Inscriptions and Ways of Owning Books among the Sisters of Syon Abbey
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionReview of English Studies. 2021, 72 (307), 836-859. 10.1093/res/hgab023
This article discusses the phenomenon of personal inscriptions in manuscripts and printed books associated with the sisters of Syon Abbey (founded 1415), the sole English Birgittine house. It argues that personal inscriptions reveal the Syon sisters’ complex ownership-like relationships with their books, and that the sisters were able to demonstrate both their individual and communal devotional identity through their interaction with each other and their books. In the first section, the article defines ‘ownership’ in its legal context and discusses it in relationship to ‘use’. The second section closely reads the Syon legislative documents to discuss the sisters’ conceptualizations of book ownership within the bounds of their order. The third section discusses the practice of inscription, using evidence from extant Syon manuscripts and early printed books. The fourth section brings these contexts together to discuss two cases of hybrid book ownership: the functional ownership developed through repeated use of the Syon processionals, and the collective individual ownership of multiple copies of printed books. The article presents a new way of understanding inscriptions and their potential for community building and individuation at Syon Abbey and contributes to our understanding of women’s reading experiences and ownership practices in England at the turn of the sixteenth century and the late-medieval period as a whole.