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Jocular Preachers

THESE preachers, whose works are excessively rare, form a race unknown to the general reader. I shall sketch the characters of these pious buffoons, before I introduce them to his acquaintance. They, as it has been said of Sterne, seemed to have wished, every now and then, to have thrown their wigs into the faces of their auditors.

These preachers flourished in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries; we are therefore to attribute their extravagant mixture of grave admonition with facetious illustration, comic tales which have been adopted by the most licentious writers, and minute and lively descriptions, to the great simplicity of the times, when the grossest indecency was never concealed under a gentle periphrasis, but everything was called by its name. All this was enforced by the most daring personalities, and seasoned by those temporary allusions which neither spared, nor feared even the throne. These ancient sermons therefore are singularly precious, to those whose inquisitive pleasures are gratified by tracing the manners of former ages. When Henry Stephens, in his apology for Herodotus, describes the irregularities of the age, and the minutiæ of national manners, he effects this chiefly by extracts from these sermons. Their wit is not always the brightest, nor their satire the most poignant; but there is always that prevailing naïveté of the age, running through their rude eloquence, which interests the reflecting mind. In a word, these sermons were addressed to the multitude; and therefore they show good sense and absurdity; fancy and puerility; satire and insipidity; extravagance and truth.

Oliver Maillard, a famous cordelier, died in 1502. This preacher having pointed some keen traits in his sermons at Louis XI., the irritated monarch had our cordelier informed that he would throw him into the river. He replied undaunted, and not forgetting his satire: “The king may do as he chooses; but tell him that I shall sooner get to paradise by water, than he will arrive by all his post-horses.” He alluded to travelling by post, which this monarch had lately introduced into France. This bold answer, it is said, intimidated Louis; it is certain that Maillard continued as courageous and satirical as ever in his pulpit.

The following extracts are descriptive of the manners of the times.

In attacking rapine and robbery, under the first head he describes a kind of usury, which was practised in the days of Ben Jonson, and I am told in the present, as well as in the times of Maillard. “This,” says he, “is called a palliated usury. It is thus. When a person is in want of money, he goes to a treasurer (a kind of banker or merchant), on whom he has an order for 1000 crowns; the treasurer tells him that he will pay him in a fortnight’s time, when he is to receive the money. The poor man cannot wait. Our good treasurer tells him, I will give you half in money and half in goods. So he passes his goods that are worth 100 crowns for 200.” He then touches on the bribes which these treasurers and clerks in office took, excusing themselves by alleging “the little pay they otherwise received. All these practices be sent to the devils!” cries Maillard, in thus addressing himself to the ladies; “It is for you all this damnation ensues. Yes! yes! you must have rich satins, and girdles of gold out of this accursed money. When any one has anything to receive from the husband, he must first make a present to the wife of some fine gown, or girdle, or ring. If you ladies and gentlemen who are battening on your pleasures, and wear scarlet clothes, I believe if you were closely put in a good press, we should see the blood of the poor gush out, with which your scarlet is dyed.”

Maillard notices the following curious particulars of the mode of cheating in trade in his times.

He is violent against the apothecaries for their cheats. They mix ginger with cinnamon, which they sell for real spices; they put their bags of ginger, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, and other drugs in damp cellars, that they may weigh heavier; they mix oil with saffron, to give it a colour, and to make it weightier. He does not forget those tradesmen who put water in their wool, and moisten their cloth that it may stretch; tavern-keepers, who sophisticate and mingle wines; the butchers who blow up their meat, and who mix hog’s lard with the fat of their meat. He terribly declaims against those who buy with a great allowance of measure and weight, and then sell with a small measure and weight; and curses those who, when they weigh, press the scales down with their finger. But it is time to conclude with Master Oliver! His catalogue is, however, by no means exhausted; and it may not he amiss to observe, that the present age has retained every one of the sins.

The following extracts are from Menot’s sermons, which are written like Maillard’s, in a barbarous Latin mixed with old French.

