15.01.14, Diesenberger, Hen, and Pollheimer, eds., Sermo Doctorum

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Jamie Kreiner

The Medieval Review 15.01.14

Diesenberger, Maximilian, Yitzhak Hen, and Marianne Pollheimer. Sermo doctorum: Compilers, Preachers, and Their Audiences in the Early Medieval West. Sermo: Studies on Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation Sermons and Preaching, 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. x, 454. ISBN: 9782503535159 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jamie Kreiner
University of Georgia

Think the subject of the sermon isn't for you? Count yourself among very old company. "The lack of interest in early medieval sermons is not a new phenomenon," Max Diesenberger consoles us; "it seems to have been shared by late antique and early medieval audiences" (1). The hawk-eyed Caesarius of Arles caught congregants trying to skip out of church after the Gospel reading. And one of the toughest crowds the Merovingian bishop Amandus had ever faced, in his many years of missionary work, were his own clerics in Maastricht. They couldn't stand his sermons.

Few early medieval sermons have been edited. Most of them have been dismissed as unoriginal and artificial echoes of the warm-blooded work of Late Antiquity--that "golden age" of sermon writing in the late fourth and early fifth centuries when preachers spoke mostly in their own words to their congregations week after week, after which their sermons were transcribed (sometimes lightly edited), and set into circulation. That moment was made special the minute that homiletic practices changed, when sermons became a conversation not only with audiences of the present but also with the late antique authorities: from the mid-fifth century until the later eleventh century, the majority of sermons that survive from western and central Europe were composed by excerpting, combining, and occasionally reworking that voluminous patristic material. But as Mark Vessey cautions, in historians' hands the "golden age" moniker slips a little too comfortably into the sense that it was a superior age because it conforms to our own ideas about what counts as creativity. The early medieval shift in compositional technique did not amount to the end of the inventive, nimble sermon. It does, however, require a corresponding shift in our own terms of evaluation.

For one thing, written sermons are not a surefire sign of what transpired between preachers and their audiences. Different sermons anticipated different readers or listeners. Ian Wood shows how many of the homilies of Avitus of Vienne could just as aptly be called aristocratic praise poems, and in early medieval codices they sat comfortably among the bishop's collected letters, whereas others look more properly liturgical. Nor was every sermon written as a script to be read verbatim in front of a congregation. James McCune's survey of the evidence for Carolingian preaching practices suggests that many sermons in manuscript form, particularly the ones gathered together in homiliaries, were probably used as model texts that offered a conceptual scaffolding to structure the speeches that preachers actually gave live, in the vernacular. Consequently David Ganz argues that the earliest sermon to survive in Old French (Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 521 [1]; original and English translation included in this volume)--with its mix of French and Latin languages, Tironian notes and longhand, and rhetorical repetitiveness--was probably either a transcription of a sermon that was actually delivered, or a series of notes for cueing several possible sermons pitched to different educational and linguistic registers.

It is also crucial to consider how exactly sermon texts would have been integrated into particular liturgies. Jesse Billett's study of readings for the night office (Matins) packs several punches for this point. He shows that what was being read changed over time: originally celebrants or communities would choose their readings for the night office from any combination of scripture and exegesis or homiletic material that seemed appropriate, whereas in the Carolingian period texts started being permanently fixed to particular feasts. Billett also reminds us that sermons would have been read on recitation tones--that is, they were chanted on single pitches capped with cadential melodic movement that synced with the ends of text phrases. In the Divine Office sermons were also sung as fragments that dovetailed with other texts and scripts; and here Billett demonstrates that once homiletic readings were assigned to certain celebrations, the responsories that were written for specific days could then be composed to respond to the readings they reliably followed, effectively wrapping a new exegetical layer around the older ones. Nonspecialists will also appreciate Billett's demonstration of how this intertextual soundscape would have unfolded in real time: he reconstructs how the third section (nocturn) of the night office for Palm Sunday was probably performed at the Abbey of Ely in the thirteenth century, drawing on Ely's own breviary for the texts, and on the books of other liturgical communities who used the same readings and responsories but unlike Ely had included musical notation and recitation tones too.

