Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book Review: "Illuminations A novel of Hildegard Von Bingen" by Mary Sharratt

Hildegard Von Bingen has always been for me a mysterious figure whose name comes up in sections of theology texts dealing with mystics. Feminist theologians tout her as something of a Renaissance Woman, who who lived a couple of centuries before the Renaissance. She was an anchorite, but also a composer, a doctor, an herbalist, and a prolific writer.

This is a fictional account of her story*. It sets the context of the period: half the men from Europe were far away fighting in a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Infidel. The women of Europe were for the most part ill-equipped to run estates in the absence of their husbands. Hildegard was one of the younger children in a large family of lesser nobility (low on the totem pole and lower still on cash for daughters' dowries). Hildegard was young and plain, and she had older and more beautiful sisters who needed dowries. Worse, from an early age she had Visions that were not exactly in keeping with traditional Catholic orthodoxy. She was more than a potential embarrassment to her family. She was a potential threat. In her father's absence, her mother took the opportunity to essentially sell Hildegard to a family higher up in the aristocratic pecking order, in exchange for dowries for Hildegard's older sisters.

She was packed off to a monastery as the lady-in-waiting to an anchorite (a beautiful but damaged woman who made the next thirty years a living hell for Hildegard). Hildegard did her duty, and in the process she learned the arts of medicine, botany, and musical composition. After the death of her Mistress, Hildegard did not hesitate to stand up to the males who held all the power in the Catholic Church. She suffered the consequences of her refusal to stay in her place, but for Hildegard being true to her vision of the Feminine Divine was more important than staying on the good side of the Church.

Stories set in the medieval period never fail to hook me, while at the same time they freak me out at the barbarity of the newly (and barely) civilized Europe and the appalling ignorance of most of the people in charge of the Church that dominated the entire West. This story was no exception. But, like stories about St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Theresa of Avila, it showed a glimmer of a Light that can shine in the Darkness.

It was a beautiful book, respectfully written. I highly recommend it. Buy it here*.

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