As its subtitle indicates, Siegfried Wenzel's compact book is not a history of formal instruction in the art of preaching during the Middle Ages, but a distillation of the essential precepts on sermon structure that are found in the textbooks devoted to a particular type of sermon that was widely taught and preached in the Christian West from around 1200 until the end of the medieval period. Wenzel's stated reason for producing such a book is to facilitate the kinds of research that would make a history of the medieval art of preaching possible: describing and analyzing the manuscripts that contain relevant materials, working out the interrelationships among the hundreds of treatises that survive, and preparing critical editions of texts that currently exist only in manuscript copies (xvi). A valuable reference tool for scholars engaged in these highly focused tasks, Wenzel's book also joins Chapter 6 of James J. Murphy's Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (1974) and Marianne G. Briscoe's fascicle on the Artes praedicandi in the series Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental (1992) as the first sources that anyone who is new to the field of medieval sermon studies will want to consult, especially on the features that distinguish the newer "scholastic" sermons (also known as "thematic" or "university" sermons, p. 46) from the more traditional "homiletic" sermons that continued to be preached alongside them.
Following a brief introductory overview (xv-xviii), the book is divided into fifty numbered sections that range in length from less than one page to forty pages. These are further grouped into four parts. Part I: The Artes (sections 1-43) is an annotated bibliography of the primary sources on which the analysis of scholastic sermon structure is based. These include all thirty of the medieval artes praedicandi that have received modern printed editions, as well as another twelve from among the hundreds that are still available only in manuscripts or incunables. Wenzel arranges the treatises in roughly chronological order by date of composition, and for each he provides the author's name (or an identifying label if no author is known), basic facts about the author and date, title and incipit(s), numbers of manuscript copies, cross references for manuscripts in which the treatise occurs together with others from the corpus, a concise summary of the contents, and abbreviated references for editions, translations, and the most pertinent scholarly discussions (full bibliographical information is supplied under Works Cited on pp. 117-124). Three different types of ars praedicandi are distinguished--"comprehensive" treatises that treat all aspects of preaching, "complete" ones that treat only sermon structure, and "limited" ones that treat only one aspect of sermon structure (3)--but the category to which a given treatise belongs is not indicated and must be determined from the description of its contents.
The book's core is Part II: Scholastic Sermon Structure (sections 44-45)--the "systematic and orderly survey of what the artes teach about sermon structure" that was promised in the introduction (xvi). At its most basic level, the structure of a scholastic sermon is tripartite: a brief passage from Scripture (the thema) is quoted, then it is divided, and each part of the division is developed in turn (xv); but the various treatises surveyed analyze this structure more minutely and identify additional parts that are treated less consistently and sometimes by a variety of names. After placing the scholastic sermon within the broader historical context of medieval preaching (section 44), Wenzel introduces the long section 45 by describing two contrasting ways in which the treatises present sermon structure and explaining several technical terms that are widely used in the treatises (47-50). The remainder of section 45 (50-86) traces the "progression" of a scholastic sermon from beginning to end, through a series of twelve parts: (a) thema, (b) protheme, (c) initial prayer, (d) repetition of the thema, (e) bridge passage, (f) introduction of the thema, (g) division, (h) confirmation, (i) development (prosecutio: subdivision, subdistinction), (j) development (prosecutio: processes of dilatation), (k) combination of the parts (unitio), and (l) closing formula. For each part, Wenzel comments on its function within the logical structure of the sermon as a whole, large and small variations in the relevant doctrine among the treatises that deal with that part, and problems of interpretation and evaluation such as those associated with key terms that can have more than one meaning or rare terms that are occasionally found instead of their more common synonyms. The meaning and function of the "protheme" varies considerably from treatise to treatise and evolves over time (55-59), for example, and "division," "confirmation," and "development" are terms that can designate both specific stages in the logical structure of a sermon's argument--i.e. parts, properly speaking--and processes that can be employed in more than one of a sermon's parts (50, 72, 77, 80).
After breaking down the scholastic sermon into its constituent parts and analyzing each of them separately, Wenzel shows how they work together in a late medieval sermon whose thema (from Canticles 7:12) is Videamus si floruerit vinea (Part III: Sample Sermon). His edition of the Latin text (section 46) is formatted to highlight the sermon's structure: each individual part is marked with the letter assigned to it in section 45, and each subdivision within the longer and more complex parts is numbered. The text is followed by a commentary (section 47) that clarifies some references, explains how each part functions within the larger argument, and accounts for anomalies such as deliberate or accidental omissions of a part (there is no bridge passage) or a subdivision (probably due to scribal error in the unique copy). As Wenzel points out, detailed knowledge of a scholastic sermon's typical structure can help an editor anticipate permissible variations and detect scribal errors (89), and Part III will be especially useful in this regard. The sermon's language will pose few difficulties for such scholars, and Wenzel helpfully directs readers who are less adept at medieval Latin to his 2008 English translation of this sermon.
In the appendix-like Part IV: Other Issues, Wenzel treats interesting and important topics for which there was no convenient place in Part II. These include the distinction--and occasional lack of distinction--between the use of sermo and collatio to designate a "sermon" in the artes praedicandi (section 48), audience address in sermons, adaptation of sermons to different audiences, and the meaning and function of exemplum in sermon contexts (section 49). Section 50 aptly concludes the book with reflections on the intellectual and aesthetic qualities of scholastic sermons, which were recognized and appreciated by preachers, their audiences, and the teachers who in their artes praedicandi convey the "sense that they are analysing and teaching an art and describing the composition of something appealing and beautiful" (115).
Much fundamental work remains to be done on scholastic sermons: more than 80% of the surviving treatises have yet to be edited, and thousands of sermons are preserved in manuscripts. Professor Wenzel has drawn on the matchless knowledge he has acquired from more than four decades of groundbreaking scholarship on medieval sermons to produce an invaluable guidebook that will enable others to travel farther along the path he has blazed across this vast field. Textual editors, codicologists, manuscript cataloguers, and historians of preaching will be among its greatest beneficiaries; but even those whose interest in scholastic sermons is more peripheral may consult it with profit--to determine the influence of sermon structure on a literary text, for example, or to trace the meaning of a technical term that may have been transplanted from its usual sermon context. Any scholar whose research touches on late medieval sermons needs to be familiar with this book, and those whose focus is the distinctive variety of preaching that was associated with universities and monastic communities soon will wonder how they ever managed without it.