The first stage of this 12th-century novel finds Hildegard von Bingen enclosed in a German monastery from the age of eight with Jutta von Spondheim, fourteen. As anchorites—literally “buried with Christ” —they are separated from the monks by a wall and kept in seclusion until death. One child of ten, Hildegard is given to the church by her mother as Jutta’s companion. Hildegard has seen visions throughout her childhood, a condition that could bring negative attention to her family, at best confirming the girl as unmarriageable.
That Jutta may be fleeing her own demons in this enforced vigil is immaterial once Hildegard is consigned to the small cave-like room, living with the eccentricities of a guilt-ridden ascetic ostensibly praying to her Savior but really courting death. The atrocity of a child entombed for thirty years with her mother’s permission provides insight into the few choices available, a situation not remedied for centuries and then only moderately. Only with the arrival of two young women as new acolytes does Hildegard’s vocation takes hold, the protection of her charges paramount in the extremity of conditions.
Finally, with Jutta’s death, Hildegard’s long trial is over, but she must find a way to keep the monks from returning them to the dungeon shared with Jutta. To accomplish that, Hildegard uses her wits, gaining the eternal enmity of the abbot who mistrusts Hildegard as a scheming woman with secret ambitions. Having gained a prodigious education from the monastery library over the years with the assistance of a sympathetic Brother Volmar, Hildegard puts her knowledge and devotion to use, lobbying for an opportunity to prepare Jutta’s body for burial, using that time to request starting an order of nuns separate from the monks, not anchorites.
There is a shocking contrast between Hildegard’s life before and after Jutta’s death, but her obligations, albeit no longer carried out underground, are freighted with controversy. She is a learned woman who exposes the failures of the Church, believing that the words given to her are not of her own imagination but an extension of the visions she has always had: “See and speak. Hear and write. Be God’s mouthpiece.” Establishing her sisters on sacred ground bequeathed by the Church is only a part of Hildegard’s legacy. Most critical are her music writings and religious commentaries, only recently truly acknowledged through her sainthood and proclamation as Doctor of the Church.
That Hildegard is an extraordinary woman is without question, her accomplishments celebrated and rightfully acknowledged. The real power of the book for me lies in the first part of the novel, when the eight-year-old girl is subjected to extreme hardship. The cruelty to a minor by adults and the treatment of women by the church as subhuman is an indictment of both the institution and the patriarchy that still exists within it. Jutta’s desire to be entombed to avoid the perils of a lustful brother has ominous consequences when a child is sent to share her penitential life. Though outside individuals—the wealthy mother of one of Hildegard’s dearest nuns, her own brother in the clerical hierarchy, the long enmity with the abbot—contribute to Sharratt’s story, the crudeness of conditions have left me with the most lasting impression of this woman, a soul who has certainly earned her place in history.