These are excellent reasons to see the standalone sermon as an incomplete record of the communication that took place within Christian congregations. But it is still a significant record. Sermons can tell you, for example, what books writers had on their shelves, or what they borrowed. They might also tell you what writers liked, and how they worked: the homiliary that Paul the Deacon prepared at Charlemagne's request, Rosamond McKitterick shows, betrays a marked preference for the works of Gregory the Great and Bede, and his homiliary was the first of its kind to include works by Origen. And because many of the texts Paul included are attested in Merovingian manuscripts produced in northwest Francia, it may be that he trekked around the kingdom to create the best collection he could.

The deep history of libraries goes even deeper. For example, we can tell that the author of an early medieval sermon known as Pseudo-Augustine Mai 66 was familiar with three of Augustine's sermons about Perpetua and Felicitas (Sermons 280, 281, and 282), which he or she rolled into a single sermon about Saint Victoria, and which Clemens Weidmann has edited in this volume: in the end all but two phrases are Augustine's own words, albeit words that were substantially excerpted and reshuffled. (The awkward double pronouns are mine: could and did women compile sermons, since as this volume makes clear early medieval sermon-writing was not the same thing as preaching? This collection does not float the question, although McKitterick does note that the earliest extant collection of Origen's Homilies on Luke could plausibly have been produced by the nuns of St. Jean in Laon.) But Weidmann also shows that the manuscript tradition of this particular sermon has something to say about afterlife of Augustine's own sermons, too. Before the text of Augustine's Sermon 282 was very recently discovered in full--Weidmann was one of its editors [2]--it had been assumed that a chunk of Sermon Mai 66 was not Augustininan at all, because it had been impossible to identify all its borrowings from Sermon 282. The same was true in the early Middle Ages: one copyist of Sermon Mai 66 corrected its grammatical mistakes, eliminated the few additional remarks that the compiler-composer had inserted, and then proceeded to delete the material from Sermon 282 that only appears in the full version of the sermon, rather than the abridged version on which we (and this later scribe) had relied. In other words, sometimes sermons can also tell us what writers and compilers did not know.

Ideas bounced around in sermons as much as books did. Mirroring its material, this book works the same way: medieval concepts and debates (rogations, prophecy, mission, to handpick a few) resurface almost serendipitously throughout the contributions. In this regard Karl Brunner's contribution is essential to the volume, because he establishes that the discursive aspect of sermon writing means that Caesarius of Arles--one of the few sermon "auteurs" of the early Middle Ages and yet also a voracious consumer of Augustine--does not exactly give us the transparent view of his congregation that we sometimes think he does. Charges of paganism and rusticitas loom large in Caesarius's work, but these are discourses, Brunner reminds us, not straightforward descriptions: they were categories larded with historical associations that Caesarius used to shock and shame his elite or middling-elite Christian audiences. Those same categories recur repeatedly in this collection. Before Caesarius, for example, Prudentius had adopted a preacherly tone in his hymn on the martyr Romanus in the Liber Peristephanon: Kurt Smolak points out that Prudentius's criticisms of paganism here are strikingly up-to-date, focusing on the taurobolia sacrifices and gladiatorial games that had become political flashpoints in the mid 380s.

Fast-forward to the eighth-century compendium of sermons and other texts that Yitzhak Hen analyzes (Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek MS p. th. f. 28 [3]), and we run into Caesarius again. This compiler drew entirely on Caesarius to decry "pagan" practices, and yet as Hen argues the handbook’s purpose was to serve the missionary efforts that Boniface had begun in eastern Francia, possibly to aid Burchard of Würzburg in particular: it was a collection to help a preacher with the work of redefining what counted as correct Christianity, rather than to describe what the religious landscape actually looked like. Almost two centuries after that, Atto of Vercelli would repeat some of Caesarius' accusations in his own sermons; but Rob Meens finds new complaints in Atto's corpus, too, which because they are unconventional and because they parallel the bishop's particular interests in canon law probably do describe actual practices among Atto's audience. There are a lot of gems here. For example: the community of Vercelli performed rituals to celebrate the feast of John the Baptist that evoked the motifs of baptism and god parentage, outside the church and beyond Atto's control; Atto of course distorts these practices so we never get a clear view of them, and he does so in part by denigrating it as the work of effeminate men and sluts. Classic.

