Exemplum( Latin ‘example’, plural ‘exempla’) is a short narrative used to illustrate a moral. The term applies primarily to the stories used in medieval sermons. The subject matter could be taken from fables, folktales, legends, real history, or natural history.
Occasionally the exemplum found its way into the literature. Two good examples in Chaucer are The Pardoner’s Tale and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (late 14th c.). John Gower, in Confessio Amantis (c. 1385), makes use of exempla when illustrating sins against Venus. In the Middle Ages, theological handbooks for preachers contained large numbers of exempla. Two particularly important works of this kind were John Bromyard’s Summa Praedicantium and the Liber Exemplorum ad Usum Praedicantium (14th c.). One of the most famous sourcebooks was the 13th c. Latin Gesta Romanorum. Other notable collections in the 12th, 13th, and 14th c. were: the Alphabet of Tales; Nicolas Bozon’s Metaphors; the Early South English Legendary; Jacob’s Well; Dan Michel’s Azenbite of Inwyt; Robert of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne; the Speculum Christiani; the Speculum Laicorum; and the Speculum Sacerdotale, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Boccacio’s On Famous Woman.
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