Mary Sharratt has given us another alternative view of a woman from history - I loved her “Daughters of the Witching Hill” (reviewed in Goddess Pages Spring 2010) and enjoyed this just as much.
We’re much further back in time with Hildegard, who lived in the 12th century. As a child, Hildegard’s mother gave her daughter to the Church, allowing her, aged only eight, to be bricked into a monastery wall as handmaiden to the wealthy Jutta von Sponheim, thus neatly disposing of a visionary (whom no-one would wish to marry) while gaining patronage from Jutta’s family and improving the life chances of the remainder of her family.
Most children would pay a heavy price for over thirty years of dark, cramped seclusion, but Hildegard used the time to educate herself, studying books and herbs brought to her by a novice monk, becoming a competent healer and, as is well-known, composing some of the Church’s most beautiful music. She became an abbess after the masochistic Jutta starved herself to death, and was sought out by kings and even the pope for her wisdom and vision. In addition, several centuries before Martin Luther, she called for much-needed reforms in the Church.
Mary Sharratt’s insight and beautiful vision have once again given us a strong heroine but also one who is very human – much easier women to identify with than the impossible women saints and visionaries of Church hagiography. Hildegard has guts, is ambitious and strong-minded, not character traits valued in women at the time (or now, for that matter, certainly not in the Catholic church!).
Against the wishes of the Abbot, Hildegard eventually leads her sisters and novices away from the original monastery in Disibodenberg to form their own convent in Rupertsberg, both in modern Germany. The author describes for us the small procession that leaves for Rupertsberg, the sun shining upon them and mothers en route asking her to bless their babies, while other women braid flowers into her horse’s mane. And arriving at their new home:
“As the setting sun cast its radiance on the chapel, my spirit trilled like a blackbird. A questing pilgrim, I had at last reached the Holy Land – not some distant desert landscape full of battlefields and carnage, but this green hill, as gently curving as a woman’s breast.”
The nuns go through hard times, nevertheless – the Abbot has not allowed them to take their dowries, the money paid by their families when women entered the religious life, and the new Abbey consists of little but a chapel and tents in the early days. Following one final act of defiance by Hildegard, the church hierarchy descends and the sisters are forbidden their music.
I will leave you to discover the rest of this well-written, accessible and beautiful story for yourselves, simply leaving you with Hildegard’s own words:
“O woman, what a splendid being you are! For you have set your fountain in the sun and have conquered the world.”
"Illuminations" is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and can be found on Amazon.
You can hear some of Hildegard’s most beautiful music in the Chants for St Ursula on Youtube.