Shortlisted for Book of the Month
"I enjoyed how the relationships between Hildegard and others were developed. Volmar, who was her confessor in reality, was given a deeper place in her life. It is not part of the historical record, but the way it was written was believable and within the scope of acceptable behavior for a Benedictine nun. "
The Column of Burning Spices is the second in PK Adams’s duology about the renowned medieval holy woman, Hildegard of Bingen. This picks up right where the first book, The Greenest Branch, left off and covers the latter part of Hildegard’s life when she was writing and creating the works for which she is most well known.
Where the first book had given Hildegard an interesting background and a plausible, fictional, history that filled in gaps in the historical record, this second book continued with what is known of her and fleshed her out in a human way. I don’t feel that there was quite the depth of character as there was in the first book, but this is simply because there was so much that Hildegard did in her life that it is impossible to capture it all in the scope of one novel!
Authors have to make a choice - are they going to focus on her music or her scientific writing? On her struggles with the men of the church or on her charitable work? Adams did exceedingly well with what she chose to include. The details were sufficient for Hildegard fans like myself, while also serving to whet the appetite of readers who may not be as familiar with her, hopefully inspiring them to go out and learn more about her.
How Hildegard dealt with the troublesome men of the church was handled deftly, and accurately. One of my favorite parts of the book, as well as an actual event in her life, was the question of the burial of a man who had been excommunicated and then forgiven. He was buried, then the canons demanded that he be exhumed and reburied in unconsecrated ground. Hildegard refused because she said his sins had been forgiven. The canons told local authorities to exhume the body, so Hildegard and her nuns went around and removed all the grave markers from the cemetery. I love that so much. She sounds like my granny, a salty old besom. The canons placed Hildegard, her nuns, and the abbey under interdict, so no Mass could be performed and, worse for Hildegard, no songs could be sung. But eventually, she won and they could have their Mass and music back.
I enjoyed how the relationships between Hildegard and others were developed. Volmar, who was her confessor in reality, was given a deeper place in her life. It is not part of the historical record, but the way it was written in the book was believable and still within the scope of acceptable behavior for a Benedictine nun, and raised a poignant “what if” for them both.
Similarly with Ricardis, Hildegard’s personal assistant. The two women had a close bond in real life, prompting some scholars to speculate that Hildegard was a lesbian. I think that is a naive assumption; she lived almost entirely in the company of women from the time she was eight years old and most of the men of her acquaintance were her adversaries. It is no wonder that she formed her closest bonds with other women. I do disagree, however, with how the author handled Ricardis leaving the convent - no spoilers, so I will say no more, except, if the author's suggestion had been the case, I doubt very much whether Hildegard would have continued to write to her friend asking her to come back. That part of the novel didn’t fit with the existing historical record, for me to accept.
Overall, however, the the novel was very pleasing - Hildegard of Bingen is hands down my favorite medieval holy woman, and favorite medieval woman second only to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The first installment had a slight edge of being stronger, but this one was still a Diamond read and I heartily recommend both books to anyone interested in this fascinating woman, or to anyone who has never heard of her and would like a starting point to learn about her.
© Kristen McQuinn
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