James of Voragine, by Suzanne Hevelone
Among the many Dominican scholars and authors of sermons and sermon material, James of Voragine (ca. 1228-1298), archbishop of Genoa, is chiefly remembered for his compilation of the lives of the saints, the Legenda aurea (Golden Legend), the most influential hagiographical resource from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. In addition, James was a prolific preacher who prepared several collections of model sermons that were used widely by medieval preachers.
Houghton Library’s MS Lat 9 is a copy of James’ Sermones de tempore, which was beautifully written and illuminated in 1452. The 160 sermons contained in it follow the liturgical calendar. As a leader within the Dominican Order, James would naturally have been concerned with providing theologically sound and easily available content for fellow preachers. His Latin model sermons were disseminated to Dominicans and other preachers across Europe, who preached from them in numerous vernacular languages.
James’ sermons bear witness to the changes in the type of preaching that occurred during the thirteenth century. His model sermons typically fall into the category of sermo modernus, a text with highly structured arguments, although he also provided models in a simpler homiletic form. James’ hagiography and sermons have sometimes been viewed as two distinct categories with little overlap, but upon closer study the two genres appear complementary. The great Dominican intended both his hagiography and his sermons on the saints to reach the same audience and for the same purpose – the imitation of the virtue of the saint in the Christian life. This is, according to James, the basis of a spiritual ascent to union with God. Stories from the saints’ lives would have served to punctuate the presentation of his sermons when used by other preachers; they encouraged audience awareness and participation with the material in the same way as a twenty-first century pastor does when sharing anecdotes.