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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

I recently read a truly wonderful book, Illuminations, by Mary Sharratt and reviewed it on Amazon.  This was a fictionalized but fairly factual account of the life of Hildegard von Bingen who lived in twelfth century Germany.  The book was a revelation to me about monastic life at the time.  Hildegard was given to the church at the age of eight and was walled-up (yes, as in sealed in with bricks and mortar) in a small ‘cell’ attached to a monastery – she was given over to be a handmaiden to a young woman not much older than Hildegard who had willingly given herself to the church.  Hildegard’s mother received money for two other daughters’ dowries in exchange for sacrificing her youngest.

I will get to the music part shortly, but this book made me very curious about this entire practice of walling in ‘anchorites’.  It seems intolerably cruel now.  These women had access to the outside world only through a small opening on the interior church wall through which they received food and other necessary goods.  When one died, as Jutta did in the book, the wall had to be torn down to retrieve the body as the opening was too small for even her frail, ravaged figure.  After spending twenty-three years of her life in this cell with Jutta, the monks were preparing to wall up Hildegard again.  She schemes to gain a reprieve from this, and eventually gains a measure of freedom to revisit the outside natural world of forests, birds and animals she loved as a child.  She is a remarkably fascinating figure.  She becomes a thorn in the side, save for one, of  the monks running the monastery.  While she remains a captive there, she writes wonderful manuscripts which are beautifully illuminated by another young woman, an oblate given to the church in her teens by her mother.  She becomes a beloved friend of Hildegard’s.  You can still see these illuminations if you search online.  You can also see ruins of these ‘cells’ remaining all over Europe, as this was a wide-spread and common practice of the church in medieval times.  The monks made money off these anchorites they held.  They were thought to be pious, holy women, and citizens from far and wide would come bearing gifts for the monastery in exchange for an audience with these women through their shuttered little window.

Though Jutta was thought to be this particular monastery’s holy woman, it was really Hildegard who was blessed by God.  Hildegard began having visions, recordable back to the age of three and which continued throughout her life.  Many thought these visions were heretical, but they were true visions of the Virgin Mary and Christ.  She eventually, late in life, became an abbess and was sainted by the church after her death.  During her life, she wrote these wonderful manuscripts, but she also wrote music…holy music, which she and the oblates/nuns performed for the monks and visiting dignitaries.  As with the idea of the cells, I became quite curious about this music.  In short, I wanted very much to hear it.

It only took me a minute on I-Tunes to discover Hildegard’s compositions.  I bought the album, 11,000 Virgins – Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula.  Although my kids thought the songs all sounded alike, I begged to differ and was instantly enthralled.  The music is haunting, beautiful, rich and reflective.  It is the most restive music I have ever heard…like being in a cathedral and being watched over by God.  Experimenting, I began to play it on my iPhone when going to sleep.  I have never slept so well.  You should listen to samples on I-Tunes and see if you enjoy it.  It is amazing to me to be able to listen to music composed by Hildegard in the twelfth century.  I continue to be captivated.

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