The Syon Abbey Herbal — AD 1517: The Last Monastic Herbal in England by John Adams and Stuart Forbes, eds. London, UK: AMCD Publishers; 2015. Hardcover, 376 pages. ISBN: 978-1897762-69-1. $54.00.
That the 2015 publication date of this book coincides with the 600th anniversary of the founding of Syon Abbey in the United Kingdom is no coincidence. Both editors of this book are research associates at the abbey, where extensive archaeological and historical studies are attempting to reveal the details of a wealthy monastic establishment that was suppressed and completely leveled by King Henry VIII in 1539. Now home to the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, the property is open to the public and supported by an active Syon Abbey Society.
The history of the abbey and its library is detailed throughout the book, albeit in chunks that can be difficult to follow. The authors attempt to create a coherent history, but the reader soon learns that the title of this book, as well as the dust cover illustration, is somewhat misleading.
The dust cover features a garden scene with a pomegranate (Punica granatum, Lythraceae) tree, clearly suggesting an herbal. However, just like the handwritten 1517 original, the book itself has no plant illustrations. The cover image actually comes f rom an Austrian medical manuscript dated a century earlier. In Appendix 3, the editors speculate that botanist William Turner, who stayed at the abbey not too long after the monastery’s dissolution, may have encountered such a tree on the grounds. As Adams and Forbes explain, “Turner may have found still growing at Syon plants which had been generally in the monastic medical repertoire.” They surmise one such plant might have been a pomegranate tree, which could have survived until Turner’s stay. The connection is a stretch, and a good deal of the appendix is tenuously linked to the famous botanist. Although Turner can be linked to the location of the monastery itself, very little, if any, of his work can be directly linked to the monastery, its library, or its garden.
It is not easy to accept what Adams and Forbes call the “Syon Abbey Herbal” as an actual monastic herbal. Instead, the book so titled contains excerpts from a personal notebook compiled over time by the librarian at Syon Abbey, Thomas Betson, a priest who at age 45 retired there to live out the rest of his life. What the editors call the “herbarium” is simply a list of medicinal plants that they couple to a random, unassociated group of herbal remedies. Also included with them is a section entirely in Latin on use of urine for diagnoses. Middle English is also used in the text, and for the many readers unfamiliar with either language, translations would have been most welcome for everything, not just for the plant list. Some translations are provided for Middle English terms, but very few for Latin. Because of this issue, the book will be challenging for the general reader, to whom this volume seems to be aimed, though the intended audience is not apparent.
As far as the list of plants and unassociated remedies is concerned, the editors say they have found no clue as to why, when, or where Betson wrote them down. No link can be established to the monastery garden, its medicinal plants, or any medical treatments used at the monastery or in an infirmary. As the editors write, “We have in fact no evidence that Betson, or any other member of the Syon Abbey community, male or female, had any practical knowledge of herbalism, botany or medicine.” It is interesting that the editors often use the term “notebook” to describe Betson’s compilation. It would have been much better to use the term “notebook” instead of “herbal” in this book’s title, because that is exactly what it is, and no more.
The way in which Betson’s plant list, or herbarium, is presented is also misleading, since the tabular format suggests actual correlations between texts and terms. The editors hypothesize that Betson may have used the numerous medical texts in the abbey library to compile his plant and remedies lists, as supposedly detailed in Appendix I. Unfortunately, the list is nowhere to be found — a shame, as it would have been of great interest to medical historians. This is the list one would expect to be cited in the table.
Instead, the editors located a work called the Synonyma de nominibus herbarum by John Bray (spelled Synonoma by Betson) in the British Library’s Sloane Manuscripts Compendium 282, from ca. 1381, which they claim to be the basis for Betson’s plant list, though it was never at Syon Abbey. They say Betson used it and, for this reason, present it beside Betson’s plant list in the form of a table. Do they offer any proof that Betson ever saw the Synonyma? Well, no, not exactly, and one wishes they had provided such evidence. Because none of the plants in the table can be linked to the abbey, to the remedies Betson had in his notebook, or to any garden at all, the postulated source is rather irrelevant, other than that it may have been of some interest to Betson. The translations of the plant names provided as the third element in the “herbarium” table (using Tony Hunt’s cited works) give it an authoritative look, but to what end?
Truth be told, the content of Betson’s notebook might have been more valuable to historians if it were published in its entirety under that name, including — with translations into modern English — the study of a sad love affair at the abbey (not titled “Mental Health and Syon”!), notes about mirrors, canon law, jokes, astrology, and so forth. Such a book could be accurately considered a compendium of topics of interest around the year 1500, one of them being medicinal herbs and health.
—Anne Van Arsdall, PhD
Research Associate, Institute for Medieval Studies
University of New Mexico