Illustrated Catholic Family Annual – Preaching in the Middle Ages

Article

Preaching during the four centuries succeeding the time of the Apostles consisted chiefly of homilies or popular harangues Then came the more methodical systems of the great Fathers – Saint Basil, Saint Gregory, Saint Chrysostom, and Saint Augustine – whose eloquence still influences the minds of men. They were worthily succeeded by Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Isidore of Seville, and Venerable Bede; and these in turn by Alanus of Farfa, Rabanus, Heric, Alcum, and Paul Warnefrid. Then the standard of excellence seems to have been gradually lowered till the times of the Crusades and of conflict with heretics. Then we have Ralph Ardent, Saint Bernard, and Peter the Hermit, whose power over the masses is well known; and Hugh of Saint Victor’s, and Fulk, and Maurice de Sully, and John of Nivelle, effective orators in their day, though now forgotten; and so on down to the great revival in the orders of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, whose one object in life was to preach the Gospel with a zeal and eloquence that would destroy errors and blasphemies.

Sermons to the laity were preached at this period in the vernacular. Saint Bernard preached his crusades in the vulgar tongue. Some preachers even made sermons in rhyme. Sermons to the clergy, however, were generally in Latin. Ordinary sermons of instruction were usually delivered after the Gospel, as in our own day; but special sermons on state occasions, as at marriages or funerals, were delivered after Mass. There were sermons in the morning and in the afternoon. The men occupied one side of the church and the women the other, ladies of distinction providing themselves with cushions on which to sit during the discourse. The preacher addressed the people as “Fratres,” “Fratres canssimi,” “Signors et Dames,” etc. If the preacher said any thing offensive or unsound there were not wanting those who would interrupt him. Archbishop Vaughan gives, in his Life of Saint Thomas, an interesting instance, as related by Robert of Sorbon:

“A learned clerk preached before the king of France. During his sermon he went on to say that all the Apostles, at the moment of the Passion abandoned Christ, and that faith became extinguished in their hearts: the Blessed Virgin alone kept it, from the day of the Passion to that of the Resurrection, in commemoration of which, in the Holy Week of penance, at matins, all the lights, one after the other, are put out, except one, which is reserved for making blessed fire at Eastertime. A solemn ecclesiastic, of higher rank, rose up to reprehend him; for the Apostles, according to this censor, had abandoned Jesus Christ in body, but not in heart. The preacher was about to retract, when the king (Louis), getting up in his turn, intervened. ‘The proposition is not false,’ he said; ‘It is to be found clearly expressed in the Fathers; bring me the book of Saint Augustine.’ The book was brought, and the king pointed out a passage in his Commentaries on the Gospel of Saint John where, in point of fact, Saint Augustine expresses himself in these words: ‘Fugerunt, relicto eo corde et corpore.’

“Sometimes, if the preacher said hard things about the ladies – like Saint Bernard’s saying that the first time a woman opened her mouth she upset the whole world – the women rose up and protested, before the whole congregation, against the unfairness of such imputations.”

On the other hand, the clergy were not slow to rebuke inattention or other shortcomings on the part of the people. Complaints being made that the men left the church when the sermon began and remained out till it was over, Cesarius of Arles, to put a stop to this abuse, had the doors fastened after the Gospel. One Easter Sunday Robert of Sorbon told his congregation that he would be short, like the Gospel of the day. “I know,” ho said, “that on this day you must have a short sermon and a long dinner. But it is to be hoped that the Mass is not too long for you.” When a preacher found some of his congregation asleep he cried out: “He who sleeps in the corner there does not know the secret I am going to tell.” Another, seeing persons sleeping, stopped in the midst of his discourse, and cried in a loud voice, “Once upon a time Ihere was a king called Arthur,” upon which the sleepers awoke, when the preacher ironically said, “When I speak of God, you sleep; but immediately I talk of fables, yon awake.”

The Dominicans were the great preachers of the thirteenth century. “In 1273, of sixty preachers employed in the churches of Paris, exactly one-half were Dominicans.” Saint Thomas of Aquin was a great preacher. On one occasion, in a sermon on the Passion, in Saint Peter’s, during Lent, he so vividly depicted the sufferings of our Lord on the Cross that his discourse was interrupted by the passionate crying of the people; and on Easter Sunday his sermon on the Resurrection filled his hearers with such joy that they could scarce refrain from giving audible expression to their emotions. Tocco says that he preached a whole Lent, at Naples, on the one text, “Ave Maria gratia plena, Dominus tecum.” We conclude by presenting a specimen of the method of the Angelic Doctor:

The Innocent

“That you may be sincere and without offence, unto the day of Christ.” – Philippians 1:10

The Apostle in this Epistle exhorts us to three things. Firstly, to the avoidance of sin: “That you may be sincere” Secondly, to all love: “Filled with the fruits of justice.” Thirdly, to the possession of a right intention: “Into the glory and praise of God.”

I. On the first head, it must be noted that three commands are given.

(1) That we should seek after purity of mind: “That you may be sincere.” “Blessed are the clean of heart; for they shall see God.”

(2) That we should avoid doing injury to our neighbors: “Without offence; giving no offence to any man.”

(3) That we should persevere in both courses: “Unto the day of Christ” – i.e., till after death; when the day of man is ended, the day of Christ begins. “He that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved.” The gloss treats of this under the word “sincere,” signifying the avoidance of works of corruption, with respect to ourselves, and of giving offence with respect to our neighbors, and perseverance in this course till the day of Christ.

II. On the second head, it is to be noted that the Apostle likewise gives three commandments.

(1) He exhorts to rectitude of mind: “The fruits of justice.” Saint Anselm defines justice to be that rectitude of will which is preserved for its own sake.

(2) To the having a delight in that which is good: “The fruits of the spirit are peace, joy, longanimity, goodness, benignity, meekness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity.”

(3) To the having perfection in good, “being filled”: “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.”

III. On the third head, it is to be noted that in every action we should, in a threefold manner, direct the eye of our intention to God:

(1) So as to believe that every good thing comes from him, as if from the fount of all good, through Jesus Christ: “Of his fulness we all have received, and grace for grace; for the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” “Without me you can do nothing.”

(2) So as to make God to be praised and honored in all our actions: “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

(3) So “that the reward of eternal glory may be given to us for our desire to work: “Unto the glory and praise of God.” “Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth, where the rust and moth consume, etc…. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither the rust nor moth doth consume and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”

Of course it is to be understood that the above is a mere skeleton, but with his great practice in speaking and pro digious memory Saint Thomas probably felt no difficulty in expanding his thoughts and clothing them in appropriate language.

MLA Citation

  • “Preaching in the Middle Ages”. Illustrated Catholic Family Annual, 1881. CatholicSaints.Info. 18 January 2017. Web. 23 February 2017. <>