Michael Menot died in 1518. I think he has more wit than Maillard, and occasionally displays a brilliant imagination; with the same singular mixture of grave declamation and farcical absurdities. He is called in the title-page the golden tongued. It runs thus, Predicatoris qui lingua aurea, sua tempestate nuncupatus est, Sermones quadragesimales, ab ipso olim Turonis declamati. Paris, 1525, 8vo.

When he compares the church with a vine, he says, “There were once some Britons and Englishmen who would have carried all France into their country because they found our wine better than their beer; but as they well knew that they could not always remain in France, nor carry away France into their country, they would at least carry with them several stocks of vines; they planted some in England; hut these stocks soon degenerated, because the soil was not adapted to them.” Notwithstanding what Menot said in 1500, and that we have tried so often, we are still flattering ourselves that if if we plant vineyards we may have English wine.

The following beautiful figure describes those who live neglectful of their aged parents, who had cherished them into prosperity. “See the trees flourish and recover their leaves; it is their root that has produced all; but when the branches are loaded with flowers and with fruit, they yield nothing to the root. This is an image of those children who prefer their own amusements, and to game away their fortunes, than to give to their old parents the cares which they want.”

He acquaints us with the following circumstances of the immorality of that age: “Who has not got a mistress besides his wife? The poor wife eats the fruits of bitterness, and even makes the bed for the mistress.” Oaths were not unfashionable in his day. “Since the world has been world, this crime was never greater. There were once pillories for these swearers; but now this crime is so common, that the child of five years can swear; and even the old dotard of eighty, who has only two teeth remaining, can fling out an oath!”

On the power of the fair sex of his day, he observes, “A father says, my son studies; he must have a bishoprick, or an abbey of 500 livres. Then he will have dogs, horses, and mistresses, like others. Another says, I will have my son placed at court, and have many honourable dignities. To succeed well, both employ the mediation of women; unhappily the church and the law are entirely at their disposal. We have artful Dalilahs who shear us close. For twelve crowns and an ell of velvet given to a woman, you gain the worst lawsuit, and the best living.”

In his last sermon, Menot recapitulates the various topics he had touched on during Lent. This extract will present a curious picture, and impress the mind with a just notion of the versatile talents of these preachers.

“I have told ecclesiastics how they should conduct themselves; not that they are ignorant of their duties; but I must ever repeat to girls, not to suffer themselves to be duped by them. I have told these ecclesiastics that they should imitate the lark; if she has a grain she does not remain idle, but feels her pleasure in singing, and in singing, always is ascending towards heaven. So they should not amass; but elevate the hearts of all to God; and not do as the frogs who are crying out day and night, and think they have a fine throat, but always remain fixed in the mud.

“I have told the men of the law that they should have the qualities of the eagle. The first is, that this bird when it flies fixes its eye on the sun; so all judges, counsellors, and attorneys, in judging, writing, and signing, should always have God before their eyes. And secondly, this bird is never greedy; it willingly shares its prey with others; so all lawyers, who are rich in crowns after having had their bills paid, should distribute some to the poor, particularly when they are conscious that their money arises from their prey.

“I have spoken of the marriage state, but all that I have said has been disregarded. See those wretches who break the hymeneal chains, and abandon their wives! they pass their holidays out of their parishes, because if they remained at home they must have joined their wives at church; they like their prostitutes better; and it will be so every day in the year! I would as well dine with a Jew or a heretic, as with them. What an infected place is this! Mistress Lubricity has taken possession of the whole city; look in every corner, and you’ll be convinced.

“For you married women! If you have heard the nightingale’s song, you must know that she sings during three months, and that she is silent when she has young ones. So there is a time in which you may sing and take your pleasures in the marriage state, and another to watch your children. Don’t damn yourselves for them; and remember it would be better to see them drowned than damned.

