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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Skillfully interweaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, Sharratt's redemptive novel, Illuminations, brings to life one of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages: Hildegard von Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath.
Offered to the Church at the age of eight, Hildegard was entombed in a small room where she was expected to live out her days in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned but disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim. Instead, Hildegard rejected Jutta's masochistic piety and found comfort and grace in studying books, growing herbs, and rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine.
When Jutta died some thirty years later, Hildegard broke out of her prison with the heavenly calling to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters and herself from the soul-destroying anchorage.
Riveting and utterly unforgettable, Illuminations is a deeply moving portrayal of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed.
She is so bright and glorious that you cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines. For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightning, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans. . . . But she is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.
Hildegard von Bingen's vision of the Feminine Divine, from Scivias,
III, 4.15, translated by Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B., and Jane Bishop
THE MOST ANCIENT and enduring power of women is prophecy, my gift and my curse. Once, centuries before my existence, there lived in these Rhineland forests a woman named Weleda, she who sees. She took no husband but lived in a tower. In those heathen times, her people revered her as a goddess, for she foretold their victory against the Romans. But the seeress's might is not just a relic of pagan times. Female prophets crowd the books of the Old TestamentDeborah and Sarah, Miriam and Abigail, Hannah and Esther.
And so, in my own age, when learned men, quoting Saint Peter, call woman the weaker vessel, even they have to concede that a woman can be a font of truth, filled with vision, her voice moving like a feather on the breath of God. Mother, what is this vision you show me? With my waking eyes, I saw it coming. The storm approaching our abbey. Soon I would meet my nemesis face-to-face.
My blistered hands loosened their grip on the shovel, letting it fall into the churned up earth. At seventy-nine years of age, I am no longer strong enough for such labors, yet force of necessity had moved me to toil for half a day, my every muscle shrieking. Following my lead, my daughters set down their tools. With somber eyes, we Sisters of Rupertsberg surveyed our handiwork. We had tilled every inch of our churchyard. Though the tombstones still stood, jutting like teeth from the rent soil, we had chiseled off every last inscription. My daughters' faces were etched in both exhaustion and silent shock. Our graveyard was a sanctuary as holy as the high altar of our church. Now it resembled a wasteland.
Tears caught in my eyes as Sister Cordula passed me the crook that marked my office of abbess. Whispering pleas for forgiveness to the deceased, I picked my way over the bare soil until I came to the last resting place of Maximus, the runaway monk whose plight had driven our desperate act. The boy fled to us for asylum after his brothers committed unspeakable sins against him. Despite our every effort to heal his broken body and soul, the young man died in our hospice, and so we gave him a Christian burial.
But the prelates of the Archbishop of Mainz, the very men who had ignored the cruelty unfolding in the boy's monastery, had declared Maximus an apostate. Tomorrow or the following day, the prelates would come to wrest the dead boy from his grave and dump him in unhallowed ground as if he were a dead mongrel. So we razed our burial ground, making it impossible for any outsider to locate his grave. Had the prelates ever imagined that mere nuns would take such measures to foil them, the men we were bound to obey?
Raising my abbess's crook, I spoke the words of blessing. "In the name of the Living Light, may this holy resting place be protected. May it remain invisible to all who would desecrate it."
My heart throbbed like a wound when I remembered the boy who died in my arms, the one I had sworn before God to protect. He had committed no crime, had only been a handsome youth in a nest of vipers. Maximus had only an aged abbess and her nuns to stand between him and the full might of the Church fathers.
Excerpted from Illuminations by Mary Sharratt. Copyright © 2012 by Mary Sharratt. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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BookBrowse readers give Mary Sharratt's Illuminations high marks with 14 out of 16 readers rating it at least 4 stars out of 5. Here's why:
The nuanced portrait of Hildegard von Bingen resonated with many:
Mary Sharratt's Illuminations is a fascinating fictional account of the life of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century mystic, writer, composer, and Benedictine abbess. The novel contains a wealth of historical detail, but its true strength lies in the complex characterization of Hildegard, who is portrayed as a deeply religious but flawed individual who overcame much in her life to become the only sanctioned female theologian of her time (Terri O). By the end of the book, I felt that the author had given me an inside glimpse into the heart and soul of a brilliant, multi-talented woman who centuries later continues to inspire us. I highly recommend this book to all readers who want to know her, not just know about her (Helen S). Ms. Sharratt has done a wonderful job weaving historical fact; relationships (despite the difficult circumstances); and insight into the psychology of the characters (Jill S). I was worried it would be stuffy and overly religious, but it wasn't at all. It was fascinating! (Martha L).
The book sheds light on women's roles in medieval society:
As grim as Hildegard's life appears, her story is truly engrossing, inspiring wonder and courage that Hildegard was able to overcome so much adversity and contribute such music, knowledge and a sense of power which inspired the young women of her time. Deftly written, this novel places the reader fully into Hildegard's life and time with fully rounded characters, the historical backdrop of the Crusades and the ongoing struggle of women to overcome the social roles expected of them (Therese X). She learned how to thrive in a myopic cell existence and put her mind to learning what beauty the world held. In her later years she became a powerful abbess and she learned how to exist in a man's world (Mary G).
