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Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

Mary Sharrott

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Oct 2012)

Hildegard von Bingen might not be a household name. She may not be studied in history classes or be brought back to life in fictional form as often as Mary, Queen of Scots or Queen Elizabeth. But for those who have studied women’s medieval visionary literature, von Bingen is somewhat of a legend. For those who haven’t, Mary Sharratt’s novel Illuminations tells a compelling version of von Bingen’s life, from its sequestered beginning to the final miraculous vision.


Sharratt relates that von Bingen, born in 1098, was the tenth child in her family. As such, or at least according to her mother, she was destined to be a tithe. Whether or not von Bingen was truly a gift to the Church because of her birth order or because her mother found her visions to be a potential embarrassment to the family is not completely clear. Another possibility: it was all about money. Shortly after von Bingen was promised to the Church, her sisters received dowries and were able to be married. 


While her mother’s motivation is unclear, von Bingen’s fate is well documented. She was to be a handmaiden to Jutta von Sponheim, a noblewoman from a weathly family. A girl being “given” to the Church wasn’t uncommon at the time. Von Bingen’s mother tells her “Every girl must take a husband either mortal or divine”, and many girls seemed to prefer the divine to the mortal. But von Bingen’s situation was unusual, primarily because of von Sponheim.


Von Sponheim wanted to be an anchorite and to live a life of seclusion and prayer. Von Bingen was to join her. In Sharratt’s novel, the two are sequestered when von Bingen is only eight (other sources suggest von Bingen is slightly older when these events take place, but Sharratt is certainly correct when she states that it is difficult to know which source is most accurate).


For 30 years, von Bingen’s entire world was two small rooms shared, at first, by herself and von Sponheim, and then with two young oblates. Von Bingen is able to receive some formal education, but the combination of her prison-like accommodations and the unstable mental condition of von Sponheim makes her childhood and early adulthood, at least by modern standards, tragic. Only upon von Sponheim’s death is von Bingen, at the age of 38, able to escape and form a more traditional nunnery. 


Roughly half the story takes place while von Bingen is in the anchorage, and it is certainly a testament to Sharratt’s writing skills that this part of the book is so smoothly paced and engaging. Writing about the lives of four women trapped for decades in a space about as large as a studio apartment and making it interesting is no easy feat, but Sharratt handles the challenge admirably.


The second and third sections of the story move swiftly, showing von Bingen’s visions and her dedication to the creation of an abbey at Mount Saint Rupert. Sharratt positions von Bingen as an admirable character. She refuses to accept novices just because they bring large dowries, and she lectures about potential abuses in the Church. 


Still, for all these accomplishments, Sharratt does not portray von Bingen as, in the colloquial sense of the word, a saint.  She could be stubborn and proud. Her piety could irritate the novices. When one of them complains about their living conditions, von Bingen replies “But sister, our Bridegroom himself was born in a byre. If it was good enough for him, surely we can make do for a few more months.” The novice left von Bingen’s order a few weeks later.


Sharratt also takes care to keep language authentic to both von Bingen and the 12th century. Von Bingen was known for her musicality and lyrical prose. And, perhaps to help stay in character, Sharratt listened to CDs such as 11,000 Virgins: Chants of the Feast of St. Ursula and Canticles of Ecstasy continually while writing this book. Sharratt was successful—von Bingen (and in fact the entire book) sounds just like what most imagine a 12th century religious visionary/mystic would sound like.


However, even though the language may be accurate, the extremely descriptive and lyrical phrasing makes the book feel a little overwritten at times. That said, Sharrott’s attention to detail leads to some mesmerizing descriptions, such as one of von Bingen’s last visions:


“An invisible cord drew me out into the snowy garden, glowing in silvery luminescence under the rising full moon. I lifted my eyes to see two brilliant streaks of light arching across the heavens. What marvel was this—twin comets? Soon the others joined me… Before our eyes, those two arcs widened into shimmering roads stretching to the four corners of the earth. At the axis where the two arcs met, a cross blazed, as red as dawn.”


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