The Greenest Branch
A Feature Review of Two New Books on Hildegard of Bingen
A Novel of Hildegard of Bingen
– and –
Selections from Saint Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias
Elizabeth Ruth Obbard
Reviewed by Caitlin Michelle Desjardins
I first encountered the name of Hildegard von Bingen during my years as a music student, in a class on Music before 1600. It was early in the first semester of my Freshman year, so I don’t remember much—saving the recollection of a pristine woman’s voice singing a few lines of Latin that had a remarkably rich melody.
Hildegard von Bingen has not been a stranger to me this year, however, as I’ve encountered her name, music, writings and person in a variety of ways, most particularly owing to this being the “Year of Hildegard” to correspond with her canonization in the Catholic Church. My first thought, of course, when I heard she was being canonized was to remember I’d encountered her in that “Music before 1600” class and wonder: why were they just canonizing her now? That question, I’m afraid, I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to, for the more I’ve encountered Hildegard, the more I’ve seen her as embodying the very definition of Saint in the sureness of her call and visions, the magnificence of the music she gifted to the church and the powerful theology she left in writing. But, like many visionaries (both those that, like Hildegard, literally saw heavenly visions, and those who foresaw the future or saw the now clairvoyantly), she was remarkably ahead of her time. So much so, perhaps, that we are only now catching up to her…and even then, there’s so much power here, I’m not sure we are even yet fully prepared.
Mary Sharratt, an American ex-pat to Germany, has made this stunning woman even more accessible to all of us today through her historically rich and intricately imagined new novel about Hildegard von Bingen’s life: Illuminations. Illuminations is, in a word, engrossing. I received my copy on a Friday and had finished it by Saturday late-afternoon (and this, I’d like to add, was during Seminary finals!) She opened Hildegard’s world and truly Hildegard herself for me in a novel that felt both expansive and intimate.
The novel opens in Rupertsberg, the site of the first independent women’s abbey that Hildegard founded. It is late in Hildegard’s life, just before Hildegard’s abbey is placed under interdict for burying an excommunicant. Hildegard, foreseeing the trouble to come, begins to look back over her life with the help of Guibert, a monk from Adennes who has arrived to help her write her Vita—a sort of medieval autobiography. And here Illuminations moves quickly backwards, still in first person, to the early years of Hildegard’s life as she narrates her childhood, first days and months in the monastery (and how she got there) and the remarkable events that shaped her into Hildegard the Saint. The novel focuses around Hildegard’s coming of age, her growing sense of call and confidence, and then blossoms into a fast-paced narrative as she finally begins to write down her visions in her first book: Scivias.
The first person narrative moves quickly, and draws the reader into the mind and most intimate relationships of Hildegard, who was (and is here, quite shiningly) a human being with feelings, fears, anger, hurt and love. Mary Sharratt is straightforward in naming that her novel about Hildegard is just that, a novel. She does not claim to be putting forth a perfectly accurate account of Hildegard’s life and, it is somewhat clear, as a reader, where she has filled in gaps in the historical record with her own conjectures and inklings. Yet even the imagined parts of Hildegard’s life and relationships (the most often imagined or elaborated aspects of the novel) are drawn from genuine historical gaps or the kinds of hints in history that are indeed calling to be imagined just so. I found myself deeply drawn into the relationship between Hildegard and Volmar—historical in many ways, yet given a tenderness I relished as a reader, and, of course, Hildegard’s relationship with Richardis von Stada—much intriguing to this day (though Sharratt herself maintains that the nature of the relationship was purely platonic, and we need to not read modernity into history). And while I am not an expert on 11th century Germany and its religious life, I found myself treated with believable detail and description that was neither overbearing nor unconvincing. I was particularly drawn into a new realization of the sheer physical discomfort of an 11th century monastery, and anchorage, so it were, and gained a newfound appreciation for the creativity that flourished in such a one as Hildegard when absent from the cozy library chairs and space heaters we relish today.
It was clear that the author had done a massive amount of research and truly immersed herself, as best as possible, in Hildegard’s world during the writing. It is plain, too, that Sharratt has an obvious affinity for, and even likeness of, Hildegard and while her work doesn’t cross over into hagiography, at times I felt it towing the line just slightly. I would have, as a non-sainted reader, perhaps liked to hear a tad more about Hildegard’s weakness and failings—though I do imagine these aren’t as evident in the historical record (nevertheless, Sharratt certainly has the creative ability).
I was grateful to have a chance to explore, alongside Illuminations, a small new book consisting of selections from Hildegard’s own Scivias, in a new translation by the author, Elizabeth Ruth Obbard. Woman Mystic: Selections from Stain Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias was an enjoyable and fascinating read alongside Illuminations. Obbard included selections from all three books of Scivias, and her selections cover some of the most enlightened moments in Hildegard’s writing: her declaration that her visions are true, theology of creation and the fall, her visions of the Mother Ekklesia and selections from her writing about the virtues. Obbard’s translation is easy to read and her short introduction is succinct and helpful. For anyone who wants an excellent introduction to the writings of Hildegard herself, but doesn’t want to delve into 500 pages of the full Scivias, this is an excellent new resource and would make a great classroom companion, or—as for me—a companion to novels or movies about Hildegard’s life.
Hildegard, in life, was a force to be reckoned with. Now, more than 800 years after her death, she is still a bright light calling us to open ourselves to the richness, the “greenness”—as she would say—of God’s love. Hildegard of Bingen, as Sharratt and Obbard illustrate, was a lover of life and these works, and Hildegard herself, remind us to also love the greenness and beauty of our own lives.
O noblest greening,
You who have your roots in the sun,
And who shine in bright serenity on the wheel,
Whom no earthy excellence contains.
You glow red like the dawn
And you burn like the sun’s fire.
You are held all around
By the embraces of the divine mysteries.
Caitlin Michelle Desjardins is a student in Theology at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She enjoys all forms of the written and spoken word and drinks copious amounts of tea. You can contact her at caitlin.desjardins [ at ] gmail [dot ] com