The Medieval Review 15.04.24


Searby, Denis, trans., intro and notes by Bridget Morris . The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, Volume 3, Liber Caelestis, Books 6-7. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. pp. xvii, 282. $78.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780195166279 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Claire L. Sahlin
Texas Woman's University
csahlin@twu.edu

The voluminous visionary writings of St. Birgitta of Sweden (1302/3-1373) offer fascinating glimpses into late medieval affective spirituality, women's religious authority, theological controversies, ecclesiastical struggles, popular religion, and political intrigues. Widely recognized for their striking reformist prophecies and contributions to Marian devotion, the unwieldy texts--approximately seven hundred revelations of varying lengths--have long been challenging for scholars to access and interpret. No fewer than four confessors played a role in redacting, arranging, and translating Birgitta's disparate revelations from medieval Swedish to Latin. Nearly two hundred medieval Latin manuscripts with textual and regional variations are extant in libraries across Europe. Moreover, some passages in surviving Old Swedish versions of Birgitta's revelations, which generally are translations from Latin back into Birgitta's mother tongue, may in some cases represent older, more original versions of her writings than existing Latin texts. Furthermore, the modern, critical Latin editions of the Birgittine corpus were published sporadically by Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien (The Swedish Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities) and Svenska Fornskriftsällskapet (The Medieval Swedish Texts Society) in twelve volumes over a period of nearly fifty years, beginning in 1956 and culminating in 2002.

Fortunately, medievalists now have an outstanding foundation for future Birgittine studies in the four-volume English translation of Birgitta's Revelationes published by Oxford University Press. Denis Searby, a specialist in classical languages, and Bridget Morris, one of the foremost authorities on Birgitta's life and writings, have collaborated to produce the first complete translation of Birgitta's texts into modern English. Only the Paulist Press edition of Books 5 and 7, along with Birgitta's four prayers and vita, has been widely available in modern English previously. [1] Searby's translations, which are based on the critical Latin editions, provide faithful renderings of the texts, while Morris's general introduction to the Birgittine corpus, introductions to each of the books, and notes offer invaluable interpretations based on her years of immersion in Birgitta's writings. These volumes now make Birgitta's writings easily accessible to Anglophone audiences and offer an essential interpretive guide through the puzzling labyrinth of these texts and the related scholarship.

Published in 2006, Volume 1 contains Books 1 through 3 of Birgitta's Revelationes, together with a general introduction to Birgitta's visionary activities and the textual history of the Revelationes. Volume 2, which was published in 2008, contains Books 4 and 5, and Volume 3, which was published in 2012, contains Books 6 and 7. Each volume includes outstanding introductions to each book as well as carefully selected illustrations. We eagerly await the publication of Volume 4 in summer 2015; this volume will include Book 8 (the Liber caelestis Imperatoris ad regis), four supplementary books (the Regula Salvatoris, Sermo angelicus, Quattuor orationes, and Revelations extravagantes), and extensive indexes to all of the volumes.

The revelations in Volume 3 are significant particularly for their insights into the Swedish saint's devotional life, powerful exhortations for moral reform, pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and well-known visions of the Nativity and Crucifixion of Christ. As Morris's introduction to Book 6 in this volume indicates, the revelations from Book 6 can mostly be dated to the 1340s and 1350s during Birgitta's widowhood in Sweden and her earliest years in Rome. Passages in Book 6, which are arranged somewhat haphazardly, reflect her everyday life and biographical details to a greater extent than most other portions of the Birgittine corpus. From Book 6, for example, readers can catch glimpses of Birgitta's mutually beneficial relationships with her confessors and concerns related to her family members. Several intriguing anecdotes in this book also provide evidence of popular religion in Sweden during this period, including soothsaying, belief in elves, witchcraft, and demonic possession. Furthermore, readers can also gain perspectives from Book 6 on Birgitta's visits to Roman shrines as well as her special devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Book 7, which is the last book of the main body of Birgitta's texts, mostly includes revelations from the final period of her life when she went on pilgrimages to Naples, Jerusalem, and Cyprus in 1371-2. As Morris points out, in Book 7 Bishop Alfonso of Jaén, one of Birgitta's confessors, "creates a more extensively integrated composition than is seen in any of the other books of Revelationes" (190). Especially in contrast to Book 6, Book 7 is chronically arranged and heavily edited with rubrics that provide circumstantial details. Book 7 presents Birgitta's harsh condemnations of moral evils presented to political and ecclesiastical leaders in Naples and Cyprus. Its most central revelations are her detailed visions of the Passion and Nativity of Christ, which reflect trends in late-medieval affective spirituality while offering new sources of iconographical innovation.

Denis Searby's translations of these remarkable visionary texts are highly readable, reliable, and consistent. Moreover, his skillful work reflects his sensitivity to medieval theology and rhetoric. Bridget Morris' introductions and notes, furthermore, are insightful for both those with deep familiarity with Birgitta's writings and those who may be reading her visions for the first time. While navigating through vast scholarly literature on Birgitta's revelations, Morris characterizes the Birgittine corpus in nuanced ways, neither exaggerating nor underestimating the distinctiveness of Birgitta's images and themes. Although scholars will still wish to consult and read the texts in Latin, this complete and impressive English translation of St. Birgitta's Revelationes will undoubtedly stimulate teaching and new scholarship on Birgitta's works in the context of fourteenth-century ecclesiastical and political history. We greatly look forward to the impending publication of the final volume.

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Note:

1.Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Revelations, ed. Marguerite Tjader Harris and trans. Albert Ryle Kezel, with an introduction by Tore Nyberg, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1990).



Copyright (c) 2015 Claire L. Sahlin



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