Illuminations: A Novel von Hildegard of Bingen, by Mary Sharratt

hildegardIlluminations is a novel about the life of the twelfth-century abbess and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, which does an excellent job of bringing Hildegard to life as a character and giving us a sense of the world she lived in. We get a clear picture of the limited roles offered to women at that time and of how Hildegard managed to transcend them so spectacularly. My only issue with this novel was one of pacing. At least half the novel is spent on the least interesting part of Hildegard’s life — the years she spent in an enclosed anchorage with a nun named Jutta, who was famous in her own time as a saint and mystic. I would have enjoyed the book more if the isolation and privation of those years could have been summed up a bit more quickly to allow us to spend more time with Hildegard in the years during which she rose to a position of power, prominence and influence unusual for a woman in her time. A scene late in the book gives us a glimpse of an aging Hildegard denouncing corrupt church leadership while preaching to a crowd outside Cologne cathedral. I’d love to have known so much more about this (historical) scene, what led up to it and its aftermath, and would gladly have sacrificed a few pages of learning about how Jutta’s teeth turned back and fell out after years of extreme fasting. Definitely a good book about an interesting historical subject, and we clearly needed to know about those years in the anchorage to understand Hildegard’s motives for her later work, but I would rather have seen more emphasis placed on Hildegard’s more interesting later life.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

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