Today, I have the beautiful author Mary Sharratt on the site to talk about her book, Illuminations, and the life of Hidegard. We’ll also chat about women in history, what else she has written, and her future writing plans. You can read my review of her wonderful book HERE. See the interview following the cover below, enjoy!
Welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book, Mary!! It is our joy to have you here! How has the season been treating you?
Mary: I just celebrated my birthday and am settling down to a dark northern winter up here in Lancashire, England. I hope to use the season to cocoon with my new novel-in-progress, The Dark Lady’s Masque, and get a lot of work done.
Erin: Happy belated birthday, Mary! It’s a little cold, blustery, and dark in Ohio as well. And though I’d like to suggest we take a beautiful walk in the park, I think it is too cold either of our locations…so maybe we’ll stay indoors with some hot tea and find a place by the fire. Then, we’ll get started!
Q: Why did you decide to write your novel, Illuminations, about Hildegard Von Bingen?
A: For twelve years I lived in Germany where Hildegard has long been enshrined as a cultural icon, admired by both secular and spiritual people. In her homeland, Hildegard’s cult as a “popular” saint long predates her official canonization.
I was particularly struck by the pathos of her story. The youngest of ten children, Hildegard was offered to the Church at the age of eight. She reported having luminous visions since earliest childhood, so perhaps her parents didn’t know what else to do with her.
According to Guibert of Gembloux’s Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, she was bricked into an anchorage with her mentor, the fourteen-year-old Jutta von Sponheim, and possibly one other young girl. Guibert describes the anchorage in the bleakest terms, using words like “mausoleum” and “prison,” and writes how these girls died to the world to be buried with Christ. As an adult, Hildegard strongly condemned the practice of offering child oblates to monastic life, but as a child she had absolutely no say in the matter. The anchorage was situated in Disibodenberg, a community of monks. What must it have been like to be among a tiny minority of young girls surrounded by adult men?
Erin comments: I can’t even imagine what that kind of life must have been like!
Disibodenberg Monastery is now in ruins and it’s impossible to say precisely where the anchorage was, but the suggested location is two suffocatingly narrow rooms built on to the back of the church.
Hildegard spent thirty years interred in her prison, her release only coming with Jutta’s death. What amazed me was how she was able to liberate herself and her sisters from such appalling conditions. At the age of forty-two, she underwent a dramatic transformation, from a life of silence and submission to answering the divine call to speak and write about her visions she had kept secret all those years.
In the 12th century, it was a radical thing for a nun to set quill to paper and write about weighty theological matters. Her abbot panicked and had her examined for heresy. Yet miraculously this “poor weak figure of a woman,” as Hildegard called herself, triumphed against all odds to become one of the greatest voices of her age.
Erin comments: An amazing story and a woman with more strength than she knew!
Q: How did you feel the book would be received when you wrote it? I know it has been received by readers with an array of emotions. How did you decide which avenue to take when writing about her life?
A: To be honest it felt intimidating to be writing about such a religious woman and one I was in complete awe of. During my writing process I discovered the only way I could write about Hildegard was to let her breathe and reveal herself as human. I actually wrote two first drafts, one in third person and one in first person. My editor felt the first person narrative was much more immediate and that it drew her in right away.
The response to the book has been very warm indeed. I think it touched a chord in many women readers particularly, from all spiritual backgrounds, from secular humanists to Benedictine nuns to women pastors to Jewish and Buddhist readers! My book tour events were absolutely packed. There are so many Hildegard fans out there.
Erin comments: She’s a great role model for women, a source of great courage!
Q: Why do you feel Hildegard was and is so important to the history not only of religion, but also to women? What kind of attributes can women model based on her that will bring about change to the world?
A: I think that Hildegard’s legacy remains hugely important for contemporary women. While writing this book, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women bishops are still the subject of controversy in the worldwide Anglican Communion while Pope John Paul II called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests in the Catholic Church.
Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—she was thrust into an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, that can inspire us today.
The cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature and even perceived God as feminine, as Mother. Her vision of the universe was an egg inside the womb of God.
Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.
Erin comments: That brings tears to my eyes. When I think about my own daughters, ages 10 and 6, being thrust into that situation at their age, I can’t fathom. What she endured without not only ever giving up hope, but to come from it shining and making history with so many beautiful and intellectual contributions…..ah, I am speechless.
Q: What was the most surprising part of her life that you came across in your research?
A: The sheer amount that she was able to accomplish as a 12th century woman with such inauspicious beginnings. Her public “career” only started at the age of forty-two when she first started to write about her visions, and yet she managed to write nine books on subjects ranging from theology to botany to cosmology to human sexuality. She wrote an entire corpus of sacred music, including the world’s first liturgical drama and proto-opera. She went on four preaching tours in an age when women were forbidden to preach. She was a mighty reformer, castigating her male superiors in the Church for their corruption. She founded two monastic communities for women in an age when most monasteries were founded only by princes and bishops. She developed her own system of holistic medicine still practiced in modern day Germany.
Q: How do you feel that men in the Catholic church still regard women such as Hildegard?
A: Shortly before her death, Hildegard and her nuns were the subject of an interdict, or collective excommunication, due to their disobedience to the Archbishop of Mainz—they refused to disinter a supposed apostate buried in their graveyard. For Hildegard it would have been an unforgivable sin to desecrate this man’s Christian burial no matter what her archbishop said. For this act of insubordination, Hildegard nearly died an outcast and excommunicant. This put her in a hauntingly similar position to her modern day sisters, the nuns and sisters in the Leadership Council of Women Religious who are facing a Vatican crackdown and stand accused of doctrinal errors and radical feminism. Pope Benedict took a very harsh stand indeed against these women. I hope they fare better under Pope Francis, but the outcome of this debacle remains yet to be seen.
Having said that, there are very strong and brilliant women in the Church who are adored by the laity even if they are not always supported by the male hierarchy. I view women like the controversial author and theologian, Sister Margaret Farley, professor emeritus at YaleDivinitySchool, to be a modern Hildegard.
Q: Was Hildegard a feminist and believe in the notion of the divine feminine, or do we deduce that based on research? Can you talk about that a little?
A: Traditionalists will argue that Hildegard was conservative in many respects and will claim that she has been unfairly appropriated by feminists and by New Age spirituality. She never called for women priests, for example. But Hildegard lived in a golden age of monasticism, when an influential abbess could wield considerably more power than the average parish priest.
But even the most conservative commentator can’t erase the Feminine Divine from Hildegard’s visionary theology. As Dr. Barbara Newman writes in Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Hildegard’s Sapientia, or Divine Wisdom, is drawn directly from the scriptures—from the Book of Wisdom in the Old Testament in the Catholic Bible. Thus, Hildegard’s theology proves that there is nothing “new agey” about the Feminine Divine within Christianity.
Masculine imagery of the creator tends to focus on God’s transcendence, but Hildegard’s revelations of the Feminine Divine celebrated immanence, of God being present in all things, in every aspect of this greening, burgeoning, blessed world. Hildegard’s Sapienta creates the world by both encompassing it and dwelling inside it.
O power of wisdom!
You encompassed the cosmos,
Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
With your three wings:
One soars on high,
One distills the earth’s essence,
And the third hovers everywhere.
Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia
Q: Why do you feel some people take offense to women (or men) being feminists? What is your take on women’s issues, advocacy, rights, etc.? Who are some women role models from the modern ages?
A: I find it very sad that even in the 21st century some people still object to the fact that women are actually humans and deserve the same human rights as men. I dearly hope humankind can evolve into true equality. Any strong woman, whether a political figure like Hilary Clinton or an intellectual like Hannah Arendt or a great writer and truth teller like Toni Morrison creates a path that other women can follow. Spiritual women like Sister Joan Chittister or Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron create sacred space and a lineage for their sisters to follow.
