In discussing the effect preachers had on their audiences, the celebrated Swiss historian and art critic Jacob Burckhardt argued that the preachers' impact "was a passing impression which consisted chiefly in the awakening of the conscience."  Poggio Bracciolini explained that after the sermons the listeners were left more confused, "their ears stuffed full of stupidity and loud arguments, with booming words which they did not understand; and not one of them, to be sure, changed his life or abandoned his vices. On the contrary, many became worse, for they learned from these sermons, poor people, sins they did not know existed before."  However, Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli's excellent collection of essays challenges these pessimistic appraisals of the preachers' influence and provides us with outstanding insights into the reciprocal relationship between a preacher and his listeners, illuminating the centrality of medieval preaching and the enormous impact of sermons on late medieval and early modern lives.
The book comprises papers presented at a 2010 conference held in Bologna on Dal dire al fare: Gli effetti della predicazione alla fine del medioevo / From Words to Deeds: The Effectiveness of Preaching in the Late Middle Ages. Many of the participants contributed articles to the collection, which has resulted in a cohesive volume that explores the techniques of preaching and its results on the individual and society. Most of the essays focus on Italy between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, although some touch on other contexts, including Germany and the Low Countries, which adds a comparative perspective to the collection. The volume is part of the Brepols series, Sermo: Studies on Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation Sermons and Preaching, edited by Roger Andersson, which is the leading platform for medieval sermon studies.
Notwithstanding the wealth of publications on medieval sermons, this book is among the first attempts to consider both the techniques and oratorical features of preaching as well as its impact on the collective mentality of the period as articulated in civic legislation and moral norms. The various essays included focus attention on the interaction between a preacher and his audience and highlight the reciprocal relationship. The volume charts the development of preaching in the pre-modern world and provides a lucid and engaging study of its rhetorical, social, theological, and cultural significance. Its core emphasis lies in the analysis of sermons, but the essays also reference a vast range of primary sources, including rhetorical treatises, juridical documents, and historical chronicles in order to construct their rich arguments.
Preaching has been and is part of every culture in every epoch. It is a mode of communication whereby a charismatic individual delivers a religious message to an audience. The Catholic sermon was, first of all, a religious work; its content was dictated by the ecclesiastical calendar, it dealt with religious ethics, and it called for repentance. Consideration of the audience is a fundamental canon of sacred rhetoric, based on the ancient theory of circumstantiae. The sermon served as an intermediary between the preacher's world and that of his audience. The preacher provided a bridge between learned clerical society and popular lay culture; his sermon translated clerical culture into the modes of thought and linguistic forms of the laity. Through his sermon the preacher instructed believers and exhorted them to repent, do penance, or reform.
The field of sermon studies in general has been flourishing in recent years, as exemplified in Brepols publication in 2000 of The Sermon, a comprehensive volume of nearly a thousand pages, edited by Beverly Mayne Kienzle, which explores the medieval sermon from various perspectives, across Latin and the different vernaculars. Important earlier studies include those by Jean Longère, David D'Avray, Nicole Bériou, and, specifically on Italy, the works of Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli, Lina Bolzoni, Carlo Delcorno, and Roberto Rusconi.
Modern scholars of medieval and Renaissance sermons have increasingly begun to view preaching as a theatrical performance meant to attract an audience, and have emphasized the connection between preaching and theatre. Beverly Kienzle has pointed out that preaching is a highly performatory genre, not simply a lesson in doctrine.  Some of the essays in Muzzarelli's volume also highlight the literary aspects and the dramatic quality of sermons, exploring the aesthetic qualities of the texts, such as the telling of colourful exempla and the dramatizing of monologues and dialogues. Others try to reconstruct the actual delivery of sermons and discuss such issues as the preachers' gestures and voice modulations as well as the location and setting of the sermons. Invoking performance theory, they explore the differences between rituals and plays, the entertainment aspect of preaching and its efficacy, the interactions between preacher and audience, and audience reception studies.
Sacred drama was closely linked to preaching. Starting in the thirteenth century, the Lenten preaching of the friars, especially the Franciscans, came to be liturgically associated with drama. Preachers recruited people to act out passion stories, and their sermons were often followed by processions. Segments of a play might be incorporated into a sermon, be staged near the pulpit after a sermon, or be performed after the Mass. Sermons and sacred plays drew on similar material; both were concerned with the deeds and lives of saints and had a didactic purpose. A major innovative aspect of some of the essays in the present volume is illuminating the importance of performance in medieval preaching and the interchange between preaching and performance. Thus the book as a whole directly reflects and expands recent developments in the field of sermon studies.
Muzzarelli's volume includes an introduction and twelve essays which explore the efficacy of the sermons delivered by important Italian preachers. The introduction by the editor provides a lucid exposition of previous scholarship on the subject of preaching and society and on the major issues of concern, including preaching and performance and preaching and its actual results as expressed in legislation and official policy. There is a special emphasis here on the important Franciscan preacher Bernardino da Feltre (d. 1494) and on his influence on the establishment of the Monti di Pietà (public pawnshops).
The first section, including essays by Pellegrini, Oguro, Delcorno, and Brandi is dedicated to the theatrical features of preaching and its role as a communication tool directed at the believers. Major topics are the complex relations between the preachers and the public and the civic authorities and on the importance of reportationes as a way of transmitting preaching (Pellegrini and Oguro); on the reciprocal interchange between listeners and preacher and the distinct connections between religious plays and sermons as expressed in the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus (Delcorno); and evaluating gestures as part of the performance as used by Chiara da Rimini (Brandi).
The next section, with essays by Hanska, Cadili, Montesano, and Kimura, explores the effects of preaching on society and its practical results. Specific case studies illustrate the influence of preaching on anti-Jewish polemics as expressed in the case of Luca da Bitano (Hanska); accusations of witchcraft and collective mentalities as expressed by the preacher and his public (Montesano); politics as it relates to sermons preached in Church councils during the fifteenth century (Cadili); and peacemaking in the Italian cities as experienced by the campaigns of Bernardino da Feltre (Kimura).
The third section, which includes essays by Roest, Checcoli, Ioriatti, and Giunta, further explores the effect of preaching and its results with a particular focus on Franciscan observant preachers. First in a diverse context, outside the Italian peninsula, examining the effects of sermons of celebrated Dutch and German preachers (Roest); then in the biographies of preachers, a neglected yet a central primary source with revealing details on preaching (Checcoli); followed by a particular case study telling the story of the motivated preacher Giacomo della Marca (Ioriatti); and finally focusing on another individual, Francesco Panigarola, and on his attempts to influence his listeners in the post-Tridentine era (Giunta).
On the whole, the articles are impressive in the breadth of their scholarship, in the various lenses they engage to examine the theatrical aspects of preaching and in their evaluation of the sermons' impact on the lives of their listeners. All in all these essays offer us a rich picture of the centrality of preaching within diverse contexts to a range of audiences.
1. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S. G. Middlenore (New York, Harper & Row, 1958), 288.
2. Poggio Bracciolini, "On Avarice," in The Earthly Republic, eds. Benjamin Kohl and Ronald G. Witt (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 244.
3. Beverly Kienzle (ed.), The Sermon (Typologie des Sources des Moyen Age Occidental, 81-83; Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), 143-147.