Elin Andersson, Claes Gejrot, E. A. Jones, and Mia Åkestam (eds), Continuity and Change: Papers from the Birgitta Conference at Dartington 2015, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien, Konferenser 93, Stockholm, 2017.

Elin Andersson, Claes Gejrot, E. A. Jones, and Mia Åkestam (eds), Continuity and Change:  Papers from the Birgitta Conference at Dartington 2015, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien, Konferenser 93, Stockholm, 2017. [235 kr] ISBN 978-91-7402-449-4 (paperback), 415 pages.

Reviewed by:  Ann M. Hutchison, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, April 2018


This volume brings a cornucopia of historical information and insights from the Dartington Conference of 2015, which marked the culmination of the celebrations for the six hundredth anniversary of the establishment in 1415 of Syon Abbey by Henry V. Syon was the only English house of the order founded by the remarkable visionary and prophet, St Birgitta of Sweden (c. 1303-1373), and the only medieval order in England to boast of an unbroken history.  This was the third Birgitta Conference, the first not held in Sweden.  The selection of twenty-three of the conference papers is testimony to the broad range of interests and enthusiasm that arise from studies of Birgitta and the Birgittine Order.

The essays follow a rough chronology beginning with the early years of the Order in Vadstena, the mother house in Sweden, and conclude with the study of Syon Abbey in more recent years. Realizing that the nuns would need spiritual advisors and priests to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and preach, Birgitta felt it was important to have priest-brothers as members of the Order, but strictly separated from the nuns. The relationship between the two has never been entirely clear, and in ‘Similar but Different? The Two Convents of the Birgittine Abbey’, Tore Nyberg, the doyen of Birgittine studies, leads off with a reconsideration of the role of the sororesand fratres.  Starting with the first confirmation of the Rule by Pope Urban V in 1370, then moving forward through its evolution and interpretation, including the Additionesof Prior Petrus, Nyberg shows how ‘the Sixty [sisters] and the Thirteen [priest-brothers]’ could be considered ‘as two pillars of unique quality, … which carried the weight of the whole monastery’ (p. 20).  Markus Lindberg also writes about Prior Petrus in ‘The Addiciones Prioris Petri: Rules and Reality’ where he matches records of food consumption against the regulations to gauge obedience to the Rule at Vadstena, providing insight into the weekly routine and festive foods and concluding that ‘the rule seems to reflect the reality’ (p. 188).  Brigitta’s other Swedish confessor, Petrus Olavi of Skänninge, is celebrated in Hilkka-Liisa Vuori’s fine piece, ‘The Great Matins Responsories in the Birgittine Sisters’ Liturgy of Hours – “An Ode to Petrus of Skänninge”’.  Vuori, a singer and a musicologist, carefully demonstrates how in creating the Cantus Sororum, the Sisters’ chant which with the Sermo Angelicusmakes up their liturgy, Petrus relied on the old Gregorian tradition as well as making slight modifications and, in some cases, creating new compositions.  She also posits that Birgitta herself assisted Petrus making this a ‘writer’s [sic] duo’ (p. 78).

In ‘Messenger Manuscripts and Mechanisms of Change’, Roger Andersson uses his expertise in sermon literature to show that Vadstena was ‘not an outpost in the far north’ (p. 25), but rather an important centre for the exchange of ideas and debate occasioned by ‘messenger manuscripts’, or manuscripts containing copies of texts that were debated throughout Europe, brought to Vadstena and there incorporated into sermons.  Mia Åkestam’s fascinating ‘Creating Space: Queen Philippa and Art in Vadstena Abbey’ reveals how Philippa, as daughter of Henry IV, sister of Henry V, and a member of the Royal House of Lancaster, arrived with an enormous dowry when in 1406 she came to marry King Erik of Pomerania. Åkestam successfully demonstrates how the precious items were an expression of her role as queen, signs of a powerful queenship, rather than private vanity, and, as her gifts to Vadstena Abbey indicate, much of her attention was directed towards devotional material culture.

Turning to Syon Abbey, Claes Gejrot describes the early Swedish influence of ‘The Swedish Sisters of Syon Abbey’; that is the ‘four nuns and three girls’ who along with ‘two men’ (p. 111) arrived in England in August of 1415.  Gejrot includes an edition and translation of a letter from the Confessor-General in Vadstena indicating that all the sisters remained in England, thus refuting earlier suggestions that they returned to Sweden.   Kevin Alban raises questions of obedience and manual labour, common problems in Birgittine houses, in ‘Some Aspects of Carmelite Involvement in the Early Years of Syon Abbey’.  Alban deftly outlines how two Carmelite friars with close ties to Henry V assisted in resolving the matter of obedience with respect to the abbess, as set out in the Rule, and in determining who could be exempt from manual labour.  Related to this, Elin Andersson, in ‘Thomas Fishbourne at the Curia: An Informatio Brevison the Birgittine Order’ demonstrates the pivotal role of Syon’s first Confessor-General.  Fishbourne’s diplomacy with Pope Martin V helped in the revoking of the Bull of Separation of 1422 which, ordering the separation of all double monastic houses in Europe, would have led to the end of the Order as intended by St Birgitta.  The article includes an edition and translation of the Informatio Brevis.  Examining the calendar of Syon’s Martiloge(British Library, Add. MS 22285) in ‘Syon Abbey and Nation Building: Patronage by Political Elites and their Regional Affinities in England and Wales c.1415-1558’, Virginia Bainbridge finds the pattern of patronage and vocation reveals much about the development of the early modern English state, and its list of abbesses indicates a widening geographical influence making Syon a ‘truly national institution’ (p. 140).

