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exempla, sermon, theology


During the thirteenth century, preachers considered sermons to be among the most important methods of communicating written material to the unlettered. Within a sermon, the use of exempla—short stories used to illustrate a moral point—was a primary means of disseminating theological information, and throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the number of exempla compilations intended as preaching aids increased markedly. Exempla collectors such as Caesarius of Heisterbach and Stephen of Bourbon shared and re-used stories to disseminate theological knowledge. Despite the communal nature of exempla, individual stories were more than unidirectional theological transmissions or stock tales repeated with inconsequential variations. The ways in which each author presented individual stories changed according to audience, intent, the specific theological principle each author wished to illustrate, or the place that a particular exemplum filled in a thematic compilation. Understanding these nuances is crucial for understanding the ways in which exempla functioned as dialogue among individual collectors not only reflect order-specific interests and goals, but also reveal the elements of communication and negotiation by which exempla collectors built up a shared vision of the church. These exempla suggest how members of the Dominican Order "imagined" communities and how the practices associated with those ideas would affect the ideal community of the church. Preaching and the shared use of exempla created religious communities linked by a common theology and the beginnings of a network of shared associations—the embodiment of theological principles on a Europe-wide scale.