The young Hildegard is only eight years old when her mother promises her to a monastery. She will become the handmaiden of Jutta von Sponheim, who will be a hermit in a Benedictine monastery, forever living behind a brick wall.
The little girl has no idea what she is getting into, and these years are a torment to her. Jutta is mostly busy with praying and is declared a saint while she is still alive. Her fasts and penances get more and more extreme. The only comfort Hildegard has are the books brother Volmar gives to her.
More and more oblates (children promised to a monastery or convent) join the women and their fame spreads. When Jutta dies, Hildegard is chosen to be the next magistra.
Hildegard sees visions, but the question is if these are from God or the devil. Only when both the pope and Bernardus of Clairvaux declare her visions to be from God, she is free to write them down. This also gives her the support to leave the monastery with her sisters and form their own convent.
Hildgard von Bingen (1098-1179) was an extraordinary woman. She wrote books about medicinal herbs and stones, composed music, was the abbess of a convent and had visions that were also written down. In 2012 she was declared a saint and a Doctor of the Church.
The problem with a historical figure like this is that we have so little to go on. The only sources we have are stories about a saint. And although these may be interesting or beautiful to read, they are not necessarily historically correct. That is not their purpose, the purpose of a hagiography is to tell us how wonderful and saintly the saint was.
We know about Hildegard from the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis (The life of the holy Hildegard) and this is the source for Mary Sharratt’s novel Illuminations.
In this Vita Hildegard is very clear about her childhood and she speaks strongly against the practice of young children as oblates.
Is this the truth? We do not know for sure. In 1991 another Vita came to light, the Vita of Jutta von Sponheim and this story suggests Hildegards childhood was a little bit different than she told herself.
This however, does not matter for Illuminations. This is a beautiful story and the parts we do not know for sure are filled in a very believable manner. That Mary Sharratt uses some liberations here is no problem. A novelist can do that, as long as she stays true to her protagonist and the time the story is set. And in both cases Mary Sharratt does a wonderful job.
The time of the 12th century is written beautifully and both psychology and the balance in the characters is correct. I always like it when people are not black and white and none of the characters in this novel is, so none of them become caricatures.
Illiminations is a very beautiful historical novel that does justice to the extraordinary person of Hildegard von Bingen.
Published in 2012