Sermo Moderna: Outline and Memory Aid

I still haven’t put out my translation of St. Albert’s 32 sermons on the Eucharist, partly because I wasn’t sure how to present them.

I recently found a short book that explained a lot of my questions. It’s called Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, by Randall B. Smith.

I knew that St. Albert the Great was writing sermons in the newish style of Scholastics. What I didn’t realize is that this was a wildly popular style with normal people as well as academics, and was regarded as a fun and useful way to teach as well as preach.

See, the old standard style was what you’d expect.

The readings were originally chanted, according to Jewish tradition. Greeks chanted in Greek, and the Latin Rite chanted in Latin.

If the local vernacular had diverged enough that Latin was not understood, the sermon would begin with repeating the readings, in the local language.

Then the preaching about the readings would begin; and there would generally be some moral teaching related to it. Sometimes the moral exhortations would be most of the sermon, while just touching base with the readings occasionally.

But… there was only a one-year cycle of readings. Your lectionary might be slightly different in a different town, or in a different religious order, so you might hear different readings that way. But otherwise, it was always the same readings, year after year.

So the new idea behind the Sermo Moderna style was this:

Pick out a memorable Bible verse (often from the day’s readings). That’s your “thema.”

Give a prologue (“prothema”) talking about your verse and some other verse or saying, and raising the congregation’s interest.

Announce the general outline of your sermon, divided into parts.

Use each word of the Scripture verse as a subject heading for your sermon. (So instead of using boring headings like A, B, C, D, E — it’s “Ecce. Rex. Tuus. Venit. Mansuetus” — Behold. Your. King. Comes. Meek.)

Preach about whatever you want, although preferably something related to your memory verse, the liturgical season, the readings, etc.

Each time you move onto a new heading, you talk about the heading word you’re now using, and describe the subheadings underneath it. (First this, second that, third the other thing, etc.) Then you preach your announced sub-outline, and then maybe you sum up again at the end.

Possibly sum up the whole sermon again, at the end, and definitely end with a prayer.

In this way, your listeners would find it easier to remember your preaching, and recount it to others. And every year when a reading with that verse came up again, that sermon memory would come back, and other sermon memories could be added.

Meanwhile, within the sermon, the preacher had every opportunity to ask the congregation to pray for him, to draw them into considering various questions, to think about God’s love and providence, and to bring up memorable images and situations that would further drive in the point.

Today’s academics argue about how much peasants or townies got from this style of preaching. But St. Joan of Arc repeated almost verbatim things that her parish priest had taken from a famous book of sermons by Gerson. So obviously it was sinking into some people.

There were scholarly memory techniques out there, but there were also techniques used by everybody, like associating concepts or verses with pictures or places, or the joints of each finger on a hand. We don’t know much about them, but we do know that ordinary people could exhibit great feats of memory for songs, stories, or important lists of information.

Also, the breadth of potential subject matter allowed preachers to bring up all sorts of related Bible verses. This interested people, because they liked hearing about unusual verses from the Bible. And sermons were something you could think about during the week, when you were doing boring things. Common working people probably made the most of sermons as education and entertainment, as well as for spiritual growth and self-examination.

St. Thomas Aquinas was apparently a very popular preacher who was considered likable and holy, by normal townspeople who weren’t scholars. People liked the clarity of his explanations, and found his love of God and kindliness very convincing in itself. He also seemed to have a knack of constantly pointing out, subtly, that X is not about all those other people in ancient Judea, but that it is also about what is going on with you, there in the back row, personally, right now.

St. Albert the Great was also supposed to be a lively preacher, and I think that comes across in all his writings as well as his sermons. He likes the weird and memorable “similitudes” he draws between holy things and normal things — possibly because he was so big on visual observation of whatever was happening, and because he liked talking to normal people and getting their explanations of everyday things.

I think the exemplum stories and fables come along later. (Or maybe it’s just that Thomas and Albert had plenty to say already, and didn’t need filler stories to illustrate it.)

Anyway… the point is that medieval preachers were not going off-topic or drawing ridiculous conclusions about their thema verse. They were doing something else entirely, by using it as the foundation for a memory structure. You can like this or dislike it, but it is not something they did out of ignorance of Scripture, or as a way to fool laypeople.

Honestly, I never really thought about it one way or another, because I grew up hearing a lot of homilies that had no organizational structure whatever, much less a clear relationship to the readings. I just liked the nice outlined classroom lecture structure in St. Albert’s sermons. But apparently I was missing the structure’s foundation.

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One response to “Sermo Moderna: Outline and Memory Aid

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds

    Many thanks for this very interesting post! I have only ever read some of Aelfric’s sermons and of the Blickling Homilies (in translation, with some reference to the Old English texts), so far (all Tenth-century works), but working on Tolkien and his scholarship has got me wanting to know more about mediaeval homiletics.

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