Tag Archives: Manuscripts

Discovering Sister Catherine ‘Kitty’ Witham in the Syon Abbey Collection

You may have seen that the Syon Abbey archive was in the news recently! On Tuesday 12 March 2019, an article was published in The Times concerning a letter written by Sister Catherine ‘Kitty’ Witham to her mother in 1756. The letter, which is part of the Syon Abbey archive, vividly describes the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and its consequences for the nuns of Syon Abbey. The University of Exeter’s press release about the letter can be read here.

There were several reasons why we wanted to raise awareness of Sister Kitty’s letter in the archive. Extracts from the letter have been published before, so it is not a new discovery as such, but until now it appears to have only been examined as an account of the earthquake. What we thought made this letter doubly interesting is the vivid description of the earthquake and the information we can glean from it about the lives of Sister Kitty and the Syon nuns.

Signature of Sister Kitty Witham from a letter (EUL MS 389/PERS/WITHAM)

Sister Kitty seemed a particularly interesting nun to focus on. In 1749, at the age of about 32, Sister Catherine Witham made her vow of profession as a choir nun at Syon Abbey in Lisbon, where she died 44 years later in 1793. Apart from these bare facts, we would know very little of Sister Kitty, had she not written the letter about the earthquake, inscribed six manuscripts, and added her notes in several of the printed books in the library. Not only do we learn details of her religious and personal life from these records, but also an indication that she enjoyed (and I would argue, had a talent for) writing. As Sister Kitty’s presence can be found across the three main parts of the Syon Abbey Collection – the archive, the library, and the medieval and modern manuscript collection –  she seemed the ideal person through which to highlight and raise awareness of the wider collection.

This blog post will explore some of the items in the Syon Abbey Collection that relate to Sister Kitty, allowing us to discover more about this remarkable woman and her life at Syon Abbey. It also includes details about a second letter from Sister Kitty, a copy of which surprisingly found its way to us following the publication of the article in The Times – so do keep reading for more information!

Sister Kitty in the Archive

The first item to explore is, of course, the letter of Sister Kitty Witham regarding the Great Lisbon Earthquake. Dated 27 January 1756 – almost two months after the initial earthquake on 1 November 1755 – Sister Kitty writes to her ‘dear[e]st Mama’ from ‘Poor Sion Houes‘, with a paragraph at the end of the letter addressed to her ‘Dear[e]st Aunt Ashmall’. In the letter, Sister Kitty describes the earthquake which ‘began like the rattleing of Coaches‘ and resulted in the walls ‘A Shakeing, & a falling down‘. She also gives an account of the destruction of the city of Lisbon – ‘them that has seen Lisbon befor this dreadfull Calammety & to see itt Now would be greatly Shockt the Citty is Nothing but a heep of Stones‘ – and the fates of various of its inhabitants, including the President of the English College.

But what do we learn about the nuns of Syon Abbey? Firstly, we gain insight into their morning routine. Sister Kitty sets the scene: ‘that Morning we had all been att Communion, I had done the quire & then went to gett Our Breakfasts, which is tea & bread & butter when tis not fasting time, we was all in diferent places in the Convent, some in the Refectory, some in there Cells, Others hear & there; my Lady Abbyss her two Nices Sis[te]r Clark & my Self was att Breakfast in a little Rome by the Common which when they had done they went to prepair for Hye Mass, which was to be gin att ten a Clock. I was washing up the tea things, when the Dreadfull Afaire hapend‘. We also learn that all the nuns of Syon Abbey survived the earthquake, which killed thousands of others in Lisbon, as Sister Kitty writes, ‘so Blessed be his holy Name we all mett together, & run no further neither had we Any thoughts of runing Aney futher, we was all as glad to See One another Alive & well as Can be Expresst‘. Describing the aftermath of the earthquake and the many aftershocks, Sister Kitty explains that the community first slept under a pear tree (‘for Eeight days, I & some Others being so vere frighted Every time the wind blode the tree, I thought we was A going‘), then later a ‘little place with Sticks & Coverd with Matts‘, before moving into a ‘Woden houes Made in the garden‘.

