Early Medieval Homiletics Reading List

Brandon was wondering…a bit ago now…about some guidance on reading for medieval homiletics.

Here are some of my thoughts on the matter. Now—I do come at this from an unusual direction. That is, a lot of the medievalists out there can be lumped into one of four camps: the English/Language-types, the History-types, the Art-types, or the Religion-types. Most of the recent work on Old English homiletics has come from the English-types. Thus, they come with a certain perspective with a certain knowledge base and certain expectations.

I don’t come from there.

As a Religion-type I approach the field and the subject matter from a rather different set of presuppositions and perspectives. No doubt, that will flavor my list both in terms of what I include and what I don’t.

The other thing I want to add is a note on the early medieval period itself. When viewed from the History-Of-Ideas perspective, the early medieval period looks rather bare and most surveys tend to skip from the patristics to the scholastics with nary a hitch. Needless to say this annoys me… If this is the case generally, it seems especially to be the case in terms of homiletics as you will find many references to that fact that no original thought was going on and that everyone was just copying the Fathers. It’s not that simple. The Early Medieval period is best understood as a period of synthesis and consolidation where thinkers individually and the Church corporately was sifting through the remains of both the Classical and Late Antique world in an attempt to salvage what they could and to systematize this host of fragments into meaningful and useful systems of thought. Ignoring this aspect of the period is analogous to dismissing mosaics as not being proper glasswork because it’s just a bunch of broken bits pushed together—and not even in the original order!

Enough ranting—here are my thoughts by category…

Overviews of the History of Preaching

Yngve Brilioth, A Brief History of Preaching, translated by Karl E. Mattson, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965). An old mainstay of the history of homiletics

Paul S. Wilson, A Concise History of Preaching, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992). A more recent voice concerning homiletical history

Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). The new standard in terms of breadth, a work stamped with an idiosyncratic approach shaped by Reformed ideals.

These three are all histories of preaching written from the perspective of 20th century homiletics. There’s no point in reading these through—just find them in the library and spend some time skimming their medieval sections and jotting down some notes. Here you’ll see what modern homileticians think of the medieval tradition (when they think of it at all…). Notably, all of these are Protestant, the last especially so.

One which I haven’t seem but which seems to be the broadly liberal protestant answer to Old’s conservative protestant is O.C. Edwards, A History of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004).

The only recent item I’ve seen out of Roman Catholic circles is a book which I think bears a very misleading title: C. Colt Anderson, Christian Eloquence: Contemporary Doctrinal Preaching (Mundelein, Ill.: Hillenbrand, 2005). This is written as a textbook for preaching classes and is a “Reform of the Reform” attempt to teach modern preachers how to preach in a medieval style. I’ve been contemplating writing a review of it for publication but haven’t found the right time or venue. In short, I think it sets forth a fascinating project and even a decent structure in the opening few chapters but fails to deliver. It doesn’t adequately carry through its own project, and it doesn’t address what I regard as the fundamental question in adapting medieval homiletical theory for the modern pulpit which is the connection between tradition, revelation, authenticity, and the ethics of using some else’s material.  In short, it could have been awesome…


Secondary Sources

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, 4 vols. (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, reprint n.d.) This is the massive overview to patristic thought which should be your starting place for any question, issue, or query concerning the Church Fathers. Read it through once, then refer to it as needed. The bibliographic data is becoming dated but will reliably point you to the stand-by studies and critical editions.

Its single greatest failing for our purposes is that it ends with Leo the Great; no Gregory, no Bede.

Primary Sources

Augustine ET: Tractates on John, NPNF1.7; Sermon of the Mount, Selected Homilies on the Gospels, NPNF1.6. As far as sermons go, Augustine’s Tractates provided the major word on the Gospel of John. The work on the Sermon on the Mount was also influential. As for others, many of the Augustinian sermons floating around the early medieval world were not really by him (Caesarius of Arles’s work frequently traveled under Augustine’s name.

Maximus of Turin [Sermons, edited by Almut Mutzenbecher, CCSL 23 (Turhout: Brepols, 1999); ET: Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin, translated by Boniface Ramsey, Ancient Christian Writers 50 (Newman, 1989)

Leo the Great [Sermons, 4 vols. edited by René Dolle, Sources chrétiennes 22, 49, 74, 200, (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1949-1973); ET: Sermons, translated by Jane Freeland and Agnes Conway, Fathers of the Church 93 (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1995)] Selected sermons of Leo can also be found in the NPNF2.12. One of the greatest popes & preachers, Leo stands as a representative of the finest traditions of Late Antiquity.