A couple of readers questioned the book's historical accuracy:
Little is known of the events in the period of her 30-year confinement, and the treatment of this section seemed too fictionalized, with sexual innuendos added just to make the book more readable (Donna W). An imagined memoir, the author deviates a great deal from recorded history. I enjoy novels of real life people because it helps to bring the person into my concrete world but Sharratt's imagination is too wild, making Hildegard appear too pious and yet too foolish. She makes Hildegard what she wants her to be, not what she was. (Nancy H).
But most loved learning about an unknown facet of history:
This book was fascinating. I knew very little about the life of an anchorite, I had read a little about Julian of Norwich but I learned so much more from this book. It is not a 'religious' book so much as it is an examination of human fortitude and the courage to fight for your convictions (Linda S). This beautifully written book about an extraordinary woman was so informative about a time of such corruption and turmoil in the Catholic church. I was happy to be introduced to her (Elinor S). The story of Hildegard von Bingen's life was fascinating and enlightening. Before reading Illuminations I had only known about her from facts gleaned from the liner notes on CDs of her music. But as I read this historical novel, I could see her talents developing and imagine what life would have been like for her as an anchorite coping with difficult people and trying situations (Helen S).
Who will like this book:
I would recommend this book to any reader who enjoys excellent historical fiction; it would especially appeal to those with an interest in mysticism, early feminism, or early Church music. I highly recommend listening to some of Hildegard's musical compositions while reading the book (a list of recordings can be found in the afterword at the end of the novel (Terri O). This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in Women's Studies (Mary G).
Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers
Rated of 5
by Pamela F. (Grants Pass, OR)
I really didn't know much about Hildegard, and being a Catholic, I was really curious about this Saint. I read it more as a novel as I am not sure of the accuracy, but major events check out and I found the novel to be fascinating. Hildegard is going to be made a doctor of the Church and so this was timely. She was very independent for her time and forward thinking. I enjoyed this book and loved learning about the times.
Rated of 5
by Linda S. (Oceanside, NY)
Illuminating the life of an anchorite
Imagine being bricked up into a small two room enclosure, with no windows and only a small courtyard that receives sparse light. This enclosure is attached to a church and your only contact with the outside world is through a small screen in the wall into the church. Your sole purpose is to be a handmaiden to Jutta von Sponheim, a noble woman who has agreed to be anchorite to the Disbodian abbey. Now imagine that you are only eight years old. This is the life of Hildegard von Bingen who became one of the most famous women in the Catholic Church, a writer, mystic and eventually a saint.
This was a fascinating book about the life of Hildegarde. She was a truly remarkable woman, a feminist for her time. After 35 years of living with the possibly mentally unbalanced Jutta, Hildegarde broke free of her anchorite, established an abbey and spoke all over Europe against the corruption of the church.
This book was fascinating. I knew very little about the life of an anchorite, I had read a little about Julian of Norwich but I learned so much more from this book. It is not a 'religious' book so much as it is an examination of human fortitude and the courage to fight for your convictions.
Falls short of five stars because I found the ending a little rushed. The opening chapters start with a mystery, but it is just explained away in the afterword. Up until this point I loved the book and wish it had been a little longer, about ten years seemed to be summed up in a few pages.
For those who like historical fiction, especially medieval history this is an excellent choice.
Rated of 5
by Tracy B. (New Castle, DE)
What a shocking story. Well written and hard to put down. I wasn't raised as a Catholic so this was all very new to me. I had heard of female mystics but didn't know what their life was like? True women have come a long way in history but being walled into a space of two rooms for your life because you are a mystic as a young girl with a child caregiver doesn't seem like the good life or spiritual. The lack of choices that presented themselves to women in this time especially the ones of wealth. There was no way to protect the daughters, it was off to the church or marriage with the life of bearing children. Men would have control and power of the family Just as the church controlled knowledge of the the written word, healing...
I must say that I felt like a fly on the wall encased in those two rooms. As the courtyard gathered plants it seemed to grow. Jutta seemed to shrink as Hildegard started to flourish. Who would have guessed that Hildegard would have the spirit to survive. Could this have happened without the friendship of Volmar?
When Hildergard escapes the confinement of those 2 rooms, a walled in prison within a prison, taking her sisters with her, does she have the courage to attain some freedom? Her belief system and knowledge of the world was limited to the church. Her lack of political understanding & confusion opened and closed doors around her. She was not able to manage the power that came with the Abby. The friendships and visions she cast aside believing that no one understood or supported her in this her final endeavor, to build Rupertsberg. Hildegard was alone again cast out of the church and the real world that got in the way. She fought for women, truth and knowledge.
Rated of 5
by Mary G. (Lawrenceville, NJ)
What an interesting story of Hildegard Von Bingen. From a very young age she was taught always to obey and remain silent while other in authority decided her fate. But in living her humble existance she produced many remarkable accomplishments. She learned how to thrive in a myopic cell existance and put her mind to learning what beauty the world held. In her later years she became a powerful abbess and she learned how to exist in a man world. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in Women's studies.
