LHM writes: At the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon conference in Bergen in June, I was delighted to hear another paper focusing on the use made of horticultural hermeneutics by another medieval woman writer, St Catherine of Siena, presented by Hannah Lucas as part of an MA project she had just completed at the University of Cambridge. Hannah is now about to begin a D. Phil at the University of Oxford and the HC team is pleased that she has agreed to do a guest blog based on her Bergen paper.
HANNAH LUCAS writes: The anonymous Middle English translation of St. Bridget of Sweden’s (1303-73) Liber Celestis, dated c. 1410-20, recounts God’s address to Bridget that the individual who does God’s will is ‘a gude tre’ [a good tree], who shall have ‘euirlasting plente, endeles hele and trew knawyng and sight of God’ [everlasting prosperity, endless health and a true understanding and sight of God].
Saint Bridget of Sweden. Woodcut.
Wellcome Library, London.
If they defy God, then the ‘cheefe rote is broken’ [main root is broken] and ‘þan will þe tre fall’ [then the tree will fall] (420). Here, the tree’s flourishing depends on devotion to God, who will reward his subject with prosperity and ‘hele’, which is defined by the Middle English Dictionary in the first instance as denoting health: ‘Sound physical condition, mental health; healing, cure, [health] of soule’. Secondly, it signifies ‘a state of happiness or prosperity […] spiritual profit’, and finally, ‘salvation, spiritual strength’.
These three classifications of physical and mental health, prosperity and salvation are repeatedly used in the Liber Celestis and reiterated by the Bridgettine rule – the Regula Salvatoris, or Rewyll of Seynt Sauioure – which similarly instructs novitiates to ‘procede nowe in the weye of helthe’ [proceed now in the way of health].
St Bridget giving her rule to her followers (c. 1480)
© Trustees of the British Museum
My current research employs the concept of ‘hele’ to consider the experience of female devotion at the foundation of Syon Abbey. My thesis considers the Bridgettine collection of instructive and devotional texts which, in addition to official governance by the rule of St. Augustine, underpinned life at Syon. The guidance for the nuns provided by these texts is often remarkably compassionate in tone, inviting the reader to both spiritual and physical prosperity. While the rule of St. Augustine, for instance, insists that the reader ‘[c]arnem vestram domate’ [subdue your flesh], the Syon monk Richard Whytford translated this passage as as ‘[c]orrect […] your flesshe and body’ (c. 1518, printed 1525), a translation that hints at the therapeutic inclination of Syon’s approach to the body, rather than one of mastery.
This is expressed most prevalently by the texts’ use of imagery and metaphors of the natural world, which make central the concept of ‘flourishing’, to borrow Grace Jantzen’s terminology. The origins of this concept are rooted in horticultural growth, related to the Middle English verb florir and the Latin florere, ‘to flower’, or the noun form, a ‘flourish’ – a mass of flowers on a fruit-tree. At Syon, the sisters maintained a close relationship with spaces of flourishing via the material landscape surrounding the Abbey, as well as the metaphorical representations of the natural world within their devotional texts.
In regards to the former, an early preoccupation with the natural topography is evidenced by the community’s removal within only a couple of years of its founding from the original Syon site on the Middlesex bank of the Thames to the present site of Syon House, in the parish of Isleworth. George James Aungier’s authoritative history of the monastery reveals the reasons for the move:
The said Abbess and Convent had presented their humble petition, setting forth, that their aforesaid monastery was so small and confined in its dimensions, that the numerous persons therein […] were not only incommodiously but dangerously situated […] that in consequence thereof the said abbess and convent had chosen out a spot in the neighbourhood of their said priory, within the said lordship of Isleworth, more meet, healthful and salubrious for them to inhabit.
This ‘dangerous’ situation may have been proximity to London’s ‘miasmas’, those unhealthy ‘vapours’ of the city which were counteracted by the inhalation of fresh, pleasant aromas, such as those from floral prophylactics. While recent excavations of Syon have not revealed concrete evidence of the site’s horticulture, the remains of the Abbey buildings have been assessed as follows:
Suggested layout of Syon Abbey from archaeological study
[The buildings] to the north were conventual buildings used by the nuns. They mainly comprised large east and north ranges with cloisters arranged around a garth. The east range possibly served as the nuns’ dorter or infirmary. This building was adjoined to the west by a south cloister and to the east by an enclosed area with a well, probably a yard or garden.
This presumption that the infirmary was situated beside the garden is convincing, considering the prevailing medieval tradition of healing gardens being planted within monastic precincts. These enclosed spaces can thus be read as components in the Abbey’s biosphere; an enclosed space in which the sisters could cultivate ‘hele’, of body and soul.
