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Preaching in the Age of Chaucer

Preaching in the Age of Chaucer: Selected Sermons in Translation (Medieval Texts in Translation Series)

Translated by Siegfried Wenzel
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 352
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    Preaching in the Age of Chaucer
    Book Description:

    Introducing modern readers to the riches of preaching in later medieval England, distinguished scholar Siegfried Wenzel offers translations of twenty-five Latin sermons written between 1350 and 1450. T

    eISBN: 978-0-8132-2103-8
    Subjects: Religion
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Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. vii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION (pp. ix-xvi)

    In a culture without the Internet, television, or even the printed book, the chief, if not the only, medium for spreading information and teaching is oral communication. In western Europe before Gutenberg it was the pulpit that represented the main, and for many people the only, locus from which they would hear the dominant worldview expounded, and oftentimes they would receive with it some information about natural phenomena and amusing stories, though these of course always served the primary purposes of explaining Christian doctrine and of exhorting people to lead good moral lives. Much uncertainty remains, and probably will always...

  5. ABBREVIATIONS (pp. xvii-xviii)

      THE GOSPEL LECTION for the third Sunday in Lent is Luke 11:14–28. The following is the text as given by Hugh of St. Cher (c. 1235), in Opera omnia in universum Vetus et Novum Testamentum, 8 vols. (Venice, 1732 ), vol. 6, cols. 201rb–203rb, which presents a few minor variations from the modern Vulgate version:

      [14] Et erat ejiciens daemonium, et illud erat mutum, et cum ejecisset daemonium, locutus est mutus et admiratae sunt turbae.

      [15] Quidam autem ex eis dixerunt: “In Beelzebub principe daemoniorum ejicit daemonia.”

      [16] Et alii tentantes signum de coelo quaerebant ab eo.



      The great gloss on the Bible, consisting of the biblical text with interlineary and marginal comments drawn from the fathers, including Bede and Rabanus Maurus, was put together in the early twelfth century and became the standard exegetical guide for medieval preachers. The following is its commentary on Luke 11:14–28.

      Biblia sacra cum Glossa ordinaria . . . , 6 vols. (Antwerp, 1617), vol. 5, cols. 842–46.

      Also in PL 114:289–91 and the facsimile reprint of the Strassburg 1480–81 edition of the Glossa ordinaria (Turnhout: Brepols, 1992), vol. 4.

      Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible...

    • 3 JOHN FELTON ON THE SAME GOSPEL (pp. 13-30)

      A PARISH PRIEST, vicar of the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Oxford from 1397 to 1434, John Felton did not hold a university degree yet became famous as a preacher. By 1431 he had composed a regular cycle of sermons for the Sundays through the church year, almost all based on the gospel readings. As he explained in a short preface to the cycle, he made a compilatio “from the crumbs that fell from the tables of my lords—[the masters] of Genoa, Paris, Lyons, Odo, and others,”¹ and evidently noted their names in the margins of his manuscript.²...


      BASED ON BIBLICAL COMMENTARY, postils, or model sermon cycles, preachers could then shape a “real” or genuine sermon. In doing so, they were free to choose their thema and the basic sermon format and to employ appropriate rhetorical devices (see Collections, 354–69). This final stage is shown in the following sermon, which comes from a random collection of anonymous sermons that were evidently preached in several small parishes in the English Midlands. Here the preacher draws on several of the commonplaces brought together by felton and his predecessors in their works on the Sunday gospel, but instead of dealing...


      THE FOLLOWING PIECE comes from a Benedictine collection that contains sermons by Oxford student monks of the early fifteenth century. It is addressed to a clerical audience and applies its thema to ecclesiastici et religiosi, that is, clerics or churchmen and members of a religious order. The anonymous preacher again chooses a part of the day’s gospel reading, the healing of the mute man, but he uses it with a twist, giving muteness a positive meaning and developing the change from muteness to speech in three sections that utilize the medieval commonplace that human speech has three purposes. This is...

    • 6 ADVENT (pp. 55-61)

      THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH YEAR begins with the first Sunday of Advent. In the medieval church, Advent was a penitential season like Lent, hence this preacher’s insistence on penance. His sermon appears in a collection (B/2) that randomly gathers sermons de tempore, de sanctis, and for special occasions without regard to their place in the liturgy. Notes in the top margins suggest that these sermons were preached at a variety of small churches in the English Midlands.

      In its structure, this sermon combines some features of the scholastic sermon with the older homily form of step-by-step moral commentary on the entire...


      THOUGH THE RUBRIC AND THEMA MARK this as a Christmas sermon, the preacher’s admonitions near the end to prepare properly for the feast “tomorrow” seem to indicate that the sermon was given on Christmas Eve. It occurs among the sermons collected and very probably written by the Franciscan Nicholas Philip in the 1430s. The preacher uses the address form Karissimi, “Beloved,” consistently and often. this may, though it does not necessarily have to, indicate a nonclerical audience. That this is indeed the case here is made more like by the popular elements of the preacher’s style. Linguistically, it is a...

