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Larissa J. Taylor, ed. Preachers and People in the Reformations and Early Modern Period.

(A New History of the Sermon, 2.) Koln and Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001. xviii + 398 pp. index. $127. ISBN: 90-04-11564-1.

"Neither this book, nor many like it, could have been written two decades ago" are the apposite opening words of Larissa Taylor's introduction to this volume. Histories of preaching have been in circulation for a long time, but until recently sermons have been studied either as works of literature or as bases from which to infer the preacher's doctrinal positions. They have usually been written from confessional perspectives. The situation has changed considerably, as this collection bears witness. Of the eleven contributions in it, three fall under the rubric of "The Sermon as Genre" (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed), seven under "The Social History of Preaching" (divided according countries or areas), and the last under "Preaching and the Geography of Reformations." Literary and doctrinal considerations of course occur in these pieces, but they are not the dominant ones.

The time is ripe, then, for what this volume promises and delivers. The past twenty years have seen an extraordinary outburst of interest in preaching, most notably for the medieval period but increasingly for the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. We are now ready for a volume like this that pulls together that scholarship and presents us with the state of the question--what's happened, what still needs to happen. Except for the generic piece by Jelle Bosma on preaching in the Low Countries, the authors acquit themselves well of this task. The volume has a coherence not common in collections. The first three pieces--by Thomas Worcester, Beth Kreitzer, and James Thomas Ford--provide the foundation for what follows by isolating some confessional characteristics, which taken together allow the reader to contrast them. This is something I have not seen elsewhere.

The next seven are in some ways even more rewarding in that regard, as we move from France (Larissa Taylor), to Italy (Corrie Norman), to Germany (Susan C. Karant-Nunn), to Switzerland (Lee Palmer Wandel), to England (Eric Josef Carlson), to Scandinavia (Jens Chr. V. Johansen), to the Low Countries. The berth of social history regarding preaching is wide indeed, as these studies make manifest--the role of women, the role of magistrates, the places and occasions of sermons, the self-image of the preacher, the physical dangers preaching entailed, the relationship of sermons to liturgy, and the political and economic settings.

I admire this volume as a totality, so I hesitate to single out some contributions for more praise and comment than others. Nonetheless, I think that Thayer's attempt in the concluding contribution to correlate how the sacrament of Penance was preached in the late Middle Ages with where the Reformation took hold and where it did not deserves special mention. As is well known, much of late medieval preaching had as its immediate objective to persuade people to go to confession. Thayer's thesis is that where preachers tended to take a rigorist approach, areas or countries were more likely to go Protestant. In treating this issue she captures a theme that recurs throughout the volume: how preaching succeeded in filling or failed to fill a pastoral need in Protestant territories that confession formerly supposedly attended to.

The longest contribution in the volume by far and the richest is Norman's on Italy. Her coverage of issues is the most comprehensive and sophisticated, her opinions on the issues uniformly judicious, the range of her information impressive. The topics she considers are continuity and discontinuity with the medieval tradition, recent historiography, sources, treatises, purpose, content, spirit-word-rhetoric, language and style, the ritual character of the event, the audience, preaching as medium of exchange or social control, relationship to a culture of fear, trajectories. Her analysis of "six basic assumptions in the general culture that remain constant (from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries), although the forms and theories associated with them vary over time" (129-30) is one of the most helpful I have seen.

The editor commissioned a chapter on the Iberian Peninsula, but the author was unable to deliver it. That is regrettable in and of itself because of the determining role Spain, Portugal, and their overseas dominions played in the reformations and in early modern history, hut it also helps reinforce the impression, inadvertently conveyed even by this fine volume, that preaching was fundamentally a Protestant enterprise: seven of the eleven chapters deal exclusively, or almost exclusively, with Protestant preaching, only two exclusively with Catholic.

No single volume, no matter how well conceived and executed, can cover all aspects of this vast and vastly important subject. I want to mention three not much treated here, but I do so not as sly criticism for omissions but as a stimulus for further research and reflection. First, attention needs to be paid to categories preachers use for their preachments, e.g., sermo, praedicatio, homilia, oratio, contio, or even lectio. Second, in many parts of Europe by the early decades of the seventeenth century preaching according to "conceits" (concetti) was, though controversial, much in vogue. It is a subject not much treated in Anglophone studies outside strictly literary circles, but it is an important one. Third, the claim made for originality for certain Protestant reformers in that they "preached" on a daily basis from a continuous text of Scripture (e.g., John's Gospel) needs to be examined against the late-medieval practice of "sacred lectures," which did the same thing.


Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, MA
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Author:O'Malley, John W.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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