- Virgins and Scholars: A Fifteenth-century Compilation of the Lives of John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Jerome, and Katherine of Alexandria
The Brigittine abbey of Syon and the nearby Carthusian monastery of Sheen have long been recognized by scholars for their influential role in the transmission of spiritual ideas and texts between religious and laity, men and women, the continent and England, and between languages. The ‘virgins and scholars’ of this volume’s title refer to a collection of [End Page 200] four prose lives of popular late medieval saints, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Jerome and Katherine of Alexandria that attest to the vibrant literary and devotional cultures of these monastic communities and their networks. Claire Waters’ careful editing and insightful commentary demonstrates how attention to this hagiographical group enhances our knowledge and understanding of their individual contexts and emphases, offering an ‘intriguing example of what one medieval compiler considered an appropriate gathering of saints’ (p. 4).
The introduction deftly orients the reader into the devotional attitudes and literary activities of the communities at Syon and Sheen, and addresses questions of authorship, date, audience and reception, the compilation and use of sources, and editorial method. Waters bases her edition on three manuscripts copied by a single scribe working in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. She argues convincingly that the lives were almost certainly copied at Syon or Sheen, and very likely composed there too. A fifth work copied by this same scribe, John Lydgate’s verse Life of Our Lady is contemporary with the other texts, and was probably also intended to form part of this group. (It is not included here as it is available in the 1969 edition by Lauritis, Klinefelter and Gallagher.) The volume presents the first full critical edition of these lives, which in the cases of the lives of Jerome and Katherine replace much earlier or partial previous editions.
In her examination of the original contexts for these lives, Waters elucidates the significance of the reciprocal ties of patronage binding the Lancastrian monarchs and their new foundation of the sole Brigittine abbey in England. Through perceptive analysis of the Lancastrian associations of several of the works in this compilation, the themes of political and spiritual power in the works themselves, and the fragile nature of the abbey’s claims to authority in the early decades of the fifteenth century, she argues persuasively that the collection was likely intended as a religious as well as a political legitimization of the young Brigittine order.
Although these themes may have motivated the scribe, or whoever commissioned the compilation, there is no evidence that these concerns occupied later readers. Analysis of the manuscript context in which other versions of the lives were transmitted, strengthen their association with Syon-Sheen circles, while Waters’ description of readers’ annotation reveal a diversity of responses, indicative of the ‘contested atmosphere that surrounded the production and reception of devotional writings in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century [End Page 201] England (p. 49).
The audiences envisaged for these lives were diverse, offering a salient example of the Syon brethren’s emphasis on dissemination of religious literature to professed and lay readers alike. The ‘eminence’ of these saints may have been the primary reason for their selection, but as Waters demonstrates, these saints shared attributes that make them a coherent group, one with particular resonance for a readership of Brigittine nuns and brethren. Virgin saints held obvious appeal for enclosed nuns and brothers, while models of learned women and men who propagate the faith were also likely to resonate within a community of both sexes in which religious reading and edification held a central place. Through careful analysis of the manuscripts and their content Waters illustrates the multiple ways in which these lives incorporate and reflect devotional attitudes or themes (e.g. invoking Birgitta’s Revelationes as an authorizing strategy...