Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen By Barbara Ardinger

The Great Goddess and Divine Mother of Us All manifests where and to whom She chooses, no matter what faith we hold. In the 12th century, She manifested to a German nun named Hildegard. Hildegard’s story has been told in many places, including a highly detailed entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is a wonderful resource for stories about saints. I’ve just finished reading Illuminations (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), a splendid new novel about Hildegard by Mary Sharratt, who is the author of other excellent novels, including Daughters of the Witching Hill.

illuminationsHildegard, who lived from 1092 to 1179, was the tenth child of a family of minor nobility in the Holy Roman Empire. She’s a sturdy child who loves the outdoors and enjoys running through the forest with her brother. But early in the novel, she learns that she is to be her family’s tithe to the church. Her mother has already arranged for this bright and curious eight-year-old child to be the companion to Jutta von Sponheim, a “holy virgin” who yearns to be bricked up as an anchorite in the Abby of Disibodenberg. Being an anchorite means that, like Julian of Norwich (about 250 years later), this girl and her magistra are bricked in. There is a screened opening in the wall through which their meager meals are passed and through which they can witness mass and speak to Abbott Cuno, the other monks, and visiting pilgrims, but they can never go out. Never. In the Afterword, Sharratt writes that “Disibodenberg Abbey is now in ruins and it’s impossible to precisely pinpoint where the anchorage was, but the suggested location is two suffocatingly narrow rooms and a narrow courtyard built on to the back of the church” (p. 272). As Sharratt vividly shows us, Hildegard survived in that awful place for thirty years.

Although Jutta teaches Hildegard to read and write, her primary focus is on the masochistic self-torture popular in the medieval church that worshipped (and continues to worship) a tortured man hanging on a cross. Suffering, they say, is holy. Jutta disdains food and sanitation, she kneels for hours on a splintery plank in the snow, she winds a penitential chain around her body. The barbs on the links of the chain eat into her flesh. Suffering is holy. Jutta is a virgin martyr…well, no, not a virgin. She tells Hildegard that she was raped by her brother, and it is because she is no longer suitable marriage material that she chooses holiness. She becomes a sort of local saint.

Young Hildegard makes friends with a young monk named Volmar, who brings her books to read and potted herbs to grow in her tiny yard. After Jutta finally dies and the wall is broken down, Hildegard plans to run away with her brother, now a monk in another abbey, but when she’s presented with three young girls to be walled back in with her. One of these girls is Richardis, whose mother is one of those strong medieval women (like Eleanor of Aquitaine (a near contemporary) who are perfectly capable of handling their own business (including the disposition of their assets) while their husbands are off at the Crusades. Although “special friendships” are contrary to the Benedictine Rule, Hildegard falls in love (spiritually) with her. To prevent their being bricked in again, Hildegard appeals to Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugenius III, who praise her work, and wins their permission to establish a small convent at Disibodenberg.

As we know, Hildegard suffered from migraines that brought her profound, authentically holy visions:

“Such splendor I see,” I told Volmar and Richardis.

The vision unfolded as the three of us huddled in an overgrown corner of the medicinal garden where rosebushes grew tall to conceal us, enfolding us in their paradisial perfume …

“The voice speaks. It says, ‘Behold Ecclesia, the true Church and uncorrupted Bride.’ She is the towering woman. The maiden in her arms is Caritas, Divine Love.” …

Before me I saw the face of my God, my Mother, as awesome as lightning striking the earth, yet as gentle in her goodness as the sun’s rays. She was incomprehensible to humans because of the dread radiance of her divinity and the brightness that blazed in her. For she was with all, and in all, and of a beauty so great that none could comprehend how sweetly she bore with us mortals and how she spared us with her inscrutable mercy (p. 150).

As her story continues, Hildegard and her friends begin to compose her great works, including the Scivias, medical books, and The Play of Virtues, a musical work. After many years, she finally overcomes the misogynism of Abbot Cuno and leaves Disibodenberg to found her own abbey at Rupertsberg.

To this day, Hildegard is known for her wisdom, the letters of advice she wrote to rulers of the church and the state, and for preaching against the corruption of the church. While I was reading Illuminations, I also rented the Showtime series The Borgias, which is about Pope Alexander VI, aka Roderigo Borgia, and his children and the simony and lust (along with the other five Deadly Sins) that characterized his reign. (Its historicity is generally accurate. Cardinal Della Rovere will be elected pope, take the name Julius, and hire Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel.) Alexander became pope about 300 years after Hildegard’s death; some things don’t change.

