Sybil of the Rhine: The Story of Saint Hildegard von Bingen
I wasn’t sure if the story of a cloistered nun from the Middle Ages would hold my interest. After all, how interesting could it be? And not long ago, I had tried another book on the same historical figure, only to toss it aside with disappointment over the lackluster writing.
But I’d heard so much about Hildegard von Bingen that I wasn't ready to give up just yet. So when I found Mary Sharratt’s historical novel Illuminations, I decided to give Hildegard another try.
I am happy to say I was not disappointed. The story of Hildegard von Bingen is utterly fascinating, especially as told by this master storyteller.
Hildegard von Bingen was born in Bermersheim on the Rhine in 1098 in what is now Germany. When Hildegard turned eight, her mother delivered her to Disibodenberg, a four-hundred-year-old monastery. As her lower noble family’s tenth child, Hildegard was her family’s “tithe,” or payment to the Catholic Church. Her father was in the Holy Land fighting in the Crusades, which left the difficult task of committing Hildegard to the monastery’s small convent to Hildegard’s mother Mechthild von Bermersheim. Though in Illuminations, Mechthild seemed to have no trouble fulfilling her duty. It was what people did to appease God—and the Sponheim dynasty, to which Hildegard’s family had pledged their fealty.
“If I was beautiful, Mother would not be shunting me off to a bunch of moldy old monks in the hinterland,” Hildegard says in Illuminations on the way to Disibodenberg, comparing herself to her sister Clementia, who was the favored among the six other daughters. Angry at being the sacrificial lamb, so to speak, Hildegard brooded the entire trip on the barge floating along the Nahe River. Later, when it was time for Mechtild to return to Bermersheim, young Hildegard begged her mother not to leave her behind. Her pleas went unheeded, and Mechtild abandoned Hildegard to her fate.
“If I was beautiful, Mother would not be shunting me off to a bunch of moldy old monks in the hinterland. ”
Illuminations is written in first person, giving readers the opportunity to experience the story through Hildegard’s senses. Thus we get a vivid picture of how she perceives her new strange and forbidding surroundings. “We are sealed in a tomb. We are no longer alive,” Hildegard says in describing the new home her and Jutta von Sponheim, the noblewoman to whom Hildegard would serve as handmaiden, will share. The tomb Hildegard describes is the anchorage, the tiny, dark, and dank two-room cell in which the two of them will live, presumably until they die as holy virgins. Jutta, a teen herself, has just been installed as an anchorite, a woman who had committed her life to prayer—and in doing so agreed to be shut up in a cell—walled in, literally, for life, Hildegard with her. Hildegard can hear the monks sealing off the cell with brick and mortar. When they are done, a screen made of slatted wood that looks out into the monastery’s church remains as the womens' only connection to the outside world, their only access to the outdoors a small courtyard with walls “as high as a tall man, standing on another man’s shoulders.”
Readers instantly understand how penned in Hildegard feels. Up until then, she’d been a child of the forest, free to roam at will with her older brother, Rorich. She is understandably furious and distraught. She nearly starves on the one meal a day that is her ration, served through a revolving hatch so no one could touch the women. For a long time she imagines escaping into the forest and living in a secret cave she and Rorich had discovered.
“We are sealed in a tomb. We are no longer alive,”
Kloster Disibodenberg, retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kloster_Disibodenberg_02.jpg
But brick walls have a way of out-maneuvering even the most determined eight-year-old. Volmar, a kind monk, befriends the two females from the other side of the wooden screen, and Hildegard settles into her life with Jutta.
What keeps Hildegard from going mad is her intellect, driven by her curiosity. She finds ways to make do. Eventually, she discovers wonder in her small but immediate world.
Gradually, things begin to turn around for Hildegard. But not without heartache, and not without pain. Uncertainty leaves her questioning her entire existence. But what Hildegard discovers even in the tiny cell she calls home and the small courtyard that connects her to the outdoors is that all of life is a wonder. There is a rhythm to it, patterns that can be detected, mysteries that can be unlocked, even in small spaces.
The monastery, too, has a rhythm to it. There are rules, spoken and unspoken. Over decades Hildegard discovers that when you know and understand the rules, you can play with the best of them. If you can anticipate your opponents’ moves, you may be able to outsmart them. It’s a matter of timing and execution. She becomes a daring woman, allowing her instincts to guide her. As you can guess, as in any good story, things heat up.
