Thursday, November 29, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Illuminations. A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt

When I saw that a novel of the life of Hildegard von Bingen was being released, I knew I would have to read it. She is one of those famous, strong medieval women whose name always pops up in medieval history texts. Hildegard was an abbess, a woman known throughout the Christian world for her visions and her writings. She had such stature in her day, she even got away with occasionally defying the men of the Church.

Even so, I approached Illuminations. A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt somewhat warily. Hildegard started off as an anchorite–actually, as a companion/servant to a young noblewoman, Jutta, who was an anchorite. So, not only was Hildegard a nun, dedicated to the church from childhood, but she was walled up, secluded, in a small room alongside an abbey. She was supposed to live out her days with her magistra, allowed no other human contact except a few whispered words through a hole in the wall that served as a portal for the delivery of their meager rations of food. She lived like this for thirty years.

That Hildegard could survive this and maintain her sanity is impressive and inspiring, but could it be an interesting novel?

In fact, in Mary Sharratt’s skillful hands, it is fascinating.

Hildegard eventually emerges after Jutta’s death. Inspired by her own visions and reinforced by the strength of her personality, supported by a few well-placed friends, she goes on to leave the anchorage and start a house for Benedictine nuns. There are obstacles in her path that she must overcome, some external and some internal.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot/life story, although the outline of Hildegard’s life is easily available if that’s all you want--google her. The pleasure of reading Illuminations is that is historical fiction. Sharratt reinvents the lives of these medieval people, giving them back an emotional life. She manages to make the life story of a medieval nun very interesting indeed.

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