The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, Volume 4

The Heavenly Emperor's Book to Kings, The Rule, and Minor Works

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Editor(s): 
Bridget Morris
Translator(s): 
Denis Searby
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2015.
     432 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780195166286.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The biography of Birgitta of Vadstena (1303-1373), the patron saint of Sweden, is indeed extraordinary. She was a Swedish noble lady married to Ulf Gudmarssøn, with whom she had eight children. Birgitta received divine revelations throughout her life, but her spiritual life intensified after the death of her husband in 1344. All in all she received some seven hundred revelations on various subjects such as the state of humanity, the papacy, the monarchy in Sweden, spiritual life, and devotion to the Virgin Mary. Her most lasting achievement is probably her monastic foundation, the Birgittine order (Ordo Sanctissimi Savatoris), approved by pope Urban V in 1370. Birgitta herself never joined the monastic order she inspired, but lived, according to her vitae, an extraordinary exemplary and saintly life. Her canonization was promoted by Alfonso of Jaén and archbishop Birger Gregersson of Uppsala in Sweden, and accepted in 1391. Birgitta is known to have recorded her revelations in Swedish while her confessors worked to collect, translate, edit, and arrange them. The style of her work is prophetic and characterized by a richness of images and allegories and a fundamental understanding of traditional fourfold Christian exegesis (the quadriga).

Birgitta’s entire corpus has now for the first time been made accessible to a larger audience with this translation into English By Denis Searby. The works have been carefully and conscientiously translated and supplied with useful and highly accomplished introductions and notes by Bridget Morris. Searby’s translations are all based on a recent critical edition of the Latin texts. Morris, who has previously published multiple authoritative works on Birgitta, demonstrates a rich in-depth knowledge of the life, religious practice, and endeavors of this Swedish saint. Each chapter in the entire series is provided with an introduction to the work and its context. A thorough introduction to Birgitta can be found in volume I of this series.

The previous three volumes, published in 2006, 2008, and 2012, included Birgittas revelations Books I-VII—a division that reflects the first printed edition from 1492. This fourth concluding volume includes some of the most important Birgittine documents: The Heavenly Emperor’s Book to Kings, often referred to as Book VIII, the Rule of the Savior, The Angel’s Discourse, The Extravagant Revelations, and a number of prayers, meditations, and letters.

The Heavenly Emperor’s Book to Kings was compiled by Alfonso of Jaén after the death of Birgitta, probably in 1376-77, and was most likely included in the submission to Pope Urban VI on the occasion of her promotion as a saint. The book contains fifty-eight revelations, mainly on the government of kings, and specifically the Swedish King Magnus, and is in this respect an interesting commentary on political affairs in medieval Sweden. Alfonso supplied it with a treatise, The Hermits Letter to the King, on how to distinguish divine visions. His treatise may be read as a defense of the divine nature and authenticity of Birgittas revelations generally.

The Rule of St. Savior, was, according to Birgitta, received in a very short time directly from Christ, most likely before her pilgrimage to Rome in 1349. It is a guide to the monastic life practiced in Vadstena and the foundation of the Birgittine Ordo. The final version of the rule included numerous elements from the Revelationes extravagantes—also included in this volume—which provides the finer details and practical instructions for daily monastic life. The rule as a whole echoes the Benedictine rule and is inspired by other monastic rules as well, but also has distinct characteristics. First of all the Birgittines placed the Virgin Mary at the very heart of spiritual life. Her prominent position is reflected in Birgittine architecture, liturgy, prayers, and daily practices. The holy family, in particular the motherhood of the Virgin Mary and the exemplary marriage of the Virgin’s parents, came to play a central role. Secondly, the Birgittine rule operated with two parallel convents: one for women and one for men. In practice, however, the male fratres mainly served to assist the nuns as priests, and the entire abbey was under the direction of the abbess (114). This occasionally led to some conflict, as the brethren “felt superior to the sisters, who were widows or young women of lesser education” (117). In her introduction to the Rule of the Saviour, Morris provides a useful overview of the characteristics of the order and its establishment in Sweden and beyond.

The Angel's Discourse was revealed to Birgitta in Rome and it is the “embodiment of the order’s contemplative spirituality” (153). It was translated into Latin by Master Petrus of Skänninge who also used it as the foundation for the composition of the Birgittine Office, also known as the Song of the Sisters, Cantus Sororum. It spells out the Mariological foundation of the order’s liturgy.

The four major prayers included in the book will be well-known material for scholars of Northern European devotion and prayer books in particular. These prayers, especially the Fifteen Oes, were often included in devotional books and testify to the legacy and popularity of Birgitta and the Birgittines (201). Although it is debatable whether or not they were composed by Birgitta, they illustrate the constitutional importance of prayers in Birgittine spirituality.

The final section of volume IV is dedicated to letters and meditations attributed to Birgitta. The volume also includes extensive and very helpful indexes that reference all four volumes in the series. There are individual indexes for place names, personal names, cited works, subjects, images, biblical citations, and date and place of origin. They provide a useful tool for accessing the Birgitta corpus from numerous angles.

The publication of The Revelations of Birgitta of Sweden vol. I-IV is a most useful and stimulating contribution to the study medieval religious history. The volumes provide an amazing source of material for the study of medieval spirituality, visionary life, monastic ideals, and female agency. Volume IV is a must read for scholars and undergraduates interested in medieval spirituality and the thoughts of a truly inventive visionary.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Katrine Skinnebach is a post-doctoral fellow in art history, focusing on medieval and early modern religious cultures at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Date of Review: 
September 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Denis Searby is Professor in Classical Languages at the Universities of Stockholm and Uppsala. He has worked on a number of translations and critical editions in Latin and Greek, primarily within the tradition of Greek prose anthologies.

Bridget Morris was formerly Senior Lecturer in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Hull. She is the author of a number of articles and books on St. Birgitta and medieval Swedish literature.

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