Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is the fictionalized rendering of the astonishing life of Hildegard von Bingen: 12th century Benedictine abbess, composer of music, transcriber of divine visions, author of a book of the healing powers of herbs and plants, founder of her own Abbey after being released from years of anchorage—among other accomplishments. Mary Sharratt shares her process of researching and writing her beautiful novel.
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo: How did you come to this topic? What drew you to Hildegard von Bingen’s story? And how much historical research was involved in creating your story and what form did that research take?
Mary Sharratt: For twelve years I lived in Germany where Hildegard has long been enshrined as a cultural icon, admired by both secular and spiritual people. In her homeland, Hildegard’s cult as a “popular” saint long predates her official canonization. I was particularly struck by the pathos of her story. The youngest of ten children, Hildegard was offered to the Church at the age of eight. She reported having luminous visions since earliest childhood, so perhaps her parents didn’t know what else to do with her.
According to Guibert of Gembloux’s Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, she was bricked into an anchorage with her mentor, the fourteen-year-old Jutta von Sponheim, and possibly one other young girl. Guibert describes the anchorage in the bleakest terms, using words like “mausoleum” and “prison,” and writes how these girls died to the world to be buried with Christ. As an adult, Hildegard strongly condemned the practice of offering child oblates to monastic life, but as a child she had absolutely no say in the matter. The anchorage was situated in Disibodenberg, a community of monks. What must it have been like to be among a tiny minority of young girls surrounded by adult men?
Hildegard spent thirty years interred in her prison, her release only coming with Jutta’s death. What amazed me was how she was able to liberate herself and her sisters from such appalling conditions. At the age of forty-two, she underwent a dramatic transformation, from a life of silence and submission to answering the divine call to speak and write about her visions she had kept secret all those years. In the 12th century, it was a radical thing for a nun to set quill to paper and write about weighty theological matters. Her abbot panicked and had her examined for heresy. Yet miraculously this “poor weak figure of a woman,” as Hildegard called herself, triumphed against impossible odds to become the greatest voice of her age.
Since Hildegard is such a complex figure, my research for the novel was daunting. I completed a course on Medieval Studies at Lancaster University. I also read extensively in both English and German while listening to Hildegard’s transcendent music. I traveled to all the locations mentioned in the novel, from the ruins of Disibodenberg Monastery where Hildegard languished in the anchorage, to the site of Rupertsberg, the monastic house she founded for her nuns when life at Disibodenberg had become unbearable.
MCD: You do an amazing job humanizing individuals and a time period that goes so far back in our human history—often it is difficult to imagine people from such a long time ago as “real” and you take them from two dimensional historical forms and breathe life into them. How did you approach authenticating the speech customs of the period as well as the accuracy of the behavior and conventions of the characters?
MS: It wasn’t easy. This was perhaps my most challenging novel to write. First of all, it was very intimidating for me to write about such a religious woman. I was so in awe of Hildegard, so afraid of getting it wrong, but finally I realized that to do justice to her incredible life, I would have to let her breath and reveal herself as human. I poured over her letters, her writings, and her music to get an example of the kinds of words and phrases she used, how she would address her friends, her superiors, and her enemies. Living in Germany for as long as I did helped, too, remembering the idiomatic expressions and speech patterns. As far as behavior was concerned, I studied the Rule of Saint Benedict and read as much as I could about medieval monastic life.
MCD: In our contemporary culture, we can little fathom walling a child into a small space as a sacrificial Spiritual offering—a living sacrifice. How did you go about imagining what a child might do and think in such a situation?
MS: It seemed like such a hellish experience, one that might have completely destroyed a person. I think Hildegard must have been very strong and resilient, even as a child, to endure it. I tried to put myself into her head and imagine her feelings of absolute loss, despair, and bewilderment tempered by the transcendent solace offered by her visions and the opportunity to get an education and read the books that were her great mental escape. I imagined that she was so hungry for beauty that she would seize upon any fleeting wonder that came her way, even a leaf blown down from a tree into her walled courtyard or the sound the Nahe River rushing past the monastery promontory.
