Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Parodic Sermon in Medieval and Early Modern England

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Parodic Sermon in Medieval and Early Modern England

Article excerpt

Until very recently there has been a surprising lack of interest on the part of medievalists in the various parodic genres as represented in fifteenth-and early sixteenth-century English literature. In 1994, however, Edward Wilson listed all known burlesque testaments in English down to c. 1565,1 and the then earliest known burlesque prognostications were discussed by F.P. Wilson in 1939;2 examples of burlesque prescriptions can be found in Middle English and in Middle Scots, the most familiar perhaps being Henryson's Sum Practysis of Medeyne;3 and burlesque proclamations, with one exception, occur as 'embedded' speeches in late medieval English morality and mystery plays.4 It is perhaps indicative of the lack of interest in this sort of parodic literature that even such a work by John Donne - his Catalogus librorum aulicorum, a mock library catalogue in the manner of Rabelais's catalogue of the library of SaintVictor in Pantagruel- is all but unknown even to scholars of Jacobean literature.5 It is against this background of comparative neglect of these genres that the present study of the parodic sermon is offered, together with an edition of the only extant example in Middle English, from a manuscript miscellany now in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, MS Advocates' 19.3.1.

Such sermons, a genre in which the language and structure of the liturgical form is burlesqued with more or less subtlety, enjoyed a definite popularity in the late Middle Ages, especially in France (elle Koopmans has recently edited some thirty French sermons joyeux), but the most recent survey of the genre as a whole is that by Sander L. Gilman, now over twenty years old, in which the present sermon is cited in a rather misleading manner.6

Given the relatively large number of extant survivals in French and other European vernaculars, it is surprising that the genre seems so underrepresented in the English Middle Ages. The evidence for the burlesque sermon in late medieval England, especially for any such sermon in the vernacular, is tenuous: from the early fourteenth century we have only the admittedly important Anglo-Norman Dit des femmes in the form of a bipartite sermon,pro and contra,7 and towards the end of the same century we hear of a sermo lusorius preached by the former Austin friar Peter Pateshul, but we have no text of it.8 The discussion that follows aims to set out the evidence for the existence of such productions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well, and is followed by an edition and commentary of the sole Middle English survivor known to me; this has only been published once before in an unannotated nineteenth-century miscellany.9

Although texts may be lacking, it is a curious accident of fate that we should have hints as to the physical circumstances surrounding the delivery of such a parodic sermon in the life and works of Sir Thomas More. More (born c. I477) is an unusually authoritative source; his earliest biographer, William Roper (himself elected master of the Lincoln's Inn Christmas revels in 1522), records how (c. 1490):

He was, by his father's procurement, received into the house of the right reverend, wise, and learned prelate Cardinall Mourton, where, thoughe hee was yonge of yeares, yet would he at Christmas tyd sodenly sometymes stepp in among the players, and never studinge for the matter, make a parte of his owne there presently amonge them, which made the lookers-on more sport than all the players besid. 10

R. J. Schoeck noted how deeply both More and his father were involved in the Christmas revels of the Society of Lincoln's Inn, his father serving as master of the revels in I476, butler in 1482, and marshal in 1488-9, filling this last office at a time when Thomas would have been ten or eleven, shortly before he went to Cardinal Morton's house as a page.11 Thomas himself was admitted to the Society in 1496, and elected as butler for 1507-8, an officer who, together with the steward for Christmas, served under the master of the revels. …

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