Acknowledging the existence of regulatory texts for Birgittines, two essays attempt to reveal actual devotional practices in the monasteries.  In ‘Imitatio Christi– Spiritual Marriage, Female Role Models and the Passion of Christ in Fifteenth-Century Vadstena Abbey’, Erik Claeson examines the exhortaciones of Confessor General Nicolaus Ragvaldi which portray concrete problems in the Abbey and present ways to solve them.  The discussion of memoria, especially memory of the Lord’s Passion, as the most effective ‘medicine’ against sins makes clear that remembrance means ‘to make present by abolishing the time-distance between past and present’ (p. 154).  For readers of the sixteenth-century writings by the Syon priest-brothers, this will have a familiar ring, thus demonstrating something of the continuity of Birgittine spirituality.  David Carrillo-Rangel writes on a similar theme suggesting that ‘Birgitta’s image merges with the text itself, transforming her into an exemplary figure’ (p. 160).  In ‘Textual Mirrors and Spiritual Reality:  Exempla, Mnemonic Devices and Performance in the Birgittine Order’, he reveals a number of means by which devotional practices were transmitted.

Veneration of Katarina, Birgitta’s daughter, was a cult found at Syon from its earliest years, according to Sara Risberg, who describes how a copy of the newly completed Vita Katherinewas brought back by two brothers who had been visiting Vadstena in 1427 and became part of Syon’s main codex, British Library, Harley MS 612.  The chief focus of ‘Petrus Ingemari and his Advocacy of Katarina of Vadstena’, however, is a recounting of the attempt to promote Katarina’s canonization to which the Vadstena brother, Petrus Ingemari, devoted his life.  Although the process of canonization was never completed, Katarina’s veneration was given papal permission for Scandinavia in 1488 and confirmed in 1507.  While the ‘new song’ created for the brothers’ choir at Vadstena survives in a few manuscripts, as Tekla Bude notes in ‘Saint Katarina in England:  Evidence from the Processionals of Syon Abbey’, there is no record in Vadstena or any other continental Birgittine house of what the sisters may have sung.  Thus the surviving processionals from Syon become vital witnesses, and in two of the three which she has examined, Bude has found Katarina chants.  This discovery, as Bude tellingly remarks, shows that Syon’s ‘liturgy expanded, albeit carefully’, and these chants ‘provide evidence of a unique instance of nonconformity within the Birgittine Order’ (p. 229), thus indicating that the liturgy was not as static as has previously been thought.  In a similar vein for a later period, Karin Strinnholm Lagergren has discovered that at Maria Refugie in Uden, a monastery founded in 1713 by four sisters from Mariënwater, the ‘majority of the melodies in the Cantus Sororum… have been reformed’ (p. 326). This reform occurred after 1760 and was completed by 1846 with the aim of creating correct accentuation, classical spelling and modal clarity.  This was not ephemeral in character, but lasted until the 1950s when the melodies were restored to ‘their presumed medieval splendour’ (p. 335).  As these papers show, Birgittine chant has a long and surprisingly varied history, thus indicating a need of further study.

While founding charters, many given by royal grants, survive, little appears to be known about how exactly Birgittine houses related to the towns and villages around them. Thomas W. Lassen, however, has discovered that for the Danish Monastery of Maribo founded in 1416 by Queen Margareta, rules governing the daily interaction between the monastery and the town survive and indicate the absolute authority of the abbess and confessor general.  In ‘The Monastery and its Town: The Maribo Statutes 1488’, Lassen suggests that these rules might reflect the conditions in other new towns established for the monasteries, and indeed in the prologue to the Statutes it is stated, that Maribo had all the royal rights and legalities ‘in the same way as Vadstena Abbey has received the town of Vadstena’ (p. 198).

