Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingenby Mary Sharratt
A triumphant portrait of a resilient and courageous woman and the life she might have lived . . .
Skillfully interweaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, Sharratt’s redemptive novel, Illuminations, brings to life one of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages: Hildegard von Bingen, Benedictine/i>/b>
A triumphant portrait of a resilient and courageous woman and the life she might have lived . . .
Skillfully interweaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, Sharratt’s redemptive novel, Illuminations, brings to life one of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages: Hildegard von Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath.
Offered to the Church at the age of eight, Hildegard was entombed in a small room where she was expected to live out her days in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned but disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim. Instead, Hildegard rejected Jutta’s masochistic piety and found comfort and grace in studying books, growing herbs, and rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine. When Jutta died some thirty years later, Hildegard broke out of her prison with the heavenly calling to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters and herself from the soul-destroying anchorage. Riveting and utterly unforgettable, Illuminations is a deeply moving portrayal of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed.
“With elegance and sensitivity, Mary Sharratt rescues Hildegard von Bingen from the obscurity of legend, bringing to life the flesh-and-blood woman in all her conflict, faith, and unwavering tenacity. Illuminations is an astonishing revelation of a visionary leader willing to sacrifice everything to defend her beliefs in a dangerous time of oppression.”—C. W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
"An enchanting beginning to the story of the perennially fascinating 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. It is easy to paint a picture of a saint from the outside but much more difficult to show them from the inside. Mary Sharratt has undertaken this with sensitivity and grace."
—Margaret George, author of Mary, Called Magdalene
"I loved Mary Sharratt’s The Daughters of Witching Hill, but she has outdone herself with Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen. She 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, author of the New York Times bestseller Time and Chance
"I love Mary Sharratt. The grace of her writing and the grace of her subject combine seamlessly in this wonderful novel about the amazing, too-little-known saint, Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic and visionary. Sharratt captures both the pain and the beauty such gifts bring, as well as bringing to life a time of vast sins and vast redemptions."
—Karleen Koen, author of Before Versailles and the best-selling Through a Glass Darkly
"Sharratt offers up an imaginative retelling of the fascinating life of the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen....Though confined primarily to the abbey and peopled by a small cast, Sharratt’s gripping story, like Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, is primarily about relationships forged under pressure."
"In this affecting historical novel, Sharratt imagines the inner life of Hildegard, first as an angry child, then as a young woman nurturing the other girls forced into this restricted life, and finally as a mature woman leading her companions out of the anchorage, establishing the first monastic institution for women in Germany, and advocating an idea of religious devotion based on love rather than suffering. Psychological insight, passages of moving spirituality, and abundant historical detail—from straw bedding and hairshirts to turtle soup and wooden dolls—make this a memorable addition to the genre of medieval historical fiction."
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
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.
Meet the Author
MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue , The Real Minerva , and The Vanishing Point , Sharratt is also the coeditor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit , a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.
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In Mary Sharratt's splendid new novel ILLUMINATIONS, this advice is given to Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) shortly after the eight-year-old girl is tithed by her family to the Catholic Church; Hildegard is deemed unsuitable for marriage because of her otherworldly, prophetic visions. The religious path chosen for Hildegard is shudder-inducing in its severity: she is forced to serve as handmaiden to Jutta, an unbalanced young anchorite renowned for her masochistic piety and unworldly beauty. Unlike other nuns, anchorites were walled within tiny cells, never to view sunlight or venture into the world--a living death so the anchorites may be reborn in Christ. A meal a day, slid to them through a revolving hatch, offers the barest sustenance to their bodies. Despite this, Hildegard finds ways to flourish. A novice monk brings her books and plants, allowing her to experience the world forbidden to her; his advice and friendship protect her from Jutta's violent mood swings. As the years pass, the girl learns of Jutta's tragic past and grows in compassion. Hildegard also learns to read, write, and even compose music. Her visions of the divine continue, offering her comfort in her grave-like enclosure. Thirty years later, when Hildegard is finally freed from her walled-up cell after Jutta breathes her last, her life truly begins as a composer of sacred music, an expert in the holistic use of plants, and author of nine books. Hildegard's magnum opus Scrivas--"Know the Way"--shares her religious visions, which present a uniquely feminine experience of the face of God. Sharratt writes, "The cornerstone of Hildegard's spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine is manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone is God, though not the whole of God. Creation reveals the face of the invisible creator." There are so many things I love about Mary Sharratt's writing in this novel as well as in her previous DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL. Sharratt has a true gift for giving voice to the oft-times disempowered women of our past, whether they be Pendle witches or a Benedictine abbess. A psychological intensity infuses Hildegard's inner life and relationships with others. Sharratt's descriptions are visceral and often heartbreaking in their evocation of interior life reflected outward. Though I already knew the outlines of Hildegard von Bingen's extraordinarily creative life, I raced through ILLUMINATIONS to find out what would happen next--Sharratt is a mistress at creating narrative tension. Ultimately, I found ILLUMINATIONS deeply moving on many levels, possibly the best book I've read this year. As a woman, artist, and writer, I can't help but believe that Hildegard's triumphant story of survival can be more universally viewed as the story of any abused or shunned child who finds salvation in creativity. While our creative visions may not be as directly spiritual as Hildegard's, they show us what we love. And there is where we'll find our happiness.
