Essay: A Look into the Lives of Sei Shōnagon and Hildegard of Bingen -

Essay: A Look into the Lives of Sei Shