Monastic Preaching and the Growth
of the Schools in the Twelfth Century
Monastic sermons were delivered by the abbot or by a monk the abbot designated or in some cases by the female superior or abbess. Sermons served for preaching and reading, both private and public. The monastic sermon was (and is) part of the community liturgy, as prescribed in the Rule of Saint Benedict. The readings for the nocturns of Matins included sermons (chiefly patristic); sermons and commentaries on the Rule were delivered in chapter. The sermon was also used for private meditation and for public reading in the refectory; furthermore, it served as a form of correspondence when monastic persons and communities exchanged exegetical interpretations.
The typical monastic sermon was structured around a biblical or liturgical lection, from which one or more key words were selected and used repeatedly to develop a motif or theme. Methods of developing the theme varied widely and reflected the author’s level of education as well as the degree to which a text had been revised as a literary work. Sermons survive as complete texts, reports, and sententiae, short summaries or outlines containing the major points of the sermon.
The monastic sermon was (and is) generally inward-looking, directed to life within the monastery and to the monk’s or nun’s spiritual progress. The extant texts provide a guide to monastic spirituality and theology and a glimpse of the difficulties of observing the Rule. Seldom in the surviving sermons does the monastic preacher direct comments to life in the outside world. Nonetheless, some monastic preachers such as Bernard of Clairvaux became engaged in the affairs of the church and preached publicly for the Crusades, or against heresy, or at synods. A fourteenth-century manuscript, Houghton fMS Typ 293, contains Bernard’s On Consideration, a compendium of advice written for Pope Eugene III in the mid-twelfth century. The fifteenth-century manuscript, Houghton MS Riant 4, gathers several other treatises by Bernard, including On the New Knighthood, his defense of the military order of the Templars.
Twelfth-century authors in schools and monasteries composed numerous commentaries on the Scriptures and expanded the Glossa Ordinaria, a commentary on books of the Bible that had been undertaken in the late eleventh century, particularly by scholars at the cathedral school of Laon. Monasteries and schools owned volumes of the Glossa ordinaria with its distinctive page design that placed the biblical text in the center column, interlinear glosses that explained the meaning of the words and names in the text, and marginal glosses on either side of it. The marginal glosses provided interpretations, usually from patristic writers, according to the four senses of Scripture: literal, allegorical, tropological (moral), and anagogical (mystical or relating to heaven). The Houghton collection includes several twelfth-century manuscripts of glossed books of the Bible, such as fMS Lat 6, Ms Lat 334, MS Richardson 2 on John’s Gospel; MS Typ 260, fMS Typ 204; and by Gilbert of la Porrée: fMSTyp 29, Commentary on the Psalms (77-150) and MS Typ277, Commentary on the Pauline Epistles.
As the cathedral schools grew and educated more clerics, the sermon moved towards the greater formalization that characterizes thirteenth-century university preaching. Furthermore, at the end of the twelfth century, Cistercians developed aids to study with alphabetical indexing, such as distinctiones, lists of interpretations for biblical words. These study aids were clearly designed to facilitate the writing and preaching of sermons. The aids for preaching in turn influenced the form of the sermon. Authors who had contact with the schools devised complex theological arguments, more divisions, and more complicated questions and devices for explaining and developing the reading.