16.05.01, Akae, A Mendicant Sermon Collection from Composition to Reception

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David d'Avray

The Medieval Review 16.05.01

Akae, Yuichi. A Mendicant Sermon Collection from Composition to Reception: The Novum opus dominicale of John Waldeby, OESA. Sermo, 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. vi, 360. ISBN: 978-2-503-53034-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David d'Avray
University College London

The book is an in-depth study of a late-fourteenth century collection of model sermons by Thomas Waldeby, an Augustinian friar. It is also an excellent introduction to his life and works, both of which are surveyed with exemplary care at the start of the book. It does not dispute the thesis that mendicant preaching was a system of mass communication, but moves on from "horizontal" studies of the diffusion of sets of ideas by many preachers and manuscripts to a "vertical" investigation of a particular collection from its genesis. It begins by reconstructing the setting in life of the Novum opus dominicale, as the collection was called. Akae argues strongly that it should be regarded as a "model sermon collection", defining the category as "sermon collections which were from the beginning intended for many other preachers and which did have a large number of users" (46). This categorization of the collection is justified from different angles throughout the book. One of the intriguing arguments is that Waldeby arranged his collection so that the starting point was late September, a time of year when the laity were beginning to have more time to go to church, because the harvest would be in and market activity drawing to a close. "Waldeby has chosen over the ecclesiastical calendar the cycle of the year according to which the laity led their lives" (55). Later, Akae argues that this starting date also corresponding with the beginning of the academic year: training young friars and preaching to the laity were closely connected complementary tasks.

For Akae convincingly relates the work to the programme for educating young Augustinian friars in England, in a period of deteriorating standards (after the Black Death). The educational system of the Augustinian friars in England is explained. Interestingly, the York convent was a more important educational centre that London. Akae shows its "special position among the local convents of the English province" of the order of Augustinian Friars, in that it "held a position which allowed a commanding view of the whole of Augustinian education from the elementary almost to the highest level" (71). York is the most likely setting for the composition of the Novum opus: if not York, a convent very like it. Oxford and Cambridge are possible but less likely than York.

Akae establishes a convincing link between the library of the order's house at York and the sources of work. In doing so he elucidates the structure underlying the library's organisation and shows us how far that library was orientated towards the training of preachers. The books which were fastened (ligati) include a high proportion of works useful for preaching; scholastic works (and he uses the word properly where many historians of preaching do not) seem to have a lower priority. This correlation of books in a library and books used in a sermon collection is a model for other studies and a considerable achievement.

Akae next demonstrates a high correlation between Waldeby's practice and the theory of sermon composition in the treatise by Robert Basevorn. Whether this represents direct influence is difficult to prove definitively, but Akae argues that the correspondence goes well beyond general features of the so called "modern" sermon form which dominated preaching from the thirteenth century. His chapter on structure is detailed and precise. I used to be sceptical about the use of artes praedicandias a key to actual sermon structure, and Akae has changed my mind. Further research will show whether the precise structure he uncovers can be found in many other fourteenth century sermons. Akae certainly brings out convincingly the contrasts with the thirteenth century sermons I have studied myself. There is thoughtful section on exempla which deserves to be on the radar of scholars in that flourishing subfield.

Akae introduces a new concept to medieval sermon studies when he points out that the structure of Waldeby's sermons is "fractal": structures of parts of sermons mirror the structure of the whole sermon. This meant that a part could be broken off and used independently. ("In its original mathematical context, fractal figures are ones which have a repeated pattern whose shape does not change even when observed under a different scale"; 196.) It is also a helpful way of pinning down a feature that all students of sermons of the period must recognize, though they have not hitherto managed to put it into words. Akae's insight deserves wide currency.

There is a sensible treatment of sermons form in relation to the language of preaching. Here again Basevorn's treatise is used to clarify analysis of the Novum opus dominicale. Akae uses marginalia in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 77 to show how the initial text and "distinctions" of sermons could be translated into the vernacular. There is an intricate discussion of Basevorn's reservations about the need for verbal echoes between theme and other scriptural authorities. Akae thinks that Waldeby probably felt this need more strongly, though we cannot be certain since we do not have sermons by him transmitted in the vernacular.

Sermon form is not just a surface phenomenon but a key to mentalities, Akae argues, and his analysis of the concept of "sign" and related notions in Waldeby's work is important for the same reason: they can be a key to Waldeby's mental world as well as to his technique of communication. For Waldeby, "God communicates through signs, whether they are prophecy, nature, or events" (237). Quintilian's architectural mnemonics are pressed in to service because he mentions so many of the images used by Waldeby, though the latter may not have read him directly. Akae gives a very good account of the way in which the sermons are structured to make them memorable to the preacher and his potential audiences. He intriguingly sets the architectural mnemonics within the same frame as Waldeby's own theory of sign as "the method of interpretation of the Bible and the world to reach and/or illustrate spiritual and moral meanings" (257). For instance, an image of a castle under siege is used to show how Waldeby's concept of sign could incorporate architectural mnemonics. Akae goes far beyond description. He makes connections. He has real insight.

Insight is in evidence also in the analysis of the religious content of the sermons is explored intelligently. Akae does not try to pigeon-hole the material in pre-conceived categories. He tries to work out the overall structure, giving appropriate weight to the liturgical year as a structural principal, the mental calendar governing less prominent Sundays, and the insertion of catechetical material. His methodology is a good model for any study of the contents of a later medieval sermon collection. Note particularly his identification and discussion of a loose series of sermons on pastoral issues intended to be delivered in autumn for the introductory teaching they provide both for his student-friars and for the laity.

The book as a whole is well-organised and well signposted. There is a seriousness to the scholarship and an intellectual openness and alertness that make it satisfying to read; also real insight into later medieval modes of thought. Medieval sermons have attracted a lot of fine scholarship from a range of disciplines. This ranks with the best of it.

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