Performing the Seven Deadly Sins: How One Late-Medieval English Preacher did it
By Alan J. Fletcher
Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 29 (1998)
Introduction: Some things change very little. As late as the nineteenth century, an Indian summer in English preaching and a time when published collections of sermons were thick enough on the ground to allow us to infer that an avid readership awaited them, we find men like the Rev. Walter Baxendale perpetuating what was, in effect, an ancient tradition. While his awareness of that tradition’s antiquity is hard to gauge, his compiling of a Dictionary of Anecdote, Incident, Illustrative Fact, selected and arranged for the Pulpit and the Platform, an anthology of edifying matter arranged alphabetically by subject, would have been a pursuit as much in keeping with the spirit of the second half of the thirteenth century as it evidently was with that of the second half of the nineteenth. Even if one read no further than Baxendale’s title – his book was for the pulpit and the platform – one might nevertheless form the impression that one thing he was fully aware of, as also indeed were many of his medieval predecessors, is how much of a performance art preaching might be. Of course, it is self-evident that preaching is likely to be a performance art at any stage in its history, and when, as in Rev. Baxendale’s case, many of the narratives of his Victorian exemplum collection come stuffed with sprightly dialogue – an investment which invites, however modestly, dramatic realization in the delivery – preaching is cranked even more assuredly into a performative gear. Baxendale’s more famous contemporary, Thomas Hardy the poet, captures the ethos of histrionic preaching that Baxendale’s compilation would have gone some way towards encouraging. In the poem ‘In Church’, a parishioner catches sight of the preacher in the vestry after the sermon. She sees ‘her idol stand with a satisfied smile / And re-enact at the vestryglass / Each pulpit gesture in deft dumb-show / That had moved the congregation so’.
Medieval predecessors of this tradition had grasped the nettle of the preacher as performer without hesitation and had gone further than Baxendale by openly recommending dramatic delivery. The preacher would do well to adopt a suitable ‘voice’: ‘acutam in proferendo, austeram in corrigendo, benivolam in exhortando’ (‘sharp when expounding, stern when correcting and kindly when exhorting’), recommended ‘Henry of Hesse’ in his thirteenth-century De arte predicandi, and by the fifteenth century, the anonymous author of the Aquinas-tract had warmed so thoroughly to the idea of dramatic decorum in the pulpit, to the synchronizing of the sense of the words of Scripture uttered by the preacher with the tone in which he uttered them, that he advised not only on the choice of their inflection (vocally simulating, as appropriate, ‘wonder’, ‘irony and derision’, or ‘impatience and indignation’), but also on the body language and mimetic gesture that suited them best. For example, God’s chilling doom pronounced upon the damned, ‘Discedite a me, maledicti, in ignem eternum’ (Matthew 25. 41), a favourite preaching topic, was to be delivered not only ‘with hate’, but also with ‘turning away of the face‘. Here, the preacher would have appeared even more conspicuously ‘in role’ before his congregation, no matter how local and temporary in the general context of the sermon such a dramatic effect may have been. In short, the preacher was being urged to adopt a persona, and being offered some suggestions about how to body it forth. Once in the pulpit, he was, in practice, on stage.