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SUSAN POWELL The Birgittines of Syon Abbey: Preaching and Print.


The Birgittines of Syon Abbey: Preaching and Print.

Texts and Translations 11. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2017. xxii + 345 pp.

A central element in Susan Powell's productive career has been her work on Syon abbey, England's only Birgittine house, and in this new book she provides a collection of her essays on this topic. The format she has invented is notably successful. Each essay is preceded by a headword that explains how and when it was first published and is followed by an afterword that summarizes research by others that appeared after the essay's original publication. The headnote for Chapter 2, for instance ("Preaching at Syon Abbey"), explains the piece's intellectual genesis as well as the circumstances of its composition--both valuable in appreciating the essay's thrust. The afterword then provides three pages that summarize recent publications on Syon sermons. Still more helpful is the author's perspective on her earlier work: what remains to be done now and what might have been done differently. Thorough, detailed, judicious, this arrangement of information is so useful to the reader that it might be recommended for all collections of previously published work.

In the volume's first half, devoted to preaching, Chapter 3 provides an investigation of a little-known, privately owned manuscript, Cox MS 39. It is a collection of sermons bound at Syon and owned by a Syon brother, John Lawsby. One of its sermons addressed to a fellow religious might have been delivered on a Syon profession day, as Powell suggests, but she points out that the whole collection deserves further study as "the only extant sermon collection by a Syon brother" (101). Chapter 4 was also originally impelled by the desire to identify (more) Syon preaching. Might the sermons printed by William Caxton at the end of his 1491 edition of Mirk's Festial be Birgittine? This chapter gives a condensed version of the introduction to Powell's edition of Three Sermons for Nova Festa Together with the Hamus Caritatis (Heidelberg, 2007), and it presents several intriguing answers to this question. Most likely to be Birgittine texts are the sermon for the feast of the Transfiguration, since it was one of Syon's important pardon days, and the curiously named Hamus Caritatis (fishhook of love), which Powell thinks likely to have been the work of Thomas Betson, Syon's librarian, because of resemblances to his later writing.

The book's second half is devoted to Syon's printing, which, because of its multiplicity and its anonymity, continues to offer the opportunity for further research. In this account of Syon's publishing, 1519 has been chosen as a significant date. In that year the Orcharde of Syon appeared, its epilogue giving the story of its Syon publication, and in a 1519 Book of Hours the beautiful and well-known Syon woodcut of St. Birgitta made its first appearance, accompanying the Fifteen Oes. In Chapter 5, Powell gives a series of suggestions that might enlarge the list of pre-1519 publications (e.g., more work on Syon-associated saints such as Barbara, Dorothy, and Jerome) and then treats in more detail the better-known post-1519 books. Together the Orcharde and the Birgittine woodcut image mark a significant moment in Syon's publishing--and it is true that in the period before 1519 we have very little certain information and a great deal afterward. Yet as Powell several times implies, the earlier period is underexplored--something she tries to remedy in the book's new introductory chapter, "The Birgittines of Syon Abbey," in a section titled "Books for Sisters," which attempts a chronological overview. Given Syon's connections with Caxton and hence with the beginning of printing in England, the abbey's involvement with the press lasted for about sixty years. The question might be asked: How best to describe the changing character of Syon's mission, and hence of its publishing, over these six decades of institutional life?

Chapter 6, "Lady Margaret Beaufort: Books, Printers, and Syon Abbey," draws on Powell's earlier published work on Lady Margaret's books and on her relation with Syon. The emphasis here is on the latter topic, and the addition of much new material drawn from Lady Margaret's household accounts, which Powell is editing, has been invaluable in presenting the king's mother's "prominent role in the commissioning and disseminating of printed books" (152). Both here and in the book's final chapter, "Syon Abbey in the Reign of Henry VIII and Beyond," material from these accounts adds completely new information. For instance Margaret Windsor, a nun whose name is found in four Syon books, is identified as Lady Margaret's goddaughter, for whom in May 1506 Lady Margaret paid ten pounds to Syon on her profession day (she would later become Syon's prioress). This chapter gives an account of Syon's final days, and it ends with new work in which Powell attempts to do for Syon's nuns' printed books what Christopher de Hamel did for the Syon brothers' manuscripts--that is, to trace the books' movements after the dissolution. Suggestively, eight brief case studies show that Syon books were often later held in recusant families.

The intention to make study of Syon as accessible as possible is everywhere evident in the book's content and its arrangement. The book's front matter, for instance, provides "A Note on the Bibliography of the Abbey and the Birgittine Order," a five-page bibliographical essay that gives admirably complete guidance on how to do research on Syon. The two appendices, one "A Bibliography of Syon Texts before and after 1519" and the other "A List of Printed Woodcuts of St. Birgitta," are also the product of careful thought about accessibility. (The latter includes a previously unnoticed 1537 image of the saint facing a full-length Image of Pity, not in Edward Hodnett or Isak Collijn.) Such imaginative assistance for the reader, together with the generous and inclusive analysis of current research by others that is offered in the afterwords, make this book an indispensable guide not only to Syon but more generally to the study of late-medieval devotion.

Mary Erler, Fordham University
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Author:Erler, Mary
Publication:The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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