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Sermons at Court

Politics and Religion in Elizabethan and Jacobean Preaching


Peter E. McCullough


Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History

Cambridge : University Press, 1998 (First paperback edition, 2011)

Paperback. xv-237 p. ISBN: 9780521022057. £20.99


Reviewed by Freyja Cox Jensen

Christ Church, Oxford




This paperback reissue of Peter McCullough’s acclaimed 1998 work is a timely addition to the body of early modern literary and religious studies. Now available in a more portable and, most importantly, affordable form, it is to be hoped that the book will find its way onto the shelves of a larger number of students of history and literature than might currently be the case.When it appeared over a decade ago, Sermons at Court was one of the first studies to pay attention to the early modern sermon as both a rhetorical composition and a political act. More than the masque, and more than the drama which has received so much critical attention, the sermon was 'the most visible, frequent, and carefully noted literary genre at court' [3]. McCullough’s book supplies a religious corrective to the secular assumptions he saw predominating among the historical and literary scholarly communities. Reclaiming the pulpit as a powerful political tool, he demonstrates the deeply religious nature of courtly culture, and the enormous impact sermons could have upon a wide audience, and an even larger readership.

Approaching the sermon as text and action, McCullough draws attention to the need to examine each sermon in its own specific historical context, and demonstrates the value of the sermon as a complex source for historical study. Indeed, there is a sense that although written by a literary scholar and owing debts to New Historicism, this is a work of history, firmly engaging with the early modern world and its politics at the expense of lengthy and detailed literary analysis. And so much the better: McCullough makes the court and its preachers come to life, illuminating this aspect of courtly life in a vibrant and extremely readable way. He is keen to stress the importance of the ‘geography of court’, locating sermons firmly in their surroundings of court, king, palace, church, preacher, and listener [5].

The book starts with an exploration of the architecture within which sermons were delivered, complete with illustrations and diagrams. An analysis of the locations within which sermons were preached highlights important concepts of authority and hierarchy within the polities of the British Isles: ‘Just as the English arrangement of elevated closet-over-chapel articulated the royal supremacy by placing the monarch literally above the nobles and clergy, the Scottish custom summed up the kirk's insistence that it was not subject to earthly princes’ [28]. That sermons were a ‘performative dramatic spectacle’ is made very clear, and McCullough draws parallels with other forms of courtly display. ‘[T]he Stuart masque was in its very staging imbued with a distinctly religious ceremonialism’, we are told, and a further consideration of the connection between masque and sermon might usefully have added another dimension to our understanding of sermon culture here [32]. The reader is then led through the Tudor and early Stuart periods, with chapters on sermons under Elizabeth (including precedents dating from the Medieval and early Tudor periods), Jacobean sermons for the king, and the place of preaching at the courts of James’ queen and princes. McCullough explains how sermons interacted with politics at moments of crisis and in times of change, showing us individual preachers, both in royal favour and out of it, and exploring the shifting tensions between preaching and prayer, sermon and service in order to enhance our understanding of religious controversies within the Church.

Although perhaps slightly lacking in theological and doctrinal respects, this book is nevertheless an archival tour de force, as important now as when it was first published. This is not a second edition: minor slips have not been corrected (at one point, Sir John Harington is referred to as ‘James’ [119]). But what this reissue does do, other than provide a great study in accessible, affordable format, is give readers the opportunity to use McCullough’s calendar of court sermons as an electronic resource. The basis for the original work, the calendar, is the first comprehensive list of sermons delivered at court and, in the hardback first edition, was supplied with the book as a floppy disk. Now the calendar is freely available online to all users, via the CUP website (1). Full-text searchable and 100% editable by the user, this will be of untold value to anyone working on sermons or, indeed, anyone wishing to become conversant with court sermons in however superficial a way, in a very short space of time. The .doc format is perhaps already slightly outmoded, and the data might have been more usefully presented in the form of a spreadsheet or database, but nonetheless, the free provision of this kind of archival material is exactly what today’s users need and want.

Moreover, to have this material available now is especially useful. Before McCullough, the sermon was one of those interdisciplinary areas that had slipped through the gaps between English and History. Thanks to work by McCullough and scholars such as Lori Ann Ferrell (especially her Government by Polemic, published by Stanford University Press in 1998), early modern sermons now form an important bridge between the disciplines, a bridge on which many scholars have chosen to stand in order to speak with those ‘on the other side’. McCullough is currently acting as General Editor for the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne, a major new project partly funded by the AHRC. And The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, which he has edited with Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan, is eagerly expected this summer. With these important, large-scale works soon to become available, the place of the sermon is very much assured in the field of early modern religious, cultural and political scholarship. The reissue of Sermons at Court will ensure that all those engaging with the discourse will be able to own a personal copy of this key study and participate fully in what continues to be an important field.


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