Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 272 pages, available beginning Oct. 9 in hardcover and as an e-book.
Author of four previous novels, the most recent of which is Daughters of the Witching Hill, Sharratt begins Illuminations with a prologue set in the year 1177 when Hildegard is 79. She and her nuns are burying on hallowed ground a runaway monk whom the archbishop has declared an apostate. As Hildegard awaits a decision on whether the burial will result in her being punished by the Church, she is visited by a young monk who apparently hasn’t heard of the controversial burial because it occurred while he was traveling to visit Hildegard. The purpose of his journey is to interview the abbess so he can write her vita. He asks her such questions as “…is it true that you bade your nuns to wear tiaras?” and “….Did I correctly understand that God appears to you as a woman?”
Hildegard ponders how to respond to the monk’s questions as the prologue ends and, in Part I (“The Tithe”), the novel flashes back to Hildegard, age 5, the 10th child of a noble, but not very wealthy, family. Hildegard plays with her dolls, her older sisters, and her brother Rorich, suffers various illnesses, and begins to have visions. In Hildegard’s voice, here is the first one described in the novel:
“A shadow passing overhead made me glance up to see an orb come floating out of the sunlight. A ball of spun gold, yet clear as glass. Inside grew a tree adorned with fruits as dazzling as rubies. The tree breathed in and out, as a living creature would.”
Hildegard reaches for the orb, but “like a bubble, it burst.” After she asks her nursemaid Walburga and her mother where the orb has gone, Hildegard overhears them asking each other whether she is “mad, or simply bad?” Hildegard prays for the to visions stop, but they persist and some are prophetic. When she is 8, her mother explains that consistent with the custom of tithing 10 percent of one’s income to the Church, she is donating Hildegard, the 10th child, to the Church. This will be accomplished by Hildegard’s accompanying a young noblewoman of a wealthier family, the beautiful but troubled Jutta von Sponheim, to a monastery where they will be “anchorites,” walled into a small area called an anchorage beneath the monastery and given to understand that they will never be allowed to leave. In return for this “donation,” the Sponheims give Hildegard’s mother dowries for two of her other daughters.
After the rite of anchorage on All Souls Eve, Hildegard compares her situation of being hidden away both to “being sealed in a tomb” and to that of “women in the glittering harems of the East.” As Jutta, who is a few years older than Hildegard, sinks deeper into starvation and other forms of masochism, Hildegard daydreams about escaping, possibly with the help of her brother. And she continues to have visions, which she keeps secret. The first night in the anchorage she sees a golden pulsing orb containing “a face like Walburga’s but not Walburga’s. A face bathed in tenderness, the Mother of my deepest longing….” who tells her, “….When the time is ripe, I will set you free….”
During Advent, Hildegard remembers Walburga’s stories about the customs of her ancestors who were heathen and observed the Twelve Nights of Yuletide, “a time out of time when fate hung suspended…the Old Ones roaring across the midwinter skies: the Wild Hunter…in pursuit of his White Lady with her streaming hair and starry distaff….” As a winter storm rages outside, a vision comes to Hildegard:
“… a white cloud bursting with a light that was live, pulsing and growing until it blazed like a thousand suns. In that gleaming I saw a maiden shine in such splendor that I could hardly look at her….Her mantle, whiter than snow, glittered like a heaven full of stars. In her right hand she cradled the sun and the moon. On her breast, covering her heart, was an ivory tablet and upon that tablet I saw a man the color of sapphire. A chorus rose like birdsong on an April dawn—all of Creation calling this maiden ‘Lady’. The maiden’s own voice rose above it… I bore you from the womb before the morning star.”
The vision fades but the voice continues, telling Hildegard she is here for a purpose she does not yet understand. Then another vision, in which Hildegard is in “a greening garden so beautiful it made me cry out.” She hears the Lady’s voice again, this time whispering:
“See the eternal paradise that has never fallen.” Hildegard then sees
“a great wheel with the all-embracing arms of God at its circumference, the Lady at its heart. Everything she touched greened and bloomed.”
