Vernacular Religion in the Latin Middle Ages 1: Homilies

I was chatting with a friend at a barbecue yesterday (indeed, in the smoke of the very barbecue itself!), and the subject of the Council of Tours of 813 arose, as it does. It arose for about the only reason I imagine it does arise these days, which is Canon XVII:

It seemed to our unanimity, that any bishop have homilies containing the necessary admonitions, about which his subjects be educated, that is about the catholic faith, according as they can grasp, about the perpetual retribution of the good and the eternal damnation of the wicked, about the future resurrection as well and the last judgement and with which deeds the blessed life can be promoted or by which it can be excluded. And that each be zealous to translate the same homilies clearly into the rustic Roman language or the Thiotisca, so that everyone can more easily understand the things that are said.

The Council of Tours of 823 did other things, encapsulated in 52 canons. You can read the Latin here. They legislate about the sale of church offices, about the translation of clerics, that bishops should frequently read and memorise the Gospels and letters of St Paul and become acquainted with the church fathers (in particular they should read Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule), that bishops should preach, take care of the poor, and lead a holy life. Various other things are articulated. It’s not uninteresting.

But, of course, it is Canon XVII that is most referenced. This is one of the first times we meet ‘rustica Romana lingua’ as something distinct from Latin. In the immediate context this would mean early Old French, but also includes the nascent Romance languages elsewhere in the Frankish domains in Spain and Italy, I’m sure. The Council of Tours was a local council, but it was part of Charlemagne’s efforts to correct religion and morals in his realms; it was assembled at the emperors behest, as were (it seems) some other councils that year. Thiotisca is mediaeval German.

Anyway, this canon is interesting because it counters two claims sometimes made by some Protestants (not all Protestants, and not all of them all the time). First, that there was no preaching in the Middle Ages. Second, that the vernacular was forbidden from official church activities in the Middle Ages. These are both false. Given that the Dominican order (founded 1216) is even officially called the Order of Preachers, the idea that people didn’t preach in the Middle Ages very easily refuted; just search your local university library catalogue for medieval preaching. Or sit back and enjoy this anthology by J.M. Neale. Nonetheless, some may still imagine that everything was in Latin.

Over a century after Charlemagne’s reform synod in 813 at Tours, in a land beyond Frankish control, we have the homilies of Aelfric of Eynsham, whose Old English homilies survive — you can read modern English translations here, if you wish. We also have the tenth-century Blickling Homilies in Old English. I am not an expert on all the vernacular homilies, but I do note a book about preaching in Romance languages prior to 1300 in my university’s catalogue. A lot of these sermons do not survive in the vernacular, though, as discussed at Harvard’s Houghton Library website. Since Latin was the international language of public discourse, most sermons were translated into Latin for dissemination; thus, the oral and the written find themselves at a much farther remove in this instance than usual.

Nevertheless, if we consider stories about the influence held by preachers such as St Francis in the early 1200s or Savonarola in the later half of the 1400s, we realise that vernacular preaching must have been normal.

The point of my poorly-sourced argument above?

Medieval Christianity was not as far removed from ordinary life as you might expect. The church was not, for a full half of its history, dominated by Latin to the exclusion of a language such as the people understands. Yes, the liturgy was in Latin. Yes, the language of high European culture was Latin. Yes, the official pronouncements of the ecclesiastical authorities were in Latin. But the day-to-day preaching to ordinary folk of the Middle Ages was in English, Old French, the old dialects of German, not Latin.

When we read the Reformation, this is important to keep in mind. There was preaching, and it was in the vernacular. It was the translation of the liturgy and the reform of certain practices and teachings that were the main concern of the Reformers. They, themselves, inherited and continued, in many ways, the mediaeval heritage of vernacular preaching. Let’s not erect mediaeval straw men in our quest to keep our consciences clear in our separation from Rome.

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