L'exemplum en pratiques
: production, diffusion et usages des recueils d'exempla latins aux 13e-15e siècles

  • Nicolas Louis

    Student thesis: Doc typesDoctor of History, Art and Archeology


    The exemplum is a privileged target for the cultural study of the medieval society. If the research regarding the content of those edifying anecdotes is already well advanced, the analysis of the real audiences and concrete uses of the exempla remained yet to be undertaken. Because the expansion and characterization of this typology is directly linked with the emergence of the collections of exempla, our investigation was based on this kind of works. To succeed with this project, we used the information existing in the manuscripts copies and in medieval booklists. With these two kinds of sources, we analysed books as physical objects (cover, writing, etc.), vehicles of culture (versions, surrounding works, etc.) and historical witness (purchase, legacies, etc.). The thesis focused on the following central questions: how did books of exempla diffused in time and space? Which works achieved success? Who were the owners of these books? How did they read and use them? In the first part of our analysis, the theoretical one, historiographical and historical definitions of the exemplum and the collections of exempla have been clarified. This was indispensable because a large part of the scientific literature, especially in France, only considered the exemplum as a kind of story, which appeared in the twelfth century and was used by preachers in sermons to illustrate a salutary message. By saying so, they neglected the persuasive nature of the exemplum, confining it to a literary genre. In reality, the exemplum should be primarily considered as a rhetorical argument based on a deed or a word that happened in the past. Nevertheless, its persuasive power, which comes from its visual imagery, is especially effective when the case is told in the form of a story. This phenomenon is currently studied in the storytelling management, which uses stories to improve communication. In sum, the exemplum is an argument stemming from reality in the form of a story. The history of the exemplum does not start with the mendicant orders, but within democracy and the rhetoric schools of Athena and later in Rome. With the emergence of Christianity, church fathers use it to fight against heretics and monks to share the spiritual experience of elders to novices. A pro domo use of the exempla appears with the creation of the new religious orders, first Cluny, then the Cistercians and finally the mendicants. The latter put exempla in theirs sermons to attract the attention of their audience, though not only. They use them in conversations, lectiones and also in didactic and moral treatises. This was no novelty: previous writers such as John of Salisbury in his Polycraticus uses it abundantly. If the years 1250-1350 are the magnificent era of the exemplum, since the second half of the 14th century, we can notice a decline of the exemplum, which becomes either an illustration, an allegory, or an open, facetious, entertaining or devote story. As far as the books of exempla are concerned, for a long time scholars did not try to define them precisely. They looked at these collections only for the stories they contained. To their minds, an exempla collection was simply a book in which there were exempla. To make a necessary distinction between very differing books of exempla, we need to precise: a) the proportion of exempla; b) if the exempla are used by the authors as arguments or offered to the readers for rhetorical purposes; c) if there is an organizational system. Those questions successively allow distinguishing books of exempla from books with exempla, exempla treaties from exempla collections and exempla repositories. Nonetheless, due to the fact that exemplum is not a genre but a function, it is very hard to define a clear corpus. The first important book of exempla comes from Roman Antiquity. The Facta et dicta memorabilia of Valerius Maximus was used as a text book for students in rhetoric. With the flourishing of monasticism, exempla collections of the Vitae patrum spread all over the Christian world, diffusing the good examples of the desert Fathers. In the beginning of the second millennium, religious orders continued this practice, but with the new will of putting their respective orders forward. The first alphabetical repositories of exempla appear at the end of the 13th century due to the necessity of preaching and of tidying up growing knowledge. However, alongside the existence of these collections of exempla made for preaching purposes, there are many others books and treaties of exempla, whose function is either to instruct, or to give the rules of social morality, or simply to edify readers. The second part of the thesis puts the stress on the concrete diffusion and uses of the exempla collections. The investigation on the manuscript copies shows, inter alia, an increase in their number during the centuries (13 times more in the 15th than in the 13th century), the predominant place of the German area, especially in the 15th century, and the growing importance of the treatises of exempla, taking advantage on the repertories. With regards to the incunabula, we count 172 Latin and 74 vernacular editions of exempla collections before 1500. This mainly concerns repositories for the former when the latter contains almost exclusively treaties. The production of this edition starts in the years 1470, culminates in the years 1480 and declines at the end of the century. Geographically, we notice the same importance of the German speaking area, especially in the city of Strasbourg. At the second place we find Italy, which produces mainly antique exempla collections. For the manuscript copies as for the incunabula editions, we have to keep in mind that it exists huge differences of success between books of exempla. The last chapter focuses on the diffusion and uses of the books of exempla written by the Dominicans, the biggest producer of such collections. We also see big discrepancies of success, owners and uses. For example, the Gerard of Frachet’s Vitas fratrum were mainly read in continental Europe by Dominicans and Canons regular to keep conventual order and morality, while the John Herolt’s Promptuarium exemplorum was used by different orders and persons in the German world for pastoral purposes and John of Bromyard’s Summa praedicantium was located in England in highly intellectual institutions, such as universities and big Benedictine monasteries. A collection of exempla can also have different readers and uses. Thomas of Cantimpre’s Bonum universale de apibus, written for conventual purposes, was also used either as a repertory of exempla for preaching or as a treaty of social morality. John of Cessoles’ Liber de moribus was not only read by preachers and pastors but also by lay people as spiritual lecture. Across the study of the different exempla collections, we notice many German 15th century manuscripts exclusively elaborated for pastoral uses. In these Priesterhandbücher we can find, next to exempla collections, sermons, artes predicandi, treaties on the Mass, explanation of the sacraments, the Ten Commandments and Credo. Unlike a common vision of exempla collections produced and used within the preaching, this global study shows, on the one hand, the great diversity of production environments and aims intended by exempla compilers, as well as, on the second hand, an equally important variety concerning diffusion and real uses of such works. Added to the thesis, there is an appendix of more than 300 pages presenting 68 Latin books of exempla, in which the characteristics of the work are exposed, the objectives of use pursued by the author, and the modalities of diffusion (including the list of manuscripts, medieval mentions, translations and editions).
    Date of Award2 Jul 2013
    Original languageFrench
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Namur
    SupervisorXavier Hermand (Supervisor), Giovanni Battista Palumbo (President), Marie-Anne POLO DE BEAULIEU (Co-Supervisor), Franco MORENZONI (Jury), Nicole BERIOU (Jury) & Steven VANDERPUTTEN (Jury)

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