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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 93. The Sermon.


As the chief part of divine service was unintelligible to the people, it was all the more important to supplement it by preaching and catechetical instruction in the vernacular tongues. But this is the weak spot in the church of the middle ages.431431    As it is to-day in strictly Roman Catholic countries; with this difference, that what was excusable in a period of heathen and semi-heathen ignorance and superstition, is inexcusable in an age of advanced civilization furnished with all kinds of educational institutions and facilities.

Pope Gregory I. preached occasionally with great earnestness, but few popes followed his example. It was the duty of bishops to preach, but they often neglected it. The Council of Clovesho, near London, which met in 747 under Cuthbert, archbishop of Canterbury, for the reformation of abuses, decreed that the bishops should annually visit their parishes, instruct and exhort the abbots and monks, and that all presbyters should be able to explain the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the mass, and the office of baptism to the people in the vernacular.432432    See the acts of this council in Haddan and Stubbs, Councils and Eccles. Doc. 360-376, and the letter of Boniface to Cuthbert, giving an account of a similar council in Germany, and recommending measures of reform in the English church, p. 376-382. A Synod of Tours, held in the year 813, and a Synod of Mainz, held under Rabanus Maurus in 847, decreed that every bishop should have a collection of homilies and translate them clearly “in rusticam Romanam linguam aut Theotiscam, i.e. into French (Romance) or German,” “in order that all may understand them.”433433    A similar canon was passed by other councils. See Hefele III. 758, 764, and IV. 89, 111, 126, 197, 513, 582; Mansi XIV. 82 sqq.

The great majority of priests were too ignorant to prepare a sermon, and barely understood the Latin liturgical forms. A Synod of Aix, 802, prescribed that they should learn the Athanasian and Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer with exposition, the Sacramentarium or canon of the mass, the formula of exorcism, the commendatio animae, the Penitential, the Calendar and the Roman cantus; they should learn to understand the homilies for Sundays and holy days as models of preaching, and read the pastoral theology of Pope Gregory. This was the sum and substance of clerical learning.434434    Hefele, III. 745. The study of the Greek Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures was out of the question, and there was hardly a Western bishop or pope in the middle ages who was able to study the divine oracles in the original.

The best, therefore, that the priests and deacons, and even most of the bishops could do was to read the sermons of the fathers. Augustin had given this advice to those who were not skilled in composition. It became a recognized practice in France and England. Hence the collection of homilies, called Homiliaria, for the Gospels and Epistles of Sundays and holy days. They are mostly patristic compilations. Bede’s collection, called Homilice de Tempore, contains thirty-three homilies for the summer, fifteen for the winter, twenty-two for Lent, besides sermons on saints’ days. Charlemagne commissioned Paulus Diaconus or Paul Warnefrid (a monk of Monte Cassino and one of his chaplains, the historian of the Lombards, and writer of poems on saints) to prepare a Homiliarium (or Omiliarius) about a.d. 780, and recommended it for adoption in the churches of France. It follows the order of Sundays and festivals, is based on the text of the Vulgate, and continued in use more or less for several centuries.435435    F. Dahn, Des Paulus Diaconus Leben und Schriften, 1876; and Mon. Germ. Scriptores rerum Langobardicarum et Italicarum saec. VI.-IX. 1878, p. 45-187, ed. by L. Bethmann and G. Waitz; Wattenbach, Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen, 4th ed. 1877, I. 134-140. Other collections were made in later times, and even the Reformed church of England under Edward VI. and Queen Elizabeth found it necessary to provide ignorant clergymen with two Books of Homilies adapted to the doctrines of the Reformation.

In this connection we must allude again to the poetic reproductions of the Bible history, namely, the divine epos of Caedmon, the Northumbrian monk (680), the Saxon Heliand” (Heiland, i.e. Saviour, about 880), and the “Christ” or Gospel Harmony of Otfrid (a pupil of Rabanus Maurus, about 870). These works were effective popular sermons on the history of redemption, and are at the same time the most valuable remains of the Anglo-Saxon and old high German dialects of the Teutonic language.436436    See above, p. 41, 105, 106. The paraphrase of Caedmon, the first Christian poet of England, is edited or discussed by Thorpe, Bouterweck, Grein, Wright, Ettmüller, Sandrar, Morley, Ten Brink, etc. (see Lit. in Schaff-Herzog sub Caedmon); the Saxon Heliand and Otfrid’s Krist by Sievers, Rettberg, Vilmar, Lechler, Graff, Kelle, Michelsen, etc. (see Herzog2IV. 428-435).

It was, however, not till the Reformation of the sixteenth century that the sermon and the didactic element were restored and fully recognized in their dignity and importance as regular and essential parts of public worship. I say, worship, for to expound the oracles of God, and devoutly to listen to such exposition is or ought to be worship both on the part of the preacher and on the part of the hearer, as well as praying and singing.



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