“As to widows, I observe, that the turtle withdraws and sighs in the woods, whenever she has lost her companion; so must they retire into the wood of the cross, and having lost their temporal husband, take no other but Jesus Christ.

“And to close all, I have told girls that they must fly from the company of men, and not permit them to embrace, nor even touch them. Look on the rose, it has a delightful odour; it embalms the place in which it is placed; but if you grasp it underneath, it will prick you till the blood issues. The beauty of the rose is the beauty of the girl. The beauty and perfume of the first invite to smell and to handle it, but when it is touched underneath it pricks sharply; the beauty of a girl likewise invites the hand; but you, my young ladies! you must never suffer this, for I tell you that every man who does this designs to make you harlots.”

These ample extracts will, I hope, convey the same pleasure to the reader, which I have received by collecting them from their scarce originals, little known even to the curious. Menot, it cannot be denied, displays a poetic imagination, and a fertility of conception, which distinguishes him among his rivals. The same taste and popular manner came into our country, and were suited to the simplicity of the age. In 1527, our Bishop Latimer preached a sermon, in which he expresses himself thus:—“Now, ye have heard what is meant by this first card, and how ye ought to play. I purpose again to deal unto you another card of the same suit; for they be so nigh affinity, that one cannot be well played without the other.” It is curious to observe about a century afterwards, as Fuller informs us, that when a country clergyman imitated these familiar allusions, the taste of the congregation had so changed that he was interrupted by peals of laughter!

Even in more modern times have Menot and Maillard found an imitator in little Father André, as well as others. His character has been variously drawn. He is by some represented as a kind of buffoon in the pulpit; but others more judiciously observe, that he only indulged his natural genius, and uttered humorous and lively things, as the good father observes himself, to keep the attention of his audience awake. He was not always laughing. “He told many a bold truth,” says the author of Guerre des Auteurs anciens et moderns, “that sent bishops to their dioceses, and made many a coquette blush. He possessed the art of biting when he smiled; and more ably combated vice by his ingenious satire, than by those vague apostrophes, which no one takes to himself. While others were straining their minds to catch at sublime thoughts, which no one understood, he lowered his talents to the most humble situations, and to the minutest things. From them he drew his examples and his comparisons; and the one and the other never failed of success.” Marville says, that “his expressions were full of shrewd simplicity. He made very free use of the most popular proverbs. His comparisons and figures were always borrowed from the most familiar and lowest things.” To ridicule effectually the reigning vices, he willingly employed quirks or puns rather than sublime thoughts, and he was little solicitous of his choice of expression. Gasparo Gozzi, in Italy, had the same power in drawing unexpected inferences from vulgar and familiar occurrences. It was by this art WHITEFIELD obtained so many followers. In Piozzi’s British Synonymes, Vol. II. p. 205, we have an instance of Gozzi’s manner. In the time of Charles II. it became fashionable to introduce humour into sermons. Sterne seems to have revived it in his; South’s sparkle perpetually with wit and pun.

Far different, however, are the characters of the sublime preachers, of whom the French have preserved the following descriptions.

We have not any more Bourdaloue, Le Rue, and Massillon; but the idea which still exists of their manner of addressing their auditors may serve instead of lessons. Each had his own peculiar mode, always adapted to place, time, circumstance, to their auditors, their style, and their subject.

Bourdaloue, with a collected air, had little action; with eyes generally half closed, he penetrated the hearts of the people by the sound of a voice uniform and solemn. The tone with which a sacred orator pronounced the words, Tu es ille vir! “Thou art the man!” in suddenly addressing them to one of the kings of France, struck more forcibly than their application. Madame de Sévigné describes our preacher, by saying, “Father Bourdaloue thunders at Notre Dame.”

Le Rue appeared with the air of a prophet. His manner was irresistible, full of fire, intelligence, and force. He had strokes perfectly original. Several old men, his contemporaries, still shuddered at the recollection of the expression which he employed in an apostrophe to the God of vengeance, Evaginare gladium tuum!

