CRANKY LADIES OF HISTORY: Juliet Marillier’s author notes for “Hallowed Ground”

Cranky Ladies logoWelcome to Women’s History Month 2015, which has the theme “Weaving the stories of women’s lives”, which fits perfectly with our Cranky Ladies of History anthology project! After 18 months of work, including our successful crowd-funding campaign in March last year, we are proudly releasing the anthology on March 8. To celebrate, our wonderful authors have supplied blog posts related to their Cranky Lady, and we are delighted to share them here during the month of March. 

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A few notes on Hildegard of Bingen by Juliet Marillier (“Hallowed Ground”)

We couldn’t place author notes within the anthology itself, but wanted to share them with our readers. Juliet had some things she wanted to add about Hildegard of Bingen, the subject of her story “Hallowed Ground”.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR “HALLOWED GROUND” – check out the story in Cranky Ladies of History before you read!

The most challenging aspect of writing about Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century Benedictine nun, composer, scholar and visionary, was deciding what aspect of her long and extraordinary life I might best fit within the confines of a short story. Hildegard was a woman before her time, intellectually brilliant, creative and original, a natural leader. And yet, from the age of seven, when she was enclosed with Jutta the anchoress at Disibodenberg, to the age of thirty-eight, when she assumed leadership of the nuns on Jutta’s death, very little is recorded of her life save that she was admired for her piety. We know that her mentor and secretary, Volmar, persuaded her to record in writing the powerful visions she had experienced since early childhood. In the second half of her life Hildegard composed remarkable poetry and music that broke the existing boundaries of religious chant; she wrote several scholarly treatises and many letters. She was unafraid to criticise the practices of Church authorities if she believed them unjust. Once Pope Eugenius had sanctioned her visions, her influence was greatly strengthened.

Reading about Hildegard’s life and works, I was struck by the tone of her letters, in which there is little of Hildegard the real woman, and much of Hildegard the weak, unworthy recipient of God’s wisdom. Yet what we know of her life indicates she was a formidable individual, voted unanimously to head the convent on Jutta’s death, ready to take on the Church elders with every argument she could muster for any cause she believed in, and in the case of the repentant sinner Matthias, prepared to defy the authorities at Mainz over a moral and doctrinal principle.

There were numerous occasions during Hildegard’s life when a vision conveniently backed up her argument and helped her achieve her desired end. There is no indication in her writing that she ever invented them or that she ever doubted their divine origin. I found this aspect of her story intriguing. It seemed to me a woman of such remarkable intelligence must sometimes have questioned her own motives; surely she sometimes felt self-doubt, especially toward the end of her life. I chose to examine this in my story.

For storytelling purposes I have considerably simplified the episode of Hildegard’s dispute with the clerics of Mainz over the burial of a repentant sinner within her convent walls. However, the story as told here is broadly true.

The interdict was lifted in March of 1179. Hildegard died in September of the same year. I hope she got to hear the angels sing again.

Sabina Flanagan: Hildegard of Bingen, A Visionary Life (Routledge, 1989)
Sabina Flanagan (selected and translated): Secrets of God, Writings of Hildegard of Bingen (Shambhala, 1996)
Wighard Strehlow and Gottfried Hertska: Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine (Bear & Company, 1987)
Matthew Fox: Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen (Bear & Company, 1985)
Matthew Fox: Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint for Our Times (Namaste, 2012)