Holy Familiars: Enclosure, Work, and the Saints at Syon Abbey

Article excerpt

The saints played a significant role in the life of any medieval Christian: structuring the sense of time through their feast days, appearing in church paintings and sculptures, featuring in sermons and Gospel readings, acting as intercessors and patrons in the business of daily life, to note only a few of their most obvious functions. And within this larger picture, as recent research has shown, the particular uses of a given saint in different populations could be extremely varied across time and place. (1) My focus here is on the role that the saints might have played, as far as we can recover it, in the imagination and spiritual life of the nuns and brethren of Syon and the monks of Sheen, the sibling monasteries founded by Henry V around 1420, and particularly their views of their vocational and spiritual labor within and outside the cloister. (2) I focus here primarily on Syon, the only Brigittine foundation in England, although some of what I have to say also involves Sheen, the strictly enclosed Carthusian monastery located near Syon and closely connected with it.

Most lay relationships to the saints also, of course, obtained for professed religious, but nuns and monks had further connections to the saints beyond those of their secular counterparts. They were more likely to read, or frequently to hear read, the lives and writings of the saints; they lived under the rule of a given saint; and their monastery or abbey was quite likely dedicated to a patron saint. In the case of the Brigittines of Syon Abbey, these connections were intensified by the fact that their saintly founder, relatively recently deceased, was emphatically present in all three contexts. (3) Moreover, Birgitta's sense of her own relationship to the saints, and the way this relationship was expressed and instituted in her Revelations and her Rule (conveyed to her directly in a vision, by Jesus), had an important shaping effect on Brigittine spirituality. Essentially, I suggest, the saints, male as well as female, performed a simultaneous function of enclosure and exposure for both Birgitta and her order, acting as a kind of mediating community that structured not only the nuns' and brethren's practices within the monastery, but the public aspects of their foundation and their spirituality, their connections to the larger world.

This marks one of the greatest differences between the Brigittines of Syon and the Carthusians of Sheen. If, as Neil Beckett says, "among the noblest expressions of the Carthusian ideal is 'To make many saints but not to publicize them' (Non sanctos patefacere sed multos sanctos facere)," we might say that among the noblest of the Brigittine ideals was, rather, "sanctos patefacere." (4) As one might expect, however, such a public ideal, especially when associated with an order of enclosed women, could rouse anxieties, and the resistance to Birgitta's own canonization and the resulting problems with the foundation of her order reflect this. (5) It was thus necessary for Birgitta and for her order to inflect their claims to a public role (especially in the case of the nuns) by presenting those claims in culturally acceptable terms and imagery.

A consideration of what is distinctive in Birgitta's and Brigittine uses of the saints--in the founder's Revelations, in Brigittine church architecture, and in devotional, liturgical, and hagiographic texts composed or copied at Syon--shows us how they modeled, for these holy women and their brethren, a transcendence of the kinds of boundaries that could have made an enclosed life seem more isolated from the world than in fact it was. The saints' overlapping and fluid roles, crossing the gaps between heaven and earth, life and death, domestic and public, male and female, enabled both Birgitta's own public vocation and the collaborative spirituality of Syon. The saints, always a bridge "in medieval culture, became for the Brigittine nuns and brethren also a way to make the enclosed, domesticated, female-ruled space of the Abbey interdependent with the public, political, and seemingly male-dominated world of Lancastrian England. …


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