Gregory the Great [Homiliae in evangelia, edited by Raymon Etiax, CCSL 141, (Turhout: Brepols, 1999); ET: Forty Gospel Homilies, translated by David Hurst, CS 123, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990)] Reformer and visionary, Gregory stands on the cusp between Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval as an influential liminal figure. Be warned, the English translation’s numbering of the homilies is idiosyncratic and should be cross-checked with the CCSL edition.

The Venerable Bede [Bede Venerabilis opera. Pars III: Opera homilectica; Pars IV: Opera rhythmica, edited by David Hurst and J. Fraipont, CCSL 122, (Turhout: Brepolis, 1955); ET: Homilies on the Gospels, 2 vols., translated by Lawrence T. Martin and David Hurst, CS 110-111, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1989-1990)] The star of Northumbrian biblical scholarship, Bede represents the finest work of a scholar in dialogue with both Latin orthodoxy and the opening German mission fields.

This stuff here is the heartland of the early medieval homiliary traditions.

Early Homiletics

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine. Translated by D.W. Robertson, Jr. The Library of Liberal Arts. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1958. This is a classic—no doubt about it. But Augustine’s impact on early homiletical theory is entirely incomplete without also reading:

Augustine, On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, NPNF1.3. This is where Martin of Braga, Pirmin, and Aelfric all get their fundamental template for missionary preaching. It deserves much more attention than it gets.

Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care, NPNF2.12. Not explicitly a preaching manual, but Gregory does talk quite a bit about preaching and about shaping the preaching to the audience.

Miller, Prosser, Benson, Readings in Medieval Rhetoric, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973) This is a great collection of primary sources and summaries of primary sources. It includes the complete text of Bede’s De Schematibus et Tropis in English along with a number of other helpful texts.

There were no more preaching manuals until the rise of the scholastics. Alan of Lille comes next in sequence but it’s crucially important to notice the gap.

Why were there no preaching manuals between the patristic to the scholastic period? It’s not just because people were copying… Rather, it was because the medievals were still in touch enough with classical rhetoric to understand that preaching/rhetoric was composed of three things: talent, training, and imitation. And that last is key. If you want to know the great preaching manuals of the early medieval world, you must go back to the sermons of Gregory and Augustine and study their method. Then look at the sermons of Bede, Aelfric, and Haymo to see how they deploy this method. It’s in the comparison between these sets of authors that you’ll truly understand how early medieval homiletics was shaped.


Perhaps the single greatest difference between my approach and that of most of the English-types is that I understand the sermon to be a discursive element within the liturgy. Preaching in the early medieval period cannot be separated from the liturgy. Even if there is nothing ostensibly liturgical about it, the liturgy still remains the primary frame of reference.

I’ll not deluge you here, but recommend only three works: one an ancient commentary, one a modern, and one an invaluable reference. Start with:

John Harper, The Forms and Orders of the Western Liturgy From the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991). This provides the essential overview. Once you’ve got these pieces in place, you’re ready to tackle:

Isidore of Seville, De Ecclesiasticis Officiis, translated by Thomas Knoebel, Ancient Christian Writers (Newman Press, 2008). After this have on hand for reference:

Cyrille Vogel, Medieval Liturgy: An Introduction to the Sources, translated by William Storey and Niels Rasmussen (Portland: Pastoral Press, 1986)

The Homiliary Tradition

Dust off your French.

H. Barré, Les homéliares carolingiens de l’école d’Auxerre, Studi e Testi 225 (Rome: Biblioteca apostolica vaticana 1962)

Reginald Grégoire, Homéliaires liturgiques médiévaux: analyse des manuscrits, (Bibl degli studi medievali 12; Spoleto, 1980) This one is crucial for understanding the contents of the great homiliaries and how they relate to one another (or don’t). If you want to know what was in the homiliaries, this is the place to go.

Anglo-Saxon Homiletics

Mary Clayton, “Homiliaries and Preaching in Anglo-Saxon England,” Peritia 4 (1985), 207-42. This has got to be your starting point. It’s the best overview I know and most of the later articles are working along lines Clayton lays down here.

Cyril Smetana, “Ælfric and the Early Medieval Homiliary,” Traditio 15 (1959), 163-204. and also…

Cyril Smetana, “Paul the Deacon’s Patristic Anthology” in The Old English Homily & its Backgrounds, Ed. Paul E. Szarmach and Bernard F. Huppé.  (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1978), 75-97. Without a doubt, Smetana is your go-to guy for Paul the Deacon.

