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Reviewed by:
  • Constructing the Medieval Sermon
  • Sybil Jack
Andersson, Roger, ed., Constructing the Medieval Sermon (Sermo, 6), Turnhout, Brepols, 2008; hardback; pp. xiv, 338; 5 b/w illustrations, 4 b/w tables; R.R.P. €60.00; ISBN 9782503525891.

I have always had an unbounded admiration for those with the scholarly ability and perseverance to tease out the long but changing practices of sermon-making in the Middle Ages. I often regret, however, that many of those who work on later Reformation sermon-making are not able to sufficiently acknowledge the thousand years of varying traditions that lay behind it. How different are the Calvinist sermons from those of Anthony of Padua (considered here by Riccardo Quinto) when he speaks of the elect, and their duty to prepare themselves for his reception in accordance with the word of Scripture?

This is a work of highly focused professional scholarship, though it is not perhaps easily accessible to general or Latin-less readers, who will be the poorer for it. But it must be hoped that some of the more significant points that emerge from these detailed studies will be taken up in works for a wider audience. Christoph Burger's analysis of Jean Gerson's two sermons for the feast of All Saints, one for the University in Latin and the other for parishioners in French, for instance, provides a powerful demonstration of the skill of the preacher in adapting his text to his audience.

The field is not without its controversies. The scholars included in this collection largely reject the attitude to the artes praedicandi that dismisses the role of such texts in structuring actual preaching. All the contributions are meticulous in their examination of the role of the numerous artes praedicandi and model sermon collections that provide us with an insight into the mind of the preacher and his audience. Indeed, Mary Swan goes further, suggesting that sermons performed a cultural work, and could alter the identities of their 'target audience' and perhaps that of the preacher himself. Was this indeed one of the ways in which cultural identity was formed and reinforced?

Jonathan Adams examines the problems of language difficulties in medieval vernacular sermons using in particular the comments of Birgitta of Sweden who was herself a preacher. This reveals the complex problems of missionary preaching not only in Sweden but in many places where the lack of linguistic competence and ignorance of local cultural practices [End Page 181] made individuals, however dedicated and knowledgeable, a liability. The modification of texts to make them locally intelligible is an important, if neglected, part of the history of preaching and the wider history of missionary effectiveness.

Even more interesting is Kirsten Berg's consideration of the use of memorizing devices. Memory is, after all, vital to the effectiveness of the sermon in two respects. The audience needs to remember the core of the sermon so requires a framework that recalls the line of argument. The preacher needs a scheme that can structure his presentation when a new composition is developed. All this is critical to the method of expounding the fundamental subject of gospel and epistle so that the audience, literate or illiterate, absorbs the basic elements of the faith and its spiritual and moral significance.

Unfortunately, we have few clues as to the reasons why certain individuals were powerful preachers, attracting a large attendance and influencing the behaviour of their audience. Thom Mertens has studied the surviving records of the fifteenth-century Dutch Franciscan, Johannes Brugman, whose name became synonymous with persuasive oratory, but the written forms of his sermons are not sufficiently different from other collections to provide an insight into what converts a standard sermon into a world-shattering experience.

Certain themes were common on certain liturgical days. Jussi Hanska, by looking at the popular theme of 'Jesus wept', not only the two examples accepted today (John 11: 35 and Luke 19: 41) but also the idea that he wept on the cross, in his infancy and at the treachery of Judas is able to draw out the way in which different interpretations could spring from a single text and from the additions scholars made to the...


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pp. 181-182
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