Illuminations by Mary Sharratt – Book Review

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen by Mary Sharratt
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

As a young girl, Hildegard sees visions, visions that she believes come from God. Of course, in the 11th century, visions can be a tricky proposition. Do they come from the Lord or the devil? Perhaps Hildegard’s mother believes her visions will make her unmarriageable, perhaps as the youngest of many children she will have no dowry, or perhaps she simply wants to curry favor with the noble house of Sponheim. Regardless of the reason, Hildegard’s mother makes the decision to give her daughter, her youngest child to the church. Hildegard will be a handmaiden to Jutta van Sponheim. This all seems bad enough to Hildegard, but then she learned that she and Jutta were not to be normal nuns, but would be enclosed – literally walled inside a series of small rooms in a monastery. After many years in her literal and figurative prison, Hildegard wins her release from her prison – although not her vows – upon Jutta’s death, becoming renowned as a Christian mystic.

Hildegard’s story is bizarre, terrifying, and inspiring by turns, to the point where it seems that it simply must be fiction. At the same time, though, it is clear that Sharratt has done her historical research here, because both Hildegard and the world in which she lived are vividly rendered and fully fleshed-out. Hildegard herself is an absolutely fascinating human being, accomplishing much more than one might think possible for the youngest child of minor Germanic nobility in the 11th century – and a woman, no less! Her visions and eventual relative power could have made her a difficult character to empathize with, but Sharratt humanizes her very effectively, partially by describing her almost maternal feelings towards the young women who are given to the church against their own will to serve alongside her.

Although I really enjoyed Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill, I absolutely loved Illuminations. Sharratt writes about a women who was formerly unknown to me, and does so in a way that makes me feel that I truly know her. Highly recommended.

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