Saturday, December 07, 2013

Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

Sometimes, a book comes along that I never would have picked up except for a book club. I'm glad the group selected Mary Sharratt's Illuminations. I know I would not have read this beautifully written historical novel. Illuminations is a story based on the life of a courageous woman, Hildegard von Bingen.

According to Sharrat's story, Hildegard had visions from the time she was a child. As the tenth child in a family, with her father away fighting in the first Crusade, Hildegard was given to the Church. She was sent as a companion to Jutta von Sponheim, and, at the age of eight, Hildegard was walled up in a monastery. She spent the next thirty years as Jutta's companion, learning to read and write, and learning the use of herbs in medicine. But, it was only at the time of Jutta's death that Hildegard came into her own. The young woman found a way to break out of her isolation in the monastery, using her skills as a composer to bring attention to her visions.

Hildegard was able to gather a group of young women around her, and eventually became an abbess, establishing a Benedictine community for women. But, even in a religious community, Hildegard was forced to fight for her vision of a community within the Church. Illuminations is the fascinating story of a religious woman coming into her own in the second half of her life.The woman who eventually was made a saint, and, in 2012, proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, was a talented composer, writer, and philosopher, who spoke out against the abuses in the church.

Illuminations is the story of Hildegard's vision and religious life, but it's also a story of deep friendship and love. Would Hildegard have risen to the heights she did without the lifelong friendship of a scribe, Brother Volmar, and her love for Richardis von Strade, one of the sisters who was sent to her? Mary Sharratt takes some liberties with the story of Hildegard von Bingen, because there are some discrepancies in the story of St. Hildegard. However, she's written a beautiful novel of a woman who changed the world around her.

Mary Sharratt's website is

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. ISBN 9780547567846 (hardcover), 274p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book


techeditor said...

I read this, too. Here's what I thought.

ILLUMINATIONS tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches and as a prophet by the Lutheran Church.

Hildegard's divine visions were likely the reason her mother gave her to a Catholic monastery when she was a child, where she was forced into a tomb-like existence for 30 years. Her visions continued her entire life. When she was sure they came from God, she saw the importance of writing a book about them. Further synopsis is in the review above.

ILLUMINATIONS is based on documented fact, but it is not a biography. Here, Hildegard's story is told as a novel. In so doing, Sharratt interjects Hildegard's thoughts, psychological insights, and dialog and keeps the reader's interest more than a biography would. For readers like me, that makes this book more readable, and that is why I rate the book so highly.

Like all good novels that are based on fact, ILLUMINATIONS will have you needing to know exactly what really happened and what is Sharratt's fiction. She talks about this in the "Afterward," which I thought should have begun the book rather than ended it.

I wondered most about Hildegard's special relationship with Sister Richardis. So I did some digging, searching the Internet. And that made me want to learn even more, and that made me want to search Netflix. Sure enough, they have a couple DVDs about Hildegard, and now one of them is on its way to me.

Karen C said...

Sounds like an interesting story, Lesa.

Lesa said...

Techeditor - Thank you so much for your summary and comments. It adds to the richness of the book. I really appreciate it.

Lesa said...

It was interesting, Karen. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed it, and you can see that Techeditor did, too.