MCD: It was a somber, miserable, sometimes violent time in the history of the Catholic Church—fasting, flagellation, wearing of hair shirts and penitential chains, the beneficence of the suffering of the flesh were not only accepted, but holy practices. And it was also a difficult time to be a woman. Hildegard seemed to embody what was expected of women yet fly in the face of it, finding her passion, her “place,” even from the midst of trying situations. She possessed a will to live and find purpose. Volmar tells her “…think about what you love, Hildegard. Trust it. That’s where your talents lie and that’s where you’ll find happiness, even here.” (38) This is an important lesson in the perseverance of the human spirit and making something good out of despair and a situation that is forced upon you. In your research and what you’ve deduced of Hildegard von Bingen, what would you conclude to be her greatest lesson for posterity? That which can be applied to the contemporary human condition?
MS: I think Hildegard was able to survive the horrors of the anchorage because she based her spirituality not on suffering and self-mortification, as Jutta did, but on love, on her all-illuminating visions of Caritas, Divine Love, one of her revelations of the Feminine Divine—Deus Caritas est. (God is Caritas) Caritas, Divine Love, was envisioned as a beautiful maiden with long streaming hair. I think Hildegard’s visions of Divine Love are her great lesson for posterity. As she says in her visionary hymn, Caritas habundat in omnia, “Divine Love abounds in all things.” Hildegard reveals this ecstatic vision of love, immanent in all creation. Many of us today feel estranged from organized religion which can present a very cold and clinical version of a judgmental male God that feels very distant from our lives. But Hildegard’s vision of faith is absolutely holistic, encompassing the sacredness of nature, of womanhood, of human beings as the microcosm within the cosmic macrocosm. Hildegard’s lesson for our time is that each one of us has our place in the divine order, in this beautiful symphony of life.
For her, God was not cold and distant, but immanent reality, the Living Light dwelling inside us and the entire natural world. The cornerstone of her spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator.
MCD: I was intrigued by the practice of retaining relics from the “holy”—I knew of this practice, but Illuminations framed the custom politically—the bodies of the sainted as political, as commerce. We also see through the journey of Hildegard, how she finds herself participating in the politics of the time for the sake of gaining position, space and peace for herself and her “daughters.” But we also see her suffering as a result of her ambition. Does historical documentation illustrate the ways in which Hildegard participated, or did you deduce these circumstances? Would a woman have been able to achieve that which Hildegard did navigating through the male-dominated political sphere of the Church?
MS: Relics have a long history. The very first Christian churches were built over the tombs of the martyrs. So this was nothing new for Hildegard’s time. Every high altar in every church in her age was supposed to contain some sort of relic. The relics were believed to have sacred healing powers.
The Church of Hildegard’s time was also famously corrupt and she complained about simony (the buying and selling of religious offices) and supposedly celibate clergy who were embroiled in sex scandals.
Yet she also had to survive in this world and that required money. Abbeys were like feudal fiefdoms, supporting themselves from the tithes of their tenants and also from the money brought in by the monks and nuns. In the 12th century, religious life was very hierarchical. Choir monks and nuns were almost without exception from the nobility and brought considerable sums of money into the abbey with them. People of lower birth generally served as lay brothers and sisters and did all the heavy, arduous labor so that the choir brothers and sisters could devote their lives to prayer and contemplation. One of Hildegard’s biggest struggles in founding her monastery at Rupertsberg was getting her abbot to relinquish her nuns’ dowries. He put up incredible resistance, not wanting to lose this wealth. So the first years at Rupertsberg, Hildegard and her sisters endured serious deprivation and some of the nuns left. Fortunately the archbishop intervened, granting Hildegard a mill and toll tower on the Rhine which added substantially to Rupertsberg’s income. She also raised money by burying the nobility in her churchyard.
Hildegard was an ambitious woman—how else could she have accomplished so much in one life time? But she also suffered for her ambition. Her letters reveal how all her hectoring and pleading could not keep Sister Richardis, her beloved protégée, from leaving her. Had Richardis grown weary of serving Hildegard’s ambition?
