From manuscript fragments to book history
Project description

Homilies and homiletic books in Norway, c. 1050-1550

Astrid Marner, post-doc with the project "from manuscript fragments to book history", investigates homilies and homiletic manuscripts using the Norwegian manuscript fragment material.

To facing pages of a manuscript, reconstructed from small rectangular fragments.
To pages of reconstructed lectionarium breviarii 17.
Astrid Marner

Main content

Homilies and homiletic books were written and read in Norway throughout the Christian Middle Ages. Single texts and collections are transmitted in Latin and Old Norse, but most of them in fragments. We know that the texts were read during mass and the prayer of the hours, but their use besides liturgy is somewhat blurred. My project investigates homilies and their book types that circulated in Norway in the period c. 1050-1550.


I chose 1050 as a starting point because our earliest manuscript fragments can be dated to the middle of the eleventh century. At that time, Norwegians used mostly homiletic books that had their roots in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, new mendicant orders came to the country, bringing with them new model texts and collections for preaching. These collections might have merged with earlier traditions. In addition, the early thirteenth-century Ordo Nidrosiensis - a set of rules prescribing the celebration of mass and Divine Office - specifies homilies for certain feast days, and the thirteenth century is also known for the development of a new book type, the breviarium plenum. The Norwegian fragment material displays relevant changes in the choice of homilies and their collection in manuscript, and it is these changes that the project focusses on.



The project’s focus

 The project investigates which homilies circulated in Norway in the Middle Ages, in which book types they can be traced, and to which purpose they were put. By connecting the Norwegian homily corpus to the European tradition and establishing different contexts for the production, dissemination, application and change of manuscripts and their contents, the project illustrates how manuscript fragments can be used in the reconstruction of a medieval literary system.


I investigate three dimensions of the homilies and their books:

Contents and typology

  • Which book types feature homilies?
  • What was the content of Norwegian homiletic books?
  • How do they correspond to the European tradition?
  • How does the text change when being adapted to its specific use?

The economic system

  • Where were homiletic books produced?
  • Who owned them?
  • How did they spread in Norway?

The cultural system

  • In which contexts were homiletic books used?
  • How do these contexts correspond to form and contents?



Methodology and material

My point of departure lies in the Norwegian manuscript fragments. I identify their contents and compare them to continental homiletic traditions. It is important to note that in the Middle Ages, homiletic books did not only contain homilies in a narrow sense, but also readings from the Bible, saints’ lives and excerpts from theological and exegetical treatises. Fragments of the latter, e.g. from Augustine’s treatise on the Gospel of John, could therefore have belonged either to a full copy of the treatise or a lectionarium breviarii. Liturgical books were usually in Latin, and therefore the main part of the material is in this language. In addition, I will consider translations into Old Norse as a relevant second part; here we also have a full manuscript preserved, the Old Norse Homily Book.


Up to the present, I have found about fifty lectionarium breviarii and some hundred breviarium plenum. Not all of the fragments contain homilies and pertain to my study directly: some of the lectionaria breviarii feature only biblical texts, while a large number of breviaria plena fragments only display musical notation. Two fragments do not clearly belong to either book type since they have the same homily on the verso and the recto. These are the only likely candidates for a homiliarium or a homily cycle; the genre is otherwise not to be found among the fragments.


The degree to which the manuscripts are preserved in fragments varies enormously. Some lectionaria breviarii are preserved in over 40 fragments, which can be reconstructed as six pages or three bifolia. Others are currently represented by one single fragment only.



Working plan

 Norwegian models and traditions

  • I transcribe the text found on the fragments, identify it by means of text databases and supply any lacking text from the edition. I also note differences to the edition in the footnotes.
  • I compare the texts and (if present) rubrics with the Ordo Nidrosiense and European liturgical books to determine the liturgical feast for which the text was intended. Examples for these liturgical books are different traditions of homiliarium such as Paul the Deacon and Heiricus Autissiodorensis, and early prints of breviarium plenum like the Breviarium Nidrosiense or the Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesiae sarum.
  • I use paleographical evidence to determine the date and place of copying.
  • By combining the evidence, I identify patterns and traditions for the Norwegian homiletic books.

Manuscript context

  • I fetch information on the owners, the size of homiletic collections and possible use from library catalogues and book lists compiled for churches, bishoprics and monasteries.
  • The language of the fragments might reveal the audience and corresponding circumstances for reading.
  • Contemporary descriptions of preaching and homiletic books are found in Old Norse historiography (the Bishops’ sagas, the Kings’ sagas etc.) and diplomas.
  • Canon Law and synodal statutes display the Church’s official attitude towards homilies and preaching, especially in terms of language use.


  • I am currently preparing a semi-diplomatic edition of the 50 lectionaria breviarii fragments.
  • Time permitting, I might widen the scope of the edition to breviaria plena, but here the large number of fragments is a serious challenge.
  • The edition serves as a basis for a systematic study of the corpus, to be published as a monograph.
  • I am investigating in how far it would be useful to present the results of my research on-line. I consider it to be extremely useful in order to realise dynamic maps, graphs and illustrations, yet the concrete technical form is still under debate.


The project started in September 2013 and has an overall duration of three years. I expect the edition to be finished in March 2015, and the monograph towards the end of the project period. As soon as the edition is finished, I will make the draft available on-line.