Garden at Vadstena. Source:

The Syon Abbey Herbal

The Syon Abbey Herbal was the last monastic herbal collected before printing took over

syon abbey herbal coverIn the 124 years between its founding and its dissolution, the Bridgettine double monastery of Syon Abbey near London gained a reputation for preaching, teaching and publishing in English. Thomas Betson, Abbey Librarian from 1481 until his death in 1516, was a major figure in that process, best known as the author–compiler of A Ryght Profytable Treatyse … to Dyspose Men to be Vertuously Occupyed in Theys Myndes and Prayers, a devotional miscellany printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1500. However, Betson was also the author of the last monastic herbal to be compiled in England, with entries for some 700 plant and 425 remedies, many for female ailments.The Syon Abbey Herbal was written by Thomas Betson in his notebook, sometime between his profession as a priest-brother at  and his death there in 1517. He is the last recorded Librarian at Syon, and also wrote the still extant Syon Library catalogue.

As well as the herbal, the notebook contains religious texts, handwritten notes on legal matters, secret writing, receipts for conjuring tricks and illusions, an alphabet of runes and two diagrams of the night sky

The Syon Abbey Herbal is divided into two main parts – a list of healing plants from Greek, Latin, French and Middle English sources; and a list of remedies from Latin and English sources. One chapter, wholly in latin, is on the use of urine for diagnosis, particularly of women’s conditions; another is on herbal essences in distilled alcohol. The appendices include a tentative list of Linnean names for Betson’s plants; A list of diseases in the manuscript; and plants at Syon House in 1548, listed by William Turner. This book is a useful contribution to the study of the transition from medieval to early modern medicine.

Syon had one of the best equipped late medieval medical libraries in both Britain and Europe. It contained several hundred medical and medical-astrology titles, many unique in Britain to Syon. Almost all of the 1747 volumes in Betson’s library are now lost. Only two medical books have ever been found, a Gilbertus Anglicus Compendium Medicinae in English, and an astrological guide.


  • Betson’s English and Latin list of Plants and Remedies. Bibliography and Index.
  • An Introduction to health and illness at Syon (1415-1539), and its medical books.
  • A contemporary copper engraving (c. AD 1500) of Thomas Betson.
  • Plants listed at Syon House in 1549 by William Turner, Herbalist.
The Syon Herbal has been prepared for edition in connection with the upcoming celebrations of the 600-year anniversary of the foundation of the Syon Abbey 2015. Special note should be taken of the conference on Continuity and Change in the Birgittine Order at Dartington Hall in Devon, which is organized in connection with the anniversary
Printing has been limited to 500 copies.

The Syon Abbey Herbal: The Last Monastic Herbal in England c. AD 1517

by Thomas Betson (Author), John Adams (Editor), Forbes Stuart (Editor)
AMCD 2014
ISBN-10: 1897762704
ISBN-13: 978-1897762707


About Thomas Bentson

Notebook of Thomas Bentson
Cambridge, St John’s College, MS 109

The Syon Abbey Society

Saint Birgitta, Syon and Vadstena
By Claes Gejrot, Sara Risberg and Mia Akestam
Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien 2010

The library of the Bridgettine nuns and their peregrinations after the Reformation
By C. De Hamel
Roxburghe Club, 1991