The person of Massillon is still present to many. It seems, say his admirers, that he is yet in the pulpit with that air of simplicity, that modest demeanour, those eyes humbly declining, those unstudied gestures, that passionate tone, that mild countenance of a man penetrated with his subject, and conveying to the mind the most brilliant light, and to the heart the most tender emotions. Baron, the tragedian, coming out from one of his sermons, truth forced from his lips a confession humiliating to his profession: “My friend,” said he to one of his companions, “this is an orator! and we are only actors.”


Editor’s Notes

 § A pair of footnotes was added to this article in later editions of the Curiosities. First, concerning the quotation from Bishop Latimer’s sermon:

In it he likens Christianity to a game at cards.

And, second, further to the same quotation:

In his “Sermon of the Plough,” preached at Paul’s Cross, 1548, we meet the same quaint imagery. “Preaching of the Gospel is one of God’s plough works, and the preacher is one of God’s ploughmen—and well may the preacher and the ploughman be likened together: first, for their labour at all seasons of the year; for there is no time of the year in which the ploughman hath not some special work to do.” He says that Satan “is ever busy following his plough;” and he winds up this peroration by the somewhat startling words, “the devil shall go for my money, for he applieth to his business. Therefore, ye unpreaching prelates, learn of the devil: and if you will not learn of God, nor good men, for shame learn of the devil.”

 ¶ This article is much revised from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities, in which it is entitled ‘Entertaining Preachers.’ While D’Israeli’s earlier versions of the piece lack much of the above, they also include a number of anecdotes omitted here. In the 1793 second edition of the second volume of the Curiosities, the article begins as follows:

There have been a species of preachers, who while they enlightened their auditors by their moral observations, condescended to amuse them by their jokes. Some may think that
‘Dulness is sacred in a sound divine;’
and that the pulpit should not be turned into a farcical representation. I shall not decide on this matter, which is indeed above me; but I confess I should not have been displeased to have been present, when the preachers I now notice displayed their jokes on the pulpit.

After introducing the figure of André Boulanger, the younger D’Israeli continued thus:

