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§ 74. Preaching.

The two leading preachers of Europe during the last 50 years of the Middle Ages were Jerome Savonarola of Florence and John Geiler of Strassburg. Early in the 15th century, Gerson was led by the ignorance of the clergy to recommend a reduction of preaching,11501150    Contra vanam curiositatem, Du Pin’s ed., 1728, I. 106 sqq. but in the period just before the Reformation there was a noticeable revival of the practice of preaching in Germany and a movement in that direction was felt in England. Erasmus, as a cosmopolitan scholar made an appeal for the function of the pulpit, which went to all portions of Western Europe.

In Germany, the importance of the sermon was emphasized by synodal decrees and homiletic manuals. Such synods were the synods of Eichstädt, 1463, Bamberg, 1491, Basel, 1503, Meissen, 1504. Surgant’s noted Handbook on the Art of Preaching praised the sermon as the instrument best adapted to lead the people to repentance and inflame Christian love and called it "the way of life, the ladder of virtue and the gate of paradise."11511151    Manuale curatorum predicandi praebens modum, 1503, quoted by Janssen, I. 38. It was pronounced as much a sin to let a word from the pulpit fall unheeded as to spill a drop of the sacramental wine. In the penitential books and the devotional manuals of the time, stress was laid upon the duty of attending preaching, as upon the mass. Those who left church before the sermon began were pronounced deserving excommunication. Wolff’s penitential manual of 1478 made the neglect of the sermon a violation of the 4th commandment. The efficacy of sermons was vouched for in the following story. A good man met the devil carrying a bag full of boxes packed with salves. Holding up a black box, the devil said that he used it to put people to sleep during the preaching service. The preachers, he continued, greatly interfered with his work, and often by a single sermon snatched from him persons he had held in his power for 30 or 40 years.11521152    Wolff’s and the Augsburger Beichtbüchlein, ed. Falk, pp. 78, 87; Gute Vermaninge, ed. by Bahlmann, p. 78; Nicholas Rum of Rostock as quoted by Janssen, I. 39. Der Spiegel des Sünders about 1470. See Geffcken, p. 69. Seelentrost, 1483, etc.

By the end of the 15th century, all the German cities and most of the larger towns had regular preaching.11531153    Cruel, pp. 647, 652, closes his treatment of the German pulpit in the M. A. with the observation that the old view, reducing the amount of preaching in Germany in the 15th century, must be abandoned. Cruel’s view is now generally accepted by Protestant writers. It was a common thing to endow pulpits, as in Mainz, 1465, Basel, 1469, Strassburg, 1478, Constance, Augsburg, Stuttgart and other cities. The popular preachers drew large audiences. So it was with Geiler of Strassburg, whose ministry lasted 30 years. 10,000 are said to have gathered to hear the sermons of the barefooted monk, Jacob Mene of Cologne, when he held forth at Frankfurt, the people standing in the windows and crowding up against the organ to hear him. It was Mene’s practice to preach a sermon from 7–8 in the morning, and again after the noon meal. On a certain Good Friday he prolonged his effort five hours, from 3–8 P. M. According to Luther, towns were glad to give itinerant monks 100 gulden for a series of Lenten discourses.

Other signs of the increased interest felt in sermons were the homiletic cyclopaedias of the time furnishing materials derived from the Bible, the Fathers, classic authors and from the realm of tale and story. To these must be added the plenaria, collections from the Gospels and Epistles with glosses and comments. The plenarium of Guillermus, professor in Paris, went through 75 editions before 1500. Collections of model sermons were also issued, some of which had an extensive circulation. The collection of John Nider, d. 1439, passed through 17 editions. His texts were invariably subjected to a threefold division. The collection of the Franciscan, John of Werden, who died at Cologne about 1450, passed through 25 editions. John Herolt’s volume of Sermons of a Disciple — Sermones discipuli — went through 41 editions before 1500 and is computed to have had a circulation of no less than 40,000 copies.11541154    Jannsen, I:43. One of the most popular of the collections called Parati sermones—The Ready Man’s Sermons — appeared anonymously. Its title was taken from 1 Peter 4:6, "ready—paratus — to judge the quick and the dead" and Ps. 119:60, "I made haste [ready] and delayed not to observe thy commandments." In setting forth the words "Be not unwise but understanding what the will of the Lord is" the author says that such wisdom is taught by the animals. 1. By the lion who brushes out his paw-prints with his tail so that the hunter is thrown off the track. So we should with penance erase the marks of our sins that the devil may not find us out. 2. The serpent which closes both ears to the seducer, one ear with his tail and the other by holding it to the ground. Against the devil we should shut our ears by the two thoughts of death and eternity. 3. The ant from which we learn industry in making provision for the future. 4. A certain kind of fish which sucks itself fast to the rock in times of storm. So we should adhere closely to the rock, Christ Jesus, by thoughts of his passion and thus save ourselves from the surging of the waves of the world. Such materials show that the homiletic instinct was alert and the preachers anxious to catch the attention of the people and impart biblical truth.

