On Sermons and the Vernacular.

I do like an eloquently obscene rant, and that goes double for rants about language and history, so I am grateful to my pal Nicholas Jainschigg for passing along this post by medieval historian Eleanor Janega responding to an idiotic tweet about “priests who kept reading their sermons in Latin after the printing press had come along.” I’ll quote the core of it here:

Somehow it seems that I have written very little about sermons here on the blog, and this is odd because I am absolutely obsessed with them. You may be wondering how a nice little Buddhist girl such as myself got that way. The answer is this: I like studying propaganda and sermons are one of the most effective and wide-reaching forms of medieval propaganda that there is.

Sermons were able to serve this purpose because of how they were spread and shared. An intense interest in sermons can be seen throughout the medieval period. […] We know a lot about the sermons that everyone was very busy delivering as a result of all of the sermon collections which have survived. Sermon collections are a super interesting source which existed in order to help out all those budding preachers across Europe who were compelled by the papacy to deliver timely sermons to their flocks, but who may not have been the most gifted speech writers themselves. Say you knew you had to give a sermon each week to your parish but weren’t sure what exactly you wanted to speak on. You could reach for a sermon collection which had developed using classical rhetorical approaches and which even followed the liturgical calendar for the year. Bang, all you had to do was look up Michaelmas and you would be given a model sermon to deliver to the faithful on that day. It would be neatly written out in Latin and give you a generalised topic and certain points to hit, but it also allowed for readers to add their own flourishes, elaborating on various images, or giving their own examples of virtuous lives, tailoring the experience to their own audience. […]

And here is the thing that you might be missing from all this – medieval people fucking loved a sermon. For a lot of medieval people a sermon was a nice night out. Sure, you got one each Sunday and on holidays, but you could also check out whatever the wandering mendicant who turned up to town had to offer. In larger cities you could go parish to parish to see who was saying what. In fact, this got out of control in some circumstances, and in places like Prague people were actually asked to stop parish hopping for sermons, presumably when priests who were not as good at preaching saw their audiences wandering into other churches for Mass, along with their regular tithes. So it’s not just about the fact that you can send ideas around really effectively to other preachers through sermon collections, but that people liked sermons so they attended them and had a nice time.

But here’s the thing about all of this: giving people instruction through sermons and attracting large numbers of people who attend and enjoy sermons as leisure is only possible if people can understand what you are saying. That is to say, the great great great great (great great) majority of sermons were given in the vernacular. Not Latin. Now this can be confusing because the sermon collections, you know, the things that we look at in order to find out who was giving what sermons where are written in Latin. But there is a reason for that.

Say you are my good friend the preacher Jan Milíč of Kroměříž. You are a wildly popular fourteenth century preacher who wants to warn Christendom that unless they change their sinful ways the Antichrist is going to come. If you are Milíč, your first language is Czech. Now Czech is a very fine language that I enjoy speaking very much, but very unfortunately for the world, it is not exactly widely spoken outside of the Czech lands in the fourteenth century. Or today. You fools. As a result, the best way for you to spread your emergency message about Antichrist will to be use a widely-spoken language, Latin, which is the de facto language of medieval Christendom.

You write these model sermons in Latin so your fans that speak Polish, Italian, French, or German can readily read from the sermon collections to their own audiences while they translate them into their own vernacular language. Latin is the medium by which members of the clergy share sermons, but when the sermons are given to the public they are done so in a language that lets your audience know what you are talking about. Go ahead and warn a bunch of people about Antichrist in Latin all you want, you don’t get your desired outcome if they don’t know what you are saying.

This is not to say that people never preached in Latin. Say that you were preaching to another group of clergy, or to a group of people with a specific background in Latin, such as at a university or within a Cathedral. In that case Latin would be totally appropriate. Preachers used their discretion in order to ensure that their audiences received sermons in the most effective way possible and picked and chose the languages they would use accordingly. Milíč, for example used to preach up to five times a day because he was an absolute rager. He most often gave sermons in Czech, particularly at his house for preachers and reformed sex workers, Jerusalem. He would then preach in German when invited to give sermons in other parishes such as our Lady before Týn. Finally, he gave sermons in Latin when preaching to the community of nuns at St George in the Hradčaný or when asked to give sermons for the Archbishop’s synod, where he gave his fellow clergy members a bollocking for being evil sinners. As you do. The point is he knew you had to tailor your language to your audience to make an impact, and was very successful at doing so. That is why we see his sermon collections survive all over Europe. People knew he was good and wanted to know what he was up to.