Another critic observes, that the expressions this extraordinary preacher employed were the most simple and colloquial possible; so much so, that they were frequently risible. He probably was not unacquainted with this observation of Horace,
Ridendo dicere verum quid vetat?
It was thus that effectually to censure the reigning vices, he willingly employed quirks. or puns rather than sublime thoughts, and he was little solicitous of his choice of expression.
Most of the good things of little Father André have been retailed in jest-books. What remain for me are plays on words which do not suffer translation. A doctor of the Sorbonne was one day greatly surprized to hear him compare the four doors of the Latin church to the four kings of cards. St. Augustine (he said) is, the king of hearts, for his great charity; St. Ambrose is the king of clubs (in French trefle) by the flowers of his eloquence; St. Gregory is the king of diamonds, for his strict regularity; and St. Jerome is the king of spades (in French picque) for his picquant style.
The Duke of Orleans dared our jocular preacher to employ any ridiculous expressions about him. This however our good father did very adroitly. He addressed him thus; Foin de vous Monseigneur, Foin de moi, Foin de tous les auditeurs. He saved himself, by taking for his text the 7th verfe of the XLth chapter of Isaiah, where it is said, all the people are grass. Foin in French signifies hay, or it is an interjection, fie upon!
When Queen Anne of Austria entered the church, and his sermon had been for some time begun, he saluted her with this compliment alluding to his sermon, Welcome, Madam! but we shall not for this honour put a larger pot on the fire.
When a thunderbolt fell on the church of the Augustines, he said, God has been very merciful to those good fathers, only to sacrifice to his divine justice their steeple; for if the thunder had fallen upon their kitchen, they would have been all in danger of perishing.
In one of his sermons he compared the poor man to a fowl, and the rich to a lap-dog. A rich man (he said) while he lives, God treats him as the ladies treat their lap-dogs; they give them their nicest morsels, pampering them with delicacies, and decorating them with fine ribbands; but when the dog dies, he is thrown on a dunghill. The fowl is a miserable thing, fed with the vilest stuff, but after its death it is served up with honour to the table of its master.—So the rich during his life is gratified, but when he dies goes to hell; while the poor man is placed in the bosom of Abraham.
Camus, bishop of Belley was a similar preacher, though far more refined and eloquent.
A specimen of his manner may be seen in my preceding volume, under the article Attic Pleasantries. I might add many more. Preaching on Good Friday, he thus apostrophised a crucifix; Ah, my Lord! I see you placed between two thieves. These words were perfectly understood by the Duke of Orleans, who was then seated betwixt two financiers, who were not much liked. Amongst other of his singular observations, he said, that a single person could commit many sins; he could blaspheme, lie, bear false witness, steal, assassinate, &c. but that carnal sin was so great, that it required two persons to be committed!
The following preachers appear to be of the fame school.
One said that the heart of man being of a triangular figure, and the world of a round one, it was clear, that all mundane grandeurs could not fill the human heart.
Another observed, that amongst the Hebrews the same word expressed life and death, and that it was a point only which made the difference; from whence the preacher concluded, that betwixt life and death there existed only a little point of time. Bouhours observes justly, that such a word does not exist however in the Hebrew language.
Perhaps the following conceits excel any I have collected. A young Abbé preaching in Lent said, that Jesus Christ, who perspired blood from all his body in the agony on the Mount of Olives, should not have wept otherwise, since God is all eye, That he preserved silence before Herod, because the lamb loses its voice before the wolf. That he was naked on the cross, because he was between two thieves. That to condemn the vanity of funereal pomps, he would have no flambeaux at his funeral, not even the flambeaux of heaven; and that he preferred a sepulchre of stone, to teach us that even dead, as he was, he detested effeminacy.
The following witticism is taken from a Dutch author, and is therefore a literary curiosity. I shall give it in his own words, as I would not injure the correctness of the dates.
A certain preacher of Mols, two hours from Antwerp, on Sunday 17th May, 1605, said in his sermon, when he was accusing the men of his own order, “We are worse than Judas; he sold and delivered his master; we sell him to you, but deliver him not.”
Carracciolo, a celebrated Italian preacher, occasionally gave into familiar expressions. He exercised his talents before the Popes on the luxury and licentiousness which then prevailed at their court. In one of his sermons he says, Fie of St. Peter, fie of St. Paul! who having it in their power to live so voluptuously and so splendidly as the Pope and the Cardinals, chose rather to mortify their lives with fasts, with watchings and labours. What fools were our saints, to go to heaven through so thorny a passage!
We have frequently observed (says Marchand) that very grave and eloquent preachers have been compelled to have recourse to these lively sallies, when their auditors, obstinate in their bad habits, only lent a deaf ear to their serious and moral remonstrances. Such a preacher, was Father Gardeau who, displeased to observe his declamations against immodesty produce such little effect and the women still persist in the prevailing fashion of the day, of displaying their uncovered bosoms, he broke out into this apostrophe—“Cover your nakedness! at least before me. Is it necessary to tell ye, that I am made of flesh and blood, as other men? At this every one laughed; particularly the ladies. He then assumed his grave tone. “When I speak to you with cautious decency, and ambiguous expressions, you are deaf; and when I address you in the clearest ones, you find them ridiculous, and you laugh. What hope can there remain of your amendment?”
It was even thus with the eloquent Grecian. We all know that he was compelled, in the hour of imminent peril, to awaken the attention of his auditors by introducing a ridiculous story. We insult the world with instruction; we lay them under an obligation when we amuse them.

The passage above about Bishop Latimer’s sermon had previously appeared in a separate article (‘Metaphors’) in 1790s editions of the work.