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Personalities behind Everyday Sermons from Worcester Cathedral Priory

What is most intriguing about this collection of early fourteenth century monastic sermons is its rare, and possibly unique, survival. It consists of an unusual mixture of roughly written notes on parchment trimmings, with changes, corrections and marginal additions probably for reuse, neatly finished instructive homilies probably for novice monks, sermons copied from a Dominican sermon manual with some alterations, and several sermons composed for special occasions such as a monastic visitation. How, why and when were they first bound together? The answer to this conundrum can only be surmised. Prior to their initial medieval binding together they may have been separate leaves found in the cells of deceased monks. Sometime later they were incorporated into a single volume and placed in the monastic library of Worcester cathedral library where, six centuries later, they still remain.

A few of the monastic writers can be identified by means of a comparison with the handwriting in notes and colophons found in other surviving Worcester manuscripts. One of these monks is Henry Fouke, who must have filled the office of monastic librarian during the first half of the fourteenth century, and who made notes in many manuscripts. Another prominent member of the early fourteenth-century community and contemporary of Fouke is John de Saint Germans whose handwriting occurs in a number of manuscripts. He must have been regarded as a promising scholar because he was sent by the prior to study, first at the University of Oxford and later at the University of Paris. On his return from France, he brought back with him a hefty volume of sermons, ‘hot off the press’, composed by Guy d’Evreux, a Dominican friar. This is a surprising and inexplicable intrusion in the manuscript, unless we may assume that a number of Worcester monks found some of its contents relevant and adaptable for their preaching needs. They would certainly have proved suitable for use in parishes to which the monks were assigned on certain occasions.

The remarkable number of scriptural quotations in the sermons bears witness to long years of biblical study on the part of the monks and also to frequent resort to the monastic library and its contents. The sermons also offer proof that the latter was well furnished with the writings of the early church fathers, more recent texts of theology and even pre-Christian classical texts of Aristotle, Ovid and Seneca.The fact that some of the references provided by the monastic writers are found to be inaccurate and incorrect reflects their failure to remember accurately some of the authorities quoted. There were no medieval footnotes; the monks were taught to retain in their minds important texts by means of mnemonics, which might be likened to an early form of computerization relying on retention by means of keywords stored in the memory.

While the Latin text may at first appear as a stumbling block, it should be treated as a challenge, which is easily overcome with the aid of a dictionary. The result will soon reveal, what no translation could provide, the personalities of the monastic preachers and teachers as they strove to explain and teach Christian truths to their hearers. We are also made aware of the differing levels of understanding of those to whom they preached and lectured.

by Joan Greatrex