On sermons and the vernacular

This week the thing I got mad at on twitter was people’s conception about the delivery of sermons in Latin. Because I know how to have fun, that’s why. Specifically the thing that I got mad about was that one of the Quillette writers a) continues to exist, and b) was using her precious time on this mortal coil to write stupid takes like this:

Honestly. These people.

As I say, this is a vastly and improbably stupid take, not the least because actual academics don’t really want to charge for our expertise that much at all. (Hello and welcome to my free blog, but it you wanted to hit up my Patreon I would be much obliged.) We do not set the prices for academic publishing or indeed universities. The people this brain genius needs to speak to if she doesn’t like the costs are publishers and university administrators, not the academics who write books and articles entirely for free because we are forced to lest we not be given employment which on average pays less than minimum wage. (I am joking of course, we still will not be given employment.) Either we are dangerous Marxists who are turning all the kids into leftists, OR we are attempting to extort huge amounts of money (?) to access our knowledge. You have to pick one. (I have it’s the former.)

That part being stupid and wrong is obvious, so other than making fun of it briefly I am not really mad about it. What I am mad about is Claire here’s understanding about sermons and also the printing press. But mostly the sermons.

Somehow it seems that I have written very little about sermons here on the blog, and this is odd because I am absolutely obsessed with them. You may be wondering how a nice little Buddhist girl such as myself got that way. The answer is this: I like studying propaganda and sermons are one of the most effective and wide-reaching forms of medieval propaganda that there is.

The Archbishop Arundel preaching, British Library, Harley 1319, f 12.

Sermons were able to serve this purpose because of how they were spread and shared. An intense interest in sermons can be seen throughout the medieval period. Even as far back as the papacy of Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) the importance of sermons was highlighted to members of the clergy. So concerned was our boy Greg about people hearing sermons that he wrote a papal bull about it, Pastoralis cura where he underlined the fact that average people had to have regular access to sermons in order to ensure that they could avoid, you know, sin and stuff.

In the thirteenth century a specific interest in preaching was once again brought to the forefront of the medieval religious landscape. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council called for greater intervention of preachers with the laity in the form of sermons.[1] This was largely a call heeded by the newest groups of monks on the scene – the mendicants. These were orders of monks that dedicated themselves to preaching within communities, as opposed to hanging out in monasteries away from the world, and who lived a life of apostolic poverty. The idea was that they would rely upon their audiences to supply them with the material necessities of life in return for their sermons. This was conceived of as a sort of gift exchange wherein they told people how to live a virtuous life and in turn their own virtuous lives were supported.

We know a lot about the sermons that everyone was very busy delivering as a result of all of the sermon collections which have survived. Sermon collections are a super interesting source which existed in order to help out all those budding preachers across Europe who were compelled by the papacy to deliver timely sermons to their flocks, but who may not have been the most gifted speech writers themselves. Say you knew you had to give a sermon each week to your parish but weren’t sure what exactly you wanted to speak on. You could reach for a sermon collection which had developed using classical rhetorical approaches and which even followed the liturgical calendar for the year. Bang, all you had to do was look up Michaelmas and you would be given a model sermon to deliver to the faithful on that day. It would be neatly written out in Latin and give you a generalised topic and certain points to hit, but it also allowed for readers to add their own flourishes, elaborating on  various images, or giving their own examples of virtuous lives, tailoring the experience to their own audience.[2]

Cardinal Simon preaching a crusade before Louis IX of France. British Library MS Royal  f. 436v 

Sermon collections, then, were a massively powerful tool for disseminating ideas. Someone who wrote a popular sermon collection had the ability to transmit exactly what he wanted a group to hear first to his own audiences for his sermons, then to the audiences of anyone else who used that same collection for their own preaching. In turn, people who heard a particular sermon might go tell their friends about it, allowing for the same messages to be repeated ad nauseum throughout communities. Because of the massive reach of sermons and sermon collections, the historian David d’Avray has likened sermons to a form of medieval mass media.[3] You want to get people to buy into a certain idea? The fastest way was to preach to them about it, and get other people to preach the same thing.

And here is the thing that you might be missing from all this – medieval people fucking loved a sermon. For a lot of medieval people a sermon was a nice night out. Sure, you got one each Sunday and on holidays, but you could also check out whatever the wandering mendicant who turned up to town had to offer. In larger cities you could go parish to parish to see who was saying what. In fact, this got out of control in some circumstances, and in places like Prague people were actually asked to stop parish hopping for sermons, presumably when priests who were not as good at preaching saw their audiences wandering into other churches for Mass, along with their regular tithes.[4] So it’s not just about the fact that you can send ideas around really effectively to other preachers through sermon collections, but that people liked sermons so they attended them and had a nice time.

But here’s the thing about all of this: giving people instruction through sermons and attracting large numbers of people who attend and enjoy sermons as leisure is only possible if people can understand what you are saying. That is to say, the great great great great (great great) majority of sermons were given in the vernacular. Not Latin. Now this can be confusing because the sermon collections, you know, the things that we look at in order to find out who was giving what sermons where are written in Latin. But there is a reason for that.

Say you are my good friend the preacher Jan Milíč of Kroměříž. You are a wildly popular fourteenth century preacher who wants to warn Christendom that unless they change their sinful ways the Antichrist is going to come. If you are Milíč, your first language is Czech. Now Czech is a very fine language that I enjoy speaking very much, but very unfortunately for the world, it is not exactly widely spoken outside of the Czech lands in the fourteenth century. Or today. You fools. As a result, the best way for you to spread your emergency message about Antichrist will to be use a widely-spoken language, Latin, which is the de facto language of medieval Christendom.

