St. Birgitta of Sweden's Revelationes (1492) in York Minster Library

By Morris, Bridget | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

St. Birgitta of Sweden's Revelationes (1492) in York Minster Library


Morris, Bridget, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


The seven hundred revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden were first printed in Lubeck in 1492 at the press of Bartholomaeus Ghotan in an edition that was commissioned by the mother-house of the Birgittine order at Vadstena in Sweden. According to the colophon, two men, a brother named Petrus Ingemari (later confessor general at Vadstena, d. 1526), and a lay brother named Gerhardus (a German by birth, d. 1515, who was described in the Diarium Vadstenense as a "bonus pictor"), went to Lubeck on September 27, 1491, to oversee the printing. Both brethren returned to Vadstena on November 25, 1492, taking with them several unbound copies. (1) The edition opens with the Epistola domini Johannis Cardinalis de Turrecremata, an abbreviated version of the defense by the Spanish Dominican Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468) in response to the controversy surrounding the Revelationes at the Council of Basel in the 1430s. (2) Then follows the defense by Birgitta's Swedish confessor, Master Matthias of Linkoping, which is widely known from its incipit as the Stupor et mirabilia, and constitutes a prologue to the seven Books of Revelationes. The main part of the volume is taken up with Books I-VII which are followed by certain additional materials: the Epistola solitarii ad reges (an endorsement of the saint by her later confessor and general editor, Alphonso of Jaen), Book VIII (a collection of political revelations), the Regula s. Salvatoris (the Birgittine Rule), Sermo Angelicus (the liturgy for the Birgittine nuns), Quattuor orationes (four prayers in praise of Christ and the Virgin), and Revelationes Extravagantes (various additional materials that were not incorporated into the canonization edition). At the end is the Vita abbreviata sanctae Birgittae, an extensive alphabetical index, and a prayer addressed to St. Birgitta. (3)

The Ghotan printing marks the end of a long and complex process of textual transmission that began in the 1340s with Birgitta writing down her visions in her native tongue. (4) Her Swedish text was then translated into Latin, and after her death in 1373 a revision was carried out by Alphonso of Jaen to meet the requirements of the canonization committees appointed by the papacy. None of the earliest drafts in Swedish or Latin survives, except for two fragments in Birgitta's own hand that are now housed in the National Library in Stockholm. (5) From the late fourteenth century until the early sixteenth century, hundreds of copies in Latin were made. The estimated 180 manuscripts that survive today fall into four main groupings that are broadly associated with centers or regions of Birgittine influence, in particular, Naples, Prague, Vadstena, England and Germany. During this period the text was augmented with supplementary and explanatory materials, and the ordering of the Books of Revelations was subject to rearrangement. In fact, it was not until Ghotan's first printed edition that the Birgittine corpus became properly defined for the first time. (6) This printing had a run of eight hundred copies on paper and sixteen deluxe copies on parchment. Today, about fifty copies of the 800 volumes printed on paper survive in libraries throughout the world, and just four copies of those printed on parchment are extant. (7)

York Minster Library possesses a paper copy of Ghotan's edition (Library Class mark XII. J.9). The volume is first mentioned in the catalogue of the Minster Library, which was compiled in 1638, and entered as "Turra Cremata de Revelacionibus S. Birgittae," referring to the opening text, Torquemada's Epistola. (8) This catalogue was compiled as a consequence of the substantial donation of more than three thousand books to the library in 1628 by the widow of Archbishop Tobie Matthew, who was born in Bristol in 1546 and spent the years from 1559 to 1583 in Oxford before becoming bishop of Durham 1583 and archbishop of York in 1606. (9) Although it is quite likely that the Birgittine volume was part of Matthew's library, there is no evidence that it was, for it bears none of his hallmark signatures, initials or motto as bishop of Durham or archbishop of York. …

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