And what do we find out about Sister Kitty? One of the most powerful features of the letter is Sister Kitty’s honesty about her feelings of anxiety following the earthquake. Aftershocks from the earthquake appear to have continued for several months, leaving the nuns ‘with agreat deell of fear, & Aprehension‘, and uncertain of their fates. Sister Kitty is clearly aware of her own mortality (‘if the Earthquake had hapend in the Night as itt did not thank God, we should all or Most of us been Killd in Our Beds‘) and seems convinced the end of the world is nigh, writing ‘Only God knows how long we have [to?] live for I belive this World will not last long‘. We also discover that Sister Kitty had a very close relationship with her family and friends in England, and that she appears to have remained in regular contact with them. Throughout the letter she frequently refers to and enquires after friends and family, and towards the end of the letter she sends her regards to her father, promising ‘not to be so troublesom as I have been‘.

The letter from Sister Kitty is very fragile, with some damage and evidence of historic conservation efforts. It is also slightly mysterious, as it remains unclear how this letter addressed to her mother found its way to the community and into the Syon Abbey archive. However, there are a number of early to mid-twentieth-century transcripts of the letter in the archive, suggesting the letter was in possession of the community for at least 50 years before Syon Abbey closed in 2011. What we do know is that the letter was kept in the safe at Syon Abbey, indicating how special it was to the community.

 

Another trace of Sister Kitty in the archive is her vow of profession. One of the great highlights of the Syon Abbey archive are the 296 vows of sisters recorded between 1607 and 2010 – and Sister Kitty is amongst them. Her vow is recorded in Latin in a document dated 26 July 1749, signed by ‘Sister Catherine Witham‘ and the abbess ‘S[is]ter Winifred Hill’, and decorated with a red border.

EUL MS 389/COM/2/1/4/23 – Vow of Sister Catherine Witham, dated 26 July 1749. Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

More than 150 years after the Great Lisbon Earthquake, Sister Kitty’s name reappears in the archive. Correspondence dated 1911 from a relation of Sister Kitty mentions a painting of the nun in their possession [ref: EUL MS 389/COR/1/1/19]. However, there is no other trace of this painting in the archive, and its whereabouts remain unknown.

Sister Kitty in the Manuscript Collection

Sister Kitty’s name appears in several of the modern manuscripts in the collection. The collection includes six manuscripts either completely transcribed by Sister Kitty, or containing inscriptions by her. Some examples of inscriptions by her include: ‘ ‘Sis[te]r Catherine de S[an]ta. Anna Witham her Book with leave‘ [EUL MS 262/add2/14] and ‘Sister Catherine Witham de S[an]ta. Anna her Book of Delight, given her by the good Sister Monica Hodgson in 1753‘ [EUL MS 262/add1/31]. The image below is from a manuscript containing a transcript of the Stations of the Cross by Sister Kitty, entitled ‘Estacao’ [EUL MS 262/add2/25]. It includes the note:

‘Sis[te]r Kitty Wit[ha]m

Her Book god giue her graes

on itt to Looke.

And when this you see I hope you

will Remember to pray for me’

EUL MS 262/add2/25 – Manuscript volume entitled ‘Estacao’. Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

Sister Kitty in the Library Collection

Not only has Sister Kitty inscribed six manuscripts, but her notes can also be found in several printed books in the Syon Abbey Library Collection. However, there has not yet been a survey undertaken to identify all the volumes containing inscriptions by Sister Kitty. A recently-catalogued book in the library was found to have some particularly interesting notes by Sister Kitty in its flyleaves [Syon Abbey 17–/CAT]. Entitled ‘Officium B. Mariae‘, it includes several pages of Sister Kitty’s notes, as well inscriptions of names of other nuns. Sister Kitty signs the first flyleaf ‘Sis[te]r Catherine de Santa Anna Witham her Book of Consolation‘, and the following pages contain prayers and notes. In light of the letter concerning the Lisbon Earthquake, the second flyleaf is particularly interesting: a transcript of a prayer entitled ‘in time of Earthquakes‘. The same page includes a note of the marriage of her ‘Nephew & Nece Frankell‘, again indicating a close relationship with her family in England. Images of the flyleaves of this book can be viewed in the slideshow below.

A surprise letter from Sister Kitty!

