When Hildegard was eight, her mother gave her to a church to be bricked into a chamber in a monastery wall as involuntary handmaiden and student to an ascetic teenaged girl of noble birth, Jutta von Sponheim. Hildegard had visions, and was thus unmarriageable. Giving her daughter over to this purpose not only disposed of her honorably, but bought the favor of Jutta’s rich mother, enabling Hildegard’s sisters to meet wealthy mates. As Jutta slowly killed herself with anorexia and self punishment, Hildegard and the two other girls that joined them in their dark hell longed for sunlight and freedom for over thirty years before Jutta finally died and Hildegard demanded their freedom. Her time in that dark prison wasn’t wasted, though; a kindly monk brought her books from the monastery library and plants for her to grow in the tiny courtyard. By the time Jutta died, Hildegard was very educated, an able healer and a brilliant composer. She went on to found her own abbey and criticize the corruption of the church. She was an incredibly accomplished woman in a time when women were thought of as little more than breeding machines or servants.
‘Illuminations’ is the prefect title for this novel; illumination fills the story. The great illuminated texts that Hildegard learns from, the great visions of light that fill her, her illumination of the corruption in the church; light fills Hildegard’s life even at its darkest points. This is a triumphant story told in lyrical prose that brings the era and monastery life into brilliant, colorful focus. But it’s not a one sided glorification of Hildegard; she’s a living, breathing woman with the faults all humans share. It’s not a religious book at all; it’s a story of people and spirit. Whether you’re Catholic or not, or even Christian or not, Hildegard von Bingen was a fascinating woman. Sharratt’s writing held me suspended in Hildegard’s life throughout the novel, and it left me wishing the book was twice as long.