the "moste connyngyst leche that ever was" (30), he is not blaspheming but rather praising Christ for being a cunning "physician" of the soul. Since both the glossary and the explanatory notes are in volume two, it can be somewhat cumbersome to use them when reading sermons in volume one. While this edition is clearly aimed at scholars, I can imagine in the future an edited selection of sermons from this collection that would make an excellent text for undergraduate students of late medieval English literature and piety.

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Author Biography

Matthew Wranovix

University of New Haven