In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Late Medieval Preaching

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Anthologies
  • Repertoria
  • Muslim Preaching
  • Jewish Preaching and Preaching on the Jews
  • The Preacher’s “Profession”
  • Women and Preaching
  • Preaching and Politics
  • Preaching on the Saints
  • Preaching and Images
  • Preaching and Theater
  • Sermons in Print

Medieval Studies Late Medieval Preaching
Pietro Delcorno
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0239


Preaching was the most influential and pervasive mass medium of religious and moral instruction in late medieval society, particularly in the urban context. The theologian Alan of Lille (d. 1202 or 1203) defined preaching as “an open and public instruction in faith and behavior, whose purpose is forming the humankind” (“Praedicatio est manifesta et publica instructio morum et fidei, informationi hominum deserviens”). Although these elements properly define Christian preaching, scholars have increasingly underlined the similarities, differences, and cross-fertilization among Christian, Muslim, and Jewish medieval preaching. In late medieval Europe, the intensification of preaching was brought about by the increasing dynamism of city life and by a number of Church initiatives, such as the intellectual and pastoral reform promoted by Peter the Chanter (d. 1197) in Paris and by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Canon 10 of this council exhorted bishops to nominate collaborators to support them in their office of preaching and hearing confessions. From that moment onward, preaching and confession became increasingly closely connected. In the wake of this renewal of pastoral engagement, the new mendicant orders acquired a prominent role. In particular, Franciscans and Dominicans (the Ordo praedicatorum) were able to establish themselves in the major and minor centers of a lively and changing urban society. They interpreted and steered the religious, moral, and intellectual needs of the laity. The vivid relationship between the preacher and his audience contributed to shaping the contents of sermons, which must be seen as the result of a conversation and negotiation between clerical and secular culture. In this regard, preachers were able to address new issues by using an effective language. Preaching in the cathedrals, in the new great mendicant churches, or in the public squares became part of the cultural landscape of the last centuries of the Middle Ages. Within this context, preachers could acquire a special status, as certified by the 15th-century canonizations of Vincent Ferrer (b. 1350–d. 1419) and Bernardino of Siena (b. 1380–d. 1444). These charismatic preachers attracted huge crowds of listeners and their oral performances became part of complex civic-religious events, which could involve processions and bonfires of vanities. Figures such as Girolamo Savonarola (b. 1452–d. 1494) and Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg (b. 1450–d. 1510) show the spiritual and political role that preachers could play within cities, foreshadowing the power of preaching in the Reformation and in the Counter-Reformation.

Reference Works

Kienzle 2000 is a landmark in the scholarship on medieval sermons. Notwithstanding some limits, its definition of the sermon as “an oral discourse spoken in the voice of a preacher who addresses an audience to instruct and exhort them on a topic concerned with faith and morals and based on a sacred text” (p. 151) has become canonical among scholars. The volume provides an excellent starting point for any study on medieval preaching by focusing on sermons as a literary genre and by subdividing the field according to different linguistic areas. It builds upon previous studies that opened the way to the recognition of the prominence of preaching in medieval communication, as seen in d’Avray 1985, and to a careful methodological approach to sermons, as discussed in Bataillon 1993, Bériou and d’Avray 1994, and Bériou 1998. Muessig 2002 contributed to broaden the field of studies with a specific attention to preaching as an oral event and to the relationship between preaching and the visual arts. The effort to situate preaching within its sociohistorical context is at the center of Mertens, et al. 2013, which provides the reader also with an updated panorama of the studies on German preaching. Bériou and Morenzoni 2008 offers an in-depth discussion on the vital and complex relationship between preaching and liturgy. Finally, Arnold 2006 analyzes the dynamic of continuity and change between late medieval and early modern preaching.

  • Arnold, Matthieu, ed. Annoncer l’Évangile (XVe–XVIIe siècle): Permanences et mutations de la prédication. Paris: Cerf, 2006.

    Crossing the boundaries between the late medieval and early modern periods, the volume considers preaching (and its transformation) in a longue durée perspective. Specific space is dedicated to late medieval and modern reform preaching. The volume’s geographic focus is on France and German lands.

  • Bataillon, Louis-Jacques. La prédication au XIIIe siècle en France et Italie. Ashgate, UK: Variorum, 1993.

    The volume gathers twenty articles (mainly in French) written by one of the most influential 20th-century scholars on medieval sermons. The contributions focus predominantly on 13th-century Latin sermons, with a keen attention to the construction of the scholastic sermons.

  • Bériou, Nicole. L’avènement des maîtres de la Parole: La prédication à Paris au XIIIe siècle. 2 vols. Paris: Institut d’Études Augustiniennes, 1998.

    An in-depth study of the renewal of preaching and its techniques in the vibrant cultural context of late-12th- and 13th-century Paris. A model of research on specific manuscript sermon collections and their interpretation within a given historical period.

  • Bériou, Nicole, and David d’Avray, eds. Modern Questions about Medieval Sermons: Essays on Marriage, Death, History and Sanctity. Spoleto, Italy: Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo, 1994.

    This collection of fifteen essays (twelve in English) exemplifies the potentiality of sermons as a historical source to investigate medieval culture. Particularly useful from a methodological point of view is d’Avray, “Method in the Study of Medieval Sermons” (pp. 3–29).

  • Bériou, Nicole, and Franco Morenzoni, eds. Prédication et liturgie au Moyen Âge. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008.

    Thoughtful and nuanced overview of the complex—and sometimes conflicted—relationship between liturgy and preaching. These two complementary and intertwined languages of the faith shaped the public religious discourse and practice within medieval society. The volume underlines also the innovations brought by mendicant orders, which searched for spaces and places of religious instruction beyond the liturgical setting.

  • d’Avray, David. The Preaching of the Friars: Sermons Diffused from Paris before 1300. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

    This groundbreaking study investigates the role of Latin model sermons as an “infrastructure of preaching” built by mendicant orders based in Paris, the center of medieval sermon dissemination. The circulation of model sermons throughout Europe multiplied their influence, making the study of these texts a fundamental step in understanding preaching as a form of mass communication. D’Avray summarizes the seventeen principal points of his book in the introduction.

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

    Best reference book on medieval sermons. Kienzle’s introduction (pp. 143–174) provides scholars and students with an entry point to the topic. The volume is mainly structured according to different linguistic areas. Bériou analyzes Latin sermons after 1200, while C. Delcorno deals with Italian sermons, Spencer with Middle English sermons, Taylor with French sermons, H.-J. Schiewer with German sermons, and Sánchez Sánchez with the sermons from the Iberian Peninsula. An all-encompassing bibliography enriches the volume (pp. 5–142).

  • Mertens, Volker, Hans-Jochen Schiewer, and Wolfram Schneider-Lastin, eds. Predigt im Kontext. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013.

    Its twenty-three essays (twenty-two in German) offer a good entry point for research on late medieval preaching in the German area, with an emphasis on spiritual themes and 15th-century theological and devotional developments.

  • Muessig, Carolyn, ed. Preacher, Sermon and Audience in the Middle Ages. A New History of Sermon 3. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.

    The volume investigates preaching as a performative event (in particular, Kienzle’s “Medieval Sermons and Their Performance: Theory and Record”), the different audiences, and the relationship between preaching and the visual arts. Hanska’s “Reconstructing the Mental Calendar of Medieval Preaching: A Method and Its Limits” elaborates on d’Avray’s methodology in studying model sermons.

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