This is the collection's most consistent and forceful argument, that in the process of recycling texts and discourses, a sermon made from other sermons still became something distinctive. Consider the tenth-century bishop Ratherius of Verona: by comparing texts that Ratherius definitely authored with two sets of anonymous sermon anthologies that contain some of Ratherius' sermons, François Dolbeau is able to conclude that Ratherius himself had compiled these collections. [4] On average only ten to twenty percent of the anonymous sermons in the two collections was "new" material--mostly particles, doxologies, and some pedagogical smoothing ("I want you to know that..."). And yet, from these scattered fractions a strikingly recognizable Ratherius coheres, thanks to the bishop's giveaway adverbs, doxologies, and epithets. This is not the only sign that Ratherius was the author of these compilations, but it is the most unexpected one, and one sees it too in Dolbeau's annexed edition of seven of these "anonymously" constructed centos, with the sermons and their source texts in parallel columns and bishop's personal additions in bold.

By sifting through a text's component parts, it becomes easier to see how a sermon or a sermon compilation took its cultural legacies in different directions. Marianne Pollheimer's close reading of Hrabanus Maurus's Homily 83, which was written to be read at the court of the emperor Lothar I on a regular basis, shows how the exegete analyzed Ezekiel 34:11-19 in close conversation with Jerome, only to move past Jerome to make a deliberately indeterminate proposition about leadership. Rather than identify particular persons or groups with the Old Testament figures, Hrabanus suggested that there were different ways of thinking about hierarchies and power. His goal was not to criticize the emperor but rather to draw the court's attention to the different ways that rulership came with its own forms of responsibility and constraint. Clare Woods' study of the Carolingian celebrations of feasts in Mary's honor shows Hrabanus at it again: in this case, Hrabanus departed from prior understandings of Mary to focus exclusively on her roles as a queen and as an intercessor.

Many of these analytical modes make possible the rich insights that Walter Berschin and Bernhard Zeller offer about an eighth-century monk from St. Gall named Winithar. Winithar was a copyist and compiler who wrote a sermon to his fellow monks in what was still essentially Merovingian Latin known as the Versus Winitharii (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek Cod. sang. 70, pp. 250-258 [5]; edited in this volume). The sermon speaks of humility and of giving up personal property and family connections, and in the process Winithar draws on biblical, exegetical, liturgical, hagiographical, and legal texts; but once again, these were not mere reproductions. Through a cross-examination of St. Gall's charters and a careful eye to the Carolingian political context, Berschin and Zeller identify Winithar as one of several transplants to a monastery that, to the tastes of the Carolingians, had become uncomfortably dissident and needed a personnel adjustment. As one of these unwelcome newcomers Winithar was calling for a new application of familiar monastic ethics: it was time, he said, for reconciliation within the community (an act of humility) and for some distancing from the monks' politicized networks (an act of renunciation).

This volume sustains the invitational tone that Diesenberger sets at the start, as each contributor acknowledges the difficulty of discerning early medieval societies in their sermons while together offering a coherent set of methodologies to work through them. It is a big bonus that many of the manuscripts discussed in this volume are digitized and freely available online, some of which I have noted here, so if this volume changes your mind about the early medieval sermon there are plenty of places to keep reading, even though so few of these texts have made it into modern editions and scholarship--for now.

Readers can consult the volume's table of contents online at http://www.brepols.net/Pages/ShowProduct.aspx?prod_id=IS-9782503535159-1.



1. Digitized at http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8452601j/f5.image.

2. Isabella Schiller, Dorothea Weber, and Clemens Weidmann, "Sechs neue Augustinus-predigten: Teil 1 mit Edition dreier Sermones," Wiener Studien 121 (2008): 227-284.

3. Digitized at http://vb.uni-wuerzburg.de/ub/mpthf28/pages/mpthf28/1.html.

4. Both sermon collections are digitized: http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0005/bsb00054501/images/index.html?seite=0001&l=de&viewmode=1 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 6340); and http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0000/bsb00003258/images/index.html?seite=0001&l=de&viewmode=1 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 6426).

5. Digitized at http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/csg/0070/250/medium.

Article Details

Author Biography

Jamie Kreiner

University of Georgia