Houghton Library’s distinguished collection of medieval manuscripts provides scholars with abundant resources for learning about the fascinating world of medieval preachers and the books they used and produced. The sermon, as the central literary genre in the lives of medieval European Christians and Jews, probably represents the most frequently transmitted text from the Middle Ages, reflecting its power as an instrument for instruction and persuasion in a predominantly oral culture. The sermon provided a fluid literary form to and from which other genres of literature were shaped, including biblical commentaries and saints’ lives. Authors of literary works in Latin and the vernacular languages adopted or adapted homiletic forms for their writings. The performative nature of preaching and its various settings facilitated associations between sermons, iconography, and liturgical drama.

Modern scholars face the challenge of analyzing the written vestiges of this essentially oral and highly performative genre. Despite increased scholarly attention to this genre (thanks in no small part to the role of Harvard medievalists), vast numbers of medieval sermons remain unedited in libraries around the world. This introduction to Houghton Library’s collection of manuscripts related to medieval preaching will provide an overview of the medieval sermon in order to place the manuscripts within the broad context of the history of preaching and illustrate the challenges that medieval sermons pose to modern scholars.

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