Nuns, Book Review and Troubling (For the Geek) Questions…
I wrote this as an assignment to review a book on one topic or person outstanding in the history of Christianity in Europe. Hildegard of Bingen fan that I am I ran with an early but supposedly definitive academic biography: Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life. (Sabina Flanagan, 1984). And while I was working on this, my usual gift for happening upon the staggeringly obvious did not disappoint; I realized that the book is a sullenly abysmal chore in terms of narrative and writing quality..Still, this work from the academic stage twenty years past may be a good opening point for some exploration of an ever-increasing trend: flat, unengaging work that does nothing to make a given subject more accessible beyond the students or PhD’s reading the work for research and even then, creates a spike in the ant-acid budget of scholars.
So let’s look at an example of this unsightly phenomenon.
Sabina Flanagan wrote her Doctoral dissertation on Hildegard of Bingen’s prophetic works and later published Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life in 1984. Flanagan attempts, in this short biography, to provide an introduction to the outline of Hildegard’s life and some exploration of her written works, both their wide ranging subject matter and their intellectual scope. Flanagan’s principal argument, that Hildegard’s works outpaced many male contemporary scholars of her era in diversity of topics and in intelligence and aesthetic beauty, moves consistently through the book.
One passage of Hildegard that I have especially valued comes in a later chapter where Flanagan summarizes the Abbess’ body of work:
Her interests were intellectual rather than mystical.…as well as understanding, Hildegard wanted to change the world: in a general sense, for man’s salvation in her writings, and more particularly, by recommending certain attitudes and positions. To these ends, the migraine experience was a wonderfully adaptable instrument, as was Hildegarde herself (209).
Migraine headaches and accompanying illnesses are pernicious, cross-cultural, era and continent-spanning complications. Hildegard was already overcoming the difference in the education she had gained and that of the male scholars whose respect she had won. She had already moved from a future of permanent sequestration with her mentor Jutta to the subtle but unavoidable politics of establishing her rule as an Abbess. And, as Flanagan relates, Hildegard also faced the challenge of a frequently occurring condition that, when compared to the modern detailed ‘check-list’ of Migraine symptoms, fits their pattern quite efficaciously (201). A medical diagnoses at more than eight centuries would be ridiculous; and to Flanagan’s further good grace, she makes no attempt to cast a possibility as a certainty.
As a trained and experienced museum educator I will always have a very powerful desire to see history presented and taken in as an interesting, engaging and thoughtful experience. I want people to be aware of the past, and I want women in my denomination to be aware of spiritual leadership that contributed to one of the sources of our faith. Hildegard is a tremendously important example of such leadership. In order to understand how Hildegard experienced her visions and understood them we in turn, need to gather what we can about medical and metaphysical factors—even as some of Hildegard’s writings do as she details what she saw, what she experienced the noticeable connection or parallels between her headache-related sickness and her visions.
I especially appreciated the lack of bias or ‘mission’ in Flanagan’s narrative arguments—she gives no indication of any great drive to discredit or canonize Hildegard’s visions. Although I have unreserved opinions about academic style, when we scholars can remember our training and abandon bias it is a very fine thing. Perhaps I value this so much because I see no need to ‘debunk’ her mystical visions or to prove that they were entirely powered from the realm of the feminine spiritual (a popular catch phrase I still run into in spirituality, history and biography sections in the bookstore). Still the unbiased presentation of the interaction between migraine and spiritual vision in this work is both interesting and informative.
This book is indicative of a problem that existed at the time of writing in 1984 that is alive and well in 2013. While I am indeed engaging in mighty presumption from my soapbox on writing quality among academics, I will presume onward and upwards. I have found the book to be a horrible read. Flanagan, it could be argued for charity’s sake, may have assumed that someone else would surely go ahead and put together a biography of Hildegard of Bingen that would be engaging, provide a more chronologically consistent narrative of her life as well as her career, and, in general, prove informative for someone at least one remove but preferably two or three from the halls of academia. Because, after all, if Hildegard was important enough to write a dissertation on, Flanagan must have cared…?Very well. Charity. Speaking as an avid reader, a tutor and an educator I know that I would have been very happy if Flanagan had taken the works she analyzed, quoted or translated and put them in one section, then devoted a front section to Hildegard’s life with considerably more on the geography, cultural history and even the geopolitical climate of her region than she did in this 1984 edition.
I’d like to say a brief word about biography, particularly that of a subject in the more distant past. I am actually very aware that considerable challenge and pitfall can await the intrepid scholar who seeks to make their work engaging and detailed.—In the UK, in 2000, I happened upon essays shellacking Paul Murray Kendall’s biography of Richard III—a book hailed as a humanizing, dramatic and thrilling masterpiece of compassionate storytelling. Unfortunately, it seemed that while Kendall had done right by the poor king in pointing out that Richard was the obvious worst suspect in the murder of his nephews, he had simply spun details of crucial battles in the wars of the roses out of not terribly much. (The British Academics used less complimentary words needless to say. Quite a few of them. Rather like coyotes tracking sick deer)*. I contrast that experience with the (possibly coincidental; you know, like the coincidence that Superman and Clark Kent are never together) tendency of professors at my Northern Grad department in history to react with contempt in the face of every well-written monograph , even if it’s just proportional contempt beside their rhapsodic love of brilliant scholars–who cannot write their way out of a wet paper bag. With a chain saw. And ninja stars.
The upshot of this digression is that I have seen the void that well researched but badly written biography creates. I have also seen an equal vacuum created by well written and badly researched work! Both are problematic.
I am left wanting to find some more engaging and accessible sources on the history of spiritual leaders among women in the history of European Christianity. I’m a geek, after all. Learning cool stuff and finding ways to share it with others is hardwired to my personal Geekdom, where I let my Geek flag fly high from the ranks of the humanities, history, literature, folklore and such. So part of my ministry, I suspect, will always include trying to make the past more relevant or interesting—perhaps even inspiring—for anyone whose spiritual care I’m honored with. I will try to keep and maintain a list of updated books on a variety of topics in this vein and Hildegard, long a personal hero of mine, will always be on it. Speaking from this bias, I think every minister should have a minimum of two books on Hildegarde specifically and several on women who were leaders during the first thousand or so years of Christianity’s evolution. I simply don’t see this book as a useful example of one of them.
That concludes my review and raises the question: why aren’t there more books out there that are well researched, and well written and well received for people who are not in graduate study seminars?
*I am unable to recall essay titles or names; hopefully I am at least scraping the bottom of citation protocols by emphasizing that anything about Kendal or the British Academic Community’s response to him belongs to those brilliant lovely people, etc…