People get confused about the conception of sermons in Latin because none of this is to say that the entirety of a Mass was in vernacular languages. The rites of the mass such as prayers or the hymns sung were in Latin, as were biblical readings. The sermon was a point of departure in that Latin went on pause to make sure that everyone in attendance got something out of the deal. In fact, as one of my intrepid twitter followers pointed out you could find even more languages crammed into the medieval Mass as the Kyrie Elision prayer/hymn was given in Greek. I mean *slaps the roof of a medieval mass* this bad boy can fit so many fucking languages into it.

Isn’t that great? Visit the link for more details, illustrations, and footnotes. Gratias fucking ago, Nick!


  1. What are those sermon collections? How did they get distributed? XIV Century is the time of Great Plague

  2. During the Great Plague they needed more sermons than ever.

  3. I totally get the appeal of sermons, not just from historical imagining-yourself-in-their shoes, but from one personal experience, to wit: a long time ago I was visiting London, travelling alone for the first time in my life. And I found myself on a Sunday, with absolutely everything closed that I was interested in. I was bored, and the one thing that I could do was go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.
    I didn’t subscribe to the opinions expressed by most speeches I heard (the best were by certified lunatics), but they were rousing, and they were fun, and I would have gone again the next Sunday if I’d stayed. I allow that medieval audiences enjoyed the drama of a good sermon, no matter how devout they were.

  4. David Marjanović says

    I think I remember that preaching in the vernacular (with exceptions where it makes sense, see above) has been required by the Church since the 9th century or so.

    the Kyrie Elision prayer/hymn was given in Greek

    Yay autoincorrect… and, well, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison is not a lot of Greek.

  5. But it’s Greek, and it doesn’t make sense if you don’t know any Greek.

  6. I grew up among foreign missionaries in Japan, and of course heard many Japanese sermons I paid little attention to, although I picked up a few formulaic expressions, especially the eagerly-awaited benedictions at the end of the service. My father’s sermons tended to feature storytelling rather than scripture, and I found his Japanese a bit easier to understand than those of Japanese preachers. At annual mission meetings, I heard a greater variety of sermonic styles. Scholarly missionaries would spend a lot of time preparing their words for delivery, often returning to themes suggested by holy scriptures (including Buddhist, sometimes), but a few of the missionaries would come to the pulpit and then wait for divine inspiration. They often started very slowly, but sometimes worked up quite a head of steam. I found their inspirations more tiring than inspiring. The most interesting sermons were those featuring a foreign guest who required a Japanese translator. I tended to pay a lot more attention to those, because they provided data for linguistic analysis. I also tended to read along (under my breath) during hymns for the chance to encounter new words or readings of Japanese kanji. (I usually took a book to read during church services.)

  7. It’s not hard to remember 3 words of Greek. Or two phrases. And once you do, you know what it means. Of course, these days when we say it in Greek, it’s a variation on something most often said in the vernacular. Although, it seems a loose use of “vernacular” to call the English mass the venacular. It’s poetic English, not everyday English.

  8. There are significant numbers of surviving sermons in Old English from Pre-Conquest England, largely from the 10th-11th centuries, both anonymous and by known authors (Ælfric, Wulfstan), not to mention vernacular translations of great chunks of the Bible.

  9. Having lived in 5 linguistic areas in my life, I have experienced the Novus Ordo in five languages.
    I found this easy enough to absorb mostly through osmosis in the first year or so. The reverse also being true: catechised Catholics would normally be able to absorb the extremely limited Latin of the liturgy, and the three words of Greek, easily. Homilies being a different animal, and as alluded to by @David Marjanović above, the vernacular was officially sanctioned at the Council of Tours of 823.

  10. In Prague they also had the entire mass, not just the sermons, in Church Slavonic, courtesy of Croatian Benedictines at Emaus using the glagolitic rite.

  11. Richard Hershberger says

    Kyrie: The usual explanation for this bit of Greek in the Latin mass is that the prayer is a such great antiquity, and carried so much cultural weight, as to remain untranslated. I would add to this that it is so short that even untranslated, it is easy enough to memorize what it means.

    Popularity of sermons: This was not merely a medieval thing. The rise of Evangelicalism in the 18th century was very much tied to an emphasis on effective sermons. Slightly later this was combined with revivals, which is to say religious fairs. The presumption was that people would come to check it out, because that was something people did. Getting people in the door was not the problem. The challenge was what to do once you had them in the door. Nowadays, of course, we have ample entertainment opportunities, making all of this a much harder sell. Modern Evangelical churches still emphasize the sermon, but at least equally so the pop band concert that accompanies it. In fairness, while this is not to my taste, I have been known to attend a church to check out the music. I had a professor in college who was the music director at Mission Santa Barbara. He would tip me off when they were doing, say, a Mozart mass that Sunday. I didn’t let my Lutheranism keep me away.

