This past year I worked on a conference paper on the exempla of Jacques de Vitry. I learned of this preacher after reading Jacques Le Goff’s Your Money or Your Life, in which Le Goff traces several preachers’ obsession with the usurer in their sermons. I found Le Goff’s analysis convincing, but I also noticed (as others have (Sharon Farmer and Carolyn Muessig, for instance)) that Jacques de Vitry’s discussion of women, especially wives, was perhaps even more shocking, insistent, and entertaining at the same time. I tried to bring these two social groups together, and found that one common link was the attempt to silence the dying man or woman at the moment of death. Just as the woman is thrown into the river by her husband, and just as the usurer is buried with his coins, they begin to speak in whichever way they can — the woman moves her hands in order to sign an insult to her angry husband; the usurer counts or eats his coins. In these two examples of unruly social groups, groups that threatened and frightened the medieval preacher, we find a set of the exempla that refer to a larger problem these sermon stories are meant to address. As the medieval church sought to reach the masses, its leaders also had to face the challenge of reaching a potentially dissenting audience (whether this dissent took the form of sleeping in the pews, or walking down the aisle before the service is done). Their approach, the exempla prove, was to become gossipers themselves, telling lewd tales while condemning their audience for being the lewd ones. At the level of content, the exempla promoted and authorized codes of behavior. As texts, however, they sought to appropriate the language of the laypeople. Now the church could own gossip, too. In the tales I compile in my paper, we see several examples of this attempt to control speech, an effort that is found in the form of the exempla and, at times, in the narratives themselves.
At the end of the paper, and in the research I intend to continue, I point out that these exempla, while performing a specific role in the church, also have a prominent role within the history of literature. T.F. Crane’s edition of Jacques de Vitry’s exempla does the good service of pointing out which tales were taken from Aesop, for instance, and which were later made memorable by Shakespeare. In the handout I attach here, I show a few narratives that can be found in both Jacques de Vitry and in the Shakespeare Jest-Books. This connection begs the question: How can religious texts, meant to induce fear and instill order, also be used to produce intense laughter? I can say, after giving my conference paper, that these stories continue to entertain today.
Jacques De Vitry Handout