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The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and their Audiences, 1590-1640

"Sermon" is a word with an image problem. But then so is "lecture". During the week, I'm a lecturer; on Sundays I morph into an Anglican lay preacher. For a while, in both jobs I held the title of reader, though in neither case is reading from a script respectable. What's the difference between the two roles, people sometimes ask? My stock answer: students don't like being preached at, and congregations don't like being lectured. The reality: sermons are shorter and, thankfully, most Anglican churches aren't set up for PowerPoint presentations.

Which is to say that the history of preaching is of more than academic interest to lecturers. The lecture has often been declared redundant but it retains a grip on higher education - not least because, in the teeth of pedagogical propriety, students want it. Likewise the sermon. This wonderful book takes us into one of English preaching's golden ages, and tries to find out what actually happened when preachers stood up and cleared their throats.

There's a very particular problem of evidence. Early modern English sermon texts survive by the barrowload - far too many for one scholar to read. But we have only scraps and fragments that tell us how these texts related to what was actually said in pulpits; what preachers sounded like, or looked like; and, above all, how their audiences heard and reacted to them. In other words, we know everything apart from what really matters.

Arnold Hunt has spent a decade and a half sifting and sorting those fragments and coming up with some intriguing, plausible and surprising answers.

When we say "sermon", we're not messing around. These were learned addresses of an hour or more, twice on Sunday with more in the week, delivered with minimal or no notes. In other words, they were hard work for both preachers and audiences. Hunt begins by considering why it was worth it.

For most English clergy, preaching was the beginning and end of their job. It was the chief ordinary means of salvation; if sermons left you cold, that was a good sign that you were on the way to Hell. Hunt even suggests (and I'm not sure I buy this) that some doubted whether the deaf could be saved. After all, St Paul said that faith comes by hearing.

Hunt is excellent on the theological principles here, but I also detect the rank whiff of preacherly self-interest. He spends a long time on the preachers' argument that reading improving books was no substitute for sermon attendance. All very sincere, no doubt, just as academics are sincere in our worries that giving too many lecture materials in advance will slacken students' incentives to turn up. But just as they need to hear our pearls of wisdom from our actual lips if the intellectual magic is going to work, we need bums on seats if we're going to keep our jobs.

The really exciting parts of this book, though, are about the experience of the sermon. Real live sermons, he argues very persuasively, were lively, vivid occasions of high rhetorical skill. When preachers put their works into print, they often toned them down, making them longer, safer, more learned and a good deal duller - a phenomenon familiar to any academic who has turned lectures into a textbook.

So we underestimate how powerful these occasions could be - and how contentious. He has a powerful argument that it was almost a logical impossibility to preach a sermon that no one found offensive. Some people certainly snoozed through sermons (then and now); others sat and nursed hair-trigger sensitivities to any real or imagined slights.

Above all, perhaps, we underestimate the audiences' sophistication. Hunt's powerful final chapter suggests that even in rural backwaters, the common people became connoisseurs of preaching with demanding tastes. They liked a few Latin or Greek words scattered into a sermon; they didn't understand them but they lent the preacher a reassuring air of learning.

It's a cheering thought for lecturers: audiences may hate incomprehensibility, but they hate dumbing down even more.

The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and their Audiences, 1590-1640

By Arnold Hunt. Cambridge University Press. 448pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780521896764. Published 30 November 2010

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