Lest I paint too grim a picture of the doctoral student’s life and efforts, I should clarify that while there are days when researching with medieval manuscripts feels like a very slow attempt to squeeze meaning from a stone, there are at least, in compensation, the days when you actually find something, even the something, that makes the previous weeks of fruitless research almost worthwhile.
The past month or two, my Holy Grail has been a sermon text from my period which actively discusses the subject and practice of counsel beyond a throw-away biblical quotation. The thirteenth century saw an incredible upsurge in preaching, both in the new universities and to laypeople, and thousands of sermons survive, either written by the preachers themselves, composed based on notes taken while the sermon was being preached (reportationes), or else written as a sermon model.
In manuscript terms, this kind of volume actually often results in less, not more, study, because the task of finding your way through the material is exponentially more difficult. As a result, there are relatively few printed editions or translations of medieval sermons, and most work has to be done with actual manuscripts scattered around Europe and the rest of the world.
Fortunately, the Bodleian has a fair few to be getting on with, and there is some assistance to be had in the form of J. B. Schneyer’s 11-volume Repertorium der lateinischen Sermones des Mittelalters (1150-1350), which attempts to list all of the extant individual sermons texts of the period with their incipits (first few lines) and relevant manuscripts. There’s no thematic index, however, which means finding relevant sermons on the topic ‘counsel’ requires a bit of creative thinking and a great deal of patience.
Nevertheless, with a little persistence, and after mucking about for many weeks, diligently transcribing and translating and turning up not much more than a scanty handful of mildly interesting phrases, I have finally managed identify no less than three thirteenth-century sermons in the past fortnight with significant discussions of counsel. Huzzah!
Sermon One. The first is a sermon by an Oxford Dominican and takes a highly spiritual view of counsel, treating in turn the counsels of the flesh, of the world, of the devil, and of the Lord. Also, quite a bit about birds. (The MS is highly abbreviated, so while I believe I have now wrestled out the gist of it, my transcription is still littered with question marks.)
Sermon Two. The second, in an anonymous English sermon collection, is entitled ‘Against those counselling badly’ (Contra male consulentes), and depicts counsel within the context of shared moral responsibility within a community. It is chock full of classical and patristic quotations, including an endearing bit from Solinus’ De mirabilibus mundi about the compassion of elephants.
‘They [elephants] go about in a company: the greatest leads the line, and the next in age gathers those following. To cross a river, they send the smallest ahead, lest the greater ones wear down the river bed and make a deep pool in the firm fords … They have the goodness of mercy: for if they see a man wandering the desert, they will lead him to a clear path. Nor do they take ordinary care of the wounded, for they receive the fatigued and injured into the middle [of their herd]’ (De mir. XXVI). So ought any person to have compassion on another.
Oxford MS Bodl. 25, p. 1088
[The above image of an elephant is from a thirteenth-century illustration by the monk Matthew Paris, Cambridge MS Corpus Christi MS 16, fol. ivr.]
Sermon Three. The third (and probably most exciting) sermon engages primarily and directly with the necessity of good human counsel. It’s a sermon preached by the sometime chancellor of University of Paris and cardinal-legate Eudes de Chateauroux ‘in a council concerning the Mongol affair’ (in concilio pro negotio tartarorum). The council had apparently been called in an attempt to deal with the threat that the incoming Mongol hordes posed to Eastern Europe and the Holy Land, only to be stymied by the death of the pope. Before he sends everyone home again, however, Eudes preaches this sermon on the text ‘Before every action, [get] stable counsel’ (Ecclus. 37:9), explaining just why the counsel of good, wise, experienced, and godly men is so necessary in the face of such a dangerous and weighty business.