Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt (audio)

illuminationsHildegard von Bingen was a real-life woman; a brief glance at the Wikipedia page under her name indicates that this novel is faithful to the general shape of the historical figure’s life. (Consulting Wikipedia is not a high standard, but it’s all I felt necessary to my review of this book. And really, we can’t ask for much accuracy when dealing with a mystic from the 1000’s, can we we?)

First question: what led me to a book about a religious figurehead? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t have a great deal of patience for Christian subjects of books in general; but this woman was a writer and something of a rebel, and I decided to give it a try. I could always put it down. My whim was rewarded: I enjoyed Hildegard’s story.

The book is narrated by Hildegard herself (and to reduce confusion, I’ll also say that this audio edition was narrated by Tavia Gilbert, on whom more in a moment), beginning in her old age and then quickly flashing back to her childhood. We spend the vast majority in this lengthy flashback, and thus see her life chronologically.

Hildegard was very young when she began seeing the visions she would be famous for; she saw a lady of light that she came to believe was god, or the church, and her mother disapproved. Partly for this reason, and partly because there were so many children to provide for, her mother gave her to the church – or specifically, to a wealthy young woman from a good family who devoted her own life to god and needed an attendant. Hildegard was only eight when she and Jutta were bricked into the monastery at Disibodenberg to serve as anchorites; and this is the first, but not the last, time I exclaimed at the cruelty of the church.

Hildegard spends a number of years bricked in with Jutta, who is strict, joyless and loveless. She does make a friend in a monk named Volmar, however, who speaks with the women through a little window, and brings gifts of potted plants and books. Eventually the walls will be torn down so that two more young girls can be bricked in, as well, enlarging their tiny convent somewhat; the newcomers are Adelheid and Guda, the latter of whom is even younger than Hildegard was when she was imprisoned. Hildegard had been planning an escape when the two children were brought; but she can’t leave them to her fate, and she stays.

When Jutta dies (after starving herself), years later, Hildegard and her two younger proteges make a plea to be allowed to live in the monastery in relative freedom – they will retain their rooms as before but not be bricked back in. Due to Hildegard’s political maneuverings and performance before important visitors, this request is granted, but grudgingly. She has continued to cause trouble. She still has her visions, although she has learned to keep them to herself; but she is less obedient and more questioning than the monks appreciate. She has also, however, come to serve as a mother or leader to the younger women, who are now joined by a newcomer named Richardis, daughter of Hildegard’s powerful sometimes-ally. Richardis will become Hildegard’s special friend. Such a relationship is actually forbidden by the Benedictine order, but the two women can’t help loving each other. (To be clear, there is no sexual relationship here, and only the slimmest of hints about sexual attraction.)

The novel follows Hildegard’s growth, and her continuing efforts to live beyond the monastery. Her flock of “daughters” grows, and she will finally petition the Archbishop of Mainz, and successfully establish her own monastery at Rupertsberg, accompanied by her nuns and her old friend, Volmar. One of her greatest controversies is her writing: it takes ten years, but she will write a book of her visions, illustrated (or “illuminated”) by Richardis and transcribed by Volmar; the Pope himself confirms that her visions are holy rather than evil, although the abbot at Disibodenberg will never be entirely satisfied on that point. She also composes music, grows herbs and mixes remedies (and writes medical texts), and studies plants in the natural world; she is in fact a Renaissance woman, in an age when women were supposed to be silent nuns or wives. Again, the particulars of her life represented in this fictionalization may not be perfectly accurate. But the broader strokes are true: Hildegard was an author, an abbess, a composer, an outspoken leader.

In other words, Hildegard von Bingen was bigger than her world normally allowed women to be; and this after being buried alive in childhood as an anchorite. This novel of her life tells that story beautifully. It goes pretty light on the parts about god and religion, which was a major plus for this reader; those more interested in the religious side of her life might be disappointed, but I enjoyed being able to read about her accomplishments, her struggles, and her personality without being subjected to too much preaching. The Hildegard in this book loved people, and wanted the best for her daughters; god was almost incidental to her, and that worked well for me. Although it is her visions of that that made her famous in the first place, the god she sees in them is both notably female, and a god of love and freedom rather than rules.

Her story is compelling, and I appreciated her frustrations and enjoyed her personality. The narration by Tavia Gilbert felt right; I liked the old woman’s voice she uses at the very end, but her characterization was mostly invisible, just felt like Hildegard herself were speaking, and that is as it should be.

For a historical story of women’s rights in the church and in society in the 1000’s and 1100’s, I do recommend Illuminations.

Rating: 7 beautiful women.

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