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)


Cranky Ladies of History guest post: Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen, breaking the bounds

Guest post by Juliet Marillier

Hildegard of Bingen, from the Rupertsberger Codex
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Your name is Hildegard. You’re in Germany, it’s the year 1106, and your parents – aristocratic, well-off, devout – have decided that you’ll be a nun. You say goodbye to your nine older siblings and are passed into the care of an anchoress, Jutta, who lives enclosed in a cell within a Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. Anchorite cells are often built within the walls of churches, and their inhabitants never leave them. One small window allows supplies to be passed in, and another lets you hear the Holy Office. You are eight years old.

Jutta teaches you to read, write and pray. You also learn music and various practical skills. Ten years pass, and at eighteen you become a nun. Twenty more years pass. There’s now a small community of women at the monastery – fortunately Jutta’s cell is a spacious one, with several rooms.

Then Jutta dies. She’s been your teacher, companion and substitute mother for almost your whole life, so this is a turning point for you. You’ve been thirty years shut away from the outside world. What kind of woman have you become? Obedient, scholarly, shy? Devout, conservative, a follower? Maybe you’re difficult, eccentric, even unhinged.

Jutta’s death marks the beginning of the second half of your life, and a pretty extraordinary life it proves to be. You are chosen by unanimous vote as the new leader of the female community at Disibodenberg. You take control capably. And you have another new focus. Since early childhood, before you entered the monastery, you have experienced intense and powerful spiritual visions. You start to record these in writing, with the help of a young monk who acts as secretary. Illuminated pictures to accompany the text are created under your instruction. In time you will write nine books, ranging over theology, physiology, botany, biology, religious commentary and more. Your writings are given papal approval.

As well as your books, you write many letters. You urge senior clerics to do more about corruption in the church; you even tell the pope to work harder on church reform.

More women join your community and the quarters get impossibly cramped. You make a decision to move your sisters to a new establishment near Bingen, standing firm against the objections of the Abbot and monks at Disibodenberg. Once you move, your convent is not attached to a monastery, but stands alone. You become Abbess. When numbers continue to increase, you establish a second convent.

You compose a body of remarkable religious music, using a free-wheeling, often ecstatic style that is radical for your time.

You continue to experience powerful visions. Your descriptions of these, in both words and images, are vivid and sometimes stretch the boundaries of orthodox theology. In your later years you undertake various preaching tours, during which you speak out publicly against corruption in the church.

When you are 80, you anger your archbishop by allowing an excommunicated man to be buried in your cemetery. You are told to disinter the body and you refuse. Since the dead man confessed and took communion before he died, you reason, the archbishop is in error. You head out to the cemetery and remove every trace of the burial, so nobody else can find the body and dig it up. This is the act of a woman with a strong sense of social justice, a sound knowledge of religious law and a fearless preparedness to take on the authorities. The archbishop slaps an interdict on your convent, meaning the divine office cannot be sung there. You write to him, letting him know that the interdict has silenced the most wonderful music on the Rhine, and that those who silence music will, after death, go to a place where they cannot hear the angelic chorus. Subtle, no. Effective, yes. The interdict is lifted.

You die the following year. In the centuries that follow you are often called a saint, but it is not until 2012 that you are officially canonised.

Hildegard of Bingen, your life and works were indeed remarkable. At the turning point, when your mentor died, you could have become just one nun among many. Instead you stepped forward, all fierce intelligence, and used the rest of your life to magnificent creative purpose. You were a leader. Your influence is still felt all these years later. Your work has been studied and respected by figures as different as the ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI and the controversial Episcopalian writer and teacher Matthew Fox. Your music is appreciated by musicologists and New Age meditators alike.

Despite your extensive body of writing, you remain curiously elusive. Even in your letters, you always presented yourself as an unworthy, inadequately educated mouthpiece for the divine wisdom of the visions (which effectively placed you above criticism by the church authorities.) We get a sense of Hildegard the scholar, Hildegard the devout Christian, Hildegard the practical leader, Hildegard the passionate advocate for justice. But Hildegard the woman remains a mystery.

I imagine you were sometimes difficult. Saints do tend to be stirrers. You were most likely a little eccentric, as highly intelligent people often are. You were also creative, imaginative, brave, clever and wise. You must have been a formidable presence. I bet you made the bishops shake in their clerical shoes. You surely made people sit up and listen.

Odd, isn’t it, how that decision your parents made when you were eight years old, a decision that on the surface seems heartless, gave you the best opportunity your time and culture could allow for using your remarkable abilities. The religious life allowed you to exercise your intellect and your formidable energy to the full. Perhaps your parents saw the spark of greatness in you from the first.

Cranky Ladies logoThis post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If  you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support our Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.