Mary Sharratt was teaching in Austria in 1989 when she found herself drawn to the remarkable, true story of a 12th-century nun named Hildegard von Bingen.
Hildegard was 8 when her family gave her to the Catholic Church. She was assigned to serve as handmaiden to Jutta von Sponheim, an ascetic nun who lived in an anchorage -- a tiny, sealed cell at the back of a remote monastery. The cell doorway was bricked shut, and this is where Hildegard and Jutta remained for the next 30 years.
When Jutta died, Hildegard was finally freed. Liberated, she built a vibrant new life, founding two monasteries, writing scores of religious songs, becoming an expert in the holistic use of plants and herbs, and writing nine books and hundreds of letters.
All of her life, she experienced intense visions, which she recorded in her magnum opus, "Scivias."
"I was in such awe of her," said Sharratt, whose new book about Hildegard, "Illuminations," is one of several significant novels by Minnesota writers to be published this fall. "Her take on religion was so holistic and embracing of life and of womanhood. I wondered, am I allowed to write about a person who is this spiritual? I was a bit intimidated."
And so she waited, and wrote about other things.
Sharratt was born in Minneapolis and grew up in Bloomington, but she is married to a Belgian man and has lived most of her life abroad. After she graduated from the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright fellowship took her to Innsbruck and she never looked back. She eventually moved from Austria to Germany and now lives in the north of England.
All five of Sharratt's books are historical fiction, beginning with "Summit Avenue," set in St. Paul during World War I and published by Coffee House Press in 2000.
When she first began writing, "I wanted to avoid autobiography," Sharratt said. "I wanted to transcend daily life, and time-travel." Writing historical fiction is painstaking work, requiring extensive research into the tiniest, most arcane aspects of life. Get even a single detail wrong, and someone will notice.
"The readers are very picky," she said. "You have to be very careful, or you'll get all these e-mails." Before her third novel, "The Vanishing Point," was published, a reader who saw it in galley form pointed out that it was not common for English people in the 17th century to eat with forks, "and I had to take out all references to forks on the second round of page proofs."
The research for "Illuminations" took years. Sharratt read biographies of Hildegard and Jutta, "I read as much of her theology as I could. And I read modern theologians on Hildegard.
"In 2009, I made a research trip to the Hildegard sites on the Rhine [River, in Germany]. The abbey is in ruins now, and they don't know the exact site of the anchorage, but there are these two little rooms backing out the rear side of the church" and it seems likely that is where Hildegard and Jutta lived. "They're tiny," Sharratt said. "Tiny. Both rooms could fit in my kitchen."
A remarkable woman
"Illuminations" makes clear the different ways that people in the 12th century lived their faith. The monks of Hildegard's monastery were hungry for wealth and power; men outside the monastery rode off to the Crusades; Jutta denied herself food, water and sleep and wrapped herself in spiked chains that pierced her flesh. And Hildegard experienced visions of beautiful women, ethereal singing, flowers and life. When she finally emerged from the anchorage, this was the path she chose.
"Hildegard was locked up for three decades with this woman who was literally destroying herself," Sharratt said. "And the spirituality she embraced was the complete opposite of that. It's life-affirming. She believed that the divine was everywhere. God isn't something that's far away, but infuses all of life on Earth.
"She had this integral vision of faith that I find inspiring. When I'm out and see the light and the trees -- that's where my spirituality overlaps with Hildegard's.
"She must have been a really strong character -- we wouldn't be talking about her still today if she weren't. What she achieved in her lifetime was really remarkable."
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302 Twitter: @stribbooks