The Medieval Review 12.01.26

Andersson, Elin. Responsiones Vadstenenses: Perspectives on the Birgittine Rule in Two Texts from Vadstena and Syon Abbey, A Critical Edition with Translation and Introduction. Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis: Studia Latina Stockholmensia. Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2011. Pp. vi, 260. . . 375 SEK. ISBN 978-91-86071-59-2.

Reviewed by:

Julia Bolton Holloway
University of Colorado, Boulder
holloway.julia@tiscali.it

I earlier reviewed Liber usuum fratrum monasteri Vadstenensis/The Customary of the Vadstena Brothers: A Critical Edition with an Introduction, edited by Sara Risberg (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2003). Both these books are of great usefulness for a study of London's Syon Abbey, for the pair, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe of Lynn, and for the cross currents of contemplative manuscript compilations between Syon and Vadstena, between England and Sweden.

Responsiones Vadstenenses at first hand documents the resolution of tensions between the Brigittine monasteries of Vadstena in Sweden, founded by Saints Birgitta and Catherine, her daughter, and Syon Abbey in England, desired by Henry IV and founded by Henry V in 1415. The 60 Sisters of each house were intensely cloistered, the 25 Brothers not so much as able to travel from one monastery to another and to Rome. The Abbess, Christ tells Birgitta [Revelaciones X Latin text: Sancta Birgitta, Opera Minora I: Regvla Saluatoris, ed. Sten Eklund (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksells, 1975); electronic version: http://www.umilta.net/bk10.html], represents Mary, the Confessor General, Christ. Two years later than these documents Syon was to absent itself from the 1429 Brigittine General Chapter at Vadstena amicably but in deference to the consecrated women's inability to travel and to participate in the deliberations.

The Annales school and the work of André Vauchez on canonizations have taught us upstairs/downstairs history. James Hogg at the University of Salzburg tirelessly and usefully published texts and studies on monasticism, particularly Carthusian, but also Brigittine. Roland Barthes' 1980 Sade, Fourier, Loyola, focussed on human group constructs. Responsiones Vadstenenses is a splendid book, combining textual editing with a window onto international formation taking place through the universality of the Latin language for western Europe. As with Revelaciones V, the book in which Birgitta resolves Magister Mathias' theological doubts with questions and answers in her vision while on horseback to the Castle of Vadstena King Magnus granted her for her abbey, this book is in the form of Latin questions and answers, in this case on how best to interpret the Rule Christ gave Birgitta in visions while she and her husband were at the Cistercian monastery of Alvastra, despite the complications that Popes only allowed it as a customary alongside the Augustinian Rule, and at times officially ruled against the Brigittine espousal of the double monastery form. During this international and friendly dialogue between persons who have not met each other, references are made to the libraries which both possess, copies of the Rule and the Revelaciones, comments made on these by Prior Petrus Olavi (Addiciones, often derived from the Extravagantes) and by Bishop Hermit Alphonso of Jaén (Declarationes Dominorum), and even giving descriptions of his magnificently illuminated, now lost, Liber Alfonsi codex, that Vadstena had possessed before the Reformation, as well as to the papal documents, Mare Magnum (1413) and Mare Anglicanum (1425), concerning the Brigittine abbeys. There were later to be the Syon Additions, of which the nuns of Syon Abbey showed me Tudor fragments they discovered in their attic at Totnes, these likewise seeking to return to the charisma of their Mother Foundress Birgitta and her Regula Salvatoris.

Though this is a conversation, an international written Latin dialogue between men, it is carried out on behalf of the women they serve, the Abbess and the nuns of the respective communities of Vadstena in Sweden and Syon in England and consequently it is women-centered, even feminist. It emphasizes the architecture, the women's choir above, the men's beneath, how communion is given to the nuns, to whom they confess, how they profess, how they are buried, all this in relation to the carefully planned Brigittine architecture. A later parallel to such concerns can be seen in American Shaker architecture where women are separate from men but equal if not higher in rank.

Conversations are to be held to a minimum, whether within community or with outsiders, and to be opened with "Benedicite" with the response, "Dominus," as with Benedictines (important in Julian of Norwich), or with "Ave Maria." Both men's and women's communities were bookish, the extensive catalogue of the men's library surviving, though not that of the nuns'; however there was to be no discrimination against an illiterate nun. Vincent Gillespie and Christopher De Hamel have studied the men's library survivals. I have instead been interested in those of the women, finding that the Revelaciones, the Liber Celestis, the Orcherd of Syon and the Myroure of oure Ladye (Early English Text Society O.S. 291, 178, 258, E.S. 19), as well as early Julian of Norwich manuscripts, were treasured and in some cases edited and prepared for publication by the Sisters. Uppsala University now has the Vadstena manuscripts confiscated at the Reformation where Katillus Thorberni and others copied out texts from England: Richard Rolle, Mechtild of Hackeborn, Walter Hilton, Adam Easton, etc (C1, C17, C159, C519 C621, C631).

The Responsiones Vadstenensis, written dually by the Syon and Vadstena monks is accompanied in the volume by a "Collacio" on the text, "Vide, Domine et considera," written by the Abbot of St Albans, John Whethamstead ("Excerpta paucula de prima part Granarii Johannis de Loco Frumenti"), for Syon's first acting Confessor General Thomas Fishbourne and presented to Vadstena, likewise commenting on the Brigittine Rule but written in such a florid, aureate Latin that it conceals more than it reveals of community life. Both works are given in parallel text with translation into English (rather than Swedish), and with textual and explanatory notes, after an excellent introduction. The source manuscripts are Uppsala University Library C74, C363 for the Responsiones and British Library Arundel 11 for the Collacio.

Sadly, during the writing of this review I received a letter from the former Abbess of Syon, explaining they are now closed as an Abbey, the three remaining Sisters living quietly elsewhere, their marble gatepost on which a part of St Richard Reynolds' quartered body had been placed, given away. Younger branches of Brigittines, nuns and monks, however, continue worldwide.