Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt

Summary: A historical novel of the life of Hildegard. 

I do not read enough fiction. Generally, I want to read more fiction, but I always get caught up in learning more things. Historical fiction is a mixed bag because as much as I enjoy learning things as I read fiction, I am always wary of distorting historical figures by making them modern people in an earlier setting. Inevitably, fiction necessarily distorts history in favor of making the story better.

Now that I have read Illuminations, which I enjoyed, I want to read a good biography of Hildegard. The notes said the novel tried to stay historically accurate in the timeline. However, there were some changes, and there will always be speculation because no medieval figure has a well-defined biography.

Hildegard was a mystic, an anchorite, an abbess, a writer, a composer, and a preacher. She lived from 1098 to 1179 in what is now Germany. Pope Benedict, on October 7, 2012 declared her a Doctor of the Church, a designation only given to 37 people, four of whom are women.

The novel shows the problem of an anchorite (a person who was walled into a room or rooms for the purpose of prayer with only a small space to give them food). It also raises the problem of devotion to God, which may appear to our modern eyes to be more like mental illness. There is some debate, but it appears she was walled in at the age of eight with another woman, Jutta. Jutta was considered a saint at the time, but the book largely portrays her as someone who was traumatized and attempted to use the church as a means of escape from the world.

The novel does not dismiss Hildegard’s mystic visions as mental illness, migraines, or other natural causes. The corruption of the church is primarily found in others, not Hildegard. I think the book avoided hagiography, but it is hard not to veer at least a bit into that realm. When Jutta dies, Hildegard and the two others who were added to the anchorite rooms are allowed to live in the monastery without being walled in. There is a lot of speculation here, but it is in this era that Hildegard begins to write not just her visions but also science and medicine and eventually a short autobiography.

The church has always had corruption. Often, women have been used for their utility (bearing children, forging alliances through marriage, etc), not honored for their imago dei. Illuminations was worth reading because it humanized the life of a medieval saint, even if it was a bit idealized. Some people do consider Hildegard a proto-reformer, and that is hinted at but not explored deeply. She was undoubtedly disruptive in her calls for the reform of corruption. Her visions were unverifiable and went outside of the standard church authority. And her music may be the most lasting of any of it.

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