I admit to knowing next to nothing about Hildegard von Bingen before I picked up Mary Sharratt’s novel, Illuminations; by the time I finished, I was in awe of the determination of the German nun. Hildegard, whose visions and persistent spirit led her to break free of her life as a forced anchorite and found her own abbey amid the male dominated church, is brought to life magnificently through a mixture of fact and conjecture that pulls you into her most unusual life.
Told from Hildegard’s point of view, Sharratt first introduces us to the eight-year- old who is sent into religious life as the protégée of Jutta von Sponheim, a mad young woman who encloses both herself and Hildegard inside an anchorage within a monastery. Hildegard chafes against her confinement, but it is there she remains for more than three decades. Once she emerges, she determines never to be shut away again, despite the machinations of the men (secular and non-secular) controlling her life. As time progresses, Hildegard’s visions gain her both notoriety and respect; she uses her intellect to not only obtain property for an abbey, but also to begin authoring books which survive today.
Sharratt weaves a solid story against the known facts about Hildegard, and she provides the reader with viable reasons for Hildegard’s actions. In a time when women were made to be silent or risked losing their homes or even lives, Hildegard followed her conscience and spoke what she believed. Even if I remain unsure whether Hildegard actually experienced divine visions, I am convinced that her life story is fascinating and that Sharratt has imbued her with characteristics that reflect the known facts. A very well written tale of a woman who deserves to be remembered.