We have heard about Hildegard before at Feminism and Religion. A year ago, Gina Messina-Dysert wrote about her proposed canonization, and Cynthia Garrity-Bond also wrote about her.  This year we heard much about modern nuns working to overcome the church’s modern misogynism and challenging the church on issues of women’s rights. The Nuns on the Bus, do not have an entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia. We can hope that like the great Sibyl on the Rhine that they will thrive and succeed in their truly holy work.

P.S. If you’re as interested as I am in the lives of medieval women, here are more good books. (1) The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen by Barbara Lachman. (2) Julian of Norwich, a Contemplative Biography by Amy Frykholm. (3) Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross. 

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

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20 replies

  1. &&& even though I am involved in the site almost every day, I keep losing my replies because WordPress refuses to recognize me. AAARRRGGG. Well %%% it, I will try again.

  2. Two days ago the picture on Bing search engine was of two small boys who had been dedicated to a monastery in Myanmar. Though the photo was beautiful, I asked myself: why did the parents give their children to the monastery and is it child abuse to do so? In the case of HIldegaard, her parents were not poor and yet they gave her to be closed up with no contact with anyone who loved her, anyone her own age, wthout contact with nature. Referring back to Kyle’s questions, I do believe ethics are situational and contextual because we live in a relational world and none of us knows everything. That said, from my perspective, and recognizing that I could be wrong, I “discern” that what HIldegaard’s parents did was WRONG!!! The stories of child abuse I heard nearly every day in my teaching years still haunt me. May we all pledge ourselves to end child abuse in all of its forms!!! Happy New Year.

    • Hi Carol. I’m a huge fan of your writing so it’s an honor to have you commenting about my novel!

      The practice of offering child dedicants to monastic life is no longer practiced anywhere in the Christian world to my best knowlege, but it is still practiced in Buddhist countries where monasteries can double as orphanages. There’s also the belief that a child might be a reincarnated lama or other special person who belongs in the monastery for the special training they need to realize their gifts. But by our Western standards this can seem troubling. Traditionally it might have been the only way a child from a humbler background could have received a decent education or even regular meals.

  3. I don’t blame Hildegard’s mother so much (her father was away on the Second Crusade, which is mentioned in the novel) as I do Jutta and the insanity of the medieval church. Bricking someone into two small rooms for a day or thirty years–it’s sadistic. But look at the work Hildegard produced! Would she have produced that work if she’s been free? I have no idea. Maybe Mary Sharratt would know.

    • Hi Barbara, I think that’s a very good question whether Hildegard would have become the polymath and visionary we still talk about today had she NOT been enclosed. One thing is certain–as an ordinary secular girl, she would have not received the education she received in the monastery. As the bare minimum, she would have been taught to read and write Latin well enough to recite the Divine Office every day. Jutta taught her to play the psaltery which was the beginning of her musical education. As a monastic, she was freed from domestic duties and child bearing and had the time and silence to devote to developing a rich inner life.

  4. Thanks for this review, Barbara. I loved Daughters of Witching Hill and look forward to reading this novel.

  5. Hi Carol. I’m a huge fan of your writing so it’s an honor to have you commenting about my novel!

    The practice of offering child dedicants to monastic life is no longer practiced anywhere in the Christian world to my best knowlege, but it is still practiced in Buddhist countries where monasteries can double as orphanages. There’s also the belief that a child might be a reincarnated lama or other special person who belongs in the monastery for the special training they need to realize their gifts. But by our Western standards this can seem troubling. Traditionally it might have been the only way a child from a humbler background could have received a decent education or even regular meals.

  6. Gazing out now….

    here i sit on m’ rockin’ chair
    gazing out…with …elder …cares…

    i bow… unlock, with *golden* keys
    whitemans cripple-ing, longg dis-ease

    i write ‘man’, but you can *see*
    ‘her’, too – gingerly but eagerly

    Women in the church had to always act stealthily around the men-folk – and I *see* they still do – very often, they are still afraid…..layers and layers of patriarchal-based belief-system….centuries and centuries of dodging their cruelty…

    We all have different eyes to *see* through…

    Since I come from a dyed-in-the-wool German Catholic NY family and was schooled and churched in it all… and, now, since I do a lot of historical and science-based research now, I see with ever-growing clarity that women had to be as creative as possible to survive even at all, the many ‘strongholds’ of the patriarchy that loomed over them – I call it a dark and controlling power trip leftover from cavetimes – primal-fear-based, and driven-by hell. And primarily bent on land-grabbing and land-ownership…

    My views are supported by the vast majority of those who lost their lives to telling the Truth about September 11th – it’s a long list of folks, too…

    As Red Crow has said, “it is all about the land. It has always been all about the land, you see?”

    You can hear him courageously sing on youtube, ‘Quiet Desperation’. I hope that my grandchildren live long enough to see some of the lands given back to our indigenous brothers and sisters – especially those on the poorest of the reservations – PINE RIDGE.

