Archive for September, 2012

Last week, I led our session on Ranulph Higden’s Ars componendi sermones, beginning with this auspicious tweet:

What we found out, unfortunately, was that I can’t livetweet my own presentation. I quickly forgot about Twitter in the demands of leading discussion on a dense and knotty text. I’ll try again next time, I guess.

I wanted to talk about Higden because his treatise on preaching is one of the briefer and yet more useful treatments of preaching in the Middle Ages: Higden ably summarizes much of the tradition of thematic or “modern” preaching in a text which moves quickly and economically from point to point. Writers in what J.J. Murphy calls the ars praedicandi tradition were often prone to immense lists of the thousand-and-one ways that one could discuss a topic, but Higden (uncharacteristically, for the guy who wrote the Polychronicon) doesn’t let himself get too far off the rails. The text provides a brief, practical guide for the working preacher, without diverging from the received tradition of thematic preaching. So it’s a great introduction to one of the most under-studied but influential topics in medieval studies. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the text is readily available in both an edited edition of the Latin and a recent English translation, both by Margaret Jennings.

We spent most of our time together last week going carefully through my summary of the text, a necessary task given the proliferation of examples in even this brief text and the unfamiliar terminology of medieval rhetoric. Distinguishing between theme, antetheme, and protheme took up a good chunk of our time, as did parsing the language of amplification and division. I won’t reproduce my full summary here, but you can view and download my handout if you like. However, I do want to put up a few definitions for reference, to help clarify the sometimes opaque vocabulary of medieval rhetoric; then I’ll share my characterizations of Higden’s rhetoric, for reference and disputation.

Key Terms in Medieval Preaching
Note that these terms are based on Higden’s discussion of the art, but they can be used as working definitions for reading other artes praedicandi.
Theme: a passage of Scripture containing one to three words which can be exposited and exemplified to communicate the main point of the sermon. The theme is often selected according to the liturgical calendar or other occasional criteria.
Antetheme or Protheme: These two terms are used interchangeably by Higden to refer to a kind of abstract or summary of the sermon’s main point. Higden states that the antetheme/protheme, which comes early in the sermon, ought to include a variety of elements which have to do with establishing the value and validity of the sermon.
Amplification or Division: Amplification and division are another set of roughly interchangeable terms. Either term is a shorthand for the numerous ways in which the theme can be explained and proven: through biblical exegesis (both using the threefold senses of Scripture and textual strategies such as analysis of the Greek and Hebrew vocabulary), through examples drawn from life or legendary material, and other matters. The most expansive portions of Higden’s treatise focus on strategies for amplification/division.
Subdivision: Using the strategies of amplification/division to exposit sub-points within the larger division of the theme. So the main point (theme) will be divided into a select number of points, which are amplified/divided from the theme; in some sermons, then, those points will themselves be subdivided.
The “Key”: Higden’s explanation of the “key” is somewhat opaque. My best stab at explanation: the “key” is an additional amplification/division which clarifies the original point (see Higden, ch. XVI).

Higden’s Rhetoric
Here I’ve attempted to characterize Higden’s rhetoric in a couple of ways, first by using diagrams (akin to our contemporary use of such diagrams as the rhetorical triangle), and then through a description of the type of rhetoric his treatise advocates. These are very much a work-in-progress, so disputation is welcome.

The Structure of a Sermon
How a sermon ought to be ordered according to the “modern” practice, as given by Higden:
Statement of the theme -> Antetheme/Protheme -> Prayer for guidance -> Introduction of the theme -> Division -> Subdivision (optional) -> Conclusion

Elements of Preaching Rhetoric
Akin to the rhetorical triangle, my characterization of the elements Higden thinks are in play during a sermon. I have diagrammed them using interrelating arrows, because in my view for Higden all of these elements are continually influencing one another.
Preacher <- -> Congregation <- -> Text of the sermon <- -> Text of Scripture <- -> Occasion <- -> The Church <- -> God

Methods Employed in Interpreting the Theme and Delivering It
Natural reason, grammatical exegesis, threefold sense of Scripture (historical, tropological, anagogical), literary criticism, exempla.

Characteristics of Higden’s Rhetoric
Higden’s rhetoric is copious: it is highly concerned with expanding on the original point using what the classical tradition of rhetoric would call the rhetorical canon of copia. The preacher begins with a short theme and expands upon it to create a complex and multifaceted argument.

Higden’s rhetoric is kairotic: it is constantly aware of the particular time in which the sermon takes place. Higden devotes a lot of space to discussing how to adapt sermons to particular occasions, whether feast days or saints’ days or other liturgical events.

Despite this copiousness, Higden’s rhetoric adheres to a low or middle style: Higden does not emphasize the flights of language practiced in a high style, but encourages the preacher to use only simple verbal ornamentation and not get too full of himself. Sermons should thus be copious in content (because their source, Scripture, is itself more copious than human beings can account for), but not too highly ornamented in style.

Higden’s rhetoric is formal: some variation is allowed in the structure of the sermon, but not much–at least not if you want to be a modern preacher.

Higden’s rhetoric is emergent: rather than attempting to manipulate the audience into attention and obedience, Higden’s rhetoric focuses on drawing forth from Scripture something which will be useful to the audience. The orator is to function as a servant to the audience, not a master–to the point that even attempting to seize their attention is only acceptable in certain ways, “as long as this is inoffensive to God” (Higden 49). The orator should subordinate his own desires to the demands of the liturgical calendar, the immediate needs of the audience, and the imperative to glorify God. Rhetoric thus emerges out of the interaction of these elements with the preacher acting as a mouthpiece rather than a master of the material. I thus describe Higden’s rhetoric as emergent.

There’s lots more to do in the study of medieval rhetoric (a hugely neglected field–but I won’t get on that soap box here), and this is only a preliminary stab at the material–but hopefully it gets some of you thinking and investigating in this area. I’m very much at the beginning of my work on it myself. Let me know if you have thoughts or objections, or if you’ve found or done work on the topic.

Read Full Post »