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Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen Hardcover – Oct 9 2012

4.2 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (Oct. 9 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547567847
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547567846
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15 x 3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 481 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #526,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"An enchanting beginning to the story of the perennially fascinating 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. It is easy to paint a picture of a saint from the outside but much more difficult to show them from the inside. Mary Sharratt has undertaken this with sensitivity and grace."
Margaret George, author of Mary, Called Magdalene

"I loved Mary Sharratt’s The Daughters of Witching Hill, but she has outdone herself with Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen. She brings one of the most famous and enigmatic women of the Middle Ages to vibrant life in this tour de force, which will captivate the reader from the very first page."
Sharon Kay Penman, author of the New York Times bestseller Time and Chance

"I love Mary Sharratt. The grace of her writing and the grace of her subject combine seamlessly in this wonderful novel about the amazing, too-little-known saint, Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic and visionary. Sharratt captures both the pain and the beauty such gifts bring, as well as bringing to life a time of vast sins and vast redemptions."
Karleen Koen, author of Before Versailles and the best-selling Through a Glass Darkly

"Sharratt offers up an imaginative retelling of the fascinating life of the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen....Though confined primarily to the abbey and peopled by a small cast, Sharratt’s gripping story, like Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, is primarily about relationships forged under pressure." 
Publishers Weekly

"In this affecting historical novel, Sharratt imagines the inner life of Hildegard, first as an angry child, then as a young woman nurturing the other girls forced into this restricted life, and finally as a mature woman leading her companions out of the anchorage, establishing the first monastic institution for women in Germany, and advocating an idea of religious devotion based on love rather than suffering. Psychological insight, passages of moving spirituality, and abundant historical detail—from straw bedding and hairshirts to turtle soup and wooden dolls—make this a memorable addition to the genre of medieval historical fiction."

About the Author

MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point, Sharratt is also the coeditor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in October 2012. I knew very little about her, except that she composed quite a lot of glorious music.While some of the chronology of her life is contested (was she aged eight or fourteen when she was enclosed with an older nun?), her life and achievements are amazing.

In this novel, Mary Sharratt has the eight year old Hildegard (born in Bermersheim vor der Höhe, County Palatine of the Rhine, Holy Roman Empire) given to a ‘holy’ anchorite named Jutta. Hildegard is then walled up with her companion at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest in what is now Germany. An anchorite, as I discovered, was usually a woman (an anchoress) who chose to live alone in a small house with a screened window through which she conversed with the outside world. Life as an anchoress was not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but Jutta (who was often regarded as a living saint) was a fanatic.

This novel, told as a first-person account by Hildegard in old age, depicts their life together, the consequences of Jutta’s extremism on both herself and on Hildegard. While depicting the horrors of Hildegard’s life with Jutta for three decades, the novel also encompasses Hildegard’s life once Jutta is dead: where she goes public with the visions she has experienced and eventually founds and leads her own covent where she becomes a beloved abbess. Her life was not without controversy.

‘I am not afraid’, I whispered, ‘ What can they do to one old nun?’

I found this novel interesting for its depiction of Hildegard’s life as an anchorite. Ms Sharratt imagines a Hildegard consistent with the times in which she lived, possessed of a deep religious experience. While my focus remains on her music, I can only marvel at the spirit which, having endured so much, was inspired to write such soaring music. An amazing person.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Format: Kindle Edition
Wow! Lovely and (in the same time) painful story! One of the best books I've read this year.
I love Hildegard as a child and also as an adult. She had a moving life story. Through this book I discovered some strange facts that I didn't know they were happening in the past. This is a great historical adventure with so many life lessons.
Would love this captivating book put into a movie. It will be very interesting and emotional.

