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24.01.15 O’Mara/Stoop (eds.), Circulating the Word of God in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

24.01.15 O’Mara/Stoop (eds.), Circulating the Word of God in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Scholars engaged in the study of medieval preaching--especially those belonging to the International Medieval Sermon Studies Society--have produced many studies recently that have expanded our understanding of preaching and its role in medieval religion. Circulating the Word of God in Medieval and Early Modern Europe is a significant collection of essays focused on preaching and sermon production circa 1450 to 1550, the age of the transition from the late Middle Ages to the Reformation. It intentionally treats only Catholic preaching in certain geographical/linguistic places in Europe, which has not been treated in previous scholarship. This volume shows the dynamic relationship between medieval manuscripts and printed sermons. It is a ground-breaking work, as it presents what is known of sermons and preaching from areas of the map that have not been covered in recent scholarship, particularly Denmark, England, Finland, Sweden, and the Low Countries, along with more studied areas of Western Europe such France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. The editors of the book claim that these essays, which are effectively in dialogue with each other, are divided into geographical/linguistic sections organized along broadly chronological lines. They circulate from the peripheries of Europe to the center, moving from areas where evidence is now scarce to situations of thriving production.

The scholarly nature of this volume is shown in the layout of each chapter, which includes an extensive bibliography comprising a listing of manuscripts, early printed works, and primary/secondary studies. Two indices conclude the book, providing the reader a listing and page numbers of significant people and places cited. Presented also is a third index that lists the religious institutions, movements, and orders that are treated in this collection of essays. Missing unfortunately is a list of contributors which could help the reader understand the background of each of these authors.

The authors of this volume are to be commended for bringing to us an awareness of the preaching and sermon production of this period. Writing on this subject matter during this period of time is fraught with many difficulties, especially the lack of extant sermons in both manuscript and print. As Jussi Hanska remarked: “One may say that a medievalist can be compared to a person trying to put together a puzzle of 10,000 pieces with just a few hundred surviving and without any cover picture to show how they should fit together” (105). Yet, these authors courageously put together significant presentations concerning what we can understand based on the limited sources available.

The first part of the book focuses on England, for which there are two essays. Anne T. Thayer presents her research on the Benedictine preacher Thomas Swalwell of Durham Priory. Her work presents the various forms of sermons, thus making it an excellent introduction to their study: De tempore, De sanctis and Quadragesimale, and the many preachers within the Christian tradition. Thayer shows the difference between the “international bestsellers” and the local vernacular texts, as well as the difference between sermons and devotional materials. Although we have no extant sermons of Thomas Swalwell, Thayer analyzes annotations that he wrote in the margins of sermons at his disposal, so that we can only hypothesize what he may have preached to monks, townspeople, and mixed audiences at synods when he was presiding as the prior’s official.

The early printed sermon in England between 1483 and 1532 is the focus of the second essay, presented by Veronica O’Mara, one of the editors of the volume. This essay shows how difficult it is to adequately present a comprehensive view of preaching and sermon production in England as there are only 1480 extant texts. She focuses most of her attention on public preaching in an analysis of two manuscript sermons by Thomas Wimbledon in c. 1387 and Richard Alkerton in 1406, and two early printed sermons by Richard Fitzjames and John Alcock in 1495-1496. This presentation of sermon production is seen in the context of the emergence of the unique Protestant church that came to be during the reign of Henry VIII.