  12. The artist formally known as Prince Harry now lives in an enormous pad in Santa Barbara. Perhaps he could go.

    AJP Crown,
    formerly known as Eric of Pomerania.

  13. “Glagolitic mass” always sounds like a medical problem to me.

    revivals, which is to say religious fairs: I think the old tent-revivals have been supplanted by NASCAR races and (especially in the south) college football games

  14. Richard Hershberger and others, your entertaining supplement to Martin Chuzzlewit is Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans. After her husband died, Mrs. Trollope emigrated with her children (including Anthony) to the United States and opened a store in Cincinnati. It failed, she returned to England, and in 1832 she got her revenge with this book.

    About Languagehat matters she has interesting things to say about the mixture of grossness and prudery in the American vocabulary, and about sermons there’s the amazing chapter 15, online at


  15. Richard Hershberger: “Modern Evangelical churches still emphasize the sermon, but at least equally so the pop band concert that accompanies it. In fairness, while this is not to my taste, I have been known to attend a church to check out the music. I had a professor in college who was the music director at Mission Santa Barbara. He would tip me off when they were doing, say, a Mozart mass that Sunday. I didn’t let my Lutheranism keep me away.”

    I’ve enjoyed the music at Köln cathedral with a devoutly Orthodox Christian friend of mine, and she invited me to it. It’s not as uncommon as you might think. It didn’t bother her that much that it was a Catholic cathedral.

  16. Glagolitic mass ~ glagolitic mess. I see your point.

    Glagolitic mass is not the technical term though. I only referred to it that way because it might be more familiar.

  17. The Glagolitic liturgy survived into the second half of the 20th century but then had an unfortunate encounter with Vatican II, according to this piece which notes a 2016 “official” celebration in Zagreb after a half-century hiatus as well as some more informal perhaps laity-driven survivals (in non-Eucharistic contexts) in outlying areas. Note the detail that by the early 20th century the Slavonic texts were being printed in Latin script, so that clergy (and others) didn’t need to learn a whole separate alphabet in order to keep the tradition going. http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2016/09/glagolitic-mass-celebrated-in-zagreb.html#.X1ZLSchKguU

  18. It sounds even more dangerous if you write it (as I’ve seen) “Glagolithic.”

  19. Yes, a “Glagolithic mass” is definitely something that would require surgical intervention.

  20. “Prevention and treatment of chronic Glagolithic complications”

  21. In the “Millennary Petition” (there were in fact only 755 signatories) submitted to King James I by various Puritan-tending clergy and laity in response to the Book of Common Prayer, one of the requests was that the “longsomeness of the service be abridged”. Was this modern laxity? Why no, Socrates, it was not. It was so that the sermon could be prolonged from a single hour to two or even three.

  22. Concerning sermons-as-entertainment, see this new post from LTA: https://laudatortemporisacti.blogspot.com/2020/09/a-powerful-preacher.html

  23. And weaving together several threads, J. W. Brewer, here’s a link


    for study of (a) vowel sounds (including “walk” for “work”), (b) consonant sounds (Including “mand” for “man”), and (c) the authentic pronunciation of Hebrew.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Also [ʋ] for /r/ – I had thought that was limited to scattered places in southern England; I’ve heard it in Bristol – and… does that guy lack the NORTH-FORCE merger, or has he merged FORCE into NORTH instead of the other way around?

    Also gone with [ou̯], in response to a caller’s gone with [uɔ] in two syllables.

    the authentic pronunciation of Hebrew

    …thus proving it was KIKONGO all along, as everybody already knew.

  25. Andrej Bjelaković says

    I hear the caller’s gone as a monosyllabic [ʊə]~[o̝ə].

  26. David Marjanović says

    “Our European visitors are important to us.

    This site is currently unavailable to visitors from the European Economic Area while we work to ensure your data is protected in accordance with applicable EU laws.”

  27. All right, have a sample quote.

    “He [Trump] said that Mexico has an open door, a gateway, where murderers and rapists can come in from all countries and that door needs to be closed. I totally agree with that.” said Thomas.

    Thomas also called Trump a unifier.

    “He’s been known to bring people of all races and creeds together. He bought a 100 black pastors together. What other presidential candidate has done that?” Thomas said.

  28. He bought a 100 black pastors


  29. On the popularity of sermons, see also Bourdaloue.

  30. has he merged FORCE into NORTH instead of the other way around?

    That would be me: [noʑ̞θ], [foʑ̞s] (that’s [ʑ] lowered).

  31. David Marjanović says

    No, FORCE has [o], NORTH has [ɔ~ɒ] where those are distinguished.

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