The Structure of Sermons
In an act of simplification as well as classification, scholars distinguish two basic forms of medieval sermon: the homilia and the sermo. The homilia moves sequentially through a biblical passage, commenting on it sentence by sentence, or word by word. Medieval monastic preachers followed the model of Gregory the Great’s homiletic and exegetical works, notably the Moralia in Job and the Homiliae in euangelia. Houghton MS Typ 592 is a fragment of an early eighth-century Moralia from the abbey of Luxeuil. Houghton MS Lat 167 contains an exquisite twelfth-century copy of the Moralia in Job. Houghton MS Riant 36 includes excerpts from Gregory’s Homilies on Ezekiel as well as the Moralia in Job. Houghton MS Riant 36, f. 54v shows a passage from the Moralia. A small codex for private study, the manuscript also contains letters of Jerome and various other texts.
Unlike the homilia, the sermo concentrates on a particular theme developed from a few key words in the biblical reading. Medieval authors tended to classify sermons based on their liturgical occasion, whether for a particular Sunday or feast day in the liturgical year (sermones de tempore), for a saint’s feast day (sermones de sanctis), or for other occasions, such as a funeral. Houghton MS Lat 15, f. 12v shows the beginning of a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent in a fifteenth-century copy of the sermones de tempore written by the German theologian Henry of Friemar.
In the later Middle Ages, the sermo modernus emerged as the dominant form of preaching. Influenced by the dialectical methods of the universities, “the modern sermon” was organized according to explicit divisions and subdivisions derived from the sermon’s theme, which made the sermon’s structure, and hence its message, easier for both preacher and audience to remember. Writers composed model sermons of this type for use by other preachers; these provided the skeletal structure of a sermon, along with suggested biblical and patristic quotations. Houghton MS Riant 35 and Houghton MS Lat 9 contain the sermons of two of the most popular preachers of the high and late Middle Ages: James of Vitry and James of Voragine (or Varazze).
These sermon templates would be fleshed out by the preacher with a host of anecdotes, analogies, and examples from saints’ lives, or even through an exotic array of animal symbolism – a peacock to illustrate vanity or a drunken elephant the reckless love of Christ. Houghton MS Typ 101 is a thirteenth-century French bestiary and aviary. Houghton MS Typ 150, a fifteenth-century Italian manuscript, contains a treatise on virtues, illustrated by the traits of various animals such as the unicorn [f. 38]. Thus while the form and the occasion of sermons followed increasingly standardized models, the individual preacher could adapt a sermon to his own style and to the needs of his audience. The medieval sermon remained, like creatures of the medieval bestiary, a hybrid – a literary genre that incorporated signs and features of oral discourse.