Hooked from page one, I couldn’t put Illuminations down. It is the tale of finding and unleashing one’s talent—growing no matter where one finds themselves planted. Hildegard demonstrates the mind is stronger than the body and how determination is a forceful tool in forging ahead no matter how difficult one’s journey.
And to some degree, Illuminations is a story of faith. Hildegard was a devout woman. But Illuminations is not a religious book per se. It chronicles the events of Hildegard’s life and the people who surrounded her rather than focusing heavily on intricate details regarding her spiritual journey. That said, her spiritual journey is explored in the novel. For example, Hildegard had visions as a child (which today historians agree were migraines), and those visions stayed with her throughout her life. In her visions she claimed to have received direct orders from the Lord to write down her thoughts. She did as instructed, later describing her writings and musical compositions, as well as all of her life’s work, as her tribute to God’s teachings.
At first Hildegard was chastised for her expressions and reprimanded; certain men of the Church with extreme power try to silence her. But at the end of Illuminations, we see Hildegard in her finest hour, humbly triumphant.
Illuminations is well-researched and stays true to the facts about Hildegard, something I deeply appreciate about authors of historical fiction. Mary Sharratt is a shining example of how a masterful storyteller can bring history to life. You can read more about Illuminations and Mary Sharratt at her website.
Exploring what was before her eyes as a child eventually opened the entire world to Hildegard von Bingen. The actions of a fiery, determined eight-year-old would go on to shape her own life and change the lives of those around her by not accepting things as they were but breaking through barriers once considered impenetrable. She could have as easily died in obscurity being assigned as she was to her cloistered life. But in her eight decades on earth, Hildegard rose to prominence in the Catholic Church at a time women did not, even going so far as to correspond with King Henry II of England and his wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Once, Pope Eugene III intervened on her behalf, saving her and her work from disappearing from history by authorizing her to write and speak in public when Church leaders were trying to silence her because she was a woman. She even convinces the Archbishop of Mainz to give her the freehold of Rupertsberg on the Rhine so she could build an abbey for her and the handful of girls and women (growing in number) who were now living under her as an abbess at Disibodenberg. Her request was granted. Today the abbey Hildegard built is known as Eibingen Abbey in Eibingen, Germany.
Rupertsberg in 1683, centuries later
Hildegard persevered with the mind of a diplomat, the creativity of an artist, and the intellect of a scientist. Centuries after her death, she triumphed once again when in 1979, Pope John Paul II described her as a “light for her people and her time” when he proclaimed her a saint in the Catholic Church. It seems he couldn’t have better described her earthly influence.
In the chronicles of history, Hildegard is described as a Christian mystic, a philosopher, a musical composer, an herbologist, a writer, a healer, and a theologian. In Germany, she is considered the founder of scientific natural history. In addition to her religious writings she wrote botanical and medicinal texts. She created the spiritual concept of Viriditas—greenness—the wonder of the natural world, and Sapientia—Divine Wisdom. She dared to write and speak of women and what she called the Feminine Divine. She even wrote and spoke of sexuality—a very delicate topic for the middle ages! She believed, for example, the male’s sperm determined the sex of the child. (Was she sharp or what?) Hildegard also wrote positively about sexual relations and was likely the first writer to suggest that women enjoyed sex as much as men. She described what a woman experiences during intercourse in vivid detail:
“When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act…”
To fully appreciate what Hildegard wrote on the topic, you must remember she wrote these words nearly a thousand years ago when such topics were completely off limits!
Hildegard followed the rules of the day—but she stretched them as far as she could. She didn’t let the Church hierarchy stand in her way, no matter how many layers of men she had to work through. As a result of her courageous and confident spirit, Hildegard von Bingen’s writings, music, discoveries, and teachings have lived on for centuries.
Sculpture of Hildegard of Bingen by Karlheinz Oswald, 1998, in front of Eibingen Abbey, retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karlheinz_Oswald_Hildegard_von_Bingen,_Eibingen.JPG
Author: Gerda Arendt
I encourage you to learn more about Hildegard von Bingen and have provided several links below for your convenience. I also encourage you to read Illuminations. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. In fact, I am confident you will want to read more of Sharratt's books.
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.
N.J. (Nancy) Mastro
Sources for this article:
Illuminations, by Mary Sharratt
Hildegard von Bingen’s music
Hildegard von Bingen as a woman of science