Here are some quotes I like and would love to share:
“Gluttony is the mother of all other sins.”
“True saints, she insisted, could live on water and air alone. Fasting cured every disease.”
“For every ailment under heaven, an herb grows to cure it.”
“He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love.”
“God is not just in heaven, but in every living thing.”
“The fish that feed on clean foods and that dwell in the clear waters of the upper or middle depths are the healthiest to eat. But the bottom-feeders, or the carp that dwell in stagnant marshes, should never be eaten by the sick.”
“Tall trees are the first to go down in the storm.”
“A true love sees past the beginnings of things. It sees them through to the end. Anything less is mere vanity.”
“How easy it was to tear things down, how difficult to build something up from the ground.”
“A good tree is known by its good fruit.”
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Format: Hardcover
This book is historical fiction after all, and makes use of history. As a WONDERFUL partner to this book, read The Hidden History of Women's Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West by Gary Macy, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. The author speaks at Santa Clara University on YouTube on his book. Turns out that women clergy were common in the early church and were hidden by the use of bad historical practice. A MUST READ for all Christian women of all denominations.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Somewhat depressing but true tale of life as a young woman "chosen" by her family to become a nun. Early 15th century , I think but
brutal, nonetheless.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0xb4febf78) out of 5 stars 387 reviews
109 of 121 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xb5054e58) out of 5 stars Illuminating Novel! Aug. 24 2012
By MommaMia - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Illuminations is a novel based on one of the most fascinating of early Christian women, Hildegard von Bingen. Sent by her family at the age of 8 to live with the anchorite, Jutta Von Sponheim in a walled up room attached to a church, she grows up watching the extreme fanaticism of Jutta and experiences her own moving, sometimes confounding visions. She lived in a world where demons lurked around every corner and where visions such as she experienced were considered suspect. Were they visions from God, or from Satan himself? These questions haunted her as she grew up, yet upon the death of Jutta, she began to write of her visions, which helped her to find her place and purpose and she became one of the most well-known women of her time. This book uses her writings and some creative license to bring to life this most intriguing woman.

Mary Sharratt is a brilliant writer, meticulous researcher and historian. I have read several of her books already and truly had no doubt that this would also be worthy of recommendation and a 5 star review. Her characters are well developed, the story flows well and it becomes part of you and you just can't put it down. If you are looking for high quality historical fiction, then read Illuminations and also check out Mary's other books. She really knows how to bring a story to life and to keep you reading until the book is fully devoured!
271 of 320 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xb4d99888) out of 5 stars rainbow of misrepresentations Nov. 29 2012
By Rita S. Karvonen - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book would have been a good read, had it been simply a fiction. But since it is supposed to be the story of Hildegard and Jutta, it is sad but true, that it is about feminism and New Age agendas, and completely out of character of both of those venerable women. The way Jutta is represented is just awful, she must be turning in her grave. She was far from the raving lunatic here, and her brother was not only not a rapist, he was instrumental in her choice of life, and very active in the founding of religious houses. The rape in the book is pure fiction, and a defamation of the brother. The portrayal of Hildegard contains tons of features which are not hers, for example the insistence of her seeing "God as Mother". The writer must have confused her with Julian of Norwich.Nor is there any basis to the description of her having been forced into the anchorage at age 8, rather it was at age 14, and with her consent. She was raised by Jutta since age 8, but in the Sponheim home, not in an anchorage. Disibodenberg was not fully built until Hildegard was older, a fact the writer blithely ignored. Nuns and monks are not "ordained", they are "professed", an enormous theological difference, which the writer would have found out, had she bothered to consult members of the Benedictine Order, instead of only her feminist friends. On page 246, the statement of the priest "becomes the mother" at the altar during consecration is an affront to all Catholics. That much literary liberty and lack of factual accuracy, when using an actual historical figure, seems clearly meant to infuse readers with little historical or theological knowledge with her own feminist and New Age agendas,rather than facts. Ms.Sharratt makes Hildegard look like a glorified and bacchanalian forerunner of the hippies, dancing in colorful dresses with unbound hair (...which no nun in those days had..)to defy her superiors.The Vatican would never have elevated Hildegard to sainthood and declared her a Teacher of the Church if she had been what this book presents her and Jutta von Sponheim to be. This type of book contributes nothing to a lady of Hildegard von Bingen's greatness, rather it trivializes her.
45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xb4da1d14) out of 5 stars A feather on the breath of God Sept. 7 2012
By Linda Pagliuco - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Few of us today understand the lives of anchorites, individuals who for religious reasons chose to live in a sealed room, with only a hatch providing contact with the world at large. In Illuminations, Mary Sharratt presents a fictionalized biography of one of the most famous anchorites of all time, Hildegard von Bingen. As a child growing up in early medieval Germany, Hildegard experienced frequent visions, a dangerous trait in the eyes of church and society. As a result, her mother "tithed" her to the church as companion to Jutta von Sponheim, a girl from a noble family who chose to become not merely a nun, but an anchorite.

