18.09.36, Wenzel, Sermons of William Peraldus

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Sean Otto

The Medieval Review 18.09.36

Wenzel, Siegfried. The Sermons of William Peraldus: An Appraisal. Sermo, 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2017. pp. xii, 219. ISBN: 978-2-503-56798-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sean Otto
Wycliffe College

The extent of this seemingly modest book, just 76 pages of exposition followed by approximately 150 pages of appendices, belies both its author's erudition and the importance of its subject. One of the great understudied figures of the Middle Ages, William Peraldus (d. 1275) was an important Dominican preacher, although himself modest and humble, and although he never reached great heights of ecclesiastical office so far as we can tell. His influence, both within the Order of Preachers itself and outside of the order, through his summae on virtues and vices as well as through his sermons has been long noted. With this study, we have an initial foray into understanding exactly how the sermons, clearly written for the benefit of other preachers, were developed by Peraldus as a preaching aid, and how they were used by others in the construction of sermons. Throughout, Siegfried Wenzel's many years of studying Peraldus and his works, medieval sermon collections, and preaching aids are on display, and the reader is offered a sure guide through the thickets of text that make up the study of medieval preaching.

After a short introduction outlining basic taxonomic issues around sermon collections and sermon cycles, Wenzel outlines in three short chapters the nature of Peraldus' Epistle and Gospel Sermons, arguing that the cycles were composed by Peraldus as a self-contained treatise for the use of other preachers, "a unified commentary on the Epistle and the Gospel readings of the day, written as such and made for the use of other preachers" (10). Basically, the sermons are pieces in a whole; each sermon is clearly conceived as a sermon, based on the epistle or gospel lection for the given occasion, but without the indications that the sermons were actually preached, while containing other elements, like cross-references, that would indicate they were conceived as parts of a greater whole. Furthermore, that these sermons were meant to be of help to preachers is made clear by the way that the lections commented on by Peraldus--concerned with how the lections might be preached, finely honing and expanding upon topics drawn from the chosen thema, and with how the lections for a given Sunday fit within the church's liturgical year. The structure of the sermons is demonstrated by a close analysis of three Epistle sermons for the first Sunday of Advent and of five Gospel sermons for the third Sunday of Advent. These are classically scholastic, developing what Wenzel calls a grid of divisions, subdivisions, and distinctions drawn from the sermon's thema. The gospel sermons also develop a strong differentiation between literal and moral senses of the lections, an apparent innovation between the composition of the epistle cycle and the gospel cycle.

The breadth of Wenzel's knowledge is most on display in a chapter situating Peraldus in the context of the work of other, contemporaneous preachers and those composing model sermon collections, and in another outlining the use of Peraldus' sermons by others. In the first of these, Wenzel outlines several commonalities and differences that appear in the comparison of Peraldus to his contemporaries. Many other preachers were composing scholastic sermons as well, although his contemporaries do so in different ways than Peraldus did. Much of the subject matter, as one would imagine, was the same from preacher to preacher, and others also dealt with the liturgical year in their cycles, although unlike Peraldus, they did not do so in two separate cycles. Further, while all of the authors discussed by Wenzel reference biblical and non-biblical authorities to prove their points, Peraldus' use of proof texts, especially from non-biblical authorities, is much greater than that of his contemporaries. The chapter on the use of Peraldus by other preachers begins with a clear demonstration of the sermons' popularity; they survive in a large number of manuscripts (something over 140 known manuscripts), and they were still being used and copied in the fifteenth century. In Wenzel's judgment, while Peraldus might not be as important an author as Thomas Aquinas or Nicholas of Lyra, he "holds very much his own in the company of Januensis, Nicholas of Gorran, William of Nottingham, or Robert Holcot" (66). A final short chapter deals in more detail with how Peraldus' sermons were used by others to create a "genuine" sermon, that is, a sermon showing definite signs of orality and having a live audience in mind. Taking two fifteenth century sermons that draw on the material, Wenzel shows how the material from Peraldus might be used alongside other sources, reordered by one other and another, or even split into more than one sermon.

The appendices of the volume contain lists of Peraldus' Epistle and Gospel sermons (with occasion, thema, and opening words), texts and translations of the sermons that provide the book's case studies, as well as information about three manuscripts containing one or more of Peraldus' sermons, or sermons attributed to Peraldus. These indices serve to provide further information about Peraldus' sermons of a kind useful to other scholars who might carry forward the initial work presented here.

It is greatly to be hoped that other scholars will take up where Wenzel has left off here, and that they will approach the subject with the care and attention demonstrated in this short study. If Wenzel is right that Peraldus' sermons mark something new in sermon making by providing a treatise commenting on the lections for the liturgical year, and on the face of it the argument is convincing, then there is much valuable work to be done, and a solid foundation is here provided for future work.

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