    • 8 CHRISTMAS (pp. 76-81)

      THIS SERMON APPEARS in a preacher’s notebook whose entries were written from the early to the late fifteenth century. The scribes copied sermons from different sources in random order, many with English phrases and verses. They include Thomas Wimbledon’s famous sermon Redde rationem vilicationis tuae (“Render an account of your stewardship,” Luke 16:2) in Latin. The Christmas sermon here translated was apparently copied very early in the fifteenth century.

      Cambridge, University Library, MS Ii.3.8, fols. 143–44 (A-45).

      Wenzel, Collections, 175–81.

      Ione Kemp Knight, ed., Wimbledon’s Sermon “Redde Rationem Villicationis Tue”: A Middle English Sermon of the Fourteenth Century...

    • 9 ASH WEDNESDAY (pp. 82-94)

      THE THEMA OF THIS ANONYMOUS SERMON is taken from the epistle for Ash Wednesday, and its topic, penance, spelled out in the margin, deals with the main concern of preaching during the season of Lent. The sermon provides a good example of the medieval view of mankind’s spiritual history, from creation and fall through Christ’s redemptive death to the future bliss. It also furnishes instruction about the required pre-Easter confession, how in preparation for it penitents must examine their consciences, and how the priest confessor must inquire about their sins.

      The sermon has been preserved in a collection evidently...

    • 10 GOOD FRIDAY (pp. 95-123)

      IN THE LATE-MEDIEVAL CHURCH the Good Friday liturgy took a special form, quite different from the normal Mass (in fact, on this day the Eucharist was not celebrated). It included reading the Passion according to John, a series of intercessory prayers with genuflections, worshipping or “creeping to” the cross, and a communion service with the preconsecrated hosts brought in from a side chapel or similar place. Sermons for this occasion tend to be quite long and focus, in one form or another, on Christ’s suffering and death.

      This concentration is well illustrated by a sermon that on internal evidence was...

    • 11 EASTER (THOMAS BRINTON) (pp. 124-132)

      THOMAS BRINTON, Benedictine monk, doctor of canon law, and bishop of Rochester from 1372 to 1389, left a collection of Latin sermons that he had preached on various occasions before the clergy or the people or a mixed audience, in his cathedral, in his monastery, in London, in other establishments, and evidently even at the papal court at Avignon. This Easter sermon, for which its editor suggests the date of 1383, may have been addressed to a monastic audience (as the protheme with its remarks about rising at night for liturgical of-fices suggests) or a mixed one. As here, Brinton...


      EASTER SERMONS very often dealt with the Eucharist and with receiving Holy Communion, whose mandatory annual reception was normally undertaken on easter Sunday. The same topics also form the subject for sermons on the feast of Corpus Christi, later in the church year. The following piece occurs in the systematic cycle by John Felton (see above, selection 3) for Easter Sunday. It was copied separately into a collection perhaps made by or for Benedictine monks at Cambridge (see selections 10 and 24), where it is marked “de Corpore Christi.” Several of its topics are characteristic commonplaces of eucharistic sermons, such...


      THE FOLLOWING SERMON has been preserved in an anonymous collection of sermons, extant in several manuscripts, which now and then voice views characteristically held by Wyclif and the Lollards. In this piece, the preacher speaks of the persecution that preachers of the truth suffer at the hands of disciples of Antichrist—in his view, bishops, priests, and false religious who call for their excommunication. This accusation is sounded several times elsewhere in the collection, together with critiques of the prohibition against reading the Bible in English and of the practices of pilgrimages and image worship. But here such criticism is...


      JOHN WYCLIF (c.1330–84), philosopher and theologian at Oxford, where he developed a series of positions that were declared heretical, also wrote a number of sermons on the gospels and epistles for Sundays and saints’ feasts, which he later in his life collected into regular cycles. in them he normally follows the structure illustrated here. He first goes through and comments on the entire lection, like an ancient homily. Then he puts a question (dubium or dubitatio) derived from the lection, which he answers and develops argumentatively at length. In the present case he attacks the friars’ claim that their...


      AFTER STUDYING AT OXFORD and obtaining a degree in both civil and canon law, John Dygon served at various churches in the south of England, including St. Andrew’s, Holborn (London). Then he became a recluse at the recently founded Carthusian priory at Sheen in Surrey, where he lived from 1435 until at least 1449 and possibly 1456–58. He owned a number of books, many of which he compiled and wrote himself. Among them is a collection of sermons for saints’ feasts and several feasts in the temporal cycle, from which the following piece is taken.

      The sermon for the...


      EVEN THOUGH THE DOGMA that after her death the Blessed Virgin Mary was taken up to heaven in body and soul was not officially defined until 1950, in the later Middle Ages the feast of her Assumption (August 15) was the most celebrated of the five feasts mentioned in the preceding selection, as is shown by the large number of surviving sermons for this feast from late-medieval England. The following piece demonstrates the florid style customary in panegyric preaching by Benedictine monks; it has been preserved in two manuscripts associated with that order (see above, selection 5 and

      Oxford, Bodleian...

