Preaching in Medieval England Book Review

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Preaching in medieval England is a scholarly look at preaching in England at the end of the Middle Ages. For more than eighty years, this book has been a definitive work on the subject and is still as relevant now as when it was published in 1926.

Preachers in Medieval England

The book is divided into three parts: the preachers; the circumstances of preaching, and the reception received; and the sermons themselves. Each section is enriched by original text and archive material, including excerpts from the sermons, which help to bring to life exactly what medieval people heard both in church and from travelling preachers.

The section on preachers is a thorough consideration of the many different groups of men entitled to preach in the Christian church, including secular clergy, monks and wandering friars. The latter group were often viewed with suspicion by more established clergy, but could be very popular in medieval England and were sometimes accused of ‘stealing’ audiences from churches.

Sermons in Medieval England

The second part helps the reader to understand exactly how, where and when sermons took place. Venues could range from a parish church to a market cross, where a crowd would gather to hear a popular preacher. And congregations would not always listen rapt to the preacher – Owst provides examples of congregations asking the priest to release them from church before the end of the sermon because they had been kept in too long and were expecting friends at home! Such examples bring the medieval world to life, and provide a glimpse into the human side of religion and preaching.

The Content and Language of Medieval Sermons

The final section of Preaching in Medieval England is devoted to the actual content and language on sermons, and to the manuals which gave advice to preachers. The format of a sermon could vary depending upon the preacher who was speaking, the congregation who were being addressed and the location in which the sermon was being preached. Wandering preachers, who needed to catch the imagination of the faithful wherever they went, would often enliven their sermons with tales of their travels and the world beyond the village where the congregation lived. Often, Biblical tales with a moral would be told in simple terms which everyone could understand. On other occasions, a preacher would use a sermon to lambast the privileged classes for their wealth and abuse of power, even when such persons were present.

Summary

Preaching in Medieval England is a masterly and comprehensive account of a fascinating subject. The reader is transported into the world of the preacher, and learns, through Owst’s writing and through the period documents, what it was like to preach to a congregation and also the experiences of those on the receiving end of the sermons. The text is supplemented with explanatory footnotes, and there are also illustrations which further enrich the subject.

Publication details

Owst G R Preaching in Medieval England [Cambridge, 2010] ISBN 9781108010078 381 pages