Joyce Hill, “Ælfric and Smaragdus,” Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992), 203-237. I won’t list all of Joyce Hill’s items here because there are some I don’t have to hand. Read whatever you can from her!

Milton McC. Gatch, Preaching and Theology in Anglo-Saxon England: Ælfric and Wulfstan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977. Mac is an Episcopal priest and fundamentally gets the connection between preaching and liturgy—the only recent author I know of to do so.

I’ll admit to not having read Aaron’s latest volume (The Old English Homily: Precedent, Practice, and Appropriation, ed. Aaron J. Kleist (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007)) so hopefully some material in there will prove me wrong.

So—these are the directions that I would point you in, Brandon (and others). There’s clearly a lot here. The best plan, as always, is to spend the most time mastering the primary sources; secondary opinions can be added in later. Fr. Adam and others, please feel free to fill in and around what I haven’t said here!

5 thoughts on “Early Medieval Homiletics Reading List

  1. Matt

    “it doesn’t address what I regard as the fundamental question in adapting medieval homiletical theory for the modern pulpit which is the connection between tradition, revelation, authenticity, and the ethics of using some else’s material.”

    I’d be interested in seeing you elaborate on this.

  2. Derek Olsen

    We have a heritage coming from the Enlightenment and our protestant side with roots in Romanticism that understands preaching to have an integrally individual component. That is, the way modern protestant congregations, clergy, and scholars understand the preaching moment is that it should be an authentic expression of the preacher’s experience and encounter with the Gospel. A host of things follow from this, the chief being that the use of someone else’s sermons is just plain wrong. A classic example of the statement of this position comes from Tom Long’s article in the Christian Century from a couple of years ago. (Tom is one of my mentors and taught my Contemporary Homiletics class; I TA’d for him many times…)

    As I skim through Tom’s piece I note quite a number of assumptions about what preaching is and what makes it authentic. His book, Witness of Preaching, which is one of the standard texts in most mainline seminaries insists that the preacher must be a witness to the Gospel in many senses, and particularly in a personal and experiential way.

    Early medieval preaching proceeds from a very different understanding of the role of the sermon and the ethics involved. Augustine lays it out for us in On Christian Doctrine 4.29 where he states that those who cannot think what to say should use the words of another as long as their life witnesses to the truth of the Gospel.

    There is less concern that the ideas be authentically and personally the preachers, and more concern that the words and the ideas in them be correct. (So a very different way of reckoning the term “authentic”; in the modern view it relates to personal experience—in the patristic/medieval it relates to the accurate teaching of the Church…) This leads us to a great quote (the source of which I’ve forgotten) from a medieval Scandinavian preacher who tells us that whenever he preaches he has a book open so that people people will believe that it is proceeding from a storied source, even if he was preaching extemporaneously.

    To tell you the truth, I know some clergy who would be *far* better off simply preaching from a solid homiliary rather than rattling off poorly prepared and questionable material on a weekly basis. However, we can’t simply “go back” to the former system. It cannot and should not translate directly into the modern environment and I do believe we do an ethical wrong if we attempt a direct transplant.

    That’s an elaboration and a clarification of the issues involved—not an answer. I think there *is* an answer that can honor both impulses but I’ve not fit words around it to my full satisfaction.

  3. B. Hawk

    What a great post! This is more than I could have hoped for, but definitely an excellent list of starting places–I’m sure I’ll keep referring back to this post as I read and work.

    I love the approach that you’ve set up as a synthesis of religious studies and the primary literature itself, as well as a good balance between the patristic works, medieval works, and modern scholarship. I think you’re right on with the liturgy–much of the OE homilies I’ve read have direct relation to liturgical materials, seasons, and the calendar in general. All of these approaches are good to have put up front and to keep in mind going into this work.

  4. Derek Olsen

    Glad I could help, Brandon. It’s also way more than you can read in a summer, especially with the other things you’re up to… ;-)

    One word of advice, though as you get started. When you start each book you read in your prep and in your coursework, get in the habit of creating a file for it. Head it at the top with the bibliographic data, then type (or scan) in the table of contents. As you,re reading, if any quotes or concepts jump out at you in particular, enter the chapter and type it into a bulleted list complete with page number.

    I did this for *some* of the books I had on my reading lists and wish I’d had the discipline to do it for the rest. I still do it now and let me tell you it’s invaluable when it comes to writing.

    I don’t know if your department gives open-book qualifying exams, but if they do, having your sources categorized and key quotes at your fingertips will give you a huge advantage.

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