Q: What else have you written about that readers might enjoy?
A: Daughters of the Witching Hill is based on the true and heartbreaking story of the 1612 Pendle Witches, cunning women and healers caught up in a witch hunt. This took place where I live in Lancashire, Northern England. I board my horse on land once owned by the magistrate who persecuted these people.
Q: What other women from history have you thought about detailing in a book?
A: I’m working on a new novel, The Dark Lady’s Masque, which explores the life of Aemilia Bassano Lanier (1569–1645) who was reportedly the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The highly cultured daughter of an Italian court musician, she was also an accomplished poet and the first English woman to publish a collection of poetry under her own name.
Q: You have such an eloquent writing voice, how do you perfect your books? How long does it take to write them? Do you use an outline or write freely?
A: Thank you for your kind words! It takes me ages and ages to finish a book. Illuminations took about four years. I work with a rough outline, then write, write, and rewrite! The first draft was twice as long as the published version.
Q: What other activities outside of writing do you enjoy? If you say reading, what books do you enjoy?
A: I spend lots of time with Miss Boo, my opinionated Welsh mare. Riding is a huge passion but also just hanging out with horses. I’m currently reading Nancy Bilyeau’s book The Crown, about a Dominican novice drawn into a conspiracy in Tudor England.
Erin comments: Horses are lovely! And Nancy’s The Crown and The Chalice are superb reads!
Q: Where can readers and writers connect with you best?
Q: Where can Illuminations be found for purchase?
A: At any good bookstore or online via Amazon and other online retailers. Illuminations is available in trade paperback, ebook, hardcover, and audiobook.
Erin: Thank you so very much, Mary, for stopping by for an interview with me. It was an honor and I hope to read many more books by you in the future! Have a great Holiday season!
Mary: Thank you so much Erin! I really enjoyed talking to you about my favorite 12th century powerfrau!
Skillfully weaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, 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 expected to live in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned, disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim. But Hildegard rejected Jutta’s masochistic piety, rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine. When Jutta died, Hildegard broke out of her prison, answering the heavenly call to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters. Riveting and utterly unforgettable, Illuminations is a deeply moving portrayal of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed.
Praise for Illuminations
“An enchanting beginning to the story of the perennially fascinating 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. It is easy to paint a picture of a saint from the outside but much more difficult to show them from the inside. Mary Sharratt has undertaken this with sensitivity and grace.”
—Margaret George, author of Mary, Called Magdalene
“I loved Mary Sharratt’s The Daughters of Witching Hill, but she has outdone herself with Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen. She brings one of the most famous and enigmatic women of the Middle Ages to vibrant life in this tour de force, which will captivate the reader from the very first page.”
—Sharon Kay Penman, author of the New York Times bestseller Time and Chance
“I love Mary Sharratt. The grace of her writing and the grace of her subject combine seamlessly in this wonderful novel about the amazing, too-little-known saint, Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic and visionary. Sharratt captures both the pain and the beauty such gifts bring, as well as bringing to life a time of vast sins and vast redemptions.”
—Karleen Koen, author of Before Versailles and the best-selling Through a Glass Darkly
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/illuminations-mary-sharratt/1110919627?ean=9780544106536
Books A Million: http://www.booksamillion.com/p/Illuminations/Mary-Sharratt/9780544106536?id=5724163155978
Author Mary Sharratt, Biography~
The author of four critically acclaimed historical novels, Mary Sharratt is an American who lives in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed Daughters of the Witching Hill, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers.
She also lived for twelve years in Germany, which, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen.
Illuminations won the Nautilus Gold Award for Better Books for a Better World and was selected as a Kirkus Book of the Year.
Link to Book Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rz6DAIX6Szk
Link to Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/illuminationsvirtualtour