Friday, January 11, 2019

Healing with Herbs

As someone who writes about the many ways in which women could find fulfillment even in medieval and early modern societies that often didn’t respect their intellect, strength, or capacity for learning, I was naturally drawn to The Greenest Branch, the first half of P. K. Adams’ two-part novel about Hildegard of Bingen. I was happy to chat with her for the New Books Network, and although we held the conversation back in November 2018, the interview went live just this past Wednesday. That’s because the completion of the tale, The Column of Burning Spices, has just gone on preorder in the Kindle Store and will be released February 1.

Hildegard was many things: anchoress, abbess, mystic, theologian, musician, and healer. She mastered the medical theory of her day (early twelfth century), most of which had come down, virtually unchanged, from classical Greece. But Hildegard went beyond the textbooks, gathering herbal remedies and and testing them on real patients. She recorded her observations in her Physica, now available in English translation. I consulted her book at length while writing The Swan Princess and its sequels. It contains a kind of distilled folk wisdom that provided a great counterpart to Galen and Dioscorides, both known in the Muslim world as well as in Europe. It was my respect for Hildegard’s intellectual rigor that made me want to read her story in more detail. The Greenest Branch more than fulfilled my expectations and in fact taught me a good deal about this impressive woman.

Only after I agreed to conduct the interview did I discover that P. K. Adams, now that she’s done with Hildegard, is planning a three-part series of mystery novels set in the sixteenth-century court of Sigismund (Zygmunt) “the Old” of Poland and his son, Sigismund Augustus (Zygmunt August). Queen Bona Sforza—who plays a minor but vital role in The Shattered Drum and a secondary role in my own February 2019 release, Song of the Siren—also makes a memorable appearance in Adams’ next novel, Silent Water.

And because it seems just too deliciously coincidental for words that our novels, which we brought to life quite independently of each other, should overlap in this way, P. K. and I have decided to join forces on at least one novel-to-be. Exactly what form our collaboration will take remains to be seen, but be sure I’ll update you as the plans develop. After all, how many people in the United States know anything about the extraordinary humanistic Renaissance culture that characterized the courts of the two Sigismunds? Can’t let an opportunity like that go to waste!

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

The twelfth-century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen was a remarkable woman by any standards. Known for her musical compositions and mystical prayers, Hildegard was also Germany’s first recognized female physician. The daughter of minor nobility, she entered the convent in childhood as a tithe from her parents. Excited by the prospect of acquiring an education, then a goal unattainable for girls outside a convent, Hildegard suffers a setback when she confronts the strict seclusion imposed on nuns by the anchorage of St. Disibod and its ascetic magistra, Jutta of Sponheim. But relief comes from the company of Volmar, a fellow oblate who like Hildegard loves to sneak out of the abbey and walk in the nearby woods, and Brother Wigbert, the monastery’s infirmarian. It’s through the teaching of Brother Wigbert that Hildegard discovers her affinity for medicine.

Alas, not every member of the abbey hierarchy believes that young women should spend time outside the walls of the anchorage, and as political threats from the outside world intensify and Hildegard’s detractors rise higher in the administration, she must fight for her right to practice medicine—and to express her opinion at all. In this charmingly personal account, P. K. Adams explores the first part of Hildegard’s life, the richly developed characters who influenced her, and the factors that gave her the strength to define her own dream and pursue it to fulfillment despite opposition from a society determined to keep her in her place. The story begun in The Greenest Branch (Iron Knight Press, 2018) concludes in The Column of Burning Spices (Iron Knight Press, 2019), where Hildegard leaves the Abbey of St. Disibod to found a convent of her own.

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