The sermons of the German preachers of the 15th century were written now in Latin, now in German. The more famous of the Latin sermonizers were Gabriel Biel, preacher in Mainz and then professor in Tübingen, d. 1495, and Jacob Jüterbock, 1883–1465, Carthusian prior in Erfurt and professor in the university in that city.11551155    Ullman: Reformers, etc., I. 229 sqq., classes him with the Reformers before the Reformation, and chiefly on the basis of his tract, De septem ecclesiae statibus. Among the notable preachers who preached in German were John Herolt of Basel, already mentioned; the Franciscan John Gritsch whose sermons reached 26 editions before 1500; the Franciscan, John Meder of Basel whose Lenten discourses on the Prodigal Son of the year 1494 reached 36 editions and Ulrich Krafft, pastor in Ulm, 1500 to 1516, and author of the two volumes, The Spiritual Battle and Noah’s Ark.

More famous than all others was Geiler of Strassburg, usually called from his father’s birthplace, Geiler of Kaisersberg, born in Schaffhausen, 1445, died in Strassburg, 1510. He and his predecessor, Bertholdt of Regensburg, have the reputation of being the most powerful preachers of mediaeval Germany. For more than a quarter of a century he stood in the cathedral pulpit of Strassburg, the monarch of preachers in the North. After pursuing his university studies in Freiburg and Basel, Geiler was made professor at Freiburg, 1476. His pulpit efforts soon made him a marked man. In accepting the call as preacher in the cathedral at Strassburg, he entered into a contract to preach every Sunday and on all festival and fast days. He continued to fill the pulpit till within two months of his death and lies interred in the cathedral where he preached.11561156    Lives of Geiler by Abbé L. Dacheux, 1876, and Lindemann, 1877. For earlier biographies by Beatus Rhenanus, etc., see Lorenzi, I. 1. Geiler’s sermons have been issued by Dacheux:Die ältesten Schriften G.’s, Freib., 1882, and by Ph. de Lorenzi, 4 vols., Treves, 1881-1883, with a Life. See also Cruel, Deutsche Predigt, pp. 538-576; H. Hering: Lehrbuch der Homiletik, p. 81 sq., and Kawerau, in Herzog VI. 427-432, Janssen, I. 136 sqq.

"The Trumpet of Strassburg," as Geiler was called, gained his fame as a preacher of moral and social reforms. He advocated no doctrinal changes. Called upon, 1500, to explain his public declaration that the city councillors were "all of the devil," he issued 21 articles demanding that games of chance be prohibited, drinking halls closed, the Sabbath and festival days observed, the hospitals properly cared for and monkish mendicancy regulated.

He was a preacher of the people and now amused, now stung them, by anecdotes, plays on words, descriptions, proverbs, sallies of wit, humor and sarcasm.11571157    A remarkable specimen of his power to play on words is given in his use of the word Affe, monkey, which he applied to ten different classes of the devil’s dupes. See Cruel, p. 543. Bischof, bishop, he derived from Beiss-schaf —bite-sheep—because prelates bit the sheep instead of taking them to pasture. He attacked popular follies and fashions and struck at the priests "many of whom never said mass," and at the convents in which "neither religion nor virtue was found and the living was lax, lustful, dissolute and fall of all levity."11581158    Kawerau, VI. 428. Mediaeval superstition he served up to his hearers in good doses. He was a firm believer in astrology, ghosts and witches.

Geiler’s style may seem rude to the polite age in which we live, but it reached the ear of his own time. The high as well as the low listened. Maximilian went to hear Geiler when he was in Strassburg. No one could be in doubt about the preacher’s meaning. In a series of 65 passion sermons, he elaborated a comparison between Christ and a ginger cake—the German Lebkuchen. Christ is composed of the bean meal of the deity, the old fruit meal of the body and the wheat meal of the soul. To these elements is added the honey of compassion. He was thrust into the oven of affliction and is divided by preachers into many parts and distributed among the people. In other sermons, he compared perfect Christians to sausages.

