2013 Book #10 – Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt

Wow! What an interesting book! For several reasons. And how apropos of my Kindle to recommend it to me one day. You know how the sleep-mode front page of Kindles (at least my Kindle) advertises a book that presumably it thinks you might like? Well, for a change my Kindle was right.

Cover-of-Illuminations

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is pretty much exactly what the title says it is. It encompasses almost the entire life of the great 12th century nun and philosopher, Hildegard von Bingen. I’m always just a little surprised when people say to me “Hildegard von Who?”, because Hildegard was one of the most powerful and vibrant personalities of the High Middle Ages. Her writing on every subject from theology to metaphysics to herbalism is one of the reasons why the High Middle Ages was a time of such advancement and enlightenment.

So naturally I was curious when I saw that someone had made a novel of her life.

The most curious thing to me at first glance was that this novel is written in first person. I’ll admit, I’m not really a fan of first person. For me it doesn’t allow for the depth of analysis that you get when something is written in third person. But I’m sure other people would say that it makes them feel closer to the character and what they’re going through. I think that’s what Mary Sharratt is going for by writing in this style.

I knew that Hildegard had had visions from a very early age and that she entered the monastic life as an oblate, but I had no idea how … traumatic that entrance was. As this novel reveals, she was given to the church at age eight to serve as the noblewoman, Jutta von Sponheim’s, well, I guess both servant and pupil would be the right words. What I didn’t know was that the two young women (Jutta was 12 when they entered) were anchorites. What does that mean? It means that they were literally walled into a tiny cell with an even smaller courtyard that was part of the church. Walled in! For thirty years!

Can you imagine being walled into a church at age eight and kept there until you were thirty-nine? I’m dying to rush out and do the research to see just how accurate this is, but from what I understand, yeah, it’s accurate alright. And by all accounts Hildegard was an energetic, free-spirited child and young adult. Oh the crazy things they did in the Middle Ages!

I don’t want to spoil too much of Hildegard’s life as it unfolds in this novel, because I definitely think it’s worth a read. Needless to say, it was quite a life!

That being said, writing a novelized account of the life of a real person who lived 800+ years ago is a tricky thing. Hildegard was a prolific writer and left us a lot of her own words, but I kept finding myself wondering just how many liberties Mary Sharratt took in writing the book. The first half rang much more true – and was easier and more interesting to read – than the second half. By the time the story reached the point in Hildegard’s life where she founded the religious community at Bingen, the story started to lose me.

The danger of writing in first person, in my humble opinion, is that it can get too myopic. Throughout the second half of this book I felt as though it turned into a running commentary on Hildegard’s ongoing self-doubt and introspection. A little less talk and a little more action would have been in order. There was a great examination of the drama of Hildegard’s early days and the characters in the first half of the novel were so well-drawn. But by the second half I felt as though there was page after page of walk-on roles that never amounted to much.

I had no problem with the author’s portrayal of Hildegard as a proto-feminist. There’s enough evidence in her writings to suggest that she was. Where the story strayed into territory that made me cringe a little was in Hildegard’s relationship with her fellow nun and disciple, Richardis. Sure, the author made a point to have Hildegard explain that this was not Eros love but rather Caritas love, but I didn’t think as fine a point needed to be made of it. I got after a while that it was very much a mother/daughter relationship, especially with the age differences, but part of me felt as though somewhere in there was an appeal to modern sexual liberation that wasn’t in keeping with what I’ve read Hildegard actually believed.

However, major props to the secondary character of Volmar, the young priest who befriended eight-year-old new oblate Hildegard when he was no more than a boy himself and then stayed with her as one of her dearest friends to the end. I adored Volmar! I’d love to do some research on him to.

So yes, this is definitely worth a read. Especially if you love history and the Middle Ages as much as I do. I’d watch out for the slow bits in the middle, but once you get around them, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Next up, I begin my effort to read as many of the RITA award nominees as I can with a novel that’s set in Australia! Very handy for what I’m writing right now.

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2 thoughts on “2013 Book #10 – Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt

  1. Thank you so much for your kind review! If you want to read more about Hildegard, here are some of the nonfiction sources that inspired me. May Hildegard’s wisdom illuminate our world!

    SCIVIAS by Hildegard von Bingen, translated by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, Paulist Press

    THE PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, ed. by Joseph Baird, Oxford

    HILDEGARD OF BINGEN: THE WOMAN AND HER AGE by Fiona Maddocks, Headline (Maddocks is a music critic for the UK Observer, so this biography focuses a lot on Hildegard’s music.)

    VOICE OF THE LIVING LIGHT: HILDEGARD OF BINGEN AND HER WORLD, ed. by Barbara Newman, University of California

    SISTER OF WISDOM: ST. HILDEGARD’S THEOLOGY OF THE FEMININE by Barbara Newman (currently out of print, but you can try to get it via interlibrary loan.)

    MYSTICS, VISIONARIES & PROPHETS: A HISTORICAL ANTHOLOGY OF WOMEN’S SPIRITUAL WRITINGS, ed. by Shawn Madigan, C.S.J., Fortress Press

    • Woo hoo! Thanks for all of the sources! That should keep me busy for a while. And I really did love the book … and have been recommending it to everybody. 🙂

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