- The Birgittines of Syon Abbey: Preaching and Print by Susan Powell
This volume brings together some of Susan Powell's many contributions over the past two decades to the study of the late-medieval Birgittine community of Syon Abbey. The community—comprised of both a sisterhood of nuns and a brotherhood of priests, deacons, and lay brothers—was well known for its intellectual culture, and it is this theme that provides a common thread throughout the collection of essays.
Five of the seven chapters (2 to 6) reproduce material published elsewhere between 1998 and 2010. Although Powell herself acknowledges that the field of Syon studies has advanced considerably in even the past decade, these essays have not been revised beyond the occasional addition to the text and (more commonly) updated footnote. To each is appended a headword outlining the original publication details of the essay and any changes made, and an afterword discussing the scholarship that has appeared since the essay's initial publication. While these afterwords go some way towards bringing the essays up to date, it seems a missed opportunity that this recent literature and any resulting developments in Powell's thoughts on the topic were not integrated into the body of the text.
Chapters 2 to 4 focus on preaching and sermons. The Birgittine brothers were 'specifically enjoined to preach to the laity' (p. 50), and Syon's status as a pilgrim destination gave it a large and frequent audience for preaching. Chapter 2 provides an overview of preaching practices at Syon and the extant evidence for sermons preached there. The primary focus here is the registrum of the brothers' library, but Powell also cites the importance of exploring 'collections without clear Syon associations' (p. 71). The latter line of research is developed in the subsequent chapters. In Chapter 3, Powell undertakes a close analysis of Cox MS 39, in an effort to determine whether the sermons it records might have been composed and preached at Syon; the evidence, while suggestive, is ultimately deemed inconclusive in the absence of further research. Powell finds more decisive evidence of Syon connections in the sermons included in Caxton's editions of John Mirk's Festial, which are the subject of Chapter 4. [End Page 236]
Alongside preaching, the Birgittines of Syon sought to fulfil their 'mission to relay pastoral and devotional material to the laity' (p. 128) through the production and dissemination of vernacular texts. Chapters 5 and 6 explore this engagement with the book trade. The former discusses both manuscript and print, but is primarily concerned with the vernacular printed texts written or commissioned by the English Birgittines. Particularly interesting here are Powell's comments on Syon's greater print profile in the 1520s and 1530s, which she attributes primarily to the abbey's 'new, jeopardized position' (p. 144) due to the King's Great Matter. Chapter 6, updated slightly since its publication in 1998, considers Lady Margaret Beaufort's ownership and sponsorship of books and printers. Powell justifies its inclusion by noting that its relevance to the scholarship on Syon has often gone unrecognized.
This core of five essays is framed by two newly-written 'book-ends'. Chapter 1 provides an excellent overview of the Birgittine Order and of the foundation, composition, and intellectual activity of the community at Syon—the only Birgittine house in England. In Chapter 7, Powell discusses the later history of Syon, covering the latter Henrician period, the house's brief re-foundation under Mary I, and its two periods of exile. As well as providing a useful introduction to the abbey's post-Dissolution experience, this chapter makes a distinct contribution to the history of the book. It closes with a meticulously researched section tracing the histories of eight printed books inscribed by Syon nuns.
The seven essays are supplemented by a number of useful appendices. An introductory 'Note on the Bibliography of Syon Abbey and the Birgittine Order' provides a welcome complement to Powell's extensive bibliography...