In seven most curious discourses on Der Hase im Pfeffer an idiomatic expression for That’s the Rub—based on Prov. 30:26, "The coney is a weak folk," he made 14 comparisons between the coney and the good Christian. The coney runs better up hill than down, as a good Christian should do. The coney has long ears as also a Christian should have, especially monastics, attending to what God has to say. The coney must be roasted; and so must also the Christian pass through the furnace of trial. The coney being a lank beast must be cooked in lard, so also must the Christian be surrounded with love and devotion lest he be scorched in the furnace. In 64 discourses, preached two years before his death, Geiler brought out the spiritual lessons to be derived from ants and in another series he elaborated the 25 sins of the tongue. In a course of 20 sermons to business men, he depicted the six market days and the devil as a pedler(sic) going about selling his wares. He preached 17 sermons on the lion in which the king of beasts was successively treated as the symbol of the good man, the worldly man, Christ and the devil; 12 of these sermons were devoted to the ferocious activities of the devil. A series on the Human Tree comprised no less than 163 discourses running from the beginning of Lent, 1495, to the close of Lent, 1496.

During the last two years of the 15th century, Geiler preached 111 homilies on Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools Narren-schiff — all drawn from the text Eccles. 1:15 as it reads in the Vulgate, "the fools are without number." Through Geiler’s intervention Brant had been brought to Strassburg from Basel, where he was professor. His famous work, which is a travesty upon the follies of his time, employed the figure of a ship for the transport of his fools because it was the largest engine of transportation the author knew of. Very humorously Brant placed himself in the moderator’s chair while all the other fools were gathered in front of him. He himself took the rôle of the Book-fool. Among other follies which are censured are the doings of the mendicants, the traffic in relics and indulgences and the multiplication of benefices in single hands.11591159    See Lorenzi, II. 1-321. Geiler’s homilies equal Brant’s poetry in humor. Both were true to life. No preacher of the Middle Ages held the popular ear so long as Geiler of Strassburg and no popular poet, not even Will Langland, more effectually wrote for the masses than Sebastian Brant.

In this period, the custom came to be quite general to preach from the nave of the church instead of from the choir railing. Preachers limited their discourses by hour-glasses, a custom later transplanted to New England.11601160    Cruel, quoting Surgant, p. 635. Erasmus, Praise of Folly, p. 95, speaks of the preacher "spending his glass in telling pleasant stories.’ Sermons were at times unduly extended. Gerhard Groote sometimes preached for three hours during Lent and John Gronde extended some of his discourses to six hours, mercifully, however, dividing them into two parts with a brief breathing-spell between, profitable as may well be surmised alike to the preacher and the hearers. Geiler, who at one time had been inclined to preach on without regard to time, limited his discourses to a single hour.

The criticisms which preachers passed upon the customs of the day show that human nature was pretty much the same then as it is now and that the "good old times" are not to be sought for in that age. All sorts of habits were held up to ridicule and scorn. Drunkenness and gluttony, the dance and the street comedy, the dress of women and the idle lounging of rich men’s sons, usury and going to church to make a parade were among the subjects dwelt upon. Again and again, Geiler of Strassburg returned to the lazy sons of the rich who spent their time in retailing scandals and doing worse, more silly in their dress than the women, fops who "thought themselves somebody because their fathers were rich." He also took special notice of women and their fripperies. He condemned their belts, sometimes made of silk and adorned with gold, costing as much as 40 or 50 gulden, their padded busts and their extensive wardrobes, enabling them to wear for a week at a time two different garments each day and a third one for a dancing party or the play. He launched out against their long hair, left to fall down over the back and crowned with ribbons or small caps such as the men wore. As examples of warning, Absalom and Holofernes were singled out, the former caught by his hair in the branches of the tree and Holofernes ensnared by the adornments of Judith. Geiler called upon the city authorities to come to the help of society and the preacher and legislate against such evils.11611161    See Cruel’s chapter on pulpit polemics, pp. 617-629 and Janssen, I. 440 sqq. A preacher in Ulm, John Capistran, about 1450, was put by the aldermen in the lock-up for his excessive vehemence in condemning the prevailing luxury in dress and other questionable social customs.