    It is not a mystery to me why they are abandoned by the Christian-church-at-large in this country, here.

    Hell-oooo???

    Back to our patriarchy, though – of course women were, by and large, not allowed to own and manage land or property, or, to document much in writing. So, this about sums it all up – the expected role? Who will suffer the most, and in silence? The scapegoats, of course – primarily, the women…they had to suffer in silence – this was a primary virtue…

    Case in point: even today, we suffer this dark cloud of disrespect and invisibility in many areas of life, still. ….We have historians like Karen King – she has worked on the Mary Magdalene gospels, and it is clear to me, who those voices are, who negate her fine work. They have that palpable unconscionable daring about their nay-saying about her work – it is palpable to me. I SO much admire the dignified manner in which she responds to the criticism.

    I feel as if we women are only just beginning to crawl out from under a longgg, longgg, sleep and hiding in fear…like from a daze… At least this is what I *see* with my old eyes now…

    PS: I’m a HUGE, personal friend and fan of Jesus’s, btw! And I know there is heaven, too. I’m just not too fond of that little black book and how it’s used against the weakest and most vulnerable so much of the time, too!

    • I just returned from a weekend visit with my two granddaughters in their late 20s, along with my daughter, now nearly 50. I am anguished by the emotional/intellectual/cultural prison within which our society has encased so many of us as females in one way or another. I can understand parents placing a female child in the relatively safe place as described here in an even more primitive society than ours (at least so we think). What were the alternatives for this young girl? A dominant husband and childbearing likely until death? Today all 3 of these women in my life are dependent on unsatisfactory relationships with men in order to have a roof over their heads. How predominant has that been for centuries? I divirced after 27 years of trying to influence my husband out of life-destructive behaviors and have lived another 30 in relative peace and prosperity. It took tenacious clawing to dig myself out of that hole. I’ve learned enough to know how I got there, but not enough and too late to know how to prevent it for these women I love. The cults bred by organized religions have also entraped my sons, one of which I think may transcend, the other will need a miracle – and I do believe in miracles; I expect none of us survive without miracles really. The women who thrive economically in our region of the world are the ones who conform to male dominance, most often within a religious community. Many of which have material comforts, but remain intellectual children, often living within walls too thick and wide to escape; their energy swallowed by serving others, or hope reduced to helplessness, while feeding their innocence with romance novels (a highly profitable business btw).

      Can you give further information about this, please?
      “My views are supported by the vast majority of those who lost their lives to telling the Truth about September 11th – it’s a long list of folks, too…”

      • Your post was warming and encouraging in that I feel affirmed – I see what you see – and I feel less alone…with my older eyes, I *see* the young people around me, too – lost…unsure….insecure….living in a world that is heating up daily, in all ways!

        If you google around, there is information about the 9/11 Truth-tellers, many who were top intelligence, brass, experts, in their fields, who spoke up and proved that 9/11 did not happen as reported – and many of them met their very unlikely, and, untimely deaths as the result of their great courage in standing up to the forces that created ‘9/11′ – and explained why it had to have been planned. Yes. Unimaginable, unthinkable…how could this be???

        There is a whole network of folks who are targeted individuals now, and their numbers are increasing, too – and as our police state increases in it’s already intensely heating up situation, gaining more and more power and control over us, we can no longer deny that the Judea-Christian patriarchal influences of heavy-handed land–and-money-grabbing, is at work more fiercer than ever – we feel the energy – we have to be made of stone to not know what these forces are…

        That’s why I know the church stories are not fiction – they manifest in the world in all it’s ugliness, and that’s real enough for me… making women into imbeciles and having them cope in unimaginable ways – no wonder so many who suffered, also saw visions. ….I saw visions once when I suffered crippling emotional pain. I had two visit-dreams from my deceased parents, after sobbing myself to sleep and begging for them, AND to the spirit of Jesus, to come and help me. I awoke from the dreams by a thunderous but silent CLAP! that was deafening but silent (I know it makes no sense in trying to explain this) and then I pushed myself up without ANY effort on my part, and turned and felt their living spirit hanging in the air in the room with me…yes – it was not a vision exactly, but an electrifying presence – more real than real life! And TOTAL peace and loving me. And it sounds nuts – I know this. I do now have two very close friends who I can talk with who also have had living spirit (loved ones) come to them. ….Now I pray to heaven all the time, visit with them all… Btw, If I had read this on any website before I had my experience, I would think, ‘coo-coo, coo-coo’, immediately, about the person. Period, end of story.

        But it happened, and it was a miracle – because it was unspeakably peaceful and real and they gave me great messages, too – and my dad was humorous, too! I have to tell about this at times – and I just felt like you deserved hearing it!…. it’s a struggle thinking I’ll have to wait to get to heaven sometimes! Yes! That;s how peaceful it was – enticing as can be, which is an encouragement to pray!!

