Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt

Let me just say up front that this novel has a lot to love and a lot to question.  The strength of the character writing is such that it deserves 4 stars, if not 5 in many spots.  The questionable history and notable inconsistencies early on made it deserving of 2 stars, and sometimes 1.  It’s like the more you know about the subject matter, the more schizophrenic this book became.  I split the difference because in the end, this book is fiction, and the unknowns mean that the author has to make up a great many things.  Fine and well, that’s what authors do.  However… when working with historical fiction, I always operate with an eye towards history before fiction gets any points.  The known facts of those involved must be true, otherwise, what’s the point of writing about these people?  If new or different characters are warranted, then make them new characters.  But if you want to tell the story of these specific people, then tell that story.  Be loyal to the subject matter first.  Artistic license is not a crutch, and it’s certainly not a magic wand.

Having said all that, I’m not entirely sure how to properly review this book.  For everything I can praise, I have to liberally tear it back down.  For example, the haunting and very real terror of taking Last Rites and being forced into an anchorage is masterfully handled.  But on the flip side, the realities of what that life entailed are eased up considerably here.  It’s harsh by modern standards, but there are more liberties granted to these people in this book.  Likewise, there are many liberties that turn disagreements or oppositions noted by history into outright points of rivalry.  Again, these are effective at the character level, but we simply do not know.  What we do know is that Hildegard was supported far more than most people would believe possible, both then and now, and that is what makes her story so incredible.  She was the spiritual equivalent of a medieval rock star.  There was far more travel and influence than what this book would have you believe.  In fact, of all the things that bother me most about this book, Hildegard seems to have been kicked down at every turn right to the very end.  History says otherwise.  Even Abbot Kuno was on her side by the end of it, and he’s played here as being about as wretched and angry as they come, cartoonishly so at times, and credibly at others.

Where this book truly excels is when it explains the visions.  There is a spiritual quality not only to how they’re explained, but also in how Hildegard receives them.  It’s masterfully handled.  On the flip side, there are points where Hildegard is abusing her status as a mystic and speaking her own mind in God’s name, and the author makes it well-understood this is what’s happening.  It sounds like such a minor point, but if Kuno had truly been the antagonist outlined in this book, Hildegard would have been burned at the stake or made to suffer some other horrific punishment for heresy.  These were turbulent times, around the Second Crusade, and any mention of heresy was suspect.  Again, this is what makes Hildegard so special in history, the fact that her visions were largely unquestioned despite the fact that they were unorthodox in the extreme when compared with Church canon.  And yet… I can’t say it couldn’t happen this way.  I only suggest that it very likely didn’t based on known facts.

The problem, I think, comes when trying to put modern human understanding to a tale that’s 900 years old.  The past is an alien world, regardless of how much we think we understand.  Human emotion is the same.  What triggers it is different.  There are different values and moralities at play.  There are different ideas within the cultural landscapes that prevent our fullest understanding without truly in-depth historical research that a novelist will not have access to.  That’s the kind of thing I always have to be conscious about when reading historical fiction.  No matter how much time and effort goes into a novel, the historian will always know more.  Books like this, however, aren’t written for the historian.  They’re written for the average person looking for a good story.  As it’s written, this is a good story, and it bears a good message about spirituality and inner strength versus religious dogma and institutional control.  Ultimately that wins out here and pushes the book squarely in the “I liked it” category of 3 stars.  I think it would have been stronger had everything about this book, including the characters and their names, had been fiction because my own knowledge of history kept getting in the way of full enjoyment.  Nobody reads historical fiction for that.  People read historical fiction to live in the details of what makes the history real.  Or at least, I think so.  Even so, the author does enough justice to Hildegard to hopefully get people to better familiarize themselves with her real story and works.  She’s lived on as a bright star for almost a millennium for a reason, after all, and fact is stranger than fiction.

3 stars


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