Sharratt chronicles the stages of Hildegard's life, from those miserable early years of forced confinement, to her fight for the opportunity to live as a normal nun, to her founding of her own religious community. In the process, her visions continued and grew in intensity, to the point that they dictated her choices and created her reputation as a genuine and revered mystic. Sharratt's prose, at times luminous and at times decidedly down to earth. She has managed to convey a sharp sense of Hildegard's personality and spirit, relying upon primary sources, especially the brilliantly illuminated manuscript in which she recorded her visions. Her Hildegard is humble, yet not afraid to employ flamboyance to achieve her goals. She did not hestitate to criticize hypocrisy and abuses of the church to which her life was bound, which caused her enormous difficulty. But she remained unbowed, and in her more peaceful, contemplative periods, she composed exquisite music to accompany the divine office.

Today, Hildegard is often regarded as a proto-feminist, but as portrayed in this book, she is more a proponent of self-actualization and justice. She is also called St. Hildegard, but her canonization has not yet taken place; that will occur October 7, 2012. I'm not certain exactly what she did to earn that title (it has been speculated that her visions were manifestations of migraine aura), but her life was extraordinary and her story deserves to be told as eloquently as Sharratt has done.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xb4da1c6c) out of 5 stars A women's world in 12th century Germany Aug. 30 2012
By Anne M. Hunter - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
4 1/2 stars

This short historical novel explores the life of a twelfth century German
nun who had an extraordinary life, and has been adopted by modern
women, both religious and feminist (not that one can't be both) as an
example of a strong woman who created a women's space in the middle of
a bleak and dangerous time for women. The author takes Hildegard's
visions, which she experienced from childhood, as fact, and as the
inspiration of her poetry. Hildegard was imprisoned (literally walled
in) as the eight year old servant of an anchorite, an
otherwise-solitary hermit, who oddly enough lived on the grounds of a
men's Benedictine monastery. Only after the anchorite's death did
Hildegard begin to write and create amazing songs that led to the fame
that has lasted to our time.

I found the beginning of the book fascinating and horrifying. It's
hard to understand a society as alien to us as twelfth century
Germany, but the author has done a creditable job of bringing it to
life. I felt the stench and the filth and mud of their lives.
Hildegard's life was so unusual for that time, as she loved to read,
sing, and the author gives her close, loving relationships with those
around her. The final crisis of the book didn't completely work.
It's extremely well-written and the songs beautiful and evocative.

Anybody who is interested in historical novels about women set in the
Middle Ages would enjoy this easy to read book. I particularly liked
that it's not about the usual queens and princesses, but about a
relatively ordinary woman who rose to prominence by her own strength.
49 of 61 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xb4da1a80) out of 5 stars Adventures of a medieval feminist Aug. 26 2012
By Patto - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Ignorant as I am of history, I had never heard of Hildegard Von Bingen before I read this book. I'm grateful for the introduction.

All the facets of her strong personality come out in the narrative: her far-out mystical approach to theology (her God was a feminine emanation of love), her facility as a writer (her books were fueled by visions), her knowledge of herbal healing (she compiled a medicinal text), her great talent as a composer (I later listened to some of her wonderful music on YouTube), her power as a preacher (she made historically famous denunciations of abuses in the church) and her leadership skills and chutzpah (with no money of her own, she founded abbeys of great importance).

Hildegard's life, in the hands of this author, is quite an adventure story. From the age of eight she was immured in a monastery as the handmaiden of a female acolyte who practiced terrible austerities. This was pure torture for the freedom-loving girl who loved the forest. Her experiences being bricked in with a fanatic, and her determination to break free, make riveting reading.

The author shows us not just Hildegard's admirable qualities, but also her failings. Love tended to lead Hildegard astray, as well as being at the heart of her mystical fervor.

I'm don't read a lot of history-based fiction, but I'm awfully glad I read Illuminations.