The Syon literature reflects this encouragement to personal cultivation of health with its abundant allegories and images of flourishing. The Orcherd of Syon – a Middle English translation of Catherine of Siena’s (1347-80) Il Libro, or Dialogo (1378) written specifically for the Syon sisters – offers a programme of lectio divina [sacred reading] in which the anonymous translator engages with, but ultimately departs from, the original author’s more punitive model of devotion.
Adapting Catherine’s revelations into English, the translator applies horticultural allegory as a helpful framework, using imagery of flourishing and the natural world to advise the reader on how such reading might cultivate them to ‘heelþe’ [health]. Such adaptations include a ‘kalendar’ and a format that divides the text into parts, chapters, and subsections. The translator names these ‘xxxv aleyes’ [35 pathways], which act as part of a wider allegorical structure that figures the text as an ‘orchard’, through which the reader is invited to ‘walke and se boþe fruyt and herbis’ [walk and see both fruit and plants] (1) contained within. This textual orchard provides instruction on how best to reap the spiritual benefits of the saint’s revelations, just as the literal orchard may have existed as a therapeutic space for the Syon sisters.
The text draws explicitly on the same metaphors of cultivation and flourishing that we find in St. Bridget’s Liber Celestis and rule. Indeed, Annette Grisé surmises that the Orcherd ‘may have conceived of using the vineyard as the allegorical framework for his work from reading the Rewyll of Seynt Saueoure’. She comments on the widespread popularity of ‘organic allegories and structural allegorical frameworks’ in the period, which would have become known to Syon readers as their library expanded, citing in particular The Devout Treatise of the Tree and XII Fruits, which was read at Syon, and The Pype or Tonne in the Lyfe of Perfection, written by the monk and self-styled ‘wretch of Syon’, Richard Whytford.
The translator may also have been inspired by Catherine’s text itself, which deploys horticultural imagery in the form of the familiar metaphor of the Church as a vineyard. She reiterates that all must ‘laboure in þe vyneȝerd of holy chirche […] in þe body of cristen religyoun’ [labour in the vineyard of holy church […] in the body of Christian religion], as well as insisting on the cultivation of one’s own personal ‘vineȝeerd’ [vineyard] of the ‘soule’, which they ‘may tilye and labore’ [till and labour] (164). The responsibility of such hard labour is consigned to the reader, who must therefore engage in active devotion in order to flourish: to ‘drawe out of þat þorn a roose’ [to draw out of that thorn a rose] (228).
The translator acknowledges the toil involved in this spiritual regimen, rendering this process within their own allegory as the consumption of metaphorical fruits. The translator’s prologue differentiates between fruits which might ‘seeme to summe scharpe, hard, or bitter’ [seem to some sharp, hard, or bitter], for example, and those which the reader ‘likeþ’ [likes] and ‘sauouren best’ [savours best], for ‘purgynge of þe soule’ [purging the soul] and ‘goostly cumfort’ [spiritual comfort] (1) respectively. The translator reiterates that regardless of bad taste, ‘þei ben ful speedful and profitable’ [the are both beneficial and profitable] (1), establishing a necessary remedy of reading, in which recreation and enjoyment are juxtaposed with labour. The reader is encouraged to discern between the two, a practice that is figured as part of the Syon spiritual regimen.
The translator’s interventions can thus be read as a response to Catherine’s devotional model, intended to assist the Syon reader in a personal flourishing. However, later editions of the text included a wider audience: printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1519, the printed edition allows for the unenclosed but devout reader as part of its intended readership. Its colophon tells of how ‘mayster Rycharde Sytton esquyer | stewarde of the holy monastery of Syon’ [Master Richard Sytton esquire, steward of the holy monastery of Syon] found ‘this ghostely tresure […] in a corner by itselfe’ [this spiritual treasure […] in a corner by itself] (vi). According to this account, the text was subsequently printed so that ‘many relygyous and deuoute soules myght be releued and haue conforte thereby’ [many religious and devout souls might be relieved and have comfort from it] (vi).
The opening page of this printed edition features a substantially-sized woodcut, detailing a figure of Catherine receiving a vision of God.
Woodcut of Catherine of Siena. Wellcome Images
The saint is situated in an expansive landscape of hills and trees, with the horizon punctuated by the spires of an urban settlement, this image is then bordered by decorative flora and fauna. Just as at Syon, these textual surroundings can be read as places of flourishing – horticultural components that contribute to the text’s multi-faceted, therapeutic programme of spiritual cultivation.
