Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 8. The Homilies

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

II. Reformation Literature in England

§ 8. The Homilies

One new feature in the prayer-book had been its exhortations. Edification and instruction were needed: not only, therefore, was much Scripture introduced, but short discourses or exhortations, Scriptural, pointed and, withal, majestic, were also added; some of them date from the order of communion issued in 1548, one, also in the communion service, was due to Peter Martyr. But the wish to instruct shown by these compositions found a larger field for itself in the Homilies. The first book of Homilies was issued (1547) when the policy of licensing a few preachers and silencing others was carried to an extreme. Cranmer, at an earlier date (1539–43), had been preparing homilies meant both to set the note of preaching and to provide sermons for those who preached with difficulty or not at all: he himself wrote for the first book the homilies of salvation, of faith and of good works, and, doubtless, he edited the whole volume. A later second book, issued under Elizabeth (before 1563), was lengthier, less interesting and feebler in style than the first book, in which Cranmer’s own homilies have all the fine characteristics of his other works.

The Homilies were intended to make sure that instruction should be given and that it should be of a kind agreeable to the authorities; but they were not the only attempt in this direction: The Institution of a Christian Man (1537) had been meant as a guide for teaching, and in it, too, Cranmer had borne a large part. But it was superseded by its free revision, The Necessary Doctrine and Erudition of a Christian Man (1543)—called The King’s Book in contrast to its predecessor’s popular name The Bishops’ Book—made when the reaction of Henry’s later years was at its height. The age was one of confessions and formulae of faith, and the English documents of this kind compare favourably with those of other lands. The English reformation is perhaps often judged exclusively by its political effects and not also by its literary history: if this second test were applied, our estimate of Cranmer and his influence might be even higher than it is at present.