”Allt efter vars och ens fattningsgåvor!”
Predikningar till präster, ordenssystrar och lekfolk från Vadstena klosters bibliotek
Preaching is one of the most fundamental instruments of pastoral care during the Middle Ages. In order to impress upon their audiences what to believe and how to practise the faith, preachers may need to modify their message in accordance with the listeners’ level of understanding. In the regulations for Vadstena Abbey, St. Birgitta (1303–1373) lays great emphasis on this. The present article takes that as point of departure, and aims at describing and comparing how preachers in the Abbey adapt their message – their themes, sources and catechetical teachings – to three different types of audience: clerics, nuns and laypeople. Differences in sermon composition depending on the type of audience have often been taken for granted in earlier research without systematic study. Although the selection of material and preachers poses methodological challenges, the present study can still draw some clear conclusions.
Form and structure are common to sermons for all three groups. It is a consequence of the rhetorical tradition influencing sermons from the thirteenth century onward, making the “thematic sermon” the standard model. Within this form, preachers were free to adapt their message to the audience at hand. While some elements are common to all three groups of audiences, sermons for nuns and laypeople are the most similar; this regards language, sources and topics. For example, illustrative stories are recurrent in sermons to laypeople and nuns, while sermons to clerics lack them. There are also differences which distinguish sermons to all three groups, for example in the selection of virtues and vices. For laypeople the virtues and vices mentioned relate to their life in the world, while sermons to nuns contain exhortations to follow the rule, and sermons to clerics focus on the duties related their office.
Further studies are needed in order to deepen our knowledge about how preachers adapt their message to different audiences. Vadstena Abbey has left us a considerable amount of sermons still waiting to be studied, in order for us to increase our knowledge about medieval culture and spirituality.