The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 768-769
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Sancta Birgitta. Revelaciones, Book II. Edited by Carl-Gustaf Undhagen and Birger Bergh. (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International. 2001. Pp. 128. SEK 152 paperback.)
The publication of this volume and of H. Aili's edition of Revelaciones, Book VIII, also in 2001, brings to completion the twelve-volume critical edition of the texts of Saint Birgitta begun some fifty years ago. The impact of this meticulous labor of love by a series of devoted scholars can be seen in the growing interest in this extraordinary seer in recent scholarship. Birgitta and her younger contemporary, Catherine of Siena, are the most remarkable examples of a female leadership role that sprang to life in the mid-twelfth century with the visions and predictions of Hildegard of Bingen and Elisabeth of Schönau and that remained strong through the later Middle Ages. Through their ability to channel divine messages for both individuals and institutions these prophetissae created a new public role for women as agents of reform and "trumpets of the mysteries of God," as Hildegard once put it.
Book II of the Revelaciones is among the shortest of the nine books that contain Birgitta's approximately 700 showings, having only thirty chapters. The messages in it are mostly speeches by Christ to his sponsa, though eight of the chapters contain addresses by Mary, and in one chapter it is John the Baptist who speaks. The content of the messages is typical of the Swedish seer—warnings and teachings about the proper conduct of the various states of life often presented in the form of exempla (Birgitta sometimes calls them similitudo or figura) which are subjected to detailed allegorical exegesis. In this book Birgitta is especially concerned about the proper way of life of the miles, the defender of the Church who is meant to follow the example of St. George (see chaps. VII-XIII). Another characteristic of Birgitta's visionary style appears in chapter XXI, where Mary tells Birgitta about specific details of the deposition of Christ's body from the cross in a way similar to the famous revelations given to the seer about the circumstances of the Nativity and Crucifixion.
Among the most interesting aspects of the revelations contained in Book II are those that deal with Birgitta's authority. In chapter X, for example, Christ [End Page 768] compares his spouse to Moses, who heard God speaking in the fiery bush. Birgitta is even accorded superiority: "Therefore," says the Lord, "it is written that Moses veiled his face because he spoke with God, but you ought not veil your face. I have opened spiritual eyes for you so that you may see spiritual things; I have opened ears that you may hear what is of the spirit" (X. 37-38). Nevertheless, the divine voice insists that Birgitta's gifts are not due to her own worth (see chap. XVI), and are not for herself, but only for the edification and salvation of others (chap. XV). Although in one place Christ says to her,"I speak to you as a man speaks to his wife" (chap. XXV.3), Birgitta's revelations guard against crude literalism by insisting that it is for pedagogical purposes only that spiritual things are set forth through corporeal examples (chap. XVIII.1-7), and that there are many ways in which divine predictions come true—spiritually and corporeally, sooner or later (chap. XXVIII). Here, as in the other books, Birgitta advances a more subtle view of prophetology than she is sometimes given credit for.
Divinity School, University of Chicago