(2012) #68 review: Illuminations



A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen



352 pages


Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in October2012

Ebook received Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley

This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:



rating system

A few months ago, I read a beautiful historical novel based on the life of the Orthodox Saint Xenia. And here it is, another historical novel published this year on another saint: Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen.

If you are familiar with the Middle Ages, you  have heard of course about this  extraordinary abbess (1098–1179); you may even have listened to some of her musical creations, so popular these days. But her talent was far from being limited to music. She knew many languages and all about remedies with plants, not mentioning of course her writings, based on her visions of God.

This astonishing historical novel manages to draw a very plausible portrait of the Benediction visionary, and the life she lived first as a more than cloistered nun, then as a herald of the Church, denouncing its abuses and scandals.

She is portrayed with her strengths, but also her shadows and weaknesses, which makes for a very genuine text and person.

I was very very impressed by the seriousness of the research put into this novel. The author is definitely someone very familiar with the Midldle Ages, its spirituality, its liturgy, and its history. I appreciated the way she inserted Hildegard’s prayers and poems, by putting first the Latin title, followed by the English translation, making it easy to keep tract of what exact piece she was referring to.

Sharratt had of course to include Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and she did, with precision. He stands frankly apart from bishops or religious orders who used their power or even the influence and renown of religious women such as Hildegard to make money.

If you are not familiar with medieval saints but are too afraid to launch into a real hagiography, I highly recommend this book. Plus, you may know that Hildegard was just recognized as a Doctor of the Church by the Catholic Church. So it is time for you to see what this woman was all about.



A triumphant portrait of a resilient and courageous woman and the life she might have lived . . .

Skillfully interweaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, Sharratt’s redemptive novel, Illuminations, brings to life one of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages: Hildegard von Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath.

Offered to the Church at the age of eight, Hildegard was entombed in a small room where she was expected to live out her days in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned but disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim. Instead, Hildegard rejected Jutta’s masochistic piety and found comfort and grace in studying books, growing herbs, and rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine. When Jutta died some thirty years later, Hildegard broke out of her prison with the heavenly calling to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters and herself from the soul-destroying anchorage. Riveting and utterly unforgettable, Illuminations is a deeply moving portrayal of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed.

“With elegance and sensitivity, Mary Sharratt rescues Hildegard von Bingen from the obscurity of legend, bringing to life the flesh-and-blood woman in all her conflict, faith, and unwavering tenacity. Illuminations is an astonishing revelation of a visionary leader willing to sacrifice everything to defend her beliefs in a dangerous time of oppression.”
—C. W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici [from the publisher]


Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt is an American writer who lives with her Belgian husband in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed 2010 novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers.

Previously she lived for twelve years in Germany. This, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write her most recent novel, ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, which explores the dramatic life of the 12th century Benedictine abbess, composer, polymath, and powerfrau.

Winner of the 2005 WILLA Literary Award and a Minnesota Book Award Finalist, Mary has also written the acclaimed novels SUMMIT AVENUE (Coffee House 2000), THE REAL MINERVA (Houghton Mifflin 2004), THE VANISHING POINT (Houghton Mifflin 2006), and co-edited the subversive fiction anthology BITCH LIT (Crocus Books 2006), which celebrates female anti-heroes–strong women who break all the rules. Her short fiction has been published in TWIN CITIES NOIR (Akashic Books 2006).

Mary writes regular articles for Historical Novels Review and Solander on the theme of writing women back into history. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually riding her spirited Welsh mare through the Lancashire countryside.

The author’s website is worth the visit.


Devourer of Books
Unabridged Chick
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10 thoughts on “(2012) #68 review: Illuminations

  1. You asked if anyone had bought the book yet rather than asking if anyone had read the book yet. I’d like to put in a plug for public libraries. Not everyone can afford to buy many books and many of us already have a houseful of books. Public libraries are indispensable community resources, providing many services to their communities. I enjoy your blog very much and like your selection of books. I’m looking forward to reading this one, as I’ve long been fascinated by Hildegard.


    • I’m really curious to know where you saw that sentence on my blog. I have a template that I reuse and it is always: HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK YET?
      I’ve read all my post again, and I can’t really see where you found that. if you specify where it is, I will of course delete it.
      I basically never buy books myself [because they are expensive, and my tiny house would not have enough room, and I can’t live without gong daily to a library!], and apart from the ones I receive from publishers for free for a review, I check out all the books [over 100/year] I read from my fantastic library, whether on paper or audio, or ebook. there are even fix posts, on the right side of my blog, encouraging support for libraries. and by the way, I work in a public library!


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