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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt

Sharratt's carefully researched, richly detailed historical fiction is based on the life of the medieval mystic who long served as an unwilling anchorite, walled into a monastery cell. Her rise to freedom and power is built upon visions and feminism.

Hildegard von Bingen began seeing visions at a young age, and her family offered her to the church at age 8.

Because of familial monetary concerns and timing (another girl was willingly entering into solitude), Hildegard was sent to become an anchorite. She was walled up in a monastery although she yearned to continue roaming the natural world as she did until that time.

Mary Sharratt offers an exhaustively researched, fascinating historical fiction account of the life of the 12th century mystic who later spearheaded the building of a convent and became a Benedectine abbess.

Sharratt begins the book with an aged Hildegard who has emerged from the monastery cell of her childhood. Because of this structure, I was relieved to know that she ultimately escapes her forced isolation. This made it bearable to read Sharratt's account of Hildegard's claustrophobic, dark years behind a dank, damp wall--finding spots of joy and inspiration where she is able.

Hildegard's study of herbs, the writing of her visions, and her love of music see her through the devastating limitations of her containment. Her various power moves and clever rebellions are entertaining to read about--and in Sharratt's account, lead to Hildegard's extreme change in fortune as well as her breakout from the confines of her young life.

I read Illuminations with a group of women over a period of months, and we were captivated by the details of the Middle Ages setting; the satisfying, subversive feminism Sharratt inserts throughout; and Hildegard's ability to reinvent her situation so dramatically. There's relatively little page time spent on the later years of Hildegard's life at the abbey.

I adore Sharratt's writing and am in for all of her books!

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Mary Sharratt also wrote Revelations, historical fiction about the life of Margery of Kempe, a mother of fourteen whose radiant visions led her to stun medieval British society with her vow of celibacy and ambitious pilgrimage halfway around the world.


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