The most famous abbey you've never heard of

In the 16th century, a group of nuns was remaking the way ordinary people practised their own religious devotion. An Augustana scholar reveals some surprising reasons why it’s important today.

Bruce Grierson, '86 BA(Spec) - 27 March 2023

Brandon photo
Photo by John Ulan.

Birgitta of Sweden has an unusual origin story for someone elevated to sainthood. One day in the 14th century, as a married mother of eight, she received divine instructions from God: she was to found a new religious order, and to up her service game.

And so Birgitta duly devoted herself to a life of kindness and compassion, which caught the attention of the highest church functionaries in Rome and aristocrats from across Europe. King Henry V opened his wallet. And soon there arose, on the northern bank of the River Thames in the English countryside in the early 15th century, an abbey. 

Not just any abbey. “The most important medieval monastery you’ve never heard of,” as Brandon Alakas puts it. He’s a scholar at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus.

Syon Abbey. Home of the Birgittines (it’s a soft “g”), sometimes called the Bridgettines, a maverick order that fashioned a unique devotional lifestyle based on extraordinarily balanced gender roles for the time, organized in an utterly new way. It was a happening place, on the cultural cutting edge, a bastion of independent thinking with a wild whiff of humanism.

Rare for that region and time, the Birgittines shared a “double monastery” (nuns and monks shared the premises, though in separate cloisters). In this fashion, Syon Abbey turned twin faces to the world. 

“Doctrinally it was extremely orthodox,” Alakas says, “but a lot of what was going on looks like what evangelical reformers — the followers of Martin Luther — were doing around the same time. That paradox is so interesting. And this community of nuns is so interesting. It just blows up every preconception we have about the period.”

Somewhere between the time the abbey was demolished by henchmen of the Tudors (and the nuns and monks chased into exile) in the 1530s, and the time it was reconstructed, brick-by-brick 300 years later in what is now central London, St. Birgitta and her followers all but disappeared from the history books.

The young Canadian scholar took it upon himself to remedy that.

Brandon Alakas illustrationAlakas is an associate professor of English in the Department of Fine Arts and Humanities. In his office, and in his classrooms, incoming students might be forgiven for thinking they are holy wayfarers being welcomed at the doors of Syon Abbey itself, with all the radical hospitality the Birgittines were known for.

Alakas is boyish and incandescently bright. He seems way too young to have such a breadth of learning under his belt. But the more you learn about him, the more it seems perfectly logical that he would have landed in this space, a world expert in devotional literature written during the first half of the 16th century. 

Growing up in Welland, Ont., in the 1990s, Alakas found the CanLit menu in the public school system, characterized largely by Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, didn’t speak deeply to him and his family’s immigrant roots. He was into languages, and multicultural perspectives — and these pockets of late-medieval  life offered, surprisingly enough, just the kind of polyglot feast to satisfy his appetite. In medieval times, he discovered, cultures met and milled. Multilingual conversation soared over borders. 

“One of the interesting things about this research, and why I love it so much, is it brings together all these different language communities,” Alakas says. “The nuns themselves were highly educated, and they recognized that languages mattered, and that different languages were different windows into different cultures.” 

To be able to read and write in multiple languages — including the prestige language of Latin — would have been like having a janitor’s belt full of keys: entrée into the precincts of spiritual advancement and influence. The Birgittines not only let themselves in, but they propped the door open behind them. 

As he delved ever deeply into the research, first for his master’s degree and then his doctoral dissertation (at the U of T and Queen’s, respectively) — mirroring the devotion and focussed intensity of the nuns themselves — Alakas realized that pretty much everything most of us were taught in school about this historical period was wrong. Or if not wrong, at least flattened into crude stereotypes. People tend to retrofit history so it fits inside our heads. We pump up the divisions into dichotomy (e.g., Catholic versus Protestant) and sand down nuance, skipping over what might lie between. 

“The story we were told was that the Middle Ages were a period of, you know, ignorance and superstition and barbarism, before the Renaissance descends with its light and learning and printing and the rest of the good stuff. But that’s really not true at all. What the existence of the Birgittines tells us is that people in the 1520s and 1530s had private spiritual lives that were so much more complex and sophisticated than people today assume. 

“Life is more complex than we often think it is, right?”

The sisters and brothers of Syon lived pious and ascetic lives, praying and working and giving every extra penny they earned to the poor. But they did have one delicious indulgence: books. “The Birgittine community was the only one that allowed women in particular to have as many books as they wanted,” Alakas says. At a time when there were strict prohibitions against private property, this was pretty subversive. 

And it’s this part of the story that really lights Alakas up — as it would any bibliophile. 