    • 17 KATHERINE 1 (RICHARD FITZRALPH) (pp. 191-194)

      RICHARD FITZRALPH was born in Ireland at the beginning of the fourteenth century. After earning a doctorate in theology and serving as chancellor of Oxford University, he was appointed dean of Lich-field cathedral (1335) and subsequently archbishop of armagh, Ireland (1347). He spent four extended periods of his life at the papal curia in Avignon, where he died in 1360. FitzRalph left a collection of his sermons that are supplied with precise indications of the occasion, year, and audience of their delivery, and hence form a diary of his preaching activity. Many of them are merely reports of what he...

    • 18 KATHERINE 2 (RICHARD FITZRALPH) (pp. 195-219)

      ON FITZRALPH, see the headnote to the previous selection. In contrast to the preceding brief report, in the following piece FitzRalph writes out a complete and carefully wrought sermon in honor of the same saint held in 1338 before the Franciscans at Avignon, the papal residence, where he spent many years. The rhetorical structure is a sophisticated tour de force. After a hyperbolic introduction, in which FitzRalph praises St. Katherine as superior in her faith to many biblical heroes, he combines four “etymologies” of the Latin word for “woman” with four main aspects of faith and shows, with details taken...

    • 19 JOHN THE BAPTIST (JOHN MIRK) (pp. 220-226)

      JOHN MIRK was an Augustinian canon of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire. He wrote several aids for preachers, in Latin and in English, including a collection of homilies in English prose called Festial, which was written before 1415 and perhaps as early as between 1382 and 1390. In it he covered selected Sundays, feast days, and saints’ feasts in an order that echoes that of the Golden Legend. The latter is also the source of much of his material, though by no means the only one. The individual “sermons” are much concerned with the exposition of the particular day or feast for...

    • 20 FUNERAL (pp. 229-240)

      FUNERAL SERMONS COULD HAVE BEEN GIVEN within or outside a Mass for the dead, and a preacher had greater freedom than usual to choose his thema from texts other than the prescribed lections. Consequently he often chose a biblical verse that had some relevance to the deceased. In the case of the present sermon, he even the changed the biblical wording, making its statement into a question.

      The sermon, by an anonymous author, has been preserved in at least two manuscripts, one a Benedictine collection (W, where it is actually copied twice; see above, selection 9), the other a later...

    • 21 CONVOCATION (THOMAS BRINTON) (pp. 241-254)

      ON BRINTON, SEE ABOVE, selection 11. As bishop of Rochester—next door to London and Westminster—Brinton was much involved in larger political and ecclesiastical issues of his day. He is, in this regard, perhaps best known for the following sermon, which he seems to have preached during the meeting of the Good Parliament (end of april to May 1376). The sermon was delivered to the convocation of the clergy of the province of Canterbury and would be dated to May 18. It has attracted the attention of students of Middle English literature for its social criticism as well as...

    • 22 TO THE CLERGY (pp. 255-269)

      THIS SERMON BEARS NO RUBRIC that would indicate its occasion or audience, but internal addresses as well as its entire subject matter show that it was directed to priests who had the cure of souls; it may therefore have been given at a synod or visitation. The manuscript in which it uniquely occurs (see selection 8) also contains a copy of Wimbledon’s famous sermon Redde rationem vilicationis tuae, in one of its two different Latin forms. The present selection shares Wimbledon’s concern for priestly morals and accountability and his lament at abuses, and beyond this uses the three questions on...

    • 23 VISITATION OF A MONASTERY (pp. 270-282)

      LIKE THE CHURCHES IN A DIOCESE, monasteries were required to be visited regularly by the bishop or a religious from another house of the order. During the visitation, the visitator would inquire about the congregation’s spiritual and moral life and about such external features as the performance of the liturgy, the sufficiency of provisions, availability of service books, the state of the buildings, etc. As a rule, the visitation began with a sermon preached by the visitator or a person delegated for this function.

      The following anonymous sermon is uniquely preserved in fifteenth-century monastic sermon collection from Worcester Priory (see...

    • 24 ENCLOSURE OF A NUN (pp. 283-297)

      THIS SERMON HAS NO RUBRIC, but as the text makes clear, it was preached at the enclosure of Alice Huntingfield in a religious order. If the phrase “in today’s epistle” at its head refers to the reading in the sanctoral cycle (rather than a Mass for the enclosure of a nun), the sermon could have been given on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25. The anonymous preacher’s punning on the name of the woman to be enclosed raises this rhetorical device to heights beyond what one normally finds in funeral and academic sermons (cf. 20 and...

    • 25 ACADEMIC SERMON/LECTURE (FRISBY) (pp. 298-316)

      THE MEDIEVAL UNIVERSITY originated as a church institution, whose primary aim was to form theologians, preachers, and priests. In the theological faculty, though there was no formal course in “homiletics,” preaching was a required and ongoing activity, and often young men were sent to university to learn how to preach even if they were not pursuing a degree. Both graduate students and masters in theology had to give sermons on various occasions: for purposes of examination, to the general (university) public, and at special academic events, such as inception, the beginning of a lecture course, or the presentation of degree...

  11. FURTHER READINGS (pp. 319-320)
  12. GENERAL INDEX (pp. 321-332)
  14. Back Matter (pp. 335-335)