The Sermons of William Peraldus. An Appraisal

Wenzel, Siegfried
SERMO: Studies on Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation Sermons and Preaching 13
Turnhout 2017: Brepols Publishers
Anzahl Seiten
XII, 217 S.
€ 75,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Erik Claeson, Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University

Even though sources are scarce for many aspects of life in the Middle Ages, when it comes to preaching they abound. A major obstacle to research on medieval preaching has in fact been the abundance of preserved sermons. Since Johann Baptist Schneyer finished his extensive repertory of medieval sermons in 1990 and 20011 the possibility of doing research on them has increased, but there is still much to be done. The style and form of medieval sermons are aspects that need to be further elaborated upon. To these areas Siegfried Wenzel has contributed for a long time, especially in his works on medieval preaching manuals. However, this is just one of many aspects of medieval preaching that Wenzel has contributed to.2 In the book reviewed here, Wenzel focuses upon the French Dominican William Peraldus (d. 1275) as a preacher. Peraldus is most well known for his two works on the virtues and vices (Summa de vitiis and Summa de virtutibus) but his sermons have attracted less attention, which is why Wenzel devotes this book to Peraldus’ Epistle and Gospel sermons. Already in the beginning it is worth stressing that not only does Wenzel shed new light on the sermons of this preacher, he also deals with the composition of medieval sermons in general.

Wenzel has organized the book into two parts. First there is an introductory part of 76 pages, while the second part consists of 10 Appendices making up about 150 pages. I will walk you through the different chapters before turning to some critical points.

In the introductory chapter the reader is thrown into the world of medieval sermon collections. Their contents could be arranged in a number of ways, either ordered or haphazard. Wenzel focuses upon the ordered collections, cycles, most often arranged according to the Church year, and on what he calls primary collections containing sermons compiled by the preacher himself, in contrast to secondary collections that contain sermons collected and placed in their liturgical order by someone other than their author(s). The sermon cycles of Peraldus are of the primary type. What one lacks in the first chapter are more extensive biographical notes on Peraldus and his historical context, which instead are to be found in Chapter 8. But even there, the biographical information is in no way extensive, probably because Antoine Dondaine in an article3 has written extensively about Peraldus’ life and works. Dondaine’s article is in French, however, and the present book would have been a good place to make biographical information in English about Peraldus more widely available.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the Epistle sermons. In chapter 2 the Epistle cycle as a whole is analysed and we learn that Peraldus’ cycles contain a number of sermons for each Sunday. On the basis of this phenomenon Wenzel posits his main argument: these sermons are not collected model sermons “but a unified commentary on the Epistle and on the Gospel readings of the day, written as such and made for the use of preachers” (p. 10). A strong argument is built for this case based on inner evidence from the Epistle cycle: interconnection of sermons by cross-references and homiletical expositions stretching over two or more sermons. An important conclusion is that Peraldus is not simply an exegete but also a preacher focusing on moral instruction, a recurrent theme throughout the book. Wenzel analyses the style of the Epistle sermons in chapter 3. As a case study he chooses three sermons for the first Sunday in Advent and one could have wished for a motivation for this choice. In this chapter Wenzel goes into detail about sermons compositional technique and here his great knowledge about medieval preaching manuals (artes praedicandi) is evident. What stands out is among other things that Peraldus makes frequent references to the liturgy of the day and to pagan authors.

Wenzel then compares the results from Chapter 3 with the Gospel sermons (Chapter 4). After concluding that the Gospel sermons share characteristics of the Epistle sermons he points out that the Gospel sermons distinguish between the literal and the moral sense of the biblical text; the former builds upon the biblical commentary by Hugh of St. Cher, while the latter is Peraldus’ own contribution.

In chapter 5 Wenzel compares Peraldus’ sermons with eight preachers both predecessors and contemporaries, in order to understand the originality of Peraldus’ sermon style. While Peraldus shares many characteristics with his near contemporaries, he also stands out in a number of aspects, for example in using a larger number of non-biblical authorities, in making explicit references to the liturgy and in clearly marking a distinction between the literal and moral application.

Chapters 6 and 7 focus upon the reception and popularity of Peraldus’ sermons. In general, Wenzel uses English sermon collections in his search for sermons by or references to Peraldus. He concludes that later preachers copy both entire sermons and individual passages from Peraldus’ sermons. Chapter 7, lastly, is a closer investigation of this phenomenon in a postilla by Repingdon, which is either Philip Repingdon, the Oxford theologian and chancellor, or another Augustinian canon called John Eynton (see p. 67), in order to understand how material from Peraldus’ sermons are adapted and reshaped in a new context. Again, Wenzel’s way of structuring these chapters is a strength, in that one both gets the larger picture and a case study related to that.

The appendices in the second part of the book link to the different chapters in the first part of the book. Appendices A–F include indexes of themata (i.e. the biblical verses from which the sermons proceed) and initia (i.e. the initial words following the thema) of the sermons under consideration as well as non-critical editions and translations of sermons for the first Sunday after Advent. Appendices G–K display the different manuscript traditions and redactions of Peraldus’ sermons. This is a valuable contribution to the field, since it is illustrative for the reader and makes the sermons more understandable.

An aspect that would have been worth discussing at more length and in a separate chapter is the potential audience of the sermons. I am aware of the limitations stressed at the beginning of the book, but this would have added a further dimension to the analysis. Turning to different audiences affects the content and composition of sermons, which is why this would have been worth discussing at greater length. Wenzel does touch upon the aspect of audience mentioning, for example, that in some of the sermons Peraldus addresses a monastic audience (see pp. 27, 29 and 32).

As a whole, Wenzel’s book is a welcome contribution to medieval sermon studies. This book can function as a handbook for students working with medieval sermons, but also lays the foundation for scholars focusing on Peraldus. In future research it would be welcome for somebody to take into account all of Peraldus’ works, for an increased understanding of both his moral and theological teaching and of his potential audiences.

1 Johannes Baptist Schneyer, Repertorium der lateinischen Sermones des Mittelalters für die Zeit von 1150-1350. Münster 1969–1990; Johannes Baptist Schneyer, Repertorium der lateinischen Sermones des Mittelalters für die Zeit von 1350 bis 1500, Münster 2001.
2 See for example Siegfried Wenzel, Latin Sermon Collections from Later Medieval England. Orthodox Preaching in the Age of Wyclif, New York 2005; Siegfried Wenzel, Medieval ‘Artes Praedicandi’. A Synthesis of Scholastic Sermon Structure, Toronto 2015; Siegfried Wenzel, Of Sins and Sermons, Louvain 2015.
3 Antoine Dondaine O.P., Guillaume Peyraut. Vie et oeuvres, in: Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 18 (1948), pp. 162–236.

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