“he is bothyn modyr, broþyr, & syster vn-to me”

Women and the Bible in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Sermons

in Church History and Religious Culture
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Examining recent claims that the early modern Bible served as an empowering force for women, this article draws evidence from English sermons designed for quotidinal lay instruction—such as the late medieval sermons of Festial, the sixteenth-century Tudor Homilies, and the seventeenth-century sermons of William Gouge and Benjamin Keach. As didactic religious texts written and delivered by men but also heard and read by women, sermons reveal how preachers rhetorically shaped the contours of women’s agency. Late medieval sermons include women specifically in scripture and authorize women through biblical role models as actively participating within the church. Conversely, early modern sermons were less likely to add women into scripture and more likely to use scripture to limit women by their domestic identities. Thus, through their approaches to biblical texts, medieval preachers present women as more visible and active agents whereas early modern preachers present women as less visible and more limited in their roles—thereby presenting a more complex story of how the Bible affected women across the Reformation.

“he is bothyn modyr, broþyr, & syster vn-to me”

Women and the Bible in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Sermons

in Church History and Religious Culture




Ibid. pp. 526–527.


Thomas Cranmer and othersCertayne Sermons or Homelies appoynted by the kynges Majestie to bee declared and redde by all persones Vicares or Curates every Sondaye in their churches where they haue cure (London: Rychard Grafton1547) p. A.iii.v.


Nicholas Watson‘Censorship and Cultural Change in Late Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409,’ Speculum 70:4 (1995) pp. 822–864.


Eyal Poleg‘“A Ladder Set Up on Earth”: The Bible in Medieval Sermons,’ in The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages (New York 2011) pp. 205–228 there 212.


Poleg‘A Ladder Set Up on Earth’ pp. 207–212. Veronica O’Mara and Suzanne Paul A Repertorium of Middle English Prose Sermons 4 volumes (Brepols 2007) there Vol. 1 pp. li–liii. Since the 36 manuscripts of the Wycliffite sermon cycle comprises approximately 22% of extant 162 Middle English sermon manuscripts and Festial manuscripts comprise 25% of all extant manuscripts (33% including the Festial-related manuscripts/ 41% of orthodox manuscripts) these two collections comprise approximately half of the extant sermon types. Only the widely-popular Festial represents normative Catholicism. It complements the liturgical calendar although it does not adhere to the structure of theme protheme and antitheme. Susan Boynton ‘The Bible and the Liturgy’ in The Practice of the Bible pp. 10–33; Carolyn Muessig ‘Sermon Preacher and Society in the Middle Ages’ Journal of Medieval History 28 (2002): pp. 73–91; Richard W. Pfaff The Liturgy in Medieval England: A History (Cambridge Eng. 2009) p. 6.


FordJohn Mirk’s Festial p. 120.


As quoted in HuntThe Art of Hearing p. 36.


Wooding“From Tudor Humanism” pp. 335–340.


HuntThe Art of Hearing p. 77.


HuntThe Art of Hearing pp. 21–22.


Valerie Lucas‘Puritan Preaching and the Politics of the Family,’ in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon eds. Anne Haselkorn and Betty Travitsky (Amherst 1990) pp. 224–240 there 226–227.


Susan Powell‘John Mirk’s ‘Festial’ and the Pastoral Programme,’ Leeds Studies in Englishn.s. 22 (1991) pp. 85–102; Powell ‘Preaching at Syon Abbey’ p. 240. Veronica O’Mara ‘A Middle English Sermon Preached by a Sixteenth-Century ‘Atheist’: A Preliminary Account’ Notes & Queries n.s. 34 (1987) pp. 183–185. Alan Fletcher ‘John Mirk and the Lollards’ Medium Aevum 56:2 (1987) pp. 217–224 there 217.


Ashley Null‘Official Tudor Homilies,’ in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermonpp. 348–365 there 349.


Biblia Basileae Froben 1509.


MorrisonA Late Fifteenth-Century Dominical Sermon Cycle pp. 348–354.


CranmerCertayne Sermons or Homelies (London: Rychard Grafton1547) pp. A. iii. v and A.4.r-v.


Gouge‘Of Domesticall Duties’ p. 3.


Lily‘Two Sermons’ pp. 1 and 33. Women are more visible in his second sermon (pp. 37–65) which revolves around the resurrection account of the women at the tomb but it is still striking how much the sermon assumes a masculine perspective.


BarrThe Pastoral Care of Women pp. 36–61.


Ibid. p. 17v.


Ibid. pp. 17v–19v.


TadmoreThe Social Universe of the English Bible pp. 52–67.


Gouge‘Of Domesticall Duties’ pp. 9 and 6.


Ibid. pp. 4 6 8 9–10.


MolekampWomen and the Bible p. 12.


Perkins‘A Godly and Learned Exposition’ p. 523; The Book of Margery Kempe pp. 29–31.


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