Uplifting research into English manuscript sermons

By Everett Dorma Posted: August 4, 2015 6:00 a.m.

(L-R) Dr. Anne James and Dr. Jeanne Shami examine a book of English sermon manuscripts at the U of R Archives.
(L-R) Dr. Anne James and Dr. Jeanne Shami examine a book of English sermon manuscripts at the U of R Archives. Photo: U of R Photography

Research into early modern English sermons is thriving, due in part to the availability of Early English Books Online (EEBO) and scholarly printed editions of sermons by notable preachers.  However, there is a large untapped bounty of sermon manuscripts and sermon notes that are very difficult and time consuming to access and these important historical records are seldom included in this scholarly research.

Professor Emeritus Dr. Jeanne Shami, sessional lecturer Dr. Anne James, both with the Faculty of Arts (English) at the U of R, Dr. Jon Bath, Humanities and Fine Arts Digital Research Centre and Dr. Brent Nelson, College of Arts and Science (English), both at the University of Saskatchewan, are working to improve access to these documents.

“EEBO revolutionized scholarship by making early printed sermons available to large numbers of scholars; however, these books represent only a fraction of available sermons material, most of it far removed from the moments of delivery and reception,” says Dr. Shami.  “Manuscript evidence, in various forms, brings us closer to these moments, but has been largely ignored or used haphazardly due to problems of access that include a lack of comprehensive online reference sources, inadequate cataloguing and classification, and wide geographical distribution.”

The primary objective of the project is to establish a collaborative international research culture among users of early modern sermons by identifying, classifying, and publishing online bibliographic data on a large selection of early modern English manuscript sermons from the period 1530 – 1715 the period for which access is currently most difficult and in which the sermon plays the most vital role in public life.

The researchers will work with sermon scholars and other researchers to develop a standard system for identifying and describing the various documents that will be accepted by and meets the needs of sermon scholars and researchers.  Also key to the project will be the collaborative development of a bibliographical database that researchers can use and to which they can also add content.

The team will work with the private collections of individual contributors (Richard Snoddy and Jennifer Farooq) who have been working with sermon materials primarily in the UK for many years and accumulating invaluable metadata about sermon manuscripts. The team has recruited Jennifer Farooq, based in Mississauga, as project administrator and PhD student Lucy Busfield, based in Oxford, to assist with data identification and collection by undertaking a systematic sweep of the Bodleian and Oxford college libraries. This spring, the co-applicants gathered metadata in Oxford and London for over 2000 sermons and sermon notes.  

By the end of the first two years, a working database, complete with metadata on over 5000 sermons from Oxford libraries, the British Library and the personal inventories of several key sermons scholars will be ready for release to the meeting of the Renaissance Society of America meeting in Boston, 2016.

ITER Gateway to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a non-profit partnership dedicated to the study and teaching of the Middle Ages and Renaissance through online resources has been chosen as the host platform for the database. Front-end design will ensure that this database is state-of-the-art, built to industry standards for digital design as well as academic standards of accuracy and detail. Beginning in September, ITER will also supply a research assistant based in Toronto and supervised by Dr. Farooq. This student will enter metadata, check for consistency of format, and perform various biographical and historical tasks relevant to the entries.

“Ultimately we envision this program stimulating research into neglected areas of sermon scholarship and enhancing our understanding of the crucial role sermons played in early modern culture,” says Dr. James.

The four year “English Manuscript Sermons and Sermon Notes 1530-1715: Interpreting the Archive” project has received $172,467 Insight grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Research is an area of strength the University continues to focus on as one of the three priority areas within our new Strategic Plan.