16.10.35, Searby and Morris, The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden

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Shelley Amiste Wolbrink

The Medieval Review 16.10.35

Searby, Denis, trans., with intro and notes by Bridget Morris. The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, Volume 4: The Heavenly Emperor's Book to Kings, The Rule, and Minor Works . New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. xxiii, 401. ISBN: 978-0-19-516628-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Shelley Amiste Wolbrink
Drury University

In a manuscript illumination from Italy dating from the 1400s, St. Birgitta (c. 1303-1373) uses her right hand to extend her rule to four nuns, while with her left hand three brethren receive the rule. Birgitta sits on a large throne, looking towards the nuns and upwards towards the heavens (107). This illumination depicts one of the more remarkable aspects of Birgitta; she created monastic guidelines that led to the creation of the Brigittine order, although she did not join herself. Instead, Birgitta led an active saintly life, made multiple pilgrimages, and served as a public mouthpiece for church and secular reform through her over 700 revelations, which were written down. Now readers have access to her complete writings in English for the first time. The translation of Denis Searby and the introductions and notes by Bridget Morris, the author of several books and articles on St. Birgitta, succeed in providing an authoritative English edition of Birgitta's corpus.

This four-volume series, published by Oxford University Press, encompasses multiple books, hundreds of chapters, and varied images and illuminations thoughtfully interspersed throughout the text. Concise introductions precede each translation, offering historical analysis and footnote references. All critical Latin editions used for this translation are clearly referenced, demonstrating the magnitude of the project (xxii-xxiii). Searby and Morris acknowledge a beneficial working partnership that spanned their respective countries of Sweden and England over the past two decades of work (vi). This is shown in the quality of scholarly work and attention to detail that this volume, and series, provides.

The book under review, The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, Volume 4, is a worthy conclusion to an engaging series. Three earlier volumes included: Volume 1, Birgitta's Revelationes, Books 1 through 3 (2006); Volume 2, Books 4 and 5 (2008); and Volume 3, Books 6 and 7 (2012). The order for the series follows the first printed edition from 1492. Included in this volume is Book 8, otherwise known as the The Heavenly Emperor's Book to Kings which contains a treatise by former bishop Alfonso de JaƩn on how to distinguish divine visions, conveniently proceeding Birgitta's revelations concerning worldly leaders. Next comes the "Rule of St. Savior," written between 1336 and 1338, to help guide daily monastic life. This section, offered as revelations from Christ, contains thirty-one chapters describing the functioning of the emerging order, which as Morris points out, was a community of nuns supported by brethren rather than a double monastery (114).

Also included are readings composed for the nuns of the order known as "the Angel's Discourse," four major prayers, and 116 supplementary chapters of revelations known to scholars as Revelationes extravagantes. Many of these revelations continue to provide detailed instruction for Birgitta's emergent religious order, such as regulating the kitchens of the monastery, monastic graves, the location of the sacrament, and the use of spices (256-258). Additional texts at the end of the volume include her letters and meditations. In particular, these original letters written by Birgitta, some with her autograph, allow scholars to compare her personal writing with confessor-translated revelations to determine insights into "Birgitta's own rhetorical style" (326). Each of these documents is preceded with a concise introduction to the text (readers seeking an introduction to Birgitta should consult volume one of the series).

Birgitta worked with a notebook and pen to record her revelations that arrived in Swedish, while her confessors worked to translate, edit, and arrange the revelations. In these writings, the Virgin Mary, God, and Jesus Christ are never far from her powerful sense of leadership, authorizing and approving her decisions, or casting doubt on others. Political leaders are invoked with remarkable regularity, whether King Magnus Eriksson, the bishop of Orvieto, or the abbot of Farfa, and few escape chastisement. Queen Blanche is compared to a gnawed apple core, while the king's subjects complain about him in purgatory (52, 101). Birgitta's revelations extended not only from home centers in Sweden and Rome, but also Jerusalem and Bari, Italy, where she traveled on pilgrimage, even late in her long life. This bride of Christ authenticated relics and purgatory, composed hymns, and counseled the king and queen to give up their self-imposed abstinence. Her monastic leadership on issues such as the consecration of abbesses, the number of blankets to be used when sleeping, and the reason for depicting only Christ and the saints on church walls proves a marvel. Despite her prolific involvement in theological and political affairs, these texts offer a humane view of her struggles to find money to support herself, worries about her dead son's salvation, and whether she (or her confessors) could be commissioned to speak for God without writing masterly Latin.

Volume 4 includes extensive indexes that reference all four volumes in the series, including a separate index for place names, cited works, subjects, Biblical citations and allusions, and images. With these, a reader might visit all the churches in Rome that Birgitta mentioned in her writing in a matter of minutes, or quickly determine her viewpoint on widowhood or marriage. The index on images is particularly innovative, and showcases the creative imagination of Birgitta, who incorporated hedgehogs, cheese, and rainbows into her writing. Beyond the accessibility of a scholar locating her many references to Naples or St. Thomas Aquinas, undergraduate researchers will also profit. For instance, students might be asked to research Birgitta's understanding of Genesis or how she incorporates allusions to warfare into her revelations, which are now clearly indicated with easy page references.

Searby and Morris have provided a masterful contribution to medieval history, spirituality, reform, and women's prophecy and authority. This volume completes the series, bringing Birgitta's revelations to the English-speaking world, and meeting the goals set out in volume one to create "a bridge that extends from Sweden to Scandinavia towards an international readership" (vol. 1, viii). This book (in fact, the whole series) is recommended with enthusiasm, not only for the careful production by Searby and Morris, but also for the delightful surprises from St. Birgitta that will engage readers.

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