[Milton-L] Review: Preaching in the Age of Chaucer

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Wed Feb 11 16:17:23 EST 2009

May influence the study of Milton though it's before his period.

Jim R

Siegfried Wenzel.  Preaching in the Age of Chaucer: Selected Sermons
in Translation.  Washington DC  Catholic University of America Press,
2008.  xvii + 334 pp.  $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8132-1529-7.

Reviewed by Chris L. Nighman
Published on H-Albion (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Margaret McGlynn

Revealing and Reveling in Late Medieval Sermons from England

The study of medieval sermons has flourished in recent years. As the
author of numerous excellent books and articles on sermons and other
texts related to medieval preaching, Siegfried Wenzel has made an
enormous contribution to this development. This latest offering
confirms his standing not only as an eminent scholar in this field,
but also as one of its most effective promoters and teachers, for the
primary purpose of this book is to introduce the rich variety of
medieval sermon literature to students who lack the linguistic and
paleographical skills to access the original sources themselves. The
book succeeds brilliantly in this objective, and it will no doubt
inspire some budding young scholars to go on to obtain those skills
so that they can further explore the vast, still largely unknown
corpus of preaching materials that survive from the Middle Ages,
while others will come to appreciate these texts for the rich sources
that they are for myriad aspects of medieval thought. This book also
offers much of interest to general readers, to sermon scholars
working in other periods, and to medievalists in such related fields
as English literature, social history, theology, pastoral studies,
and rhetoric. Finally, Wenzel's colleagues in the field of medieval
sermon studies will surely appreciate his approach in presenting
their subject to a novice audience, not only in terms of the book's
textual content but also in his infectious enthusiasm for the
subject, which is especially evident in the general introduction and
also appears in his prefaces to the various sections and to the
individual texts.

The book contains English translations of twenty-three complete
sermons (the back cover erroneously claims twenty-five) that were
composed during Chaucer's lifetime or in the half-century following
his death (c. 1350-1450), as well as translations of a biblical
passage (as transmitted by Hugh of St. Cher) and the commentaries on
particular phrases in it from the _Glossa ordinaria_. These two
latter texts are presented at the beginning of part 1, "From
Scripture to Sermon," which is intended to show how a scriptural
lection (#1), in this case Luke 11:14-28 for the third Sunday of
Lent, and the ordinary gloss on it (#2) could be used along with
other materials, such as the biblical commentaries known as postils,
to produce a model sermon (#3) that could itself be employed in
combination with other resources to compose "real" sermons (#4 and
#5) that were presumably delivered from the pulpit. Wenzel explains
that he chose these three particular sermons as examples because
"they show very different approaches" to treating the same lection,
as indeed they do (p. xii).

The remainder of the book presents twenty representative examples of
the genre grouped into three categories. Part 2 contains nine
_sermones de tempore_ that would have been delivered for various
feasts in the Christian calendar, such as Advent and Good Friday, or
on particular Sundays, as with the three sermons in part 1. Part 3 is
comprised of five _sermones de sanctis_ intended for particular
saints' days, two of which are by the same preacher and, for the sake
of comparative interest, dedicated to the same saint: Catherine of
Alexandria. Part 4 offers six occasional sermons, including a eulogy,
a sermon for a provincial synod, and another for the enclosure of a

In compiling this collection of representative types, Wenzel has
provided examples of different late medieval approaches to pulpit
oratory, including one homily, several thematic sermons, and various
hybrids drawing on these two forms. In addition to model sermons and
"real" ones that were probably delivered essentially as they have
been preserved (i.e., in content though not always in the same
language), there is also a _reportatio_, a brief paraphrased account
(in this case by the preacher himself) of a delivered sermon. The
selected sermons include some by famous and prolific preachers as
well as others that are anonymous. Their intended audiences ranged
from parishioners and other groups of laity to university masters and
students, from secular clergy and prelates to friars, monks, and
nuns, with styles spanning the spectrum from the formal academic to
the "more free-flowing, relaxed" approach of sermons typically
delivered _ad populum_ (p. x). Not confining his sample strictly to
the orthodox, Wenzel has also included one sermon by John Wyclif and
another by an anonymous Wyclifite preacher. For a collection of fewer
than two dozen sermons, this book covers the ground extraordinarily

With their arguments supported by authoritative quotations and
proverbs, and enlivened with materials from the _Legenda aurea_ and
exempla collections, these sermons serve as rich primary source
documents that reveal much about the intellectual and religious
culture of their period, reflecting mentalities that are at times
strangely different from our own, though at others curiously
familiar. Wenzel's prefaces and discursive footnotes serve very well
in helping readers make sense of these texts by placing the sermons
within their liturgical and institutional contexts, commenting on the
preachers' backgrounds (if known) and individual tastes and styles,
pointing to particular features as distinctive or commonplace, and
noting other points of interest. In all of this, Wenzel deserves
nothing but our admiration and gratitude for his astute selection and
effective presentation of these texts.

