Author to Author: A Conversation with Mary Sharratt, author of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen
Meet Author Mary Sharratt
The Bookstore at Fitger’s
Sunday, October 21, 1 pm
For a reading and signing of her new book, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen
In 12th century Germany, Hildegard von Bingen was offered to the Church at the age of eight by her parents, and was basically imprisoned there, literally bricked off from the outside world, with one other girl, for 30 agonizing years. It’s a miracle she even survived. But that’s not the most interesting part of Hildegard’s story, not by a long shot. It’s what happened after she was released that is truly miraculous.
When she was 42 — a very old woman in those days — she began to speak and write about visions she had had since she was a child. This, in itself, was a radical thing to do at the time, but not as radical as the content of those visions. Hildegard said: “Divine Love abounds in all things” — nature itself was sacred, womanhood was to be revered, humans are part of it all, not simply specks of dust worshipping a vengeful God but part of the Divine itself. How was she not immediately killed for heresy? Only God knows.
She didn’t hide her beliefs, rather she wrote and spoke about them at length, and founded her own Abbey! She also wrote music, and even wrote a book about the healing properties of plants and herbs… which would have instantly branded her a witch if she lived, say, 500 years later in Salem, MA.
She was truly the first feminist, and was an astonishing example of how one woman, when holding fast to her beliefs, can triumph over almost anything.
I recently had a conversation with Mary about her new book. Here’s what she said:
1. In this country, we don't know much about Hildegard. At least I didn't, before reading your novel. How did you hear about her, and what was it about her story that interested you?
For twelve years I lived in Germany where Hildegard has long been a cultural icon, adored by Catholics, Lutherans, and completely secular people. Her music is highly regarded and her system of holistic medicine, now called Hildegard Medizin, is still practiced by German doctors. There are many cookbooks with Hildegard's dietary advice.
As an author, I was particularly struck by the pathos of her story. A child haunted by luminous visions, her parents gave her as a tithe to the Church at the age of eight. She was enclosed with Jutta von Sponheim, a 14-year-old anchorite, her whole existence bent on silence and submission. And yet against all odds she triumphed to become the greatest voice of her age.
2. Hildegard lived in the 12th century, which your book brings to life, giving the reader a real sense of what it was like during that time. How did you research time-specific detail?
I read all I could on the period and I also completed a course on Medieval Studies at Lancaster University in England. I lived, breathed, and slept Hildegard, toured all the sites associated with her life, and listened obsessively to her music. The Historical Novel Society is also a great source for hard to find facts, such as what materials 12th century tents would be made out of--felted goat hair!
I also wear an authentic 12th century secular gown for my ILLUMINATIONS reading events!
3. Your last book, Daughters of Witching Hill, was also set in the past. Do you enjoy "time traveling" — immersing yourself in another place and time to the extent necessary to write a historical novel?
I love history and historical fiction. From my very first novel, I have used historical fiction as a way to circumvent autobiography. I think fiction can provide an escape for the writer as well as the reader. I also want my fiction to serve a higher purpose--to integrate the latest research into social history of the lives of women, the poor and dispossessed. History isn't all about lords and ladies and kings and queens. Historical novelists can literally rewrite the dispossessed back into history!
4. Hildegard was one scrappy lady, full of ambition and passion. One might even call her the first feminist. It seems incredible to me that she was able to do so much with her life — founding an Abbey, writing extensively, composing music — during a time when women had none of the freedoms or rights we enjoy today. How did she survive, let alone thrive, in that day and age?
Both Hildegard and her historical time frame were complicated. Although women came second, monastic women could achieve a high degree of education generally not accessible to most lay women. Every monastic house had a library--before the development of universities, monasteries were centers of higher learning. An abbess was a feudal landlord who could wield a lot of power. Each monastic house had an infirmary and hospice, so women as well as men served as physicians. Within the nunnery itself, each choir nun had a voice and a vote. Abbesses and prioresses were elected by their sisters.
Hildegard's special privlege was that she was regarded in her own lifetime as a prophet. That meant that the men in power didn't think her mighty pronouncements were her own opinions but the voice of God moving through her. She called herself a feather on the breath of God. That's how she could get away with delivering apocalyptic sermons warning corrupt Church leaders that they must change their dissolute ways or be struck down from their thrones of power.
Hildegard lived in an age that celebrated mysticism and prophecy and allowed powerful abbesses like herself to act in the world outside the cloister. Had she been born a few centuries later, when the boundaries of the cloister were more strictly enforced after the Council of Trent, her existence would have been much more circumscribed.
5. Hildegard's visions of Divine Love, with its focus on the sacredness of nature, femininity, and even the human place in all of it, seem almost Wiccan or even somewhat New Age, in today's parlance. Combined with her book on the healing powers of plants and herbs, I get the impression that she wouldn't have gone over too well if she had lived in a place and time like Salem, MA in the 1600s. Did you mean to draw a line between Hildegard's views and the "sacred feminine" views of today?
Hildegard's theology is as complicated as the rest of her life. To understand her visionary theology I highly recommend Barbara Newman's book Sister of Wisdom: Saint Hildegard of Bingen's Theology of the Feminine. Her faith was certainly Christo-centric, but within her Christian faith, she could adore the Feminine Divine and, like Julian of Norwich, Hildegard called God Mother. Hildegard herself said that although the Scriptures reveal God as Father, the Holy Spirit chose to reveal God to her as Mother in her visions. She also said with her customary self-depecration that "poor, weak, ignorant woman" that she was, she could only bear to look upon the face of God in her visions, if the Divine appeared to her in feminine guise.
If she had been born in 17th century Puritan culture with its abhorrence of mystical and visionary experience, I have no doubt she would have been accused of witchcraft, like the accused in Salem and the Pendle Witches of my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, who, interestingly enough, practiced Catholic folk magic and lived in a place and time where Catholicism itself was conflated with witchcraft.
Hildegard is a Catholic saint and a newly appointed Doctor of the Church for her profound contributions as a theologian. But for people today, her life and message transcend faith boundaries and she continues to inspire very diverse groups of people. I believe this resonance reflects her vision and genius.
6. What can women today, who might be struggling with their own views about organized religion specifically in terms of the role of women within it, learn from Hildegard?
I think that Hildegard’s legacy remains hugely important for contemporary women. While writing this book, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women priests and bishops still cause controversy in the Episcopalian Church while the previous Catholic pope, John Paul II, called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests.
Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—she was thrust into an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her luminous visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, that can inspire us today.
Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature and even perceived God as feminine, as Mother. Her vision of the universe was an egg in the womb of God.
Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.