Early medieval sermons are a lamentably underappreciated form of evidence. That’s because they’re often anonymous (or pseudonymous) and difficult to date, and are often based on earlier texts anyway, though in maddening variation. Plus there’s a pervasive (and pernicious) feeling amongst (some) medievalists that proper preaching didn’t start until the later Middle Ages, which creates a self-reinforcing impression: no one works on early medieval sermons, so we don’t know that much about them, so no one works on them…
Thankfully that’s now beginning to change – and about time too, because these sermons are often fascinating despite, or because of, being derivative, relatively unpolished works. This blog’s about one such sermon, preserved in not one but three ninth-century manuscripts from Bavaria. It’s been studied and edited in an excellent KCL thesis by James McCune. Unfortunately the thesis, from 2006, hasn’t been published as a book (yet? it certainly ought to be), but it’s now available online here (pdf), and I’d recommend a read.
The sermon in question is typical of the genre in that it’s squarely based on an older text, Isidore of Seville’s Sentences – a collection of moral and edificatory wisdom from the early seventh century. To write the sermon, the (Bavarian?) compiler picked one of these ‘sentences’, titled ‘On the justice of princes’, and which begins ‘Who rightly uses royal power…’. Isidore declared that kings ought to be humble and steady, and above all ought to rule for the benefit of the people, whose mortal condition they after all share.
The compiler thought this would make the basis of a great sermon, and so copied it out more or less verbatim: except for one change, which is what brought it to my attention. For whenever Isidore wrote ‘royal power’ (regni potestas), the compiler instead wrote ‘secular power’ (secularis potestas). This doesn’t seem to be the result of a variant text in Isidore’s works – it was a conscious choice on the part of the compiler.
Why? One answer is that the sermon was written in ducal Bavaria, so talking about royal power was inappropriate – there wasn’t a king. Yet McCune thought the sermon was written quite a while after Charlemagne’s takeover of Bavaria. In any case, the sermon compiler could easily have talked about ‘ducal power’, if the problem was with ‘royal’. So I think we should treat his decision not as a kind of circumlocution, but as a deliberate authorial choice; he wanted to talk about ‘secular’ power, so that’s what he wrote.
His decision is a particularly interesting one, because it’s usually assumed that ‘secular’ is a word with negative connotations in the early medieval world – that ‘secular’ things were bad things, to be avoided by the pious, and at most to be tolerated. That may well be so in general. Nevertheless, for this particular writer, ‘secular’ power was potentially a good thing, if exercised well. And that was a message that he thought was worth sharing with a wider audience, too. In fact, it might be that imagined audience which shaped his choice, in a text designed not to encourage monks to turn away from the world but to exhort laymen in authority to use their power wisely.
Whatever the reasons, the sermon shows that for one person in the ninth century, at least three scribes, and who knows how many listeners too, not only could ‘secular’ power be distinguished from ecclesiastical or church power, but it could be a positive thing, in its own right. Here’s a translation of the text so you can make up your own mind…
Translation (based on edition in McCune, Study, vol. II, p. 59.)
Who rightly uses secular power ought to excel over all others, so that the more he shines in the eminence of honour, the more he humbles himself in his mind. Let him place before himself the example of the humility of David, who did not swell with pride on his royal throne, but humbly cast himself down, saying ‘I shall enter in humbly before God, Who chose me’.
Who rightly uses secular power must demonstrate the form of justice more in deeds than in words. He is such a person who is not raised up by prosperity nor disturbed by adversity, who does not trust in his own strength, nor does his heart depart from the Lord. Iniquity delights him not, nor does cupidity inflame him, nor does he unjustly make wealth by defrauding any of the poor, and what he is able to obtain by just authority from the people, he often gives away with clement mercy.
God gave rulership to princes for ruling the people, and he wished them to be of use to the people, with whom they share the condition of being born and dying. Rulership ought to be of use to the people, not to harm them nor to oppress them by domination, but to give advice by condescension, so that this emblem of power may be useful, and they [the rulers] may use the gift of God for the defence of the limbs of Christ. For the faithful people are the limbs of Christ, and when they rule them well with that power which they take from God, they restore to God the giver a good thing in turn. The good prince turns back from crime to justice, when he is moved from justice to crime. He ought never to depart from truth in his intention: so that if by chance he should waver, he may call upon the grace of God so that he may rise up, and when he has risen up he will live more cautiously.
Through Him who lives and reigns forever, Amen.
 J. C. McCune, An Edition and Study of Select Sermons from the Carolingian Sermonary of Salzburg, 2006.