We received a wonderful surprise in the week following the publication of the article in The Times! A copy of a second letter by Sister Kitty was kindly donated to our collections by her five-times-great-nephew. Dated 1763, eight years after the Great Lisbon Earthquake, it is once again addressed to ‘My Dear Mama‘. The contrast between the two letters is striking; the second letter finds Sister Kitty noticeably happier, without the uncertainty and fear that had gripped her while she was writing the first letter. Two passages in the letter particularly stood out to me. In the first, she reflects upon her decision to become a nun, and writes: ‘tis Certainly a most happy Life & for my part I like itt every Day better & better & rejoice for haveing made such a happy happy Choice’. In the second, she reports on her role that week as hebdomadary (person appointed for the week to sing the chapter mass and lead the recitation of the canonical hours) in the abbey. She writes: ‘my Duty this week is hebdommadarium which in there weeks Officiates the Devine Office in the quire[.] they rise the first & rings the Bells & give the Nuns Lights[.] this we have in Our turns from the Oldest to the youngest in the convent[.] I darsay was D[ea]r Mama to hear me Sing in the quire she would be much Delighted for they tell me I have a very sweet voice which I thank God for itt as its a good talent for a Nun’. Despite knowing that the convent in Lisbon was rebuilt soon after its destruction and community life continued at Syon Abbey, it is comforting to have this written confirmation that Sister Kitty found happiness and hope in life again after surviving a terrible natural disaster.

Conclusion

I hope you have enjoyed discovering more about Sister Kitty Witham with me! This blog post has focused only one sister in Syon Abbey’s 596-year history; however, the Syon Abbey Collection contains many more stories of the remarkable women who joined this community. The archive, manuscripts and books are now all catalogued and available to access at the University of Exeter. For more information about the wider Syon Abbey Collection, please do take a look at our guide, which you can find here.

I would like to extend my most sincere thanks to Emma Sherriff and Connor Spence in the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Exeter for creating high-resolution images of the letter, vow, and book of Sister Kitty Witham.

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

 

A summary of material relating to Sister Catherine ‘Kitty’ Witham in the Syon Abbey Collection:

EUL MS 389/COM/2/1/4/23 – Vow of Sister Catherine Witham (1749)

EUL MS 389/PERS/WITHAM – Manuscript letter from Sister Kitty Witham to her mother (1756)

EUL MS 389/COR/1/1/19 – Bundle of correspondence, W-Z

EUL MS 459 – Photocopy of a letter from Sister Catherine Witham of Syon Abbey to her mother in 1763

EUL MS 262/add1/29 – Small manuscript volume entitled ‘The Testament of the Sovle Made By S. Charles Borromeus, Card[inal] & Arch Bishop of Milan’ (1749)

EUL MS 262/add1/30 – Manuscript volume of prayers for the use of Sister Catherine [Kitty] Witham (c 1749-1793)

EUL MS 262/add1/31- Manuscript volume entitled ‘The Practice of the Spirituall Exercises of Saint Ignatius. The inscription on the flyleaf reads: ‘Sister Catherine Witham de S[an]ta. Anna her Book of Delight, given her by the good Sister Monica Hodgson in 1753’ (1753)

EUL MS 262/add2/14 – Manuscript volume marked ‘M.S. 14’ and entitled ‘Howe and why our office is to be sayd every day In the Hours’ (c 1749-1793)

EUL MS 262/add2/24 – Manuscript volume marked ‘MS 24’ and entitled ‘A Collection of Small Prayers either Daily Or Frequently said in Community. For the use of Sister Kitty Witham’ (c 1761)

EUL MS 262/add2/25 – Manuscript volume entitled ‘Estacao’ (c 1749-1793)

Please note: the Syon Abbey Library Collection includes a number of books containing inscriptions by Sister Kitty, but a comprehensive survey has not been undertaken.

Newly Catalogued: the Modern Monastic Manuscripts of Syon Abbey

Following the completion of the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, I have been left with a little time before my next project to turn my attention to some enchanting and intriguing items in our collections: modern manuscripts in the Syon Abbey Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection (reference number EUL MS 262).

In 2004, twelve medieval and early modern manuscripts were deposited with us for safekeeping, and these have remained some of the most popular items in our collections, both in the reading room and in teaching here at the University. Three subsequent additions to the manuscript collection since 2004 have increased the number of manuscripts to 191 bound volumes and 8 folders of unbound papers. These additional manuscripts have always been open to users, but they have only been accessible through scanned lists in PDF files, which provide limited detail and are not searchable. In an endeavour to improve their discoverability and accessibility, I was delighted to devote two magical weeks to cataloguing the manuscripts at item level.