At both Vadstena and Syon Abbey books and reading were important.  In ‘Vadstena Abbey and the Printed Word’, Ingela Hedström, noting Syon’s relationship with foreign and native printers and the value of the Birgittine imprimatur, tellingly illustrates the significant role Vadstena played in disseminating printed Birgittine texts in Sweden, even at the time of the Reformation.  At Syon a number of brothers, aware of the need to combat reformed belief, relied on the extensive reach of the printing press.  In ‘Scrupulosity and Heresy: William Bonde’s Reply to Evangelical Views of Christian Freedom and Salvation in The Directory of Conscience’, Brandon Alakas thoughtfully explores one such text showing how Bonde addressed the problem of scrupulosity by reorienting traditional approaches and offering remedies that would provide spiritual comfort and counter a possible lapse into heresy, while tacitly engaging with evangelicals.  Although Syon made optimal use of the printed book, manuscripts had been and continued to be produced.  Unlike nuns of continental Birgittine houses, Syon’s nuns, and English nuns generally, preferred to seek scribes elsewhere, but through painstaking detective work Veronica O’Mara, acknowledging the scribal work of the early Swedish Syon nun, Anna Karlsdotter (d. before 1450), has discovered a second authentic female scribe of a century later, thus throwing new light on scribal activity at Syon.  In ‘A Syon Scribe Revealed by Her Signature: Mary Nevel and Her Manuscripts’, O’Mara clearly documents the characteristics of Mary Nevel’s hand that led to this discovery.

After 1558 and the death of Queen Mary I, Syon Abbey moved abroad and did not return until 1861, while Vadstena managed to continue as a nunnery until 1595 even with the ‘new Lutheran circumstances’, as Eva Lingqvist Sandgren outlines in ‘Prosperity and Poverty in Vadstena Abbey in the Sixteenth Century’.  Although Vadstena received support from the nobility, the numbers decreased and income was inadequate, and so things had to be sold off. Vadstena also suffered from theft, but despite all this they managed to preserve utensils for a Mass altar, their devotional altar, and also utensils needed to maintain the monastery according to the Rule.  Syon moved about during the long sojourn on the Continent, and finally in 1594 settled in Lisbon where the community remained for the next 267 years.  Elizabeth Perry gives a full and often moving evocation of the Church and the nuns’ worship in ‘Art and Identities at the Lisbon Church, 1594-1861’.  While maintaining strong adherence to their Birgittine identity and to their origin at Old Syon – the carved pillar on which a part of the body of the martyred Birgittine brother, Richard Reynolds, was said to have been displayed was placed above the gate to the monastery – the visual culture of the Lisbon Church also reflected Portuguese faith and devotion.  An important part of the ‘rich legacy’ described by Perry was a medieval ivory sculpture of the Virgin and Child brought from Old Syon, thought to be miraculous due to the unusual manner of its acquisition.  In 2013, this sculpture turned up at Sotheby’s and was assigned to Erik Bijzet; in ‘The Rediscovery of the Syon Virgin and Inventories of Syon from the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries’ Bijzet tells its story. Having been told that the carving was a forgery, Sothebys decided to obtain another opinion in light of recent developments in the study of Gothic ivories.  Indeed their intuition paid off.  With meticulous searching, Bijzet was able to discover its origins and provenance, and this, along with various inventories of Syon’s treasures printed in appendices, uncovers aspects of Syon’s rich history.

The final two essays in the volume bring Syon Abbey into the 20thcentury.  In ‘Syon Abbey’s “Second Summer”, 1900-1950’, Carmen M. Mangion by means of surviving letters provides fascinating insights into the motivations and personalities of some of the many postulants knocking at Syon’s door, especially during the 1920s.  While the 1920s were ‘the golden age of vocations’, by 1948 there was an acute need for postulants and thus the ‘second summer’ was one of uncertainties and an aging population.  Nevertheless, this was an immensely loyal and long-lived population who had left behind ‘busy and fruitful personal and working lives’.  It is of particular interest to scholars of medieval Syon that in the 20thcentury even Choir Sisters ‘performed significant amounts of manual labour’ (p. 383), something St Birgitta herself promoted, but for which almost no evidence can be found, other than among the lay brothers, in pre-Reformation Syon.  E. A. Jones knits up all this feast with a thoughtfully documented account of ‘Syon at 500: Quincentenary Celebrations at Syon Abbey, Chudleigh, in 1920’ illustrating the optimism of the times.  The year 1920 was chosen as it marked the 500thanniversary of the first professions, and one might mention that perhaps 1915 would not have been suitable for such a joyful occasion.  The Bishop saw this as ‘the close of a period of the life of our holy Order, and the commencement of a new era’ (p. 392), and later the Cardinal described the Sisters as ‘the living link with that pre-Reformation Catholic Church’ and ‘a living vessel filled with living sap’ (p. 396).  Following the celebrations, a number of Syon’s ancient rights were restored, including that of perpetual abbess, and for a time Syon flourished, moving in 1925 into a new and larger monastic space.  Though today, there is no physical Syon Abbey, the spirit of the Order lives on in their special liturgy in honour of Mary which is attracting new interest thanks to the translation instigated by the last abbess, Sister Anne Smyth, O.Ss.S.

Conference proceedings can be a mixed bag, but here there are no weak essays – in fact, each essay could stand on its own.  Brought together, they make a wonderfully coherent volume whose value would be further increased with an index.