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St John's College : Thomas Betson's Notebook

St John's College

<p style='text-align: justify;'>The Syon Abbey Herbal, contained in this manuscript, is notable as the last such text to be compiled in a religious house before the Dissolution in 1539. Also remarkable is the fact that we know the identity of its author – <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Thomas Betson</a> – and, unusually for even late-medieval members of the religious orders, many details of Betson's life survive. His origins remain obscure, but dialectal evidence from one his writings suggests that he may have come from near Billericay in Essex. Over the course of eight years, he studied civil and canon law at Cambridge and practised as a church lawyer. He also worked as an ordained priest, latterly for fifteen years as rector of the small parish of Wimbish. Probably in the summer of 1481, aged about 45, Betson left this post and the secular world, joining Syon Abbey as a monk. There he lived out his days until his death on 20 February 1516/17. During that time, Betson published <i>A ryght profytable treatise</i>, a devotional work printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1500 (see, for example, <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Cambridge, University Library, Inc.5.J.1.2[3560]</a>). He was evidently an active copyist, with four other manuscripts by or containing his hand surviving. An early printed portrait in a broadsheet produced for Syon is probably identifiable as Betson, thanks to the 'tb' monogram that accompanies the kneeling figure (see below).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'><img style="padding:10px;" src="/images/general/Betson.jpg" /></p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Syon Abbey was a Bridgettine foundation, established by Henry V in 1415. It was first located on a site near the present Twickenham Bridge, and the foundation stone was laid by Henry on 22nd February 1415. This house proved too small and damp for habitation and new quarters were built nearby at what is now Syon House. The intended complement of these 'mixed' Bridgettine Abbeys was 60 sisters and 25 brothers, the brothers to include 13 priests – though its population never reached these numbers. Notably, all were subject to the Abbess. Syon became a centre for pilgrimage, preaching and learning, and even the publishing of printed devotional books. It was enmeshed in the divorce of Catherine of Aragon in 1533, whom it supported, and the Oath of Supremacy to Henry VIII in 1535, which it opposed. It was closed down in the Dissolution of 1539. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Betson kept the notebook shown here during his time at Syon, probably from 1500 onwards (see f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(262);return false;'>[vi] verso</a>). It is small and almost square, only 145mm in height and 110mm in width. The skin on the wooden boards is off-white, but beneath it, particularly against the inside rear wooden board, lies what may be a typical Syon deep pink binding, now much faded. The text is on paper, with a few added sheets of parchment. The paper was sourced from at least eight different stocks. The handwriting varies from the neat to the illegible, which might reflect its compilation over many years by an increasingly elderly Betson. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The contents of the notebook are highly varied, with many short texts, the majority medical, but also religious, devotional, legal, experimental and others besides. The notebook contains an alphabetical list of the names of 700 herbal plants, many not native to Britain; they were written in Latin, French and Middle English, with some transcribed from Greek and even Arabic. Betson grouped Latin or English synonyms for these herbs under the main name, which he wrote in a larger script. To this 'Herbarium', he then added a selection of herbal remedies, a passage wholly in Latin on the use of urine for diagnosis, particularly of women's conditions, and another on herbal essences preserved in alcohol. Betson's lists of remedies were less well-organised: they appear to be in no particular order, with rubrics usually written in larger script and underlined, but often spilling into the margin. Manicules or the letters 'NB' often point out entries of apparent importance. None of these systems provided a good finding-aid for a particular illness or remedy, except for someone closely familiar with the book's contents and organisation. Given this, and its small, portable size, the likelihood is that the notebook was only ever intended for personal use.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Betson also compiled a catalogue, or 'Registrum', of Syon's books, which survives as <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 141</a> (see Bateson (1898) and Gillespie (2001)). It records 1,747 volumes, both manuscript and printed, and often containing multiple texts. Medical texts are especially well represented, with most of the current European medical, medical-astrological and herbal texts attested therein. In the section marked 'B', there are writings from both the medieval and classical periods, as well as translations of works originally written in Greek and Arabic. They include texts such as the <i>Antidotarium Nicholai</i> and the <i>Circa instans</i> of Platearius, both widely circulated and required reading for any trained physician.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Despite these rich resources being readily to hand, Betson seems to have used almost none of the medical, astrological or herbal books in Syon's library in compiling his own herbal. Instead he used texts that he must have acquired or borrowed from elsewhere, perhaps other religious houses. Among them was the <i>Sinonima de nominibus herbarum</i> of John Bray (d. 1381), physician to Edward III, perhaps in the copy preserved in London, British Library, MS Sloane 282, ff. 167v-173v (one of six surviving manuscripts). This provided the list of plants for the 'Herbarium', with some omissions (notably the poisonous mandrake; 'mandragora' in Bray). </p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Bray's work was also the source of of the 450 remedies that Betson's notebook contains, though there does not appear to be a correspondence between the plants cited in the 'Herbarium' and those listed in the remedies. By far the largest number are for eye problems (24), fevers and stomach problems (21 each), gout (9) and toothache (7). A number of these remedies are widely attested and were evidently common folk remedies. The phrase 'Expertum est' is sometimes written into the margins, attesting to the treatment's efficacy, but this may have been copied by Betson from his source rather than being a personal judgement.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Elsewhere, Betson used the <i>Urina rufa</i> and <i>Colamentum sanguinis</i> – two early medieval texts in wide circulation – for his section on urine flasks. For recipes for medicinal waters, Betson may have used the <i>Breviarium Bartholomaei</i> of John Mirfield (fl. 1390), of St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, which contains fifty such preparations.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Betson's purpose in compiling the 'Herbarium' was perhaps straightforward: to create a convenient reference book that could aid understanding of the various plant-names in the library's several herbals. The notebook makes no reference to the habitat or appearance of the plants it cites, contains no illustrations, nor instructions as to when to gather or how to store plants, or the length of their efficacy. There is no 'quid pro quo' section, a common addition to herbals that suggested possible substitutions. The resources of the library and Betson's notebook suggest that members of the Syon community possessed detailed medical, botanical and herbal knowledge, but no evidence survives of its members, male or female, putting these to practical use. An audit of the Syon Gardens by the naturalist William Turner in the late 1550s suggests that there may have been a herb garden there, though none has been located. Only 44 books from Syon's immense library are known to survive. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'>John Adams and Stuart Forbes<br /> Syon Abbey Research Associates <br /> Contact: [] <br /> Website: <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>The Syon Abbey Society</a></p><p style='text-align: justify;'><i>References:</i><br />John Adams, 'Syon Abbey: Its Herbal, Medical Books and Care of the Sick: Healthcare in a Mixed Mediaeval Monastery' (Syon Abbey Society [Online publication], 2015): <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>available online</a><br /><i>The Syon Abbey Herbal: The Last Monastic Herbal in England, c. AD 1517: From St. John's College, Cambridge, Manuscript 109 (E.6)</i> (London: AMCD, 2015).</p>

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