Another vision follows on Christmas night, in which the image in the orb appears as Mother rather than Maiden; Hildegard calls this Mother, God. She speaks to Hildegard, saying,
“I am the supreme fiery force who kindles every living spark. I flame above the beauty of the fields. I shine in the waters. I burn in the sun, moon, and stars. With the airy wind, I quicken all things….”
Hildegard’s relationship with Jutta, her magistra (superior, teacher), is a very difficult one. Jutta teaches her to read and write in German and Latin and to play the psaltery, but her magistra also becomes increasingly distant as her health declines, apparently due to her fasting, along with damage to her body caused by her hair shirt and self-flagellation. A few years pass as Hildegard develops a crush on a kind young monk, Volmar, who brings her fabric for a less irritating garment to replace her hair shirt, books on herbalism, and plants for her to nurture. But alas, Volmar is smitten with Jutta, and we have an unrequited love triangle.
When she is about 15, Volmar introduces Hildegard to a female hermit of the peasant class who has come to see Jutta. Jutta has a large following as a holy woman but isn’t particularly anxious to talk with this woman. The hermit tells Hildegard that she has prophetic visions, and insists on seeing Jutta to tell her of a vision she had about her. After impudently asking Volmar for a mug of beer, the hermit at last gets her audience with Jutta. Hidden, Hildegard overhears the hermit’s prophecy, which includes her. The hermit also tells Jutta that Hildegard has visions. Hildegard, frightened that this discovery will bring punishment, retreats to her pallet and receives a vision in which a”pale blue woman, crowned in majesty”descends in a cloud, calling herself “Eclessia, the true and hidden church.” Hildegard then sees in Ecclesia’s arms, “a company of consecrated virgins,”who weren’t veiled or starving but whose hair flowed freely and wore not hair shirts, but royal garments in bright colors. One of them, beautiful with long black hair, smiles at Hildegard, saying, “Have courage and endure. One day I shall come to you.”
When Hildegard is 17, Jutta requests and receives new oblates, ages 11 and 5. Hildegard watches as the girls undergo the ceremony of entombment on All Soul’s Eve. The wall entombing the anchorites is to be knocked down so that the new anchorites can enter. The entire group will then be re-walled in. During the brief opportunity when the wall is down, Hildegard plans to escape with the help of her brother, a priest rising in the Church hierarchy, who is present at the ceremony along with other important men of the Church.
And I’ll leave the plot there, about a third of the way into the book.
Sharratt brings to life Hildegard and the other characters in a realistic, down to earth writing style, while imparting to passages such as Hildegard’s visions an appropriate but not overwritten inspirational quality. This is the kind of writing that you don’t think about while you’re reading because it allows the story to shine. With great enthusiasm I recommend Illuminations, whether you presently know a little or a lot about Hildegard.
In the book’s Afterword, Sharratt discusses the sources she used, the discrepancies in historical accounts, and why she chose some accounts over others. She writes that she has “taken some liberties with the timeline.” In an interview provided by the publisher, Sharratt discusses some of the controversies surrounding Hildegard. Regarding the claim, made most famously by neurologist Oliver Sacks, that Hildegard’s visions were part of the migraine headache syndrome, Sharratt points out that critics of this theory counter that although Hildegard describes migraines in her medical treatise Causae et Curae, she doesn’t write that she herself had migraines (in Illuminations, Hildegard’s mother has headaches that can be interpreted as migraines). Further, the “rings” that Hildegard sees in some accounts and on which Sacks bases his claim because he says they resemble the aura preceding migraines, are from illustrations drawn by artists other than Hildegard. Sharratt says that to her “the migraine theory remains speculative.” Regarding whether Hildegard and one of her nuns, Richardis, had a lesbian relationship, Sharratt says, “I don’t believe their relationship was sexual. Hildegard made no attempt to hide her love for Richardis, I don’t believe that she thought their love was in any way shameful.” In the Afterword, Sharratt lists the music composed by Hildegard that she listened to while writing Illuminations. I’ll close by sharing with you the music of one of Hildegard’s songs, “Veridissima Virga” (“Greenest Branch”), whose unconventional first performance is described in the novel. Here it is performed in the 20th century by the musical group, Sequentia:
(This review was first published on Medusa Coils, where Judith Laura blogs as Medusa. http://medusacoils.blogspot.com/search/label/reviews)
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