This holistic regimen employs the natural world to encourage both recreation and labour as part of the overarching pursuit of ‘hele’, and provides practical and spiritual guidance on how to do so. Other texts in the Syon syllabus offer similar recommendations, such as the Myroure of oure Ladye, which though primarily a commentary on the liturgy for the sisters, speaks of the importance of a healthy disposition. This advice applies even to the sisters’ horticultural pursuits, as in the additions to the Bridgettine rule, which caution against excessive time spent outdoors, with a particularly pragmatic direction which leaves the reader imagining the unfortunate incident which might have necessitated such an addition: ‘she that schal schet the garden gate, schal knokke myghtly thervpon […] that no suster lye in the garden al nyghte’ [she who will shut the garden gate, shall knock strongly upon it […], so that no sister lies in the garden at night]. While a walk in the garden might be considered conducive to ‘hele’, being locked out clearly was not!
 Bridget of Sweden, The Liber Celestis of St Bridget of Sweden: The Middle English Version, ed. by Roger Ellis, EETS O. S. 291, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 420.
 The Electronic Middle English Dictionary, ed. by Robert E. Lewis (Michigan: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service, 1953-2001), available at <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED20307> [accessed 3 May 2017], senses 1-3.
 The Rewyll of Seynt Sauioure and A Ladder of Foure Ronges by the Which Men Mowe Clyme to Heven, ed. by James Hogg (Salzburg: Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik Universität Salzburg, 2003), p. 69.
 ‘Subdue your flesh’. La Règle de Saint Augustin, ed. by Luc Verheijen, Tradition Manuscrite vol. 1 (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1967), p. 421 [my translation].
 Richard Whytford, The Rule of Saynt Augustyne (1525), Early English Books Online, available at:
<https://eebo.chadwyck.com/search/full_rec?SOURCE=var_spell.cfg&ACTION=ByID&ID=99845918&ECCO=param(ECCO)&FILE=../session/1496911024_13014&SEARCHSCREEN=CITATIONS&HIGHLIGHT_KEYWORD=param(HIGHLIGHT_KEYWORD)> [accessed 29 May 2017], sig. b. iiv [my emphasis].
 Grace Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998).
 George James Aungier, The History and Antiquities of Syon Monastery, the Parish of Isleworth, and the Chapelry of Hounslow (London: J. B. Nichols and Son, 1840), p. 79.
 Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synott, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 1. Cf. R. Palmer, ‘In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine on Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century’, in Medicine and the Five Senses, ed. by W. F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 61-68.
 Robert Cowie, ‘Syon House: Syon Park, Brentford, Middlesex TW8, London Borough of Hounslow: Birkbeck University of London Training Excavation 2004-2010, Post-Excavation Assessment’, project managed by Harvey Sheldon and Robin Densem (Unpublished Archaeological Assessment: Museum of London Archaeology, 2011), pp. 1-202 (p. 3) [my emphasis]. John Adams and Stuart Forbes have also briefly investigated the horticultural situation at Syon in The Syon Abbey Herbal, A. D. 1517 (London: AMCD, 2015).
 Cf. Carole Rawcliffe, ‘Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles’: Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England’, Garden History 36:1 (2008), 3-21; Paul Meyvaert, ‘The Medieval Monastic Garden’ in Medieval Gardens, ed. by Elizabeth B. Macdougall (Washington, D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1986), pp. 23-54; Teresa McLean, Medieval English Gardens (New York: The Viking Press, 1981), pp. 13-94; Sylvia Landsberg, The Medieval Garden (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), pp. 34-44.
 The Orcherd of Syon, ed. by Phyllis Hodgson and Gabriel M. Liegey, EETS O. S. 258, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 62.
 C. Annette Grisé, ‘“In the Blessid Vineȝerd of Oure Holy Saueour”: Female Religious Readers and Textual Reception in the Myroure of Oure Ladye and the Orcherd of Syon’, in The Medieval Mystical Tradition: England, Ireland and Wales: Exeter Symposium VI, ed. by Marion Glasscoe (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), pp. 193-213 (p. 205 n. 31).
 STC 4815.
 Edward Hodnett, English Woodcuts: 1480-1535 (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), p. 252, no. 862.
 For a further discussion of illustrations of Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden, see Martha Driver, ‘Representations of Saintly Women in Late Medieval Woodcuts’, in The Image in Print: Book Illustration in Late Medieval England and its Sources (London: The British Library, 2004), pp. 115-50.
 The Rewyll of Seynt Sauioure: The Syon Additions for the Sisters from the British Library MS Arundel 146, ed. by James Hogg, vol. 4 (Salzburg: Universität Salzburg, 1980), p. 192.