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Alan John Fletcher: Late Medieval Popular Preaching in Britain and Ireland. Texts, Studies, and Interpretations (= Sermo: Studies on Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation Sermons and Preaching; Vol. 5), Turnhout: Brepols 2009, XVII + 339 S., ISBN 978-2-503-52391-0, EUR 90,00
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Rezension von:
Leo Carruthers
Université Paris-Sorbonne
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Ralf L√ľtzelschwab
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Leo Carruthers: Rezension von: Alan John Fletcher: Late Medieval Popular Preaching in Britain and Ireland. Texts, Studies, and Interpretations, Turnhout: Brepols 2009, in: sehepunkte 12 (2012), Nr. 4 [15.04.2012], URL:

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Alan John Fletcher: Late Medieval Popular Preaching in Britain and Ireland

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While this book is modestly presented as an "anthology" (2), it proves to be much more than that. An anthology is often a compendium of previously known texts, usually taken from published sources, whereas Alan Fletcher has critically edited, and here publishes for the first time, a series of little-known medieval sermons. Most of the items are anonymous and ad populum, i.e. addressed to the laity. The author thus makes available a considerable number of documents, mainly in Middle English but also in Latin - or, in some cases, a macaronic combination of the two - which make a valuable addition to the body of published sermons.

It would nonetheless be difficult to call this book simply an edition, a word which conjures up images of a single work, with an introduction and collation of the various manuscripts where more than one copy exists, and notes to explain emendations or interpretations. This indeed Fletcher does for all of the sermons edited here, though they still do not quite make up "an edition"; these short texts, coming as they do from varied sources, do not compose a single work, and any similarity between them only arises from their shared homiletic genre. The book therefore provides a series of mini-editions, each one of which starts with the manuscript(s) and then presents the edited and annotated texts which are provided with a full critical apparatus. Each chapter also discusses wider literary and historical issues, again drawing the whole closer to a monograph than to an anthology.

The book contains ten chapters, of which the first is introductory, while the last, entitled "Good men and women" (a form of address favoured by English preachers like John Mirk), is a short conclusion rounding off the discussion. The second chapter, a codicological study, examines manuscripts in British and Irish libraries. The central chapters 3 to 7 are divided according to the type of preacher, from friars to seculars and from monks to canons, the latter being both secular and regular (John Mirk was an Augustinian canon). Whereas the sermon for Lent from Hereford Cathedral is fully macaronic (123-30), and the long Easter sermon is entirely in Latin (131-41), most of the texts included here are in English, or mainly so. With its eighty pages chapter 7 is twice as long as any other, which is justified for two reasons: firstly, it deals with the secular clergy, a group not always well represented in manuscripts though they were more likely than others to preach frequently to the laity; secondly, it is built around four related texts all being variations on a theme attributed to one author, Robert Holcot. A whole chapter is devoted to Ireland, and finally, in the spirit of G.R. Owst (a pioneer in the relationship between literature and the pulpit), there is an extensive discussion, with many examples, of the occurrence of lyrics in sermons, including at least one previously unpublished lyric (293).

Not least among this book's original aspects is its treatment of Britain and Ireland as a unit, which, despite the two islands' long shared history, is not a matter of course where language and literature are concerned. Late medieval Ireland was considered a possession of the English Crown, held as a papal fief by virtue of a bull granted to Henry II in 1155. Using the title "Lord of Ireland" the kings of England gradually extended their power throughout the country, building walled towns which were essentially English outposts in a Gaelic environment. To take the example of Dublin alone, from 1180 onwards all of its archbishops without exception were Anglo-Norman or English, a pattern that was repeated in many Irish dioceses. Preaching in English to the laity would have been the norm in Irish cities, and a bishop like Richard FitzRalph, Archbishop of Armagh (1346-60), would have had no difficulty moving between Ireland and England (see 260-7). Out in rural areas, however, where Irish Gaelic was the language of the majority of all social classes, preaching was done in Irish, despite the paucity of manuscript evidence. Few scholars have explored this subject, apart from Fletcher himself who has already published a major study of preaching in Ireland from 700 to 1700, considering sermons in Latin, Irish and English. But the present focus is on English, with some attention paid to Latin texts. Preaching in Irish would require a specialist study and is only mentioned here in passing. As Fletcher demonstrates, the manuscript evidence in both Latin and English shows that preaching in Ireland was very similar to that carried on in England, where the sources are more numerous.

French is another language that must be mentioned here, since it was spoken in all regions of the British Isles by the Anglo-Norman nobility and the higher clergy for several centuries; but by the early fourteenth century it was fading out and being replaced by English in all walks of life. Even then, however, Britain was not a single country and was far from being monolingual, quite apart from the French issue. England alone is not Britain. Scotland was an independent kingdom where Gaelic, Norse and English were all spoken. Wales long remained Welsh-speaking and anti-English until brought under royal control in 1536. The towns of late medieval Ireland were therefore much more English in their language and culture than were many places in Scotland and Wales. An unexpected consequence of Henry VIII's break with Rome was that he no longer wished to use the papal title of "Lord" and instead set up Ireland as a kingdom in 1541, thus becoming the first English sovereign to be called King of Ireland.

Fletcher goes beyond the "edition" genre in his lengthy discussion of issues related to these texts, often in a lively, chatty style with humorous subtleties thrown in for good measure. This may not be surprising in an author capable of pointing out the jokes made by medieval preachers (281-3), an unexpected bonus in sermons which is not very often remarked on by other specialists of the genre. Neither does he hesitate to challenge some commonly held ideas, such as the suggestion, made by Siegfried Wenzel, that macaronic sermons were meant to be delivered just as they were written, to a presumed bilingual audience who would have no difficulty in understanding the mixture (63-4). Yet we know from the internal evidence of many sermons, preserved only in Latin versions, that the language of the manuscript is not always the same as that in which the preacher spoke to the people. The same would often appear to be the case with macaronic sermons, where the writer switches, at least in his manuscript, from one language to another - Latin and English - as a mere time-saving device, if not a memory aid. Since Latin was the medium used in the schools and universities for lectures and note-taking, many scholars who had learned to write quickly in Latin no doubt found it easier to compose a text in that language, even if they had delivered, or intended to deliver, a sermon in English.

The sermons in this volume, and the commentaries they give rise to, are nevertheless only presented as "snapshots" (313) of local scenes in a wide field. Each one gives a picture of a particular place and time, as near as the editor can identify them, but they are not meant to give a complete survey of the situation throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Taken together, however, there is no doubt that these texts broaden our understanding of preaching - especially to the laity - in the period which is the book's focus. The author's extensive knowledge of the critical literature is impressive, and his own contribution to it is enlightening. An index, together with a bibliography of primary and secondary sources (and a list of 94 manuscripts), completes the critical apparatus. This book will find a welcome place in the library of all specialists of the medieval sermon, as well as those interested in social history, English-Irish relations in the Middle Ages, codicology, and the Middle English lyric.

Leo Carruthers