Monday, November 5, 2012

"Illuminations" by Mary Sharratt

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  •  288 pages
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (October 9, 2012)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547567846

I have always had an interest in Hildegard Von Bingen but have never known much about her. While this is a work of fiction the historical facts (I checked reference sources to compare) are, on the whole, quite correct.

The story begins with Hildegard as a child. Her family despairs that her 'visions' are heretical. At age 8 (some historians think that she was 14 rather than 8) she is sent to become an anchorite as the handmaid for the wealthy, but somewhat mentally unstable (or is it blessed by God) Jutta Von Sponheim who is beautiful but masochistic. The anchorite is a walled in room attached to the male only monastery. An opening in the wall provides the means through which  meals and message are exchanged and a high window allows for just a bit of sunlight. As Jutta becomes more and more fanatical, wearing a chain with spikes wrapped around her body and denying herself food and drink, Hildegard's own visions become stronger -as does her will to survive. Hildegard also has auditory inspirations that allow her to create some of the most beautiful music of the time.  One monk, Volmar, becomes a friend to her, although he is most devoted to the saintly and beautiful Jutta. When several other young novitiates are brought to join the anchorite with Jutta,  Hildegard forms a special bond with one of them - who will ultimately betray her.

The book follows Hildegard as she struggles to regain her hold on life after Jutta dies. For a time Hildegard remains in the anchorite with the other novitiates. The walls have been removed and her garden grows as she learns about the benefits of plants and medicine. The balance of the book reveals Hildegard's struggle to found  her own monastery in run down Rupertsberg which is close to Bingen. The real , human, trials and tribulations of procuring the funds needed to rebuild the monastery find Hildegard becoming more and more demanding of her flock - telling them that the stark privations and meager food they have are all for the good of their new home and monastery. Some will find the going too difficult and leave for the houses of other Benedictines. Ultimately, the nun with whom Hildegard has formed a special friendship - one that some mutter is less than chaste - returns to her home and her wealthy mother - devastating Hildegard and forever changing her outlook on life.

This book provides an excellent 'feel' for what middle age Germany was like. It was a world torn by politics (sound familiar?!) and one in which females were definitely considered the 'weaker' sex. This is a beautifully written book. I have to admit to being a fan of Mary Sharatt's other books as well. She has an evocative writing style that holds your interest from start to finish. Lyrical, mesmerizing, beautifully written. This is a story that would appeal to so many people on so many different levels. It's a story about women in the middle ages, it is about the church hierarchy, the church's power and control, the spiritual ideology of the time, it's about women's rights and about the vision's that made Hildegard Von Bnger the passionate woman and nun who changed the way women were perceived by the church and by the society in that time period.

It's an 'illuminating' read!