Dangerous Beauty, Beautiful Speech: Gendered Eloquence in Medieval Preaching

Dangerous Beauty, Beautiful Speech: Gendered Eloquence in Medieval Preaching

Waters, Claire

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 14 (1997)


Medieval Christian preaching sought to convey a divine message by means of a human medium: the preacher’s eloquence. Although Christian theorists of preaching, at least those following Augustine, recognized rhetoric as an inherent and necessary element of their activity, they were also heirs to a patristic suspicion of its pagan roots, its moral neutrality, and especially its potential to emphasize the letter over the spirit, medium over message. This essay explores the way such anxieties were worked out in preaching manuals, scholastic disputations, and hagiography of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. Drawing on the principles and the concerns expressed by such authorities as Tertullian and Augustine, later medieval preaching theorists like Alan of Lille and the Dominican Thomas Waleys struggled with and, to some extent, found ways for preaching to accommodate rhetoric’s dangerous but effective power. Strikingly, many of their concerns and strategies are echoed in the disputation literature and hagiography that discuss women’s preaching. In the work of Jacobus of Voragine and other hagiographers, we see that outstanding women could offer one possible solution to the problem of rhetoric in preaching.

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