The Column of Burning Spices: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician (Hildegard of Bingen)
“Who is this woman who rises out of the wilderness like a column of smoke from burning spices?” –Pope Eugenius
Even the title of the second novel of Adams’ Hildegard of Bingen series shows the depth of the author’s research, which encompasses both historical and religious texts. In order to properly review this novel I opted to read both books of the series. The Column of Burning Spices picks up on Hildegard’s life where the first book in the series, The Greenest Branch, ends. Where the first novel focuses on Hildegard’s coming of age at the anchoress convent of St. Disibod, Spices brings the reader into the wider world of Church politics and imperial machinations. We see Hildegard grow and mature as a physician and herbalist, writer and abbess against the background of personal quarrels, schisms, murder, and wars, all while trying to improve upon accepted medical practices and women’s place in the Church.
Throughout both novels Adams relates Hildegard’s personal life against the acceptable practices of medieval life. At each stage of her life Hildegard fought Church corruption and vanity. The historical custom of having landed families promise newborn children to the Church as a tithe forced many people into religious vocations where there was none, thus guaranteeing many unhappy nuns, priests and monks, but filling the need to fill vacancies in a massive Church hierarchy. While an impoverished family’s finances stood between someone poor and a real vocation to the religious life, Hildegard was inspired to seek financial backing from the wealthy for poorly dowered women.
Unrequited love weaves through Hildegard’s life-long relationship with her childhood friend Volmar, making their relationship a heart-wrenching story of what-might-have-beens. Their final scene together made my eyes well with tears.
Hildegard of Bingen was truly a woman for all seasons; P.K. Adams has brought her to life for the reader.