Cuthbert preaching from a copy of Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert. England (Durham), c. 1175–1200, British Library Yates Thompson MS 26 f. 22v

You write these model sermons in Latin so your fans that speak Polish, Italian, French, or German can readily read from the sermon collections to their own audiences while they translate them into their own vernacular language. Latin is the medium by which members of the clergy share sermons, but when the sermons are given to the public they are done so in a language that lets your audience know what you are talking about. Go ahead and warn a bunch of people about Antichrist in Latin all you want, you don’t get your desired outcome if they don’t know what you are saying.

This is not to say that people never preached in Latin. Say that you were preaching to another group of clergy, or to a group of people with a specific background in Latin, such as at a university or within a Cathedral. In that case Latin would be totally appropriate. Preachers used their discretion in order to ensure that their audiences received sermons in the most effective way possible and picked and chose the languages they would use accordingly. Milíč, for example used to preach up to five times a day because he was an absolute rager. He most often gave sermons in Czech, particularly at his house for preachers and reformed sex workers, Jerusalem. He would then preach in German when invited to give sermons in other parishes such as our Lady before Týn. Finally, he gave sermons in Latin when preaching to the community of nuns at St George in the Hradčaný or when asked to give sermons for the Archbishop’s synod, where he gave his fellow clergy members a bollocking for being evil sinners. As you do. The point is he knew you had to tailor your language to your audience to make an impact, and was very successful at doing so. That is why we see his sermon collections survive all over Europe. People knew he was good and wanted to know what he was up to.

People get confused about the conception of sermons in Latin because none of this is to say that the entirety of a Mass was in vernacular languages. The rites of the mass such as prayers or the hymns sung were in Latin, as were biblical readings. The sermon was a point of departure in that Latin went on pause to make sure that everyone in attendance got something out of the deal. In fact, as one of my intrepid twitter followers pointed out you could find even more languages crammed into the medieval Mass as the Kyrie Eleison prayer/hymn was given in Greek. I mean *slaps the roof of a medieval mass* this bad boy can fit so many fucking languages into it.

So if it is a matter of fact that the great (great! Great great) majority of sermons were in the vernacular where does the idea that sermons are in Latin come from? Well, partially from the old myth of the evil Church. This is massively prevalent specifically in Protestant societies which benefitted (in some cases materially!) from selling the Church as a shadowy organisation hell bent on keeping The Truth ™ from the humble masses. This is linked to the pre-Vatican II preference of the Church for Mass and bibles in Latin. And yeah stuff got heated about vernacular bibles in the early modern period, that is absolutely the case, but that in no way means that sermons were a part of that preference. So people like Claire up there are just making an assumption based on their own prejudices and ignorance. They assume that the Church would want to give sermons in Latin because they just feel it, you know? And their extensive research, but which of course I mean absolute lack of research, has backed them up there.

There is also something here about the myth of the printing press as a major game changer in terms of disseminating materials. Even after the printing press made its debut, the great majority of printed materials were still in Latin for quite some time. This is because it was a universal language that people across Europe understood, and if you wanted literate audiences on side that was how you did it. But I am too tired to get into it now, and it is Friday, baby.

The point of all this is that even before the printing press there were ways to get your ideas in particular in front of interested audiences, and those interested audiences existed because they were given what they were interested in – sermons in their language. No amount of fascists making up facts in order to get mad at the people who have done their homework is going to change that fact.

Here endeth the free and in-depth lesson on sermons which I, an academic, have written up using my extensive years of expertise. Suck it Claire.

[1] Paul B. Pixton, The German Episcopacy and the Implementation of the Decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council 1216– 1245: Watchmen on the Tower (Leiden, 1995).
[2] James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages, A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance (Berkeley, London, and Los Angeles, 1974), p. 331.
[3] David d’Avray, ‘Method in the study of medieval sermons’, in, Nicole Bériou and David d’Avray (eds.), Modern Questions about Medieval Sermons: Essays on Marriage, Death, History and Sanctity (Spoleto, 1994), pp. 3–29
[4] Rostislav Zelený, ‘Councils and Synods of Prague and their Statutes (1343–1361)’, Apollinaris, 45 (1972), p. 522.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on preaching in the medieval period, see:
My fav [not] saints: St Guinefort
On individual blame for global crisis
On Prague, preaching, and brothels

For more on propaganda, see:
How to win friends and influence people in medieval Europe on History Hit

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

7 thoughts on “On sermons and the vernacular”

  1. Interesting, as always, though I knew the basics about sermons from the olden days.


    I know how ignorant I am. Mostly. So, when I start talking about a subject I have only ignorant notions about, I ask (usually) honest, dumb questions. I don’t mind looking ignorant, because I am.

    This is my basic take on what the “scientific method” means when applied to real life.

    When I talk about something I know (relatively) well, it’s peppered with warnings that I’m very sure that I’m wrong about some of it, or have a biased (unconsciously!) view – for example, of modern history just because I’m American and white and male.

    Some people are pitiful enough to see the power of being ignorant and stupid and proud of the fact, though. Like this… what the fuck is it??? It founded Quillette!

    To such a horror, I must scream: “Die, monster! Die!”


  2. *missing the point entirely* You are a Buddhist? That’s cool. But also being a medievalist is cool, very cool.

    PS – I don’t think you meant to write “Kyrie elision”? Your autocorrect just elided “eleison”, haha see what I did there.

    Thank you. I’m going now.


  3. I have only discovered this blog yesterday on Twitter, and I have to thank you for this article. It’s been really helpful to my master’s thesis. I won’t hesitate to check out your other articles!
    It’s nice to have people around who remind others to think and do a little research before talking and spreading awful clichés — well, isn’t that our job as historians?


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