As I was researching Hildegard of Bingen for my own historical-fiction series, "The Seven Keys of Hildegard," I happened across "The Column of Burning Spices" by author P. K. Adams. I am so glad I did. In this second of a two-book series, the author brings Hildegard exquisitely to life. The story unfolds in the first-person and we get to see and feel Hildegard's life and world in Germany through her own eyes as she experiences the last half of her life beginning in 1143. I could not put this book down.
Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most fascinating women in Catholic church history. Mystic, leader, abbess, naturalist, healer, mentor, composer, theologian, this fascinating woman could do it all despite her church's attempts to keep her under their thumb and exploit her amazing gifts. I was curious to see how a fellow writer would tackle this larger-than-life character.
"The Column of Burning Spices" grabs you from the very first pages, as this female protagonist faces the challenges of a medieval, male-dominated church that is not only dismissive of this female's visionary, ecclesiastical and theological leadership but downright hostile and exploitive of it. The book captures Hildegard's mysticism, strength, independence, and determination to forge her own path through her visions and writings as she eventually gains the respect of the church which includes luminaries such as the much admired and eventual saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, the local Archbishop of Mainz, and even the newly elected pope, Eugenius III.
Of most interest to me, was the relationship between Hildegard and her most loyal assistant, the monk, Volmar. It is here that P. K. shines brightest as she exquisitely captures their warm relationship and Hildegard's reliance, trust and admiration for him. At times, the story brought tears to my eyes as the author truly captured Hildegard's feelings and tenderness towards him beneath her steely determination and strength in other aspects of her life.
Like "The Greenest Branch," the first book in the series, "The Column of Burning Spices" vividly captures this fascinating, historical time and brings to life one of Europe's most fascinating, complicated and influential women. For any fan of historical-fiction a la Ken Follett, you will want to include the magical, story-telling gifts of P. K. Adams in your reading repertoire.