Rated of 5
by Nancy H. (Englewood, CO)
I really wanted to like Illuminations: a Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen by Mary Sharratt. I have been fond of Hildegard for many years, reading much of her writings and songs. A multitalented woman, who had spiritual visions since childhood, who brought much to the spiritual lives of women by embracing not only prayer but beauty and play to her order.
Alas Illuminations was not the treasure I had hoped it would be. An imagined memoir, the author deviates a great deal from recorded history. I enjoy novels of real life people because it helps to bring the person into my concrete world. Good Hard Look: A Novel of Flannery O'Connor by Ann Napoliatano is one such book. Sharratt's imagination is too wild, making Hildegard appear too pious and yet too foolish. She makes Hildegard what she wants her to be, not what she was. She makes the relationship with Volmar a little too dear. I would love to know what went on in Hildegard's mind, but all we find here is what Sharratt hopes she thought.
Rated of 5
by Therese X. (Calera, AL)
ILLUMINATIONS-- Had to keep turning the pages!
Hildegard von Bingen, known for her music and writing in medieval Germany was the youngest of ten children in a devout Christian family. Although her sisters were primed to marry, her future would be strongly different and vastly strange. A lively, playful child, she claimed to see visions from an early age. Her mother, fearing that her daughter may be influenced by the devil, pledged Hildegard to a monastery at age eight as a handmaiden to an "anchorite", a special nun who spent her life in fasting and prayer in a sealed room attached to a monastery. Jutta von Sponheim, disturbed daughter of a wealthy family and Hildegard entered their tiny cell and were "walled in", with only a grill facing into the church and a revolving hatch on which unseen monks would place their meager meals. With the last brick in place, the two women were sealed together for life, Jutta hopelessly ecstatic and Hildegard trembling in terror. Volmar, a kind young monk and scribe, brought them food and also books which Jutta initially taught Hildegard to read before launching herself into masochistic spirituality. After thirty years of praying, singing and self-mortification, Jutta died and Hildegard began to thrive. Hildegard's visions, however, returned and she began writing them down as illuminations from her "mother church, Ecclesia", angering the strict, patriarchal Church clerics, that a woman would dare write a book or draw attention to herself. Hoping to put Hildegard in her place, her work was sent to the papal authorities to be condemned. As grim as Hildegard's life appears, her story is truly engrossing, inspiring wonder and courage that Hildegard was able to overcome so much adversity and contribute such music, knowledge and a sense of power which inspired the young women of her time. Deftly written, this novel places the reader fully into Hildegard's life and time with fully rounded characters, the historical backdrop of the Crusades and the ongoing struggle of women to overcome the social roles expected of them.
Rated of 5
by Tilli F. (Florence, MA)
This is an engrossing book. Mary Sharrat's style brings the characters to life and the environment in which they lived. And Hildegard von Bingen is an amazing character. The plot has many cliffhanger turns which keep you reading. I knew nothing about her when I took this book, and now I am totally impressed. That she lived until 80, that she was walled up when she was eight, and that her visions had such power in her time - all of these were new to me. Her affair with Richardis (Caritas) is dealt with delicately so that isn't clear whether it was a homosexual relationship or merely a soul mate one. I would recommend it to book clubs especially those who are interested in historical fiction. The book does not talk enough about her music which is why I was attracted to her. But it does talk about the importance of music. It will not appeal to readers who are agnostic since it deals so exclusively with the life of religious people, and in the middle it seems as if the author has run out of superlatives and uses phrases like"the paradisial perfume" of roses. But it was an absorbing and vivid tale and I would highly recommend it
Rated of 5
by Terri O. (Chapel Hill, NC)
Mary Sharratt's Illuminations is a fascinating fictional account of the life of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century mystic, writer, composer, and Benedictine abbess. The novel contains a wealth of historical detail, but its true strength lies in the complex characterization of Hildegard, who is portrayed as a deeply religious but flawed individual who overcame much in her life to become the only sanctioned female theologian of her time. I would recommend this book to any reader who enjoys excellent historical fiction; it would especially appeal to those with an interest in mysticism, early feminism, or early Church music. I highly recommend listening to some of Hildegard's musical compositions while reading the book (a list of recordings can be found in the afterword at the end of the novel). Illuminations would also be a great book club book.
St. Hildehard von Bingen was an incredibly gifted writer and music composer. Her music is known for its soaring registers and flourishes. As a child, she was exposed to music at the monastery when she heard others take part in the Divine Office. She listened and learned from the interplay between words and sound. The monastery provided a forum for music composition with copyists who could pen the music and a skilled group who could sing it.
The saint believed music was the highest form of human activity and collected them as a complement to traditional Gregorian chants.
A Paris-based ensemble group, Sequentia, has revived the popularity of St. Hildegard von Bingen's music. Sequentia's work on the music has been recorded on seven releases one of which, Canticles of Ecstasy, sold more than half a million copies worldwide and won many international awards including a Grammy for best choral recording.
You can listen to a playlist of this incredibly moving and transporting music here. For one of the many on the list, click the video below:
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