Another preacher, Hollen, condemned the long trails which women wore as "the devil’s wagon," for neither men nor angels but only the devil has a caudal appendage. As for dancing, especially the round dances, the devil was the head concertmaster at such entertainments and the higher the dancers jumped, the deeper their fall into hell and, the more firmly they held on to each other with their hands, the more closely did the devil tighten his hold upon them. Dancing was represented by the preachers as an occasion of much profligacy.

In ridiculing the preaching of his day, Erasmus held forth the preachers’ ignorance, their incongruous introductions, their use of stories from all departments without any discrimination, their old women’s tales and the frivolous topics they chose—aniles fabulae et questiones frivolse. A famous passage in which the great scholar disparages the preaching of the monks and friars begins with the words: —

All their preaching is mere stage-playing, and their delivery the very transports of ridicule and drollery. Good Lord! how mimical are these gestures! What heights and falls in their voice! What toning, what bawling, what singing, what squeaking, what grimaces, making of months, apes’ faces, and distorting of their countenance; and this art of oratory as a choice mystery, they convey down by tradition to one another.11621162    Praise of Folly, 141 sqq.

Erasmus deserves credit for discerning the need of the times, and recommending the revival of the practice of preaching and the mission of preachers to the heathen nations. His views were set forth in the Ecclesiastes or Preacher, a work written during the Freiburg period and filling 275 pages,11631163    Basel, ed. 1540, pp. 643-917. each double the size of the pages of the hardcopy volume. The chief purpose of preaching he defined to be instruction. Every preacher is a herald of Christ, who was himself the great preacher. The office of preaching is superior in dignity to the office of kings. "Among the charisms of the Spirit, none is more noble and efficacious than preaching. To be a dispenser of the celestial philosophy and a messenger of the divine will is excelled by no office in the church." It is quite in accord with Erasmus’ high regard for the teaching function, that he magnifies the instructional element of the sermon. Writing to Sapidus, 1516, he said, "to be a schoolmaster is next to being a king."11641164    Nichols: Erasmus’ Letters, II. 235.

Of the English pulpit, there is little to say. We hear of preaching at St. Paul’s Cross and at other places, but there is no evidence that preaching was usual. No volumes of English sermons issued from the printing-press. Colet is the only English preacher of the 15th century of historical importance. The churchly counsel given to priests to impart instruction to the people, issued by the Lambeth synod of 1281, stands almost solitary. In 1466, Archbishop Nevill of York did no more than to repeat this legislation.

In Scotland the history of the pulpit begins with Knox. Dr. Blaikie remarks that, for the three centuries before the Reformation, scarcely a trace of Christian preaching can be found in Scotland worthy the name. The country had no Wyclif, as it had no Anselm.11651165    W. G. Blaikie: The Preachers of Scotland, p. 36. Hamilton and Wishart, Knox’s immediate forerunners, were laymen.

The Abbé Dr. Gasquet in a chapter on A Forgotten English Preacher in his Old Eng. Bible and other Essays gives extracts from the MS. sermon of Thomas Branton, Bishop of Rochester, 1372–1389. After saying that we know very little about mediaeval preaching in England, Dr. Gasquet, p. 54, remarks that it is perhaps just as well, as the sermons were probably dull and that "the modern sermon" has to be endured as a necessary evil. In his chapter on Teaching and Preaching, pp. 244–284, in his Eve of the Reformation, the same author returns to the subject, but the chapter itself gives the strongest evidence of the literary barrenness of the English Church in the closing years of the Middle Ages and the dearth of preaching and public instruction. By far the larger part of the chapter, pp. 254–280, is taken up with quotations from Sir Thomas More, the tract Dives and Pauper and other tracts, to show that the doctrine of the worship of images and saints was not taught in its crass form and with a statement of the usefulness of miracle-plays as a means of popular religious instruction. Dr. Gasquet lays stress upon the "simple instruction" given by the English priesthood in the Middle Ages as opposed to formal sermons which he confesses "were probably by no means so frequent as in these times." He makes the astounding assertion, p. 245, that religions instruction as a means of social and moral improvement was not one of the primary aims of the Reformation. The very opposite is proved by the efforts of Luther, Calvin and Knox to secure the establishment of schools in every hamlet and the catechisms which the two former prepared and the numerous catechisms prepared by their fellow Reformers. And what of their habit of constant preaching? Luther preached day after day. One of the first signs of the Reformation in Geneva was that St. Pierre and St. Gervaise were opened for preaching daily. Calvin incorporated into his ecclesiastical polity as one of the orders the ministry, the teaching body.


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