The Literary Qualities of Sermons,
by Michelle De Groot
What makes a sermon “literature”? Contemporary churchgoers, as well as many secular literary critics, might not think of the orations in their places of worship as literary productions, but the evidence left by medieval manuscripts suggests the limitations of such a preconception. Indeed, the manuscripts in which many sermons survive often contain other genres of writing, including lyric poetry or devotional prose, indicating that medieval authors and compilers did not distinguish between sermons and other genres that today are considered more obviously “artistic.” Moreover, the division between sermons and related genres is not always clear. The fifteenth-century English play Mankind, for example, contains long speeches by a figure named Mercy that reproduce many of the recommendations made by contemporaneous preaching manuals.
While the contexts in which they appear speak to their medieval literary status, many sermons themselves also reveal a high degree of self-conscious rhetorical skill. Literature differs from philosophical exposition in the way it guides perception. Whether drama, lyric, or sermon, literature seeks to create an experience rather than simply explicate an idea. The experiences that sermons could create would differ profoundly depending on their structure, context, and intended audience.
For instance, the methodical and repetitive monastic homilia (see above) facilitated peaceful meditation verse by verse, the goal of the most common form of monastic prayer, lectio divina. By contrast, sermons intended for the laity frequently incorporated colorful metaphors and memorable exempla. Jacob’s Well, a fifteenth-century English sermon collection, uses the homely, recognizable metaphor of an unfriendly dog to describe an envious man. Elsewhere, its writer employs a different strategy, using a sensational story involving incest, infanticide, and a demon dressed as a clerk to emphasize the importance of confession. Such rhetorical devices sought to activate specific aspects of the lay experience in order to render spiritual education appealing, memorable, and effective.
From the twelfth century onwards, a new genre of preaching manuals, dedicated to the ars praedicandi (art of preaching), proliferated. These works, by scholars such as Alan of Lille (c.1117–c.1202) and Robert of Basevorn (whose famous work, The Form of Preaching, was likely written near the turn of the fourteenth century) frequently combined rhetorical instruction with concrete and content-based interpretations of Scripture or moral advice. At the same time, however, they warned of the dangers of rhetoric and urged a sober and restrained style of speech. Other outlets of medieval literary activity also satirized the potential pitfalls of the fusion of rhetoric and religion; nevertheless, even these subversive representations of the sermon frequently reassert the value of religious performance of one kind or another in achieving the salvation of souls. Perhaps the greatest literary legacy of the medieval sermon tradition lies in its confident embrace of the power of language to defy human frailty and effect positive change.