The unique situation of Scandinavia is highlighted in three essays that focus on sermon production in Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. Jussi Hanska presents an innovative study concerning the situation of Finland in which there is a distinct lack of evidence as very few books and manuscripts have survived there. His study relies significantly on indirect sources rather than the primary sources, but nonetheless he argues that he has been able to reconstruct and present an adequate view of preaching and sermon production there. Jonathan Adams presents a study of one particular author in the context of Denmark: Christiern Pedersen (c. 1480-1554) and his work Alle Epistler oc Evangelia, a collection of Catholic miracle sermons written in 1515. One of the significant findings of this study is how this text was revised, adapted, and continued to be used after the Reformation was established in Denmark. Sermon production in Sweden is presented by Christer Pahlmblad, who focuses his attention on five collections that are known to exist in the sixteenth century, but in particular on Olavus Petri’s Easter sermon in Een lijten postilla and Laurentius Petri’s Sermons on the Passion. Adinel Dincăand and Paula Cotoi contribute the only essay dedicated to the preaching situation in Transylvania (now Romania)--the easternmost province of the Hungarian kingdom--where they present sermon materials from many manuscript and archival repositories in Romania and elsewhere.

Three essays cover areas of Western Europe that have been studied more profoundly than the previous ones. Oriol Catalán presents a study on the well-known Spanish Dominican preacher Vicent Ferrer, whose extensive sermons in both manuscript and print form make studies concerning him easier than other preachers. The focus of this essay is on his apocalyptic sermons in which Catalán indicates the changes made in early printed versions by comparing them to the original handwritten versions of these sermons; these changes were made to hide or soften controversial content of the earlier forms. Sophie Delmas focuses her attention on the late thirteenth-century French Dominican Nicolas de Biard’s sermon collection Summa de abstinentia, which was transformed into the printed retitled Dictionarius pauperum. This text is important for its later use as a manual for preachers. Pietro Delcorno presents a study on Ludovico Pittorio’s Omiliaro quadragisimale, which was written in the vernacular making it accessible to lay readers, nuns, and humble parish priests.

Germany is the focus of three articles of this volume, the first of which is written by Ralf Lützelschwab who highlights the Carmelites, a much-neglected religious community in late medieval sermon studies. This study is centered on two libraries in Carmelite convents in Straubing and Mainz, in which there were numerous sermon collections of non-Carmelites but very few composed by Carmelites themselves. Natalija Ganina concerns herself with the fifteenth-century Alsatian preacher Johannes Kreutzer, whose sermon production did not pass the test of time in that only one of his texts, Herbstmost I, survives, so that we have a “reforming preacher who was not afraid to engage in conflict with authority, who was sufficiently esteemed to help found a university, who acted as a guiding light for female religious and yet is ‘known’ today--if he is ‘known’ at all--only as an (anonymous) contributor to a little meditational printed book from the early sixteenth century” (356). The renowned secular priest and learned theologian Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg is the subject of Rita Voltmer’s essay. She shows the differences of the language--either Latin or the vernacular--employed by this preacher in the context of his audience, be they preachers or lay people. It also raises the issue of the difference between the actual performance of the sermon and its presentation in manuscript and printed form.

The last three essays of this volume are concerned with the Low Countries, the first of which, written by Thom Mertens, concerns sermons preached and written in the Netherlands where he focuses on the Gouda Gospel and their glosses. This is an important cycle as its contents vary among Bible translation, biblical commentary, and a sermon. The sermons in this cycle are identified as “pericope” sermons taken from the scriptures of the liturgical day. Kees Schepers’ focus is the famous Dominican preacher of the thirteenth century, Johannes Tauler, whose teachings centered on how “each person has the potential to develop and experience the connection with the Divine in the innermost part of his or her soul” (445). This essay primarily shows how his collection of sermons (and other writings that were later attributed to him) were appropriated by Catholics in a 1543 printed version of this collection, and in the 1565 edition in which most of the “Catholic” elements were removed thus making Tauler a supposed forerunner of the Reformation. The last essay, written by co-editor Patricia Stoop, is concerned with the late-fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Jesuit Franciscus Costerus, an enemy of the Lutherans and Calvinists. These sermons are not only important since they show Catholic preaching in the context of the Reformation, but they also show the role of women in the writing of the manuscript-form of these sermons.

This collection of essays devoted to late medieval-early modern sermons should be seen as a model for future volumes on medieval preaching. Because of the presentation of both primary and secondary sources, it presents textual evidence for the main subject of the essay and also provides the resources for subsequent studies of these preachers and their sermons.