Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Hildegard of Bingen by Honey Meconi

Hildegard of Bingen by Honey Meconi
Published in the UK by University of Illinois Press yesterday, the 20th November 2018.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Renaissance woman long before the Renaissance, the visionary Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) corresponded with Europe's elite, founded and led a noted women's religious community, and wrote on topics ranging from theology to natural history. Yet we know her best as Western music's most accomplished early composer, responsible for a wealth of musical creations for her fellow monastics.

Honey Meconi draws on her own experience as a scholar and performer of Hildegard's music to explore the life and work of this foundational figure. Combining historical detail with musical analysis, Meconi delves into Hildegard's mastery of plainchant, her innovative musical drama, and her voluminous writings. Hildegard's distinctive musical style still excites modern listeners through wide-ranging, sinuous melodies set to her own evocative poetry. Together with her passionate religious texts, her music reveals a holistic understanding of the medieval world still relevant to today's readers.

Featuring a female authored biography of a woman each month for my ReadingWomen project has led me to become more attuned to spotting such works so I was pleased to discover Honey Meconi's biography of Hildegard of Bingen recently on NetGalley. A twelfth century nun, Hildegard would have been considered an exceptional polymath by today's standards and she cleverly took advantage of the relative freedom allowed her by her monastic life to write extensively on matters from spirituality to science as well as composing dozens of plainchant works. That so many of her songs and words are still in existence today is something of a miracle - one important work was moved to Dresden for safekeeping during World War Two! (It is known to have survived the firestorm, but vanished around the time the Russian army arrived.)

Meconi has put together a engrossing recounting of the life of this fascinating woman from the information still available. I learned much about the realities of her daily life and the struggles she faced at the head of her own abbey in Germany. However, not being au fait with twelfth century church music - or any church music for that matter - I came unstuck when attempting to understand Meconi's detailed descriptions of Hildegard's musical compositions. I felt this lengthy section needed to have been recorded as an audio book so I could have actually heard the segments of her antiphons, responsaries and the like while they were discussed.

I would recommend Hildegard of Bingen as a fairly quick read for readers who enjoy medieval or religious history, especially those who appreciated Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter as the two books touch upon similar themes.

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  1. I've added this one to my TBR, thanks! I've heard her name in previous books I have read, but do not know much about her. I am trying to expand my knowledge from the UK during that period to a wider net of Europe in general. Thanks for the review!

    1. I thought about you as I was reading Hildegard Of Bingen actually. At one point she writes to Eleanor of Aquitaine