Powell, Susan, The Birgittines of Syon Abbey: Preaching and Print, Turnhout: Brepols, 2017. €90, ISBN 978-2-503-53235-6 (hardback), pp. xxii + 345.
Reviewed by: Michelle Urberg, PhD, Metadata Librarian, ProQuest, December 2018
In this volume, Susan Powell brings together five pieces of scholarship on the Birgittines of Syon Abbey that she has previously published over the past two decades (chapters 2-6), accompanied by a new overview of the order in chapter 1 and an examination of Syon Abbey in the sixteenth century in chapter 7. These bookend chapters are the most updated scholarship in The Birgittines of Syon Abbey: Preaching and Print (hereafter The Birgittines of Syon Abbey), having never been published in their current state. Powell herself admits in the forward that the fruits of her labors have been long in coming. However, the years between 2005, when she was first asked to produce this compilation, and 2017 when it was published, witnessed a revival of interest in Birgittine scholarship, including the founding of the Syon Abbey Society in 20091 and the gathering of Birgittine scholars in England and Sweden in 2007, 2011, and 2015.2
Chapter 1 provides an excellent overview to the Birgittine Order, Syon Abbey’s history, and the bookish proclivities of the Birgittines. Syon Abbey was the Birgittine Order’s first house in England, established in 1415 by King Henry V, and only the second house to be established apart from the mother house at Vadstena Abbey in central Sweden. St. Birgitta, the order’s founder, established the Birgittines under a new rule (approved in 1370) for men and women (including sisters, brothers, deacons, and priests) with very specific prescriptions about the number and roles of the men and women that would live in a Birgittine house. Thirteen priests were to devote themselves to preaching and sermon-writing, while sixty sisters were to devote themselves to the continual veneration of the Virgin Mary. Both preaching and Marian devotion required books to be made either in the scriptorium or imported from elsewhere, with no limit placed on the number of books that could be acquired for the sisters’ study of Mary nor on the number of sermon volumes the brothers could write. As Powell shows in her discussions of the preaching and print cultures at Syon, the Syon Birgittines spread their influence through the written word.
The rest of the book presents a deep dive into Syon’s manuscript production, commissioning of devotional reading, and preaching culture. As the scope of this review does not allow for each chapter to be covered in-depth, I will instead consider them as two sets of related materials: one on sermons and one on book production. In each set, readers are given a ‘vertical tasting’ of Powell’s scholarship, seeing her work in a variety of vintages.
Chapters 2-4 focus on Birgittine preaching practices, sermon writing practices, and sermon manuscripts linked to Syon Abbey. These three chapters work as a unit, showing the evolution of Powell’s work in light of recently discovered manuscripts, new catalogues, and changing understandings of what characterizes Syon sermons. Her perception of sermon writing at Syon, Powell admits, is now more nuanced than when these chapters were originally published. Chapter 2, “Preaching at Syon Abbey” is, for example, updated based on the 2001 catalogue of Syon Abbey sources edited by Vincent Gillespie. Several new sermons discovered by Elin Andersson, coupled with the work of Mary Erler (Reading and Writing During the Dissolution) further suggest that Syon sermonizing was significantly more independent from Vadstena sermonizing than Powell originally thought.
Chapter 3 and especially chapter 4 address Powell’s updated perceptions of Syon’s independence from the order’s motherhouse at Vadstena based on specific sermons and manuscript collections. One of the primary characteristics of Vadstena sermons are quotations of Birgitta’s Revelaciones, which are either sprinkled throughout as supporting arguments or used as the primary topic for theological and spiritual analysis. Manuscript Cox 39 (discussed in Chapter 3) indicates that the Syon Birgittines produced manuscripts with sermons that do not bear these hallmarks; although other, more recently discovered sermons in the second edition of William Caxton’s printing of John Mirk’s Festial confirm that Vadstena had some influence over sermons at Syon (chapter 4), particularly those for the Visitation of the Virgin, the Transfiguration of the Lord and the Holy Name of Jesus—all important feasts in the Birgittine Order.
Chapters 5-7 focus on book production and printing at Syon Abbey. Powell’s chapters on Syon book culture also represent different periods of her research, with her ideas about Syon’s manuscript and print culture evolving as new work has come to light. Chapter 5, “Manuscript and Print at Syon Abbey” is supplemented both by Chapter 1 and by Appendices A and B, which contain, respectively, a list of printed Syon texts from the fifteen and sixteenth centuries and a list of woodcuts of Birgitta’s iconography in those texts. Chapter 6, “Lady Margaret Beaufort: Books, Printers, and Syon Abbey” is augmented by chapter 7 “Syon Abbey in the Reign of Henry VIII and beyond.”
Following a study of manuscript and print culture at Syon (chapter 5), Powell does an excellent job of tracing manuscripts to patrons. Lady Margaret Beaufort (chapter 6), Margaret Pole (chapter 7), and Margaret Windsor (chapter 7) are among the leading female patrons who commissioned and used vernacular devotional books. The extent and scope of Syon’s literary reach among the nobility and the English royal family is of central concern to all of these chapters: each group had its own stake in book production and devotional practice during the late Middle Ages in England. Beneath Powell’s highly detailed accounts of manuscript contents and the commissioned projects of Syon’s patrons lies the political-religious machinations of the nobility and Crown (especially during the reign of Henry VIII). Although not central to Powell’s research here, there are hints that the reading tastes, devotional texts, and liturgical practices recorded in the volumes from Syon reveal politicized practices of the nobility, the royal family, and of Syon’s priests and sisters.
This volume is timely for Birgittine Studies and has something to offer for a wide range of scholars. For those just beginning to study the Order, the first chapter in particular provides a useful introduction to Birgitta herself, the English Life of Birgitta, the institutional arrangements of Syon Abbey as a community for both women and men, and the book culture that is integral to the Birgittine Order (and at Syon in particular). For experts, this volume has copious footnotes and an extensive bibliography—nearly thirty pages of primary and secondary bibliography conclude the volume. The Birgittines of Syon Abbey is a great resource for anyone doing research on the Birgittine Order or about monasticism in England during the Middle Ages. I can attest that if this volume had been available as I was writing my dissertation about the mother house at Vadstena, it would have been a well-thumbed resource on my shelf. The Birgittines of Syon Abbey is worth the time it takes to get through the details.
1 https://syonabbeysociety.wordpress.com/ (accessed December 3, 2018).
2 Saint Birgitta, Syon and Vadstena: Papers from a Symposium in Stockholm 4-6 October 2007. Edited by Claes Gejrot, Sara Risberg, and Mia Åkestam. Stockholm: The Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, 2010; The Birgittine Experience: Papers from the Birgitta Conference in Stockholm 2011. Edited by Claes Gejrot, Mia Åkestam and Roger Andersson. Stockholm: The Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, 2013; Continuity and Change: Papers from the Birgitta Conference at Dartington 2015. Edited by Claes Gejrot, E.A. Jones, and Mia Åkestam. Stockholm: The Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, 2017.