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Preaching, Politics and Poetry in Late-Medieval England
Alan J. Fletcher

'One of the great merits of this book is that it contains the texts of a number of authentic medieval sermons from a variety of contexts and reflecting a variety of preaching emphases and styles; the great disappointment of the book is that this very evidence from the sources indictes the more or less deplorable and cynical nature of a large amount of that preaching activity during the later Middle Ages.
 Some of these sermons – such as the fifteenth-century sermon on the social ideology of the Three Estates and the funeral memorial sermon which form the centrepiece of the book – represent thinly disguised attempts by the late medieval Church to exercise a blunt coercion over its increasingly self-assured and questioning lay members. The first exhorts the various orders within society to operate in harmony with each other according to an increasingly obsolescent social model, but one which favoured the residual power of the Church; the other more menacingly seeks to bully its audience with the reminder that, at the last, they will depend on the offices of the Church to secure their peace with God, and that it will suit their interests now to keep the Law of God which is, of course, defined and mediated by the Church.

This mixture of rhetorical artifice and power-hungry complacency and disregard for the basic maxims of the gospel goes to explain the extent of criticism levelled not only by the Lollards but also by other and more moderate campaigners for reform against the worst elements of the clerical tradition. Some of the final articles of the book provide, through a study of themes in the work of Langland and Chaucer, evidence of genuine concern within literate society for a recovery of proper gospel values. It is greatly to the credit of the book that Alan Fletcher does not simply represent the poets as proto-Lollards, but as inheritors of the wider traditions of reform reflecting the diverse opinions from which the Lollards also drew, calling for a greater simplicity of life within the Church, and urging the clearer exposition of the gospel from the pulpit. But perhaps most intriguing of all is the article in which Fletcher begins to analyse the workings of a particular group of scribes who are well known for the production of self-conscious Lollard books, but whose scriptorium in fact seems, as MS Sidney Sussex 74 from Cambridge bears witness, to reflect much wider preoccupation with reform than with what evolved into the specifically heretical brance of that reform. And so through preaching and the criticism of preaching the Lollards are shown to be part of a very broad and fruitful movement for reform within the Church as well as its fringes.

The very first article in the book, containing a modish sermon with fashionable snatches of vernacular rhyme and basic moral exhortation no clear use of Gospel texts, provides a quintessential example of what it was the reformers hoped to overcome; Fletcher’s survey of the very different preaching of a priest like John Felton in Oxfored, scriptural and full of substance, shows equally clearly that it is not only in the example of the heretics that the momentum for reform might best be found.

This book is to be valued for what it shows of the deplorable standard of so much preaching – but even more for how it demonstrates the extent of disquiet about this fact, and the depth of effort made to sort out the problem, not only from outside the confines of the orthodox Church, but also and especially from within its heart. And if a collection of articles of this kind, written at different times and for different purposes, lacks a rigid structural unity, it is of inestimable benefit that this allows the diversity of the medieval sources, both in quality and in emphasis, to emerge with clarity, and credibly – a reflection of a very varied culture which was being tugged in many different ways, and which, of its very nature, defies a simple smug analysis. And so this book by Alan Fletcher indisputably rings true' Nicholas Heale, The Heythrop Journal, A Quarterly Review of Philosophy and Theology, Oct 1999, Volume 40, Number 4


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