Every so often a book about faith sneaks into my reading. There was a time when I was much more involved in organized religion, but it has been a tough fit for me in the past decade or more. I have tended to hold my personal faith a little closer than that shared in a large gathering. The historian side of me is also always looking to learn more about the faith I was raised in and a couple of years ago when the ladies of the Stuff You Missed In History podcast did an episode on Hildegard of Bingen I paid specific attention. Here was a religious person from the better part of a thousand years ago who shared ideas that sound very familiar to the modern ear. I was intrigued.
I’m also embarking on the Reading Women challenge this year, and one of the tasks on that one is a translated book published before 1945. I took this as an opportunity to reach ALL the way back to Hildegard and the late 12th century and read some of her work directly, or as directly as possible when translated from Latin across 800 years. With that, Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings by Hildegard of Bingen, edited by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies and featuring several translators published in 1990 ended up on my January to read list.
The first half of the book is a series of essays about Hildegard, her times, and the religious upheaval happening all around her both locally in Germany and stretching all the way to Rome and on to the Crusades. I am familiar with a bit of this, but it was nice to have it all packaged together as an extensive preamble to Hildegard’s own writings. The book is slim, my copy clocks in at less than 160 pages and about 60 of those were the preamble, so the writings we get are excerpts from her larger works. Hildegard wrote extensively after one of her visions instructed her to write down what she was experiencing (and she received support from local religious men). Her writings however weren’t limited in any way – she is writing about matters of state, the schism in the church with reigning popes and anti-popes, as well as the nature of faith and god, and two different medical texts.
I sat with this book for many days, pondering the nature of the divine tends to require slowing down and really absorbing what you are reading. I was also sitting on a federal petit jury during the week, weighing the evidence put in front of us and it was mentally exhausting. I don’t know that I’m any fonder of Hildegard now, but I do feel closer to a forebear in my faith. She was no nonsense in a really fun way, and I wish her books read as her letters do, I think they would be much more accessible, but I also understand the intense societal pressure to create as formal a writing as possible. Best of all to me, although they come to it from slightly different angles, she and Carl Sagan agree that we are in fact all made of star stuff.
Read Harder Challenge: Tasks 9 & 10: A book with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads and a translated book written or translated by a woman.
Reading Women Challenge: Task 14: A translated book published before 1945