Strong women who makes glorious differences are a passion. This novel carries you back to the beginnings of Hildegard's journey and describes the visions that persisted throughout her life and that led to her expression of her love for the divine. I sing her music with new understanding.
Incredible Story About a Remarkable Woman! Ever so often, I will come across a book that not only captivates me, but truly impacts me as a person. This is one of those books. Understanding that this book is based during a time when it was common for young girls to be married to older men or dead at an early age, young girls with hefty dowries were given to the Church to live their lives as nuns. Such is the life of Hildegard, only her life wasn’t to be a nun, but of the handmaiden to an Anchorite. Feared by her mother for the visions Hildegard had, she was given to Jutta-a young girl, who had her own demons to contend with. Hildegard’s was the 10th child and her mother saw that giving Hildegard to the Church was her way of giving to God, His 10%, in hopes of sparing their family from God’s wrath (as she saw Hildegard’s visions as a curse). Hildegard was loved by her brother, Richardis, and her nurse, Walburga. Being given unconditional love from them, and her faith in her visions and God, gave her the ability to sustain being locked away, underneath the Church. I was absolutely saddened and horrified to learn of the self-mutilation and self-hate Jutta had for herself. Due to the abuse she endured at the hands of her brother, Jutta never came to a point where she could forgive him, herself for blaming herself, and truly seeking the grace and love only God can give. It was absolutely saddening to read how she lived her life, and while the monks and people revered her, Hildegard had first glance at the true devastation and self-hatred her life was. Hildegard, given at 8 to Jutta and the Church, served and used her visions, music, and love to help other young girls, who became nuns. She is a woman of devout faith and it was quite interesting to see how in the small place she lived, that she was able to maintain an herb garden and helped people with ailments (as they came to her). Her visions were quite interesting to read about and motivated her to continue doing the work she felt she needed to do, even at the expense of her own freedom. There is so much in this story that is difficult to explain it all. The amount of research and detail is exceptional and Mary Sharratt is a phenomenal writer, who deserves to receive positive recognition for an incredibly well written book! Despite all the detail and information, the storyline is smooth, written beautifully, and I was just in awe at the end of the book. I highly recommend this book, as this is definitely one of my all time favorite books!
This book was a very interesting book to me. I had not heard of Hildegard before I picked up this book but I thought it would be an interesting read. Mary does a good job in developing the characters throughout the entire book. I also like the author's description of the scenes so you can feel as if you are there and can see what the characters see. The visions was something different for me and sometimes I had a hard time with them but I think they were an important part of the story. I can't imagine being sent away from home at the age of eight to become a nun and live in the monestary. The story of Hildegard's life was a very intriguing one to read about.
I really enjoyed reading Illuminations, although the reader has to remember that it is a fictionalized biography. I had just read Kathleen Norris' Cloister Walk, in which she mentions Hildegard, so I was quite interested in learning more of Hildegard's story.
I have read many books about Hildegard, all non fiction. I find it interesting how the writer presents Jutta, she sounds like she was a very mentally ill woman. I am only a couple chapters into Illuminations and am interested in seeing more of how the writer protrays Hildegard.
I love history and historical novels. This book held my interest to the end. I have heard of Hildegard von Bingen but knew very little about her. The author Mary Sharratt certainly wrote about her life with elegance and sensitivity.