The continental and English Reformations had a profound impact on the development of the sermon, precipitating a decisive shift from sacramental forms of worship to a Scripture-centered piety. The Henrician Reformation of the 1530s tied preaching to the politics of religion, as the monarch sought to consolidate the Royal Supremacy. The sermon continued to play a crucial role in the promulgation and defense of royal policy for one hundred fifty years, until the Toleration Act of 1689 granted freedom of worship to dissenters and nonconformists. But the pulpit was equally important as a forum in which foreign and domestic affairs could be subjected to scrutiny and criticism, in often fraught and complex attempts to fulfill the Christian mandate to speak truth to power. Preaching did not simply reflect or articulate public opinion, but actively contributed to its formation. The early modern sermon, especially when it was delivered at large and popular venues such as Paul’s Cross or Saint Paul’s Cathedral, was not merely an occasion for the formal exposition of Scripture but a major social event that attracted significant numbers of spectators and listeners. Preachers were keenly attuned to the demands of homiletic decorum: if a sermon was to reach the hearts and souls of the audience, it needed to adapt to the time, place, and circumstances of performance. Places of preaching reflected the primacy of decorum in their architectural layout: the chapels royal embodied the idea of royal supremacy by seating the monarch in an elevated royal closet, for instance. Sermons were preached in a wide range of settings: parish churches and cathedrals; chapels at the Inns of Court and the universities; outdoor pulpits and private meeting houses; and before Parliament and on the judicial circuit. And they existed in a variety of forms and media: in their original performance context, animated by voice and gesture; as manuscript notes, summaries, or illicit copies for further circulation; and in printed formats ranging from expensive folios to penny chapbooks. These different modes of transmission were in turn associated with different architectures of cognition: print culture helped preserve a sermon’s message, but at the cost of sacrificing the spiritual bond with the congregation. In a culture that saw the sermon as the primary means of communication with God, and therefore as the main path to salvation, retaining a connection with the living tradition of apostolic preaching was vital, and preachers sought to augment their printed sermons with features of orality and dialogue in order to compensate for the absence of an immediate rapport with the audience.
Literacy is a measure of being literate, of the ability to read and write. The central activity of the humanities—its shared discipline—literacy has become one of its most powerful and diffuse metaphors, becoming a broadly applied metaphor representing a fluency, a competency, or a skill in manipulating information. The word “literacy” is of recent coinage, being little more than a century old. Reading and writing, or effectively using letters (the word at the root of literacy), are ancient skills, but the word “literacy” likely springs from and reflects the emergence of mass public education at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, then “literacy” measures personal and demographic development. Literacy is mimetic. It is synesthetic—in some languages, it means hearing sounds (the phonemes) in what is seen (the letters); in others, it means linking a symbol to the thing symbolized. Although a recent word, “literacy” depends upon the emergence of symbolic sign systems in ancient times. Written symbolic systems, by contrast, are relatively recent developments in human history. But they bear a more complicated relationship to the spoken language, being in part a representation of it (and thus a recording of its contents) while also offering a representation of the world, the referent: that is, literacy involves an awareness of the representation of the world. Reading and writing are tied to millennia of changes in technologies of representation. As a term denoting fluidity with letters, literacy has a history and a geography that follow the development and movement of a phonetic alphabetic and subsequent systems of writing. If the alphabet encodes a shift from orality to literacy, HTML encodes a shift from verbal literacy to a kind of numerical literacy not yet theorized.
Lars Boje Mortensen
Medieval European literature is both broader and deeper in its basis than what is usually offered in literary histories with their focus only on a narrow canon and on vernacular languages. One way to see this bigger canvas is to consider technical and statistical book-historical factors together with the authority of the two Roman Empires (Western and Eastern) and of their religious hierarchies (the papacy and the patriarchate). A coordinated reading of developments in the Latin West and the Greek East—though rarely directly related—brings out some main features of intellectual and literary life in most of Europe. With this focus, a literary chronology emerges—as a supplement to existing narratives based on either national or formal (genre) concerns: the period c. 600 to c. 1450 can be considered a unity in book-historical terms, namely the era dominated the hand-written codex. It is also delimited by the fate of the Roman Empire with the Latin West effectively separated from the Greek Empire by c. 600 and the end of Constantinople in 1453. Within this broad framework, three distinctive phases of book- and intellectual history can be discerned: the exegetical (c. 600–c. 1050), the experimental (c. 1050–c. 1300), and the critical (c. 1300–c. 1450). These three headings should be understood as a shorthand for what was new in each phase, not as a general characteristic, especially because exegesis in various forms continued to lie at the heart of reading and writing books in all relevant languages.
First known as a kephalaion in Greek, capitulum or caput in Latin, the chapter arose in antiquity as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century ce, it was no longer unusual for texts to be composed in capitula; but it is with the advent of the fictional prose narratives we call the novel that the chapter, both ubiquitous and innocuous, developed into a compositional practice with a distinct way of thinking about biographical time. A technique of discontinuous reading or “consultative access” which finds a home in a form for continuous, immersive reading, the chapter is a case study in adaptive reuse and slow change. One of the primary ways the chapter became a narrative form rather than just an editorial practice is through the long history of the chaptering of the Bible, particularly the various systems for chaptering the New Testament, which culminated in the early 13th century formation of the biblical chaptering system still in use across the West. Biblical chapters formed a template for how to segment ongoing plots or actions which was taken up by writers, printers, and editors from the late medieval period onward; pivotal examples include William Caxton’s chaptering of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in his 1485 printing of the text, or the several mises en proses of Chrétien de Troyes’s poems carried out in the Burgundian court circle of the 15th century. By the 18th century, a vibrant set of discussions, controversies, and experiments with chapters were characteristic of the novel form, which increasingly used chapter titles and chapter breaks to meditate upon how different temporal units understand human agency in different ways. With the eventual dominance of the novel in 19th-century literary culture, the chapter had been honed into a way of thinking about the segmented nature of biographical memory, as well as the temporal frames—the day, the year, the episode or epoch—in which that segmenting occurs; chapters in this period were of an increasingly standard size, although still lacking any formal rules or definition. Modernist prose narratives often played with the chapter form, expanding it or drastically shortening it, but these experiments usually tended to reaffirm the unit of the chapter as a significant measure by which we make sense of human experience.