MCD: You note in your afterword that some historians feel it may be inaccurate to view Hildegard from a feminist perspective. But I think for her time wherein women were often seen as largely insignificant outside the purposes for which men found them useful, I think she can be viewed in a feminist light. Hildegard always put her “daughters” forth as decorated and beautiful, and indeed, instructed them to wear their “feast garb” and hair unbound for various ceremonies, generally unheard-of practices. You write that she “…longed to unlock the secret gate of paradise and give them a glimpse of Eden before the fall, of what it meant to be a woman and know no shame in it.” (251) Hildegard tells the mute Richardis once she regains her voice, “Never stop speaking, no matter what they might do.” (153) She attempts to raise women out of the depths of the fall of Eve and into the Divine Light “O Woman, what a splendid being you are! For you have set your fountain in the sun and have conquered the world.” (234) Additionally, she saw the face of God as a woman. In a time when anchorage and nunneries were seen as a means of safety for girls and women—free from the hardships of childbearing and the detriments to their health as a result—and they were freely learned, artistic and creative, Hildegard and her “daughters” might be viewed as early feminists. What do you believe are the feminist implications of Hildegard von Bingen’s life and story?
MS: Though some conservative pundits would disagree with me, I see huge feminist implications in Hildegard’s life and work. That’s why she’s been such a pivotal figure in feminist spirituality.
While writing this book, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women bishops still cause controversy in the Episcopalian Church while the previous Catholic pope, John Paul II, called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests.
Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—she was thrust into an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. And yet her visions and strength of character allowed her to triumph over silence and submission to become one of the greatest voices of her age. In an age of deep-seated misogyny, she championed the sacred worth of women. Hildegard shows us how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.
Hildegard even re-visioned God as feminine, as Mother. While acknowledging God as Father, Hildegard said that she could only bear to look upon divinity in her visions if God appeared to her in feminine form. Her vision of the universe was an egg inside the womb of God. According to Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Hildegard’s Sapientia, or “Divine Wisdom,” creates the cosmos by existing within it.
“O power of wisdom!
You encompassed the cosmos,
Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
With your three wings:
One soars on high,
One distills the earth’s essence,
And the third hovers everywhere.”
Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia
MCD: You mention that Disibodenburg, the site of Hildegard’s anchorage, has been reduced to rubble; only its footprint as physical evidence of its existence. Does Rupertsburg still stand? And, if so, have you visited?
MS: I’ve visited both sites as part of an extensive research tour in 2009. The ruins of Disibodenberg are situated within a protected heritage site and can still be visited. There’s a museum on site and a modern chapel built in the memory of Saints Disibod, Hildegard, and Jutta. Someone built a small stone labyrinth, not far from the presumed location of Hildegard’s anchorage.
Unfortunately there aren’t even ruins left of Rupertsberg. It was destroyed in the Thirty Years War, but the location is still very beautiful and inspiring. You can see photos on my blog.
Hildegard’s second monastery at Eibingen endured right up until the secularization in the early 19th century when it was torn down. However, the former convent church remains and is now the Parish Church of Saint Hildegard, where Hildegard’s relics are kept—her heart, her tongue, and her hair. A short distance away is the new Abbey of Saint Hildegard, built in 1900, a flourishing Benedictine community and pilgrimage site where suitably enlightened nuns offer wine tasting (they grow their own vintage) and sell books on planting medicinal herbs by the phases of the moon.
Mary Sharratt is an American writer who lives with her Belgian husband in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed 2010 novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers. She lived for twelve years in Germany. This, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write her most recent novel, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, which explores the dramatic life of the 12th century Benedictine abbess, composer, polymath, and powerfrau.
Winner of the 2005 WILLA Literary Award and a Minnesota Book Award Finalist, Mary has also written the acclaimed novels Summit Avenue (Coffee House 2000), The Real Minerva (Houghton Mifflin 2004), The Vanishing Point (Houghton Mifflin 2006), and co-edited the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit (Crocus Books 2006), which celebrates female anti-heroes—strong women who break all the rules. Her short fiction has been published in Twin Cities Noir (Akashic Books 2006).