12 Days: The Greatest Voice of Her Age

By Mary Sharratt (W&M Contributor)

Born in the Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary abbess and polymath, a Renaissance women before the Renaissance. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

2012 was Hildegard’s year. In May she was finally canonized, over eight centuries after her death, and in October she was elevated to Doctor of the Church, only the fourth woman in history to receive this rare distinction.

For twelve years I lived in Germanywhere Hildegard has long been enshrined as a cultural icon, admired by both secular and spiritual people. As a writer, I was 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. 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?

Hildegard spent thirty years interred in her prison, her release only coming with Jutta’s death. 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 the greatest voice of her age.   

Hildegard’s life was so long and eventful, so filled with drama and conflict, tragedy and ecstasy, that it proved mightily difficult to squeeze into a manageable novel. I also felt quite intimidated to write about such a religious woman. In the end, I found I had to let Hildegard breathe and reveal herself as human.

Comment on this post to win a free copy of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

Mary Sharratt’s newest title, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is a Kirkus Best Fiction of 2012 selection. Mary’s articles and essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, and on NPR.  


  • Tracy Barrett

    What a challenge, to novelize such an extraordinary life!

  • http://profiles.google.com/r0bb2323 Robert Beatty

    My fiancee would love this once again.

  • http://twitter.com/fluff35 Helen King

    Hildegard, one of my heroines!


    Thank you, Mary Mary Sharratt, for introducing me to this awesome woman. Hildegarde Von Bingen has become a hero because she was a strong, spiritual, yet so very frail and human character. I never would have discovered her and her transcendent music without “Illuminations”. It has become one of my favorite books.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sandi.widner Sandi Widner Burch

    Hi Mary! Thanks for sharing this & for introducing me to Hildegarde! Illuminations is a must read, folks!!

  • http://twitter.com/Tomcasagranda Thomas Casagranda

    Hildegard Von Bingen is fantastic. I even have her music on both Kronos Quartet and Jan Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble CDs.

  • http://twitter.com/CelticLady1953 Kathleen Kelly

    I have seen a lot of reviews on this book and would like to read it!! Thank you for the opportunity!

  • Rachel W.

    I loved Daughters of the Witching Hill and would love to win a copy of this book– thanks for the giveaway!


  • http://twitter.com/truebookaddict Michelle Miller

    I have been SO wanting to read this book. I had not even heard of Hildegard until I read about Illuminations awhile back. She truly sounds like an astounding historical figure. Would love a chance to win! Thanks!

  • SueBE

    What a fascinating historical figure. Thank you so much for the introduction and the giveaway.

  • Kimberly

    What an interesting story. I can’t imagine how frightened she must have been as a child. I would love to read this book!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Sharratt/695382792 Mary Sharratt

    Thank you, everyone, for your wonderful comments. Hildegard was a strong woman and a timeless visionary. May her wisdom inspire us all!

  • librarypat

    What a fascinating woman. It is a wonder she survived and was able to do all that she accomplished. I seek out stories of women who historically have been under recognized for what they managed to achieve in spite of the barriers that society (men) placed in their way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tarotbyarwen Stephanie Arwen Lynch

    She is an inspiring woman.

  • http://unabridged-expression.blogspot.com/ Audra (Unabridged Chick)

    No need to enter me in the giveaway as I already own this book — and it is marvelous! Wonderful, meaty hist fic — a real delight. Sharratt has made Hildegard a very real person and I just want more!! :)

  • Donnell Sutherland

    I want to read this book. I am very interested in Hildegard. Please include me. Thanks.

  • Milos Kovacevic

    An all-too-rare female role model in an age where women had very little leeway to shine, and were expected to do anything but. Fascinating.

  • Arianne

    Didn’t she also write music? If so, I’d heard that much about her but had no idea about the fascinating details of her life. I look forward into seeing if I can find something she wrote to assign to my Classic Book bookgroup. So impressive.

  • Knewsuzy

    This is a little glint of light from the shadows of this time in history. Thank you.

  • DavidMe

    One of the saints that should inspire women and men because of her achievements-reaching out through the centuries

  • River

    This sounds fantastic. Please include me in the drawing!

  • Joey Conway

    This sounds incredibly interesting. I would love to read it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sian.williams.3591 Sian Williams

    This sounds uttely enthralling, and exactly the sort of book I love to read.

  • http://twitter.com/JenHartling Jennifer Hartling

    This is one of the best books I read this year. Utterly fascinating!

  • http://twitter.com/DDisciplines Mari Miller

    What an amazing person!

  • Joyce W.

    Pick me! This book sounds wonderful. My favorite historical novels are the ones about strong women.

  • EGor

    This sounds fascinating! My cousin will love it and so will I.

  • Meridth Gimbel

    Sounds wonderful.

  • Lindsey Karm

    Would love to read this!

  • http://www.davidsfinch.com David Finch

    Can’t wait to read it!

  • http://www.holly-tucker.com Holly Tucker

    Congratulations, Stephanie Arwen Lynch!