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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 297-298
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St Birgitta of Sweden. By Bridget Morris.[Studies in Medieval Mysticism, Volume 1.] (Rochester, New York: The Boydell Press. 1999. Pp. xiv, 202. $60.00.)
St Birgitta of Sweden is long overdue—not the work itself, which represents the culmination of over two decades of research, but the bibliographic position it fills. Bridget Morris's volume is not only the first English-language biography of this elusive fourteenth-century saint since the 1954 translation of Johannes Jøgensen's opus, but also the first biographical synthesis in any language to take advantage of the last few decades' outpouring of high-quality Birgittine scholarship.
In St Birgitta of Sweden, Morris has chosen to emphasize the historical and political aspects of Birgitta's career. The volume opens with a survey of late medieval Sweden and the political and cultural milieu into which the saint was born. Morris then devotes several chapters to reconstructing Birgitta's childhood, married life, and early prophetic career, demonstrating an impressive command of both archival and edited sources. This approach makes for an engrossing narrative of Birgitta's life, but leads to frustrating structural choices for scholars of Catholic theology and spirituality, as the non-Scandinavian world barely intrudes into the first half of the volume. We learn about Birgitta's ongoing efforts to move the papacy back from Avignon to Rome only at the point in the narrative at which Birgitta moves to Rome, and Morris devotes more attention to Birgitta's visionary impact on artists' depictions of the Nativity than to the theological developments underlying these visions.
Indeed, Morris's treatment of Birgitta's visions may be the only weak spot in an otherwise strong synthesis. The visions tend to be used and discussed mostly in terms of their historical and political value, while their theological and literary content is mentioned briefly or presumed to be self-evident. For instance, Morris devotes nearly four pages to a word-by-word translation of Birgitta's last major vision of the Crucifixion, but only four paragraphs to its connections with "the new devotionalism and affective piety of the fourteenth century" (p.133). At times, Morris acknowledges the difficulty of using multiply edited, reordered, and (often) translated texts as Birgitta's own, noting that only the Swedish meditations feature Birgitta writing "in her native tongue in texts that [End Page 297] were not, it appears, subject to reworking by her confessors" (p. 55). At other times, however, Morris appears to treat highly stylized hagiographic and visionary texts as nearly transparent; for instance, she presents the famous "calling vision" from the Vita processus (on p. 65) as fact without even noting that this account exists in an alternate (and significantly less obedience-conscious) form in chapter 47 of the Reuelaciones extrauagantes.
On balance, though, St Birgitta of Sweden has been well worth waiting for. This book offers not only a well-rounded biography of an important historical figure, but also a well-chosen selection of images which Morris uses to discuss Birgitta's iconography, and a quick but useful overview of Birgitta's other legacies: the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century debates over her canonization, and the structure and history of the Ordo Sanctissimi Salvatoris which she founded. Morris's work should prove extremely helpful to scholars and advanced students in a variety of fields who want to learn more about Birgitta of Sweden.
Wendy Love Anderson
Saint Louis University