        How did Paul Robeson get to sing the way he did, ‘Swing Low’ ..and how did that beautiful song come about? What about all the other slave songs that indicated there’s a spirit world of love ‘just over yonder’? How does Red Crow become brave enough to sing ‘goodbye’ to us? And how does Nina Simone do that amazing intro to her Swiss audience THE WAY that she did, and then go on and sing, ‘Feelings’ THE WAY that she did. ??? From suffering under the Judea-Christian patriarchy is how…

        So for encouragement these days, I turn to those who suffered under it as I did – to the brown people who express their suffering the best – in music and in their writings.

        PS: I know I sound nuts but I’m ok with it. :c)

        I love Barbara – in part because of how her work and her spirit gives me the freedom to recover from, and have more lightness, too – around ‘what happened’ to me and to my family-members, and really, to all of us, essentially – for when one of us hurts – we all hurt. We were born to love and are wired to love – and I pray the the ‘shift’ that all of the indigenous groups, especially, are talking about now – I pray for this shift to relieve the great and palpable suffering in the world

  7. I forgot to write that I’m also a HUGE fan of Barbara’s, too – *amazing*, beautiful woman!
    I’m on her website often enough and share her site with others, too!

  8. That whole anchorite/anchoress phenomenon as a facet of medieval religious practice has always puzzled me. I mean, I understand retreats, retreat days, temporary withdrawals from the often hectic world, but not the idea of having oneself mortared up in order to be closer to God. That smacks, to my modern sensibilities, more of Poe than piety.

    Did the medieval believer require harsher self-measures to approach the divine? Did the practice usually (if we exclude Julian of Norwich) involve someone who was unbalanced to begin with? Since we don’t have any medieval brain scans, we can only guess about the psychology–or physiology– involved. Certainly some of the Tibetan Buddhist retreats take years, and are significant withdrawals from human contact, but they do end.

    Were there more anchoresses than anchorites? Was becoming one, like a “career” in the Church itself, a way for a medieval woman to make a place for herself in a society which was generally repressive and lacking opportunities outside marriage? (This is independent of the repugnant, to me, idea of immuring a child alongside the anchoress…) Were these individuals, in a sense, the rock stars of their day? Lots of questions crop up. I look forward to reading the book.

    Barbara, your review was great. Good fiction–as you very well know–can be a real pointer to growth, as well as an enjoyable way to do it. ;-)

    • Hi Onoosh,

      Anchorites could be either male or female, but generally male anchorites were already long established monks who had years of monastic experience before taking the radical step of enclosing themselves in an anchorage. Female anchorites generally took the far more drastic step of entering the anchorage straight from worldly life. They were regarded as saintly for the magnitude of the sacrifice they had made. Much of the anchorite’s life reflected the ideal of redemptive suffering, of suffering in imitation of Christ, and an anchorite like Jutta would have viewed herself as a living sacrifice. For this reason, her prayers were believed to be much more powerful than those of ordinary people, including ordinary monastics.

      According to medieval belief, the anchorites were the anchor mooring the ship of faith. Their prayerful life, sacrifice, and devotions made them living saints. Some women, like the English woman Christina of Markyate, became anchorites specifically to escape forced marriage.

      I am very grateful to live in a world were spiritual women have more choices than the anchorage versus an arranged marriage! I believe Hildegard was one of those spiritual women who devoted her life’s work to ensuring that there would be more choices for women to experience the spiritual life with dignity, joy, and creativity.

      • Mary, thanks for the very complete replies regarding anchorites, anchoresses, and their context in the medieval church, and about child religious in general. Given the choices available to women then, the religious life must have been very attractive, especially when contrasted with the alternatives.

        In addition to the Buddhist customs you mention, there’s also the temporary consecration of young boys as monks practiced in Theravada Buddhism. We have two local Buddhist Wats, and when one of them rededicated its monumental Buddha statue last year there were young boys in monks’ robes attending. I asked one of our resident monks about them, and he said, smiling, “They’re here for the summer.”

        I really look forward to reading both your books, and have signed on at your website. I like the “Viriditas” site, too.

      • Thank you so much, Onoosh!

  9. Thanks, Barbara, for pointing out some good spiritual fiction. I’m always looking for a good read.

  10. Thanks to you all for this fantastic conversation. I love it when smart women talk about interesting topics. Thanks especially to Mary for joining in. Maybe we can all gang up and persuade her to hurry up and write another novel. Hah! I know from experience that writing a novel is hard work and can take some time, especially when you have to do historical research. Nevertheless, Mary, I hope you’re getting to work again…………

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