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Reading and health in the medieval convent

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By | Early Medicine

Medieval medicine, based on the writings associated with Hippocrates and Galen, held that health depended on keeping the body’s humours (blood, choler, phlegm and melancholy) in equilibrium. The regulation of the ‘non-naturals’, influences on the body such as the consumption of food and drink and the quality of the environment, enabled the humoral balance within the body to be maintained.

Page from medieval regimen of health.

MS. 31 (Aldobrandino da Siena, Le régime du corps, manuscript produced in 1390), folio 1r. This regimen of health in French was first composed in the mid-13th century.

Guidance for doing so was outlined in the popular textual genre of the ‘regimen sanitatis’ (‘regimen of health’), which, increasingly written in the vernacular in the late Middle Ages, incorporated medical concepts and language into accessible literature for a wide audience. John Lydgate’s ‘Dietary’ exemplifies this, advocating the benefits of moderation: ‘Food in moderation gives man his health, and removes all surfeits [excesses]’.

Within monasteries, monks and nuns followed an enclosed way of life that accorded with many of the tenets of regimens of health. Their lives were established around strict routine and regulation that served to maintain and enhance their physical and spiritual well-being. Reading and learning were key components of the monastic routine, and played an important role in promoting health and well-being. Indeed, many monasteries possessed medical manuscripts, such as the abbey of Bury Saint Edmunds, one of whose volumes is now held by the Wellcome Library (MS. 801A).

Syon Abbey in Middlesex, established in 1415 by King Henry V of England as a monastic house of the Order of Saint Saviour, provides such an example. This Order, founded by Saint Birgitta of Sweden (1303–73), was intended primarily for contemplative nuns, but also included priest-brothers and deacons whose duty was to provide spiritual guidance for the sisters. Its strict observance attracted many followers, and Syon became one of the wealthiest monasteries in England. More than this, however, it was celebrated for its learning and for the many books and manuscripts in the libraries of the sisters and brothers.

Woodcut of St Birgitta.

Woodcut of Saint Birgitta of Sweden. Iconographic no. 4778i. Wellcome Images V0031748.

‘The Myroure of oure Ladye’ is a Middle English translation and commentary on the liturgy for the sisters. Intended not to replace the Latin text, but rather to enhance the sisters’ understanding of their Office, ‘The Myroure’ contains a section on the devout reading of holy books, and speaks of the importance of matching the specific reading to the reader’s individual disposition. This echoes the earlier instructive ‘Ancrene Wisse’, a monastic rule (or manual) for anchoresses (female religious recluses) written in the early 13th century. Indeed, reading, according to the Carthusian prior, Guigo II, is the foundation for the contemplative life, for ‘it provides the subject matter we must use for meditation’.

The presence of so many books at the sisters’ disposal at Syon is significant, as engaging in pleasing activities, including reading, was understood to be beneficial to health. Indeed, the Middle English translation of the ‘Secretum secretorum’ (originally thought to have been written by Aristotle), recommends ‘delitable bokes’, which, translated from Middle English, can mean ‘books that are pleasing to the senses’. This is an instruction that is reiterated within texts directed to those enclosed in monastic life. The ‘Ancrene Wisse’, for example, specifically points its readers to ‘instructive tales’ if they ‘feel dispirited, or are grieved’ or sick.

The textual guides of the sisters of Syon highlight reading as fundamental in the maintenance of the nuns’ routine. Books become objects through which a nun might engage in dialogue with God. For example, ‘The Myroure of oure Ladye’ states that ‘reading is a kind of speaking’, and ‘just as in prayer, man speaks to God, so in reading God speaks to man’. In other words, if the reader studies the text correctly, she will be inspired to praise God more devoutly; to allow the ‘grace and light of understanding to enter into the soul, so that the soul sayeth and feeleth more openly the truth of the Word, and has more comfort and edification thereof’. For the Syon reader, therefore, reading can have a therapeutic effect: a ‘medicine of words’, to borrow the term of the medieval mystic Richard Rolle (d. 1349).

In ‘The Myroure’ the reader is encouraged to use the book ‘like a mirror’, in which she can see ‘our lady’ reflected, and be ‘stirred the more devoutly to praise her’. The word ‘stir’ reinforces the notion of the healing power of reading, as it is reminiscent of the vocabulary used in certain medieval medical texts. For example, a Middle English translation (Wellcome MS. 564) of Henri de Mondeville’s ‘Chirurgia’ (or ‘Surgery’), first composed in Latin in the first part of the 14th century, describes ‘þe humouris’ (the humours) as ‘stirred and flowing’.

Medically, to ‘stir’ the humours would rebalance one’s health. In a religious context, this is framed to correspond to good devotion. Saint Birgitta’s Rule instructs the sisters to ‘proceed now in the way of health’, and the ‘Additions’ to the Rule describe how a sister, being ‘moved and stirred’, might be more inclined to ‘perpetually serve Him in holy religion, and especially in this religion of Saint Birgitta’.

The analogy of the mirror is also significant. As Ann Hutchison has noted, in II Corinthians 3:18, Paul wrote: ‘It is given to us all alike, to catch the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, with faces unveiled: and so we become transfigured into the same likeness, borrowing glory from that glory, as the spirit of God enables us’. To be stirred by reading, therefore, might simultaneously rebalance the health of the reader and inspire devotion.

But the nuns at Syon were not encouraged to read indiscriminately. Their instructions order them to read ‘no worldly matters’, ‘no books that speak of vanities or trifles’, and ‘much less no books of evil, or occasion to evil’. Instead, they are asked to choose books that will ‘stir’ their feelings of ‘joy and love’, ‘sometimes hope’, ‘sometimes sorrow and compassion’. In other words, they should choose books that would be fitting for their mood or situation. They are encouraged to read what might provoke a balanced emotional state, much like in modern-day cognitive behavioural therapy, which prescribes positive self-talk and beneficial activities.

The advice in ‘The Myroure’ to read for ‘spiritual comfort and profit’ is, therefore, indicative of a wider medieval trend of reading for health. Birgitta’s Rule and the accompanying Syon literature are a remarkable example of this: they recognise the healing power of words, which not only provide ‘comfort and edification’, but ‘stir’ the reader to strive to be closer to God.

Further reading:
Vincent Gillespie, ‘Dial M for mystic: mystical texts in the library of Syon Abbey and the spirituality of the Syon brethren’, in The medieval mystical tradition: England, Ireland and Wales: Exeter Symposium VI, ed. Marion Glasscoe (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), pp. 241–68.

C. Annette Grisé, ‘The textual community of Syon Abbey’, Florilegium, 19 (2002), 149–62.

Richard Grothé, ‘Le MS. Wellcome 564: deux traités de chirurgie en moyen-anglais’ (2 vols, unpublished PhD thesis, Université de Montréal, 1982).

Ann M. Hutchison, ‘What the nuns read: literary evidence from the English Bridgettine house, Syon Abbey’, Mediaeval Studies, 57 (1995), 205–22.

Lanfranc of Milan, A Middle English version of Lanfranc’s Chirurgia parva: the surgical part, ed. Annika Asplund ([Stockholm]: Stockholm University, 1970).

Richard Rolle, English writings of Richard Rolle, hermit of Hampole, ed. Hope Emily Allen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931; repr. 1963).


Hannah Lucas is an M.Phil candidate at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, studying Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Her M.Phil dissertation focuses on female health at Syon Abbey. She will begin her D.Phil at the University of Oxford in 2017, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. At Oxford she will continue researching female health in late medieval religious communities.

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