Consider that there weren’t actually a lot of books qua books floating around at the time. “Syon Abbey kind of straddles this interesting moment in history, the transition from the manuscript to the printed book,” Alakas says. Because many of the Birgittines came from aristocratic families, they had the resources and connections to amass rare and important works. And so the Syon Abbey library was, by all accounts, one of the finest, and most important, in all of England. Sir Thomas More, English statesman and politician who eventually ran afoul of Henry VIII, used to visit to do work. Erasmus, “the greatest scholar of the Northern Renaissance,” according to Britannica, would drop by to avail himself of the collection. 

With the monks doing the actual writing, and the nuns largely steering content by salting the curriculum with the priorities they felt were most urgent to women, the books became a cornerstone of religious observation. They also became a thriving business. In its first century, the Abbey was a kind of boutique publisher, pumping out high-quality devotional guides, many of which became bestsellers and were reprinted multiple times in the 1520s and 1530s. In a sense the Birgittines were like that small band of Harvard undergraduates who produced those Let’s Go travel guides that were snapped up like hotcakes by adventurous hipster travellers in the 1970s. The difference is, instead of maps to explore the world “out there,” the Birgittines created guides to explore the inner world.

And this is maybe the most interesting thing about these nuns: the kind of reading they were doing and promoting. You might think of Syon Abbey as a kind of cradle of the “deep read.” Sitting quietly under a tree reading scripture was the new touchstone of a Christian life. One of the most famous texts of the Birgittines’ describes reading scripture to oneself as “talking to God,” unmediated.

This brand of intense, immersive, devotional reading is as different from the way most people received the Word of God at the time as a freedive is from a 10-second shower. Until then, devotional practices were aural and mediated by a priest, to whom devotees listened passively. In contrast, the Birgittines espoused lectio divina, a multi-stage process of burrowing increasingly deeply into the warp and weft of a text. And though lectio divina had been practised since antiquity, it was typically practised only by men. 

“The Birgittine nuns’ great contribution was that they made these elite spiritual practices accessible to anyone who could read,” Alakas says. Their “ideal reader,” you might say, would have been Birgitta herself. The practice of lectio divina, by the way, is sometimes applied to reading poetry or popular fiction. 

Alakas’s nuns may have been cloistered but with their practices of deep religious reading, their minds were liberated. It’s no stretch to say a kind of nascent feminism was happening here, 300 years before we think of feminism as actually being a thing. Yet another myth busted! Turns out feminism was not a light that suddenly came on at the end of the 19th century. Rather, “the authority women possessed in society ebbed and flowed throughout the Middle Ages,” Alakas says. And here, at Syon Abbey, at this point in the 16th century, the wave was surging onto the shore, edging closer to the high-water mark left by the men.

Students illustrationSo why should we care about any of this in 2023? 

A short answer is that the Middle Ages — specifically medieval devotional culture — had plenty of lessons for how to live today.

Even in an increasingly secular time, Christianity still matters — not least because it remains the source of many of our contemporary moral codes (for example, our ideas around human rights). The template for much of western society as we know it now originated here, in the contemplative practices that sprang up during this period. So, in order to understand why we moderns do a lot of what we do — even a lot of who we are — we need to hop in the Wayback Machine and return to the Middle Ages.

“Even if we don’t agree with their beliefs, the convictions of these people are pretty impressive,” Alakas says. “And the strategies they figured out to assert themselves within authority are definitely worth studying.” Done well, this work shrinks history. “The period might seem long ago and far away,” says Laura Saetveit Miles, a professor of British Literature at the University of Bergen and an editor at the Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, “but it gives us a mirror into a coherent literary tradition that is still ongoing today.”

Not long ago Alakas edited and generally spruced up for modern readers a work by a 16th-century Birgittine priest named Richard Whitford, called Dyuers Holy Instrucyons and Teachynges Very Necessary for the Helth of Mannes Soule. The title alone would land it a comfortable shelf spot at any local New Age bookstore.

Self-help books flourish at moments in history when people desperately need guidance. Whitford’s book was written in 1541, a time of significant cultural upheaval. Plagues were barelling across Europe. The Reformation was coming whether folks wanted it or not. (Mostly they didn’t.) Henry VIII was bestriding England with the Catholics in his crosshairs. He had already divorced his first wife and the Catholic Church. The subsequent Acts of Suppression of 1536 and 1539 were closing monasteries at the rate of 50 a month, and redistributing their significant wealth, mostly to the Crown. The Birgittine sisters, as Alakas puts it, were now “nuns on the run.” 

“Think about what it must have been like,” Alakas says. “After the Reformation, everything you know, all those comfortable medieval Catholic rituals, the rhythm of your days, the markers that delineate the seasons of human lives, all those things are about to be upended. The fabric of society is being rewoven.” So central was the role of monasteries in communities that to flush them out was akin to gutting the whole “social services” infrastructure of England. 

