Medieval Sermons and Society: Cloister, City, University

By Taylor, Larissa | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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Medieval Sermons and Society: Cloister, City, University


Taylor, Larissa, The Catholic Historical Review


Medieval Sermons and Society: Cloister, City, University. Edited by Jacqueline Hamesse, Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Anne T. Thayer, and Debra Stoudt. [Federation Internationale des Instituts d'Etudes Medievales. Textes et Etudes du Moyen Age, 9.] (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers. 1998. Pp. viii, 422. 49 euros; 1976,66 BEF.)

The editors and authors of this anthology, actively involved in the International Medieval Sermon Studies Society, deserve the gratitude of all medievalists for producing an outstanding volume. An anthology poses significant challenges to the editors, but by focusing on three main loci in which preaching was done-cloister, city, and university-they seamlessly weave together diverse subject matter. As Beverly Kienzle states, "[t]he essays... illustrate how medieval authors incorporated and reshaped existing sources and developed new ones.... The sermon provided a fluid genre... the persuasive power [of which] constituted a vehicle for strong commentary on contemporary events" (p. viii). This book both overturns stereotypes and challenges recent assumptions about a supposed uniformity over time and place.

It is impossible in a short review to do justice to this rich collection of twenty-one essays, and so I will mention only a few. In "The Cloister," Debra Stoudt calls attention to the importance not only of the preached Word, but also its value as an object for private study, often by nuns. Rosemary Hale's "The 'Silent' Virgin," examining how sermons on Mary were presented by Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler, exemplifies this approach. Hale presents the message given, but proceeds to examine how it was received and changed. Mary as spiritual mother who receives then conceives is central to Eckhart;Tauler, more conventional in his Marian imagery, focuses on spiritual birth in the soul that is to be emulated. Spiritual birth does occur among the nuns to whom the works are addressed; yet the "immovable and silent" of the sermons becomes an "active and vocal" model.

In "The City," introduced by Anne Thayer, changes in European life from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries are obvious in sermons. Beverly Kienzle's "Cistercian Views of the City in the Sermons of Helinand of Froidmont" examines how the Cistercian ideal of simplicity was enlivened by the natural imagery of trees and blossoms, so at odds with the growing cities. Helinand viewed universities and their "rosy, pleasure-seeking doctors" as integral to a corruption that encompassed worldly pleasure, building, and heresy. The contaminated city was the opposite of the monastic model of a heavenly Jerusalem. Both John Dahmus and Patrick Homer demonstrate the flexibility of sermons in addressing contemporary issues.

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