Medieval Studies Sermons
by
Thomas N. Nall
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0132

Introduction

Sermons go back to the very beginning of the Christian tradition, or even further if one recalls their use in ancient Jewish worship. For centuries, sermons have been a primary form of Christian rhetorical expression and the main vehicle for instructing the laity on matters of faith, morality, and proper conduct. Although most sermons are presumed either to originate in the form of an oral preaching event or to result in one, the exact relationship between the surviving written texts and a public oral performance is often impossible to determine, so that the study of medieval sermons is consequently concerned primarily with the texts that have come down to us, and many thousands have done so. Today a distinction is sometimes made between a pericope homily, which begins with a passage of scripture and offers commentary on that passage, and a sermon, which is organized around a theme or topic, but such a distinction was not always observed in the Middle Ages. Medieval sermons come in many forms and types, some intended to offer basic catechetical instruction to Christian converts, others written for particular liturgical occasions, and still others distinguishable according to purpose or audience as synodal sermons, court sermons, funeral sermons, university sermons, or ad status sermons addressed to certain groups such as widows or married couples. Medieval sermons often respond to current events or to shifts in social and economic conditions and are thus valuable for the light they shed on medieval daily life. In Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the writing and preaching of sermons was normally the prerogative of bishops, but these duties were eventually assumed by parish priests as well, and by the 13th century they were carried out routinely by friars in minor orders such as Franciscans and Dominicans. The frequency of preaching and sermon writing was stimulated by a number of reform programs, including most famously the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which mandated annual confession and stimulated more frequent preaching in the vernacular, mainly to prepare the laity for their confessions. Because the language of medieval sermons is often a major issue in scholarship, and because medieval sermons are perhaps easiest to categorize according to language and geographical origin, the following bibliography gives particular attention to medieval sermons in Latin, English, German and Dutch, Scandinavian, French, Italian, Spanish, and Irish, supplemented by notices of scholarship on homiliaries, treatises on the arts of preaching (artes praedicandi), and exempla.

General Overviews

Important overviews of medieval sermon studies begin with Kienzle 2000 and Longère 1983. Helpful discussions of the basic terminology associated with medieval sermons include Mohrmann 1954 and Longère 1981. For a historical survey of the synodal legislation that prompted an increase in preaching and sermon composition, especially in the vernacular, see Menzel 1991.

  • Kienzle, Beverly Mayne, ed. The Sermon. Typologie des Sources du Moyen Âge Occidental 81–83. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2000.

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    The best single-volume overview of the entire field of medieval sermons, with a dozen substantial chapters on early medieval sermons, 12th-century monastic sermons, Old English sermons, Old Norse–Icelandic sermons, Jewish sermons, and more, equipped with a voluminous comprehensive bibliography.

  • Longère, Jean. “Le vocabulaire de la prédication.” In La lexicographie du latin médiéval et ses rapports avec les recherches actuelles sur la civilisation du Moyen Âge: Actes du colloque international, Paris 18–21 octobre 1978. Edited by Yves Lefèvre, 303–320. Paris: Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, 1981.

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    Examines the use of the terms admonitio, praedicare, praedicatio, homilia, and sermo in the Bible, the Church Fathers, and several medieval preachers, including Caesarius of Arles, Hrabanus Maurus, Maurice de Sully, and Alan of Lille.

  • Longère, Jean. La prédication médiévale. Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1983.

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    Now somewhat outdated and superseded by Kienzle 2000, but still a useful overview of medieval preachers and sermon writers and their craft, strongest for French materials of the high and late Middle Ages.

  • Menzel, Michael. “Predigt und Predigtorganisation im Mittelalter.” Historisches Jahrbuch 111 (1991): 337–384.

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    A historical survey of ecclesiastical legislation governing preaching and sermon composition from the Carolingian era through the early 16th century.

  • Mohrmann, Christine. “Praedicaretractaresermo: Essai sur la terminologie de la prédication paléochrétienne.” La Maison-Dieu 39 (1954): 97–107.

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    Lexicological study of the evolution of early Christian Latin terms for “preaching,” “preacher,” and “sermon,” noting the emergence of the word sermo during the 4th century as the most common technical term denoting an act of catechetical, exegetical, or parenetic discourse. Reprinted in Mohrmann’s Études sur le latin des chrétiens, Vol. 2, Latin chrétien et médiéval (Rome: Ed. di Storia e Letteratura, 1961), pp. 63–72.

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