“How do you make sense of the world where everything you know has gone pear-shaped?” 

With the medieval English people facing a situation hitherto unimaginable, you can see how Whitford’s pastoral guidance might have been a welcome tonic. It’s easier to appreciate this today than it would have been five years ago.

“COVID-19 gave us a small hint of what that kind of disruption must have been like,” Alakas says. “I think there are a lot of parallels. People felt at sea. Just as I think many people feel at sea today.” 

For a lot of us, sitting under a tree with a book is starting to sound pretty good again. 

Indeed, philosophies millenniums old are having a cultural moment. Think of the brisk rebound of Stoicism, and Eastern-inspired meditation practices. These are ancient rituals, intended to help us map our inner weather, at a time when the outer weather — the divisive political and cultural chaos that has fogged in the world — can seem overwhelming. The urge to pull back, pull inward, remove yourself from the hurly-burly in pursuit of a very personal spiritual experience: that is the same impulse that drew people to Syon Abbey in the first place. Spiritual looky-loos were drawn there to see its books or wander its orchards. And possibly to seek the Pardon of Syon, lessening the time their spirits would spend in purgatory after death. They were pilgrims. Just as Birgitta of Sweden herself had been a pilgrim — trudging hundreds of kilometres along one of the converging paths of the Camino de Santiago, with her staff and her bag and her tied-in-the-back pilgrim’s cap, before she had the first of the many visions that launched this whole affair.

In that spirit, Alakas will sometimes frame his classes as a kind of pilgrimage. When students successfully complete his Chaucer class, he presents each of them with a Latin certificate — embossed with the heraldic-looking U of A crest  — indicating that they have completed their pilgrimage through The Canterbury Tales

You may be starting to get an idea why Alakas distinguished himself as a star teacher so quickly. 

As a newly minted scholar, he won the Augustana Faculty Early Achievement of Excellence in Teaching Award in 2016, and then followed that up the next year with the Provost’s Award for Early Achievement of Excellence in Teaching. 

To tear Gen Z away from their phones and get them interested in an era of long-toed shoes and mandatory archery practice would seem, on the face of it, a kind of alchemy in itself. Who dares enter ye secret chambre of the mynde, therein to navigate that intimidating middle-English script? It’s actually not just the classics students who file in. “We’re a heavily interdisciplinary campus,” Alakas says. “So, I have management students, environmental science students, social science students, along with humanities students. Some of my best students are bio majors.” 

In evaluations, he receives notices like: “This course was easily one of the most positive learning experiences I’ve ever had.” Not just “one of the best English courses — one of the best applications of Miracle-Gro to the brain, full stop.” When he was awarded a major grant to edit the book about the Birgittine priest, Richard Whitford, one of the scholars on the selection committee wrote of Alakas that “he is likely the best-suited expert in the world to undertake this project. This is not an overstatement.” 

“Brandon represents the best in medieval studies: smart, inquisitive, kind, generous, eager, and sure to keep on producing important research that will shape the field for decades to come,” says Saetveit Miles, the University of Bergen scholar.

So Alakas could be forgiven for settling in up front and dispensing his knowledge, sage-on-the-stage style. But that is not his teaching style at all. Quite the opposite.

His teaching philosophy is downright Benedictine. (Which is to say it’s partially modelled on St. Benedict of Nursia, who literally wrote the book on how to live a good monastic life.) Alakas has borrowed selectively from that tradition, so don’t expect a dress code of cowl and tunic, but do expect a vibe of convivial co-creation. “Having in truth progressed in conversation … our hearts overflow with inexpressible delight,” as Benedict of Nursia put it. It’s during these in-class shootarounds that much of the best learning happens.

“One of the things we’re losing today is the ability to have a respectful civil dialogue with one another,” Alakas says. “I mean, yes, we have to be able to articulate our views. But we also have to be able to respect difference — difference of opinion, difference of tradition, and so on. And I think that when we converse with people, and spend that time with them, we become much more willing to see nuance and shades of meaning, we become much more accepting. Social media, sadly, has put each of us in a box. But when we actually talk — that is a real remedy for a lot of the problems that we face in the 21st century.”

In a sense Alakas does for his students what the nuns of Syon Abbey did for the surrounding villagers: he expands the breadth of their ambitions and stokes their commitment to pursue what they may find in these new waters.

Alakas is so adept at sizzling up this period in history that it seems inevitable he will eventually flesh out a whole medieval novel or three, perhaps elevating some Birgittine abbess the way author Hilary Mantel did in her Wolf Hall Trilogy, a fictionalized account of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, who like Thomas More lost his head to Henry’s axeman.

“I would love one day to write fiction about life in the abbey,” he says. “People would not believe what went on in there. It’s even too good to have been made up.”