In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religious Instruction (Homilies, Sermons, etc.)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Additional General References
  • Sermons/Homilies
  • Exempla/Æfintýri
  • Translations and Quotations from the Bible
  • Moral Treatises/Religious Manuals
  • Visionary Literature
  • Liturgical Texts

Medieval Studies Religious Instruction (Homilies, Sermons, etc.)
Daniel Najork
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0309


As many introductions point out, works of religious instruction are among the first writings in Old Norse-Icelandic literary culture, and the oldest extant manuscripts (from the second half of the twelfth century) tend to preserve religious compositions and translations. Though many were edited in the nineteenth century, these religious works have historically often been overshadowed in scholarship by the Íslendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders) and other genres presumed to be indigenous. Conversion brought to the medieval north the Latin alphabet, the development of an ecclesiastical and educational infrastructure, and the necessity for works of religious instruction. From the start, religious instruction seems to have been in the vernacular, so Latin—and occasionally Old and Middle English—texts were translated for usage by the monastic institutions charged with pastoral care. The Latin manuscripts for these translation projects were sourced from Continental Europe and the British Isles, perhaps brought back by the many early Icelandic ecclesiastics who were educated abroad. Sermons were likely among the first writings in Old Norse-Icelandic, but translations of all or parts of Honorius Augustodunensis’s Elucidarius, Gemma animae, and Imago mundi were made by the thirteenth century. The Physiologus, Alcuin’s De virtutibus et vitiis, Gregory the Great’s Dialogues and homilies, biblical and apocryphal texts, visionary literature, collections of exempla, and liturgical service books were also translated for devotional edification. Many of these works were copied over and over again in Icelandic manuscripts throughout the medieval period and before the arrival of the Protestant Reformation (and indeed after). Throughout the thirteenth century, the breadth of knowledge required in manuals of religious instruction expanded. Priests were expected to educate their parishioners in the articles of the faith, the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins and corresponding virtues, the sacraments (especially penance), and the necessity of reciting prayers such as the Ave maria and Paternoster. As new works became available, such as Hugh Ripelin of Strasburg’s Compendium theologicae veritatis, the works of the Victorines, exempla collections, or handbooks for confessors modeled after the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), they did not replace, but rather supplemented, already available works of religious instruction. These translated works clearly had a profound influence on Old Norse-Icelandic literature and culture and resulted in original compositions that relied on this Latin ecclesiastical learning. The thirteenth-century Konungs skuggsjá, a dialogue between father and son that owes much to the Speculum genre, is a prominent example.

General Overviews

Turville-Petre 1953 is notable for its oft-quoted insistence that translating Latin ecclesiastical literature prepared Icelanders for the writing of the beloved indigenous sagas that followed. Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir 2007 offers a concise introduction to Old Norse-Icelandic religious instruction written in prose. Wellendorf 2017 addresses the reception, the style, and the contents of ecclesiastical literature and its influence on other genres of saga-writing. Stefán Einarsson 1957 and Sverrir Tómasson 2006 both include discussions of religious literature in prose in their commentaries on the history of Icelandic literature. Many of the entries in Pulsiano and Wolf 1993 provide introductions to and resources for the study of sermons, exempla, visionary literature, and so on (some of these entries are cited in other sections of this bibliography). Boyer 1979 examines the religious intellectual culture of 13th-century Iceland.

  • Boyer, Régis. La vie religieuse en Islande, 1164–1264: d’Après la Sturlunga saga et les saga evêques. Paris: Fondation Singer-Polignac, 1979.

    Boyer’s book describes the religious cultural life of the Iceland of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. His study is based mostly on Sturlunga saga and the sagas of the Icelandic bishops (Biskupa sögur). The chapters of the book cover the church in Iceland as well as religious and devotional life (including the production of religious literature).

  • Pulsiano, Phillip, and Kirsten Wolf. Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland, 1993.

    As the title suggests, this book offers entries for a wide variety of subjects relating to medieval Scandinavian literature, history, and culture. The encyclopedia contains articles for Alcuin, the Bible (Stjórn), Christian poetry and prose, education, Elucidarius, exempla, Gregory the Great, homilies, Konungs skuggsjá, Physiologus, prayer books, and visionary literature.

  • Stefán Einarsson. A History of Icelandic Literature. New York: The Johns Hopkins Press for the American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1957.

    The sixth section of Stefán Einarsson’s History, “Literature of the Clergy,” provides an overview of hagiographic literature, homilies, other works of religious instruction, and the educational programs of the Icelandic clergy.

  • Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir. “Prose of Christian Instruction.” In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Edited by Rory McTurk, 338–353. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

    Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir’s chapter is the starting point for any study of Old Norse-Icelandic literature of religious instruction. The survey is divided into subject headings (sermons, exempla, visionary literature, for example) and highlights key manuscripts, major texts, and resources for continued research.

  • Sverrir Tómasson. “The Middle Ages: Old Icelandic Prose.” In A History of Icelandic Literature. Edited by Daisy Neijmann, 64–173. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

    This volume is an overall survey of the history of Icelandic literature; Sverrir Tómasson’s chapter is about all medieval Icelandic prose, but he does dedicate the final section of the chapter to ecclesiastical literature (mostly hagiography) and its importance for understanding Old Norse-Icelandic literary culture.

  • Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Origins of Icelandic Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953.

    Turville-Petre’s book surveys Icelandic history and the rise of one of medieval Europe’s “richest and most varied” literary cultures. Turville-Petre considers Celtic and English influences on Icelandic writing and argues that the injection of ecclesiastical literature after conversion spurred the saga-writing that would follow after the translation of Latin texts.

  • Wellendorf, Jonas. “Ecclesiastical Literature and Hagiography.” In The Routledge Research Companion to the Medieval Icelandic Sagas. Edited by Ármann Jakobsson and Sverrir Jakobsson, 48–58. London: Routledge, 2017.

    Wellendorf’s chapter provides a brief overview of some of the issues to be considered in the study of Old Norse-Icelandic ecclesiastical literature. Wellendorf begins with the reception history of Old Norse-Icelandic ecclesiastical literature. The following sections of the chapter describe the style and contents of Old Norse-Icelandic religious literature.

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