The Purpose of Preaching
According to Augustine of Hippo (354–430), a model Ciceronian in this respect, rhetoric has three purposes: to teach, to delight and to move an audience. Of these, Augustine argues, the sermon’s primary function is to teach. Many sermons to the laity were aimed at teaching orthodoxy, refuting heresy, and exposing the dangers of paganism. One remarkable sermon from the Carolingian scholar Rabanus Maurus (c.780–856) warns its audience to cease howling at the moon. Rabanus’s works were disseminated widely during the high Middle Ages. Houghton fMS Typ 200 (on display in the Houghton Amy Lowell Gallery) is a late twelfth-century copy of Rabanus’s commentary on Jeremiah and Lamentations from the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny.
Overall, the primary goal of preachers was to “affect” their listeners, to move them to conversion of heart and life. Monastic sermons urged meditation, persistence in the monastic life, compunction for sins, and desire for heaven. Twelfth-century monastic sermons, as well as some mendicant sermons, were written or revised after delivery with a view to lectio divina, or sacred reading. Bernard of Clairvaux’s allegorical and mystical sermons on the Song of Songs represent the best-known examples of this phenomenon; some of Bonaventure’s (1221–1274) sermons reveal similar aims and techniques. Excerpts from Bernard’s sermons and other works are preserved along with sayings from his contemporary Hugh of St. Victor (c.1096–1141) in Houghton MS Lat 185, a late twelfth-century collection of sententiae, key passages from their writings. Collections of Carthusian sermons are rare, since the order’s legislation required strict seclusion and discouraged literary production. Harvard Houghton MS Riant 95 is a collection of sermones de sanctis composed by an anonymous Carthusian in the last third of the fourteenth century Folios 124v-130r contain three sermons on the Carthusian saint Hugh of Lincoln. These sermons, intended for delivery in a chapter house, offer Hugh as a model for the monastic vocation, especially the vow of poverty.
Sermons to the laity urged them to repent and perform acts of charity. Mendicant preachers often drew large crowds in their calls for penitence. The preaching of the Dominican Peter of Verona (1206–1252) in Florence was so popular that municipal officials enlarged the piazza of Santa Maria Novella to accommodate the crowds. Lenten sermons in late medieval Italian towns were civic events that not only urged listeners to repent but also influenced communal legislation. One form of penitence urged by preachers was the crusade, a call for Christians to free the Holy Land, convert the faithless, and risk death as martyrs. Houghton MS Riant 57, written in Rome in the late fifteenth century, contains sermons preached against the Turks.