Illuminations by Mary Sharratt: Book Review

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Illuminations by Mary Sharratt Book Cover
Title: Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen
Content Warning: Hints of sexual assault,

My Synopsis:

Young Hildegard was the tenth child of an aristocratic family. While her father and two oldest brothers are away fighting in the Crusades for literally decades, Hildegard’s mother starts arranging marriages for her daughters. Hildegard has had strange visions all her life so her mom decides that she will be the family’s gift to the Church. She arranges for Hildegard to accompany Jutta, a higher-ranking noble who wants to become an anchorite at the monastery at Disibodenberg in Germany. Hildegard is only eight years old and doesn’t understand exactly what her future holds.

When the two girls arrive at the monastery, the monks hold a service for the dead to symbolize their passage from the world of the flesh and wall them into two tiny cells that they share. One of the rooms is a courtyard open to the sky and the other has a screen for food to pass through and for conversation. But the girls are never allowed to leave and are expected to live a life of religious prayer and contemplation. Hildegard has always loved the woods and the outdoors and she’s desperate to find a way out. She does feel called to serve God but she knows this is not her path.

My Review:

I first became interested in Hildegard von Bingen (St. Hildegard) when author Clemency Burton-Hill mentioned her as a composer in Year of Wonder. Ms. Burton-Hill included a brief biography but I was curious to know more. I was thrilled to find this work of historical fiction, although I did wonder how much was history and how much was fiction. The author addresses that at the end. The essential facts are all correct although there is some discrepancy among the source material regarding the age when Hildegard entered the monastery.

The Hildegard in these pages was fascinating. She was a strategist but she also had a heart to care for others. She was “only” a woman but she was a woman with connections and she wasn’t afraid to use them. As she grew older, she called out hypocrisy and inhumane practices. God was always female in her visions. She was an avid learner and read through any books the monks would give her. She trained to be a healer and she became a composer whose work is still fairly widely performed. The breadth of her accomplishments would be remarkable even today; they were almost unfathomable in the twelfth century.

The novel is on the shorter side, at 294 pages in my e-book. I wish the author had spent a bit more time on the final years of Hildegard’s life. The bulk of the story is devoted to her time as an anchorite but I would have liked to read more about her time in the wider world.

If you’re curious, the book is only “religious” in the sense that the author based it on a religious figure. I certainly didn’t feel that there was any sort of Christian agenda.

I highly recommend this if you’re interested in historical fiction about extraordinary women.


Listen to “O Virtus Sapientiae” by Hildegard on YouTube, the song that made it into Year of Wonder and brought Hildegard to my attention.

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    1. It’s definitely a good historical fiction choice for nonfiction readers. I love finding books about women who accomplished remarkable things but who most of us have never heard of. It also makes me sad for all the stories of similar women who’ve been lost to time.

  1. Hildegard is one of the few medieval women who gets talked about in world history classes in our school district. It’s nice to see there is a good historical fiction about her.

  2. I have never even heard of this Hildegard. But I am very interested in her. I’m not all that familiar with the era and only read The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett earlier this year. I need to read more about the early church and the Christian religion that do seep through, won’t bother me in the least!

    Lovely review, Jen.

    Elza Reads

  3. I remember you mentioning this earlier and had added it to my TBR. Thanks for the rec, and thanks for the review as well — looking forward to reading this one. I also went on to check the author’s backlist, she seems to have some really interesting works.

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