The book's success as an anthology and edition is matched by the
excellence of Wenzel's translations, which have resulted in very
readable sermon texts, easily accessible to modern readers, even in
the case of the academic lecture/sermons. Only one sermon, John
Mirk's for the feast of John the Baptist, survives as a purely
vernacular text, and Wenzel has "modernized" its original Middle
English. The rest have come down to us in Latin, though a few, such
as an anonymous one for Good Friday, are macaronic sermons containing
occasional vernacular passages, often in verse, which Wenzel treats
by providing the original Middle English and, where needed for
comprehension, modern English enclosed by square brackets.

The great majority of these sermons were translated from full
transcriptions made by Wenzel from manuscripts at the Bodleian
Library, Worcester Cathedral Library, and elsewhere; only four are
from printed editions. Clearly, this anthology is the product of a
prodigious amount of scholarly effort; it would have been much
quicker and easier to produce a collection of translations from
existing editions, but that approach would not have produced the
representative sample that Wenzel wanted to provide to his readers.
His efforts in this regard are not only admirable from a scholarly
point of view, but also in terms of pedagogy, for he is emphasizing
to his readers the fact that the great majority of sermon materials
are still only available in manuscript and that much editorial work
remains to be done in making these texts more accessible for
scholarly study, a point he makes explicitly in the introduction. By
pointing out the research opportunities in this field, Wenzel is
issuing an implicit invitation to students who might go on to work on
these texts. This is also implied when Wenzel notes variant readings
between different manuscript copies and when he deals with difficult
passages by noting the nature of the problem and offering a tentative
reading which makes the most sense given the context; rather than
simply using a formal scholarly apparatus that would satisfy his
colleagues, he takes the time to explain his editorial rationale for
the benefit of student readers.

The book concludes with two indices, a bibliography of frequently
cited primary sources, and a short list of suggested further
readings. The suggested readings usefully cites four previous
collections of Latin sermons in translation from late medieval
England, preceded by a very brief bibliographical essay on general
works in the field of medieval preaching; considering that the book
is aimed primarily at students, I would have liked to see the
bibliographical essay, which cites only four essential texts,
expanded to include a few more major publications and to make mention
of _Medieval Sermon Studies_, the journal of the International
Medieval Sermon Studies Society. However, Wenzel does cite many other
key studies in the notes provided throughout this book. Most
prominently mentioned is one of Wenzel's own books, _Latin Sermon
Collections from Later Medieval England: Orthodox Preaching in the
Age of Wyclif_ (2005), which has been widely praised, and justifiably
so.[1] For twenty-one of the sermons in _Preaching in the Age of
Chaucer_, Wenzel cites a number of pages from his _Latin Sermon
Collections_ for relevant literature. Indeed, it appears that
_Preaching in the Age of Chaucer_ almost serves as a sort of extended
appendix to _Latin Sermon Collections_, offering complete sermon
texts in translation that exemplify the contents of particular
manuscripts or illustrate certain issues discussed in his earlier
book. Nevertheless, _Preaching in the Age of Chaucer_ certainly
stands on its own as an excellent textbook for advanced undergraduate
and graduate students, and as a highly effective introduction to the
subject for nonspecialist academics and interested general readers.
Still, if I were to assign _Preaching_ _in the Age of Chaucer_ as a
required textbook for a course, which, in fact, I intend to do for a
future graduate seminar, I would make sure that my university library
had a copy of _Latin Sermon Collections_ (which is only available in
hardback and costs over two hundred U.S. dollars) that I would be
able to place on reserve for my students to use in writing document
study papers based on the texts in _Preaching in the Age of Chaucer_.

This superb anthology is a welcome contribution to medieval sermon
studies that will be of great utility to scholars and students for
many years to come. I expect that its greatest legacy will be the
interest in these materials that this book will engender in students,
some of whom will be inspired by Wenzel's impressive scholarship to
go on and make their own contributions as future scholars of medieval
sermon literature.


[1]. On its reception see, for example, Patrick Horner, review of
_Latin Sermon Collections from Later Medieval England_, by Siegfried
Wenzel, _The Catholic Historical Review_ 91, no. 4 (October 2005):
805-807; and James Clark, review of _Latin Sermon Collections from
Later Medieval England_, by Siegfried Wenzel, _The English Historical
Review_ 122 (April 2007): 475-477.

Citation: Chris L. Nighman. Review of Wenzel, Siegfried, _Preaching
in the Age of Chaucer: Selected Sermons in Translation_. H-Albion,
H-Net Reviews. February, 2009.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=24036

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
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