“Sharratt brings one of the most famous and enigmatic women of the Middle Ages to vibrant life in this tour de force, which will captivate the reader from the very first page.” —Sharon Kay Penman
“One could not anticipate this majesty and drama . . . Illuminations is riveting, following von Bingen through . . . to emerge as one of the significant voices of the 12th century . . . Unforgettable.” —January Magazine
One of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages, Hildegard von Bingen—Benedictine abbess, healer, composer, saint—experienced mystic visions from a very young age. Offered by her noble family to the Church at the age of eight, she lived for years in forced silence. But through the study of books and herbs, through music and the kinship of her sisters, Hildegard found her way from a life of submission to a calling that celebrated the divine glories all around us. In this brilliantly researched and insightful novel, Mary Sharratt offers a deeply moving portrait of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed, a triumphant exploration of the life she might well have lived.
“Gripping . . . Like Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, [Illuminations] is primarily about relationships forged under pressure.” —Publishers Weekly
“Masterful.”—Saint Paul Pioneer Press
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About the Author
The author of four critically acclaimed novels, MARY SHARRATT is an American who lived for twelve years in Germany, which, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write Illuminations.
Read an Excerpt
She is so bright and glorious that you cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines. For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightning, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans. . . . But she is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.
—Hildegard von Bingen’s vision of the Feminine Divine, from Scivias,
III, 4.15, translated by Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B., and Jane Bishop
THE MOST ANCIENT and enduring power of women is prophecy, my gift and my curse. Once, centuries before my existence, there lived in these Rhineland forests a woman named Weleda, she who sees. She took no husband but lived in a tower. In those heathen times, her people revered her as a goddess, for she foretold their victory against the Romans. But the seeress’s might is not just a relic of pagan times. Female prophets crowd the books of the Old Testament—Deborah and Sarah, Miriam and Abigail, Hannah and Esther.
And so, in my own age, when learned men, quoting Saint Peter, call woman the weaker vessel, even they have to concede that a woman can be a font of truth, filled with vision, her voice moving like a feather on the breath of God.
Mother, what is this vision you show me? With my waking eyes, I saw it coming. The storm approaching our abbey. Soon I would meet my nemesis face-to-face.
My blistered hands loosened their grip on the shovel, letting it fall into the churned up earth. At seventy-nine years of age, I am no longer strong enough for such labors, yet force of necessity had moved me to toil for half a day, my every muscle shrieking. Following my lead, my daughters set down their tools. With somber eyes, we Sisters of Rupertsberg surveyed our handiwork. We had tilled every inch of our churchyard. Though the tombstones still stood, jutting like teeth from the rent soil, we had chiseled off every last inscription. My daughters’ faces were etched in both exhaustion and silent shock. Our graveyard was a sanctuary as holy as the high altar of our church. Now it resembled a wasteland.
Tears caught in my eyes as Sister Cordula passed me the crook that marked my office of abbess. Whispering pleas for forgiveness to the deceased, I picked my way over the bare soil until I came to the last resting place of Maximus, the runaway monk whose plight had driven our desperate act. The boy fled to us for asylum after his brothers committed unspeakable sins against him. Despite our every effort to heal his broken body and soul, the young man died in our hospice, and so we gave him a Christian burial.
But the prelates of the Archbishop of Mainz, the very men who had ignored the cruelty unfolding in the boy’s monastery, had declared Maximus an apostate. Tomorrow or the following day, the prelates would come to wrest the dead boy from his grave and dump him in unhallowed ground as if he were a dead mongrel. So we razed our burial ground, making it impossible for any outsider to locate his grave. Had the prelates ever imagined that mere nuns would take such measures to foil them, the men we were bound to obey?
Raising my abbess’s crook, I spoke the words of blessing. “In the name of the Living Light, may this holy resting place be protected. May it remain invisible to all who would desecrate it.”
My heart throbbed like a wound when I remembered the boy who died in my arms, the one I had sworn before God to protect. He had committed no crime, had only been a handsome youth in a nest of vipers. Maximus had only an aged abbess and her nuns to stand between him and the full might of the Church fathers.
The November wind crested our walls, tossing up grave dust that stung our eyes. My daughters flinched, ashen-faced in the dread we shared. What would happen to us now that we had committed such an outrageous act of sedition? The prelates’ retribution would be merciless.
Foreboding flared again, the fate awaiting us as terrifying as the devil’s giant black claw rearing from the hell mouth. Somehow I must summon the warrior strength to battle this evil. Seize the sword to vanquish the dragon. Maximus’s ordeal proved only too well what damage these men could wreak. In a true vision, Ecclesia, the Mother Church, had appeared to me as a ravished woman, her thighs bruised and bloody, for her own clergy had defiled her. The prelates preached chastity while allowing young men to be abused. In defending the boy, my daughters and I risked sharing his fate—being cast out and condemned. The prelates would crush my dissent at all costs. Everything I had worked for in my long life might be lost in one blow, leaving me and my daughters pariahs and excommunicants. How could I protect my community now that I was so old, a relic from another time, my once-powerful allies dead?
To think that seven years ago I had preached upon the steps of Cologne Cathedral and castigated those same men for their fornication and hypocrisy, their simony and greed. O you priests. You have neglected your duties. Let us drive these adulterers and thieves from the Church, for they fester with every iniquity. In those days I spoke with a mighty voice, believing I had nothing to lose, that the prelates would not trouble themselves over one old nun.
The men I’d railed against gathered like carrion crows to wreak their revenge and put me in my place once and for all. It was not my own fate that worried me, for I have endured much in my life. This year or the next, I would join the departed in the cold sod and await judgment like any other soul. But what would become of my daughters? How could I die and leave them to this turmoil—what if this very abbey was dissolved, these women left homeless? A stabbing pain filled me to see them so lost, their faces stark with fear. Our world was about to turn upside down. How could I save these women who had placed their trust in me?
“Daughters, our work here is done,” I said, as tenderly as I could, giving them leave to depart and seek solace in their duties in the infirmary and scriptorium, the library and workroom.
Leaving the graveyard to its desolation, I pressed forward to the rampart wall overlooking the Rhine, the blue-green thread connecting everything in my universe. Nestled in the vineyards downriver and just out of view lay Eibingen, our daughter house. Our sisters there, too, would face the coming storm. Then, as I gazed at the river below, an icy hand gripped my innards. A barge approached our landing. The prelates had wasted no time.
I was striding down the corridor when Ancilla, a postulant lay sister, came charging toward me, her skirts flapping.
“Mother Abbess! We have a visitor.”
The girl’s face was alight with an excitement that seemed at odds with our predicament. She was a newcomer to our house and, as such, I’d spared her the grim work of digging up the graveyard.
“A foreigner! He doesn’t speak a word of German.”
My heart drummed in panic. Had the prelates sent someone from Rome? Oblivious to my trepidation, Ancilla seemed as thrilled as though the Empress of Byzantium had come to call.
“The cellarer will bring up the very best wines, won’t she, Mother? And there will be cakes!”
The girl was so giddy that I had to smile at her innocence even as my stomach folded in fear. I told her I would receive our guest in my study.
After washing and changing, I girded myself to confront the messenger who would deliver our doom. But when I entered my study, I saw no papal envoy, only a young Benedictine monk who sprang from his chair before diving to his knees to kiss my hand.
“Exalted abbess!” he exclaimed in Latin, speaking in the soft accent of those who hail from the Frankish lands. “The holy Hildegard.”
Our visitor appeared no older than twenty, his face glowing as pink as sunrise.
“What a splendid honor,” he said, “to finally meet you in the flesh.”
“Brother,” I said, at a loss. “I don’t know your name.”
“Did you not receive my letter?” His soft white hands fluttered like doves. “I am Guibert of Gembloux Abbey in the Ardennes. I have come to write your Vita, most reverend lady.”
Lowering myself into my chair, I nearly laughed in relief. So I still had allies and well-wishers after all, though this young man could hardly shield us from the prelates of Mainz.
“My brother in Christ, you flatter me too much,” I told him. “Hagiographies are for saints. I’m only a woman.”
He shook his head. “Your visions have made you the most far-famed woman in the Holy Roman Empire.”
Guibert’s face shone in a blissful naïveté that matched that of young Ancilla, who attended us, pouring him warm honeyed wine spiced with cloves and white pepper, but he ignored the fragrant cup. His flashing dark eyes were riveted on mine.
“Tell me, Mother Hildegard, does God speak to you in Latin or in German? And is it true that you bade your nuns to wear tiaras?”
Before I could even attempt an answer, he blustered on.
“Your writings are most extraordinary! I have never read their like! Did I correctly understand that God appears to you as a woman?”
Brother Guibert was not the first to ask this question. I told the young monk what I’d told the others before him.
“In the Scriptures, God appears as Father, and yet the Holy Spirit chose to reveal God’s face to me as Mother.”
I never dreamt of calling myself holy, never presumed. Yet God, whom I called Mother, chose to grace even one as flawed as I am with the ecstasy of the Holy Spirit moving through me. And so I became the Mother’s mouthpiece, a feather on her breath. How was I to describe such a mystery to Guibert? I never sought the visions, and yet they came. All I wanted was to know the ways of wisdom and grace, and walk them as best I could. But had I succeeded? My many sins and failings weighed on me. My superiors had only tolerated me for as long as they had because of the prophecies.
I was torn. Honestly, I should warn Guibert away, send him back to Gembloux. The good man was wasting his time here. What use was there in writing the Vita of a woman soon to be condemned?
Then something niggled at the back of my head. What if the key to saving my daughters from the coming tempest lay in my past, in examining my life from its genesis? Past and future were connected in an eternal ring, like the circle of holy flame I’d seen in my visions, that ring of fire enclosing all creation. If I allowed myself to go back in time, to become that graceless girl again, perhaps I might find a way to preserve us.