The Column of Burning Spices: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician (Hildegard of Bingen)* by PK Adams
I read it as a: digital book
Source: my own collection
Length: 370 pp
Publisher: Iron Knight Press
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 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 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 I think 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 is no different, and she did exceedingly well with what she chose to include. I thought the details were sufficient for Hildegard fans like me 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 actual events of her life, was how she handled 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 crone. 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 real life, 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 actually a lesbian. Maybe she was, but I also think that is a stupid assumption; she lived almost entirely in the company of women from the time she was 8 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. It should have no bearing on her sexual preferences. I disagree, however, with how the author handled Ricardis leaving the convent. There is no indication in the historical record that she left because she’d been spying on Hildegard to Abbot Helenger or that she was in the church only to advance her family’s standing. If that had been the case, I doubt very much Hildegard would have continued to write to her after she left, asking her to come back, which she did several times. That part of the novel required too much of a suspension of disbelief, and didn’t fit with the existing historical record, for me to buy.
Overall, the duology 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 was stronger, and I would rate it 4.5 stars, but the second still offered a solid performance and I would rank it at at 4 stars. 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.
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