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The Sermon of Urban II in Clermont and the Tradition of Papal Oratory
By Georg Strack
Medieval Sermon Studies, Vol. 56 (2012)
Abstract: Scholars have dealt extensively with the sermon held by Urban II at the Council of Clermont to launch the First Crusade. There is indeed much room for speculation, since the original text has been lost and we have to rely on the reports of it in chronicles. But the scholarly discussion is mostly based on the same sort of sources: the chronicles and their references to letters and charters. Not much attention has been paid so far to the genre of papal synodal sermons in the Middle Ages. In this article, I focus on the tradition of papal oratory, using this background to look at the call for crusade from a new perspective. Firstly, I analyse the versions of the Clermont sermon in the crusading chronicles and compare them with the only address held by Urban II known from a non-narrative source. Secondly, I discuss the sermons of Gregory VII as they are recorded in synodal protocols and in historiography. The results support the view that only the version reported by Fulcher of Chartres corresponds to a sort of oratory common to papal speeches in the eleventh century.
Introduction: The speech that Pope Urban II delivered at Clermont in 1095 to launch the First Crusade is probably one of the most discussed sermons from the Middle Ages. It was a popular motif in medieval chronicles and is still an important source for the history of the crusades. Since we only have the reports of chroniclers and not the manuscript of the pope himself, each analysis of this address faces a fundamental problem: even the three writers who attended the Council of Clermont recorded three different versions, quite distinctive both in content and style. Scholars have dealt with this problem extensively, but they normally discuss only the reports in the chronicles of three eyewitnesses.
This paper, however, will reinvestigate Urban’s sermon and take the tradition of papal preaching at a council in the eleventh century into consideration. In the first section, I will analyse the three well-known accounts of the eyewitnesses of the sermon in Clermont (Fulcher of Chartres, Robert the Monk, and Baudri of Dol). In doing this, I will show that they are not all ‘sermons’, that is ‘an oral discourse, spoken in the voice of a preacher who addresses an audience, to instruct and exhort them on a topic concerned with faith and morals and based on a sacred text’. In the second section, the tradition of papal oratory as depicted in other sources of the pontificate of Urban II and his predecessor Gregory VII will be discussed. In the context of this tradition, it will be much clearer what kind of oratory Urban may have been using in 1095.