As the manuscripts were accessioned or transferred to the manuscript collection as three separate additions, they have been catalogued as three distinct sections. I have renumbered these as EUL MS 262/add1, EUL MS 262/add2 and EUL MS 262/add3. But never fear! I have made a note of the previous reference numbers in the catalogue entry for each item, so if you have accessed one of the manuscripts before, you will still be able to find it on the catalogue by entering the old reference number in the search box.

The section numbered EUL MS 262/add1 comprises handwritten, typewritten, and a very small number of printed items that were kept by the community on a bookshelf at their last place of residence in South Brent, Devon. To improve access, these manuscripts have now been rearranged into an approximate chronological order, but a list of the items in their original order exists and is available on request. The section numbered EUL MS 262/add2 consists of 28 manuscripts that were previously listed as part of the Syon Abbey archive, and the majority were kept in a box marked ‘Box 28’; 24 of these manuscripts were numbered 1-24 by the community at Syon Abbey and entered into a notebook labelled ‘Register of Syon Manuscripts’. Finally, three early modern manuscripts that were previously kept in the safe by the community at Syon Abbey make up the third section, numbered EUL MS 262/add3.

The newly-catalogued manuscripts were created or collected by the community over the course of five centuries, with the earliest manuscript dating to 1526 (EUL MS 262/add3/1), and the most recent dating to the late twentieth century (EUL MS 262/add1/143). In addition to the theological, liturgical, and devotional manuscripts that one might expect to find in a monastery, the manuscripts also include several histories of Syon Abbey, personal accounts of the lives of sisters, and notes on the contents of the library. The majority of the manuscripts are in English; however, the collection also includes manuscripts partly or wholly written in Latin, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Spanish, Swedish, German and Italian. Intriguingly, many of the manuscripts include the names of the nuns or monks who transcribed or read them, providing fascinating insight into scribing and readership at Syon Abbey. I’ve included images of extracts from some of my favourite manuscripts (it was so hard to choose!) in the slideshow below.

 

The manuscripts are now fully-catalogued and available to browse in our online catalogue. To see all the catalogue entries for the manuscripts at once, simply enter EUL MS 262* into the ‘Ref No’ field on the ‘Advance Search’ page to view all the catalogued manuscripts. And don’t forget – we also look after the printed books from the Syon Abbey library and the recently catalogued Syon Abbey archive, as well as several other Syon Abbey related collections.

Happy browsing, reading and exploring!

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

What are notes but tears with wings? Duncan, Schubert, and the Sublime

‘If I had to grade the necessities of life, I should put them in this order: the sun, for without it we are dead; horses, for without them to look at we are blind; music, for otherwise we are deaf.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

It is not entirely surprising that Ronald Duncan, close friend of and and sometimes librettist for Benjamin Britten, had a deep and intricate relationship with music, a fact touched upon occasionally in the first volume of his autobiography, All men are islands. Duncan makes mention of often visceral responses to musical works, of the bust of Beethoven that he kept with him, of his encounters with musicians (including Stravinsky), and of how he would invent poems to the rhythms or melodies of pieces that he knew; however, his connection with music was at a distance, and, a little below the comment quoted above, he goes on to write

‘Sadly I realised I had been deprived of the one language I needed. For I could not write or read music.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

Above all other music, Duncan loved that of Franz Schubert, whose birthday it is as I write this post. As described by Duncan, it was a love, like many of his loves seem to have been, immediate in its conception:

‘I was about twelve years old when I met the influence in my life that has affected me more than anything. I went to the theatre and heard Schubert … The play was a sentimental musical comedy, supposedly based on Schubert’s life, called ‘Lilac Time’. It contained a number of his songs. I was quite unable to keep away from the theatre. I went to it twenty-seven times … I cannot possibly explain why I found Schubert an irresistible influence at the age of twelve, or why he has always remained my favourite composer.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 44)

Part of Schubert’s appeal, in Duncan’s later life at least, may have been the directness of melody and affect in his music, a quality that has made his lieder (songs) amongst the most enduringly admired of the Western tradition, and which permeates his instrumental work also. This directness of communication would have been attractive to Duncan, who considered poetry and, by extension, art more generally, to be a mode of communication:

‘If you can’t hear me, it is probably because I don’t speak loud enough; and, if you don’t understand me, it is because the poetry isn’t any good, because I really feel, very strongly, that poetry should be lucid. I mean it as a communication, and if I fail to make that communication, I ask you to blame me. I do not believe that poetry should be obscure. What I have to say, if I fail to say it, then it’s my fault.’
(Duncan, transcribed from an audio recording of a poetry reading)

The nature and emotional affect of Schubert’s writing is a large subject, but its effect on Duncan is perhaps best illustrated in his own words. The following is extracted from an anecdote about enduring a potential lover playing the piano badly at her home:

… suddenly I heard a melody I had never heard before. It was so beautiful I had to rush from the room, from the house, before the girl or the mother could see my tears. Years later I heard the melody again. Of course it was Schubert – “The Shepherd on the Rock.”
(Duncan, 1964, p. 124)

Duncan’s fascination with Schubert reached its apotheosis with his play, Schubert, completed late in his life (1980), and performed in the same year. The play takes the form of what might be described as an occasionally interrupted monologue by the composer, who works at an ‘untuned rotten piano’. It is, perhaps, a distillation of Duncan’s view of the artist at work: the genius who is at once confident of the brilliance of his own abilities and wrestling with a vortex of social anxiety and emotional (not to mention physical) pain and frailty. Whether or not these romantic ideas appealed to Duncan’s sensibilities of his own artistic and emotional challenges, it is clear from his other writings that he developed an affinity for and, in his own mind, with Schubert that extended beyond simple admiration for the composer’s music. In a poem from 1970, Duncan describes time as a ‘saboteur’ for separating him from his idol, and laments

‘…
What songs we could have written
If your genius with mine
     had been combined
Harnessed by our single mind.
Now only silence sings them
The wind mourning for their loss.’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, p. 185)

As evidenced in other poems, particularly Franz Schubert, the affinity felt by Duncan for Schubert seems to have had the effect of turning the latter into a distant beloved, to borrow a phrase from Beethoven’s song cycle, with Duncan describing a love

‘…
Far deeper than
                     I ever knew
For any woman[.]’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 311-3)

Page one of the manuscript copy of 'Franz Schubert.

Page one of the manuscript copy of ‘Franz Schubert’.

Page two of the Franz Schubert manuscript, decorated by an idiosyncratic sketch of the composer.

Page two of the ‘Franz Schubert’ manuscript.

With his earthlier and sometimes frustrated relationship with Britten in mind, it was, one might suppose, the very separation and lack of artistic consummation that helped Duncan’s nostalgic and idealised affair with Schubert to flourish. This idealisation of Schubert and his music can be felt most strongly, perhaps, in the lines:

‘Only the deaf
                    dare listen to Schubert,
Music is noise, or too meaningful to bear.
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 313)’

Taken with Duncan’s comment, ‘great art affects me like great pain’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 88), this allows us to posit that Schubert specifically, and great music more generally, becomes, for Duncan, a symbol of aching perfection, a reification of and metaphor for the sublime. It is from this position, perhaps, that one of Duncan’s more poignant questions arose:

‘What are notes but tears with wings?’

Manuscript bearing the words 'What are notes but tears with wings?' decorated by Ronald Duncan with a drawing of music manuscript with the notes decorated with read paint, as if bloody.

Manuscript, What are notes but tears with wings? as decorated by Ronald Duncan.

Amongst the Schubert-related items held in the Ronald Duncan Collection are those connected to his plays ‘Girl Friday’ and ‘Schubert’ (including the script, an audio recording of a performance replete with the occasional wrong note at the piano, the music to be played at the ‘untuned rotten piano’, and programmes from performances), his correspondence (particularly with the prominent music lover and patron George Harewood), a film script (Obsession), the scores of some Schubert songs, and materials relevant to his work as the literary editor of ‘The Penguin Book of Accompanied Songs’ (also known as ‘Classical Songs for Children’).

For an enjoyable and easily accessible source of further information on Franz Schubert’s artistic and musical struggles, I would recommend the episode of BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Listening Service’ entitled ‘Schubert’s Dark Side’, which is available from the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0801l4l

Andrew Cusworth, 31.1.2018

Quoted sources
Duncan, R., All men are islands, Rupert Hart Davies, 1964.
Duncan, R., Weston-Smith, M., Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003.