Hildegard of Bingen is a popular work which reads more like a novel, but includes many historical details, with many excerpts from English translations of Hildegard’s works. Other helpful features include a map of the Rhine region in the twelfth century, a chronology of events around the time in which Hildegard lived, a brief list of people and places, an appendix of principal works of this twelfth century Benedictine visionary, a bibliography and photographs of eight illuminations from Scivias, as well as the Hildegard Abbey, Eibingen. An intriguing feature is an interview with Sister Ancilla Feerling, OSB, Saint Hildegard Abbey, Eibingen, October 1999.
The author states that her purpose in the book is "to steer a route between the extremes of fashionable enthusiasms and scholarly minutiae," as one wishing to tell Hildegard’s whole story (x). The opening and closing chapters of the book are set as an inclusion, beginning with examination of Hildegard’s mortal remains on March 21, 1852 and closing with a modern day pilgrimage to the site of Hildegard’s monastery ruins. In between, the story of Hildegard is told from birth to her death, followed by the process for consideration of her canonization. Frequently there is a break in the narrative to supply historical information about parallels to aspects of Hildegard’s life and teaching, drawn from any time period whatsoever, without a necessary direct historical link with Hildegard. It is not clear to me how references to Simon Stylites (42), Francis of Assisi (43/80), Krisnamurti (62), Madame Guyon ( 68) and William Blake (68) – to name a few – add to the story of Hildegard.
At times the author commits mistakes in her statements. So, for example, on page 24, the Rule of Caesarius of Arles for nuns is introduced with the words: "St. Caesarius of Arles (470-542) was responsible for shaping the rules of enclosure for women. He might have been writing for Jutta herself…" At times the author’s lack of scholarly background is a disservice to the reader. As case in point is her remark on p.79: "Hildegard’s nuns adorned…as brides of Christ…Such behavior wholly contradicted the Rule as written by St Benedict and feminized by Caesarius of Arles in his sixth-century Rule for Nuns…" While scholars recognize possible allusions to Caesarius’ rule for nuns in Benedict’s rule, there is no way that Caesarius’ rule is a feminized version of the Rule of Benedict! I do not know where the author got the information that "St Benedict…had expressly forbidden the study of medicine" (155). While Benedict does use the expression medicus sapiens with reference to the pastoral care of an erring member by the monastic superior and makes provision for the physically sick to be cared for by an attendant, there is nothing in his rule to substantiate Maddock’s assumption. Moreover, her aside that "the mystic Gertrude of Helfta was handed over as a five-year-old to Cistercian monks" (18) is also misleading. Gertrude was given over to the women’s monastery at Helfta. "Scholarly minutiae" does have its place! There were times that I had wished the author had given her source. For example, "canon law forbade women to preach" (214). Regarding her statement," On the day of Pentecost, she preached publicly in the great cathedral of Trier" (215), there is scholarly debate whether Hildegard preached IN the cathedral or OUTSIDE ON THE STEPS OF the cathedral.
The author’s strongest chapter, from my point of view, is the one in which she herself has background, namely, chapter 12 on Hildegard’s music. She raises intriguing questions on why Hildegard has not been known until quite recently by musicologists and how does one evaluate her musical abilities as "artist" or "musical genius". Maddock’s humor is delightful, particularly when discussing Hildegard’s medical remedies, such as, "A broth made from pounded hamster liver and eaten with bread relieves scrofula and swellings, and the pelt is good for clothing. No indication is given as to where a sufficient number of hamsters might be found to make an even modest human garment" (153); "Hildegard advises drinking water in which the dried liver of a lion has been left, counsel which seems certain, if not to have relieved the crisis in question, at least to have prompted a different one" (158-9).
There is much to recommend in the book in terms of breadth of knowledge covered about Hildegard and her writings, as well as helpful definitions of terms, like stabilitas loci (39), Carolingian miniscule (66), viriditas (82), letters as a literary genre (133-34), melismatic style of music and monophonic (198). However, I could not recommend this book to my undergraduates without first presenting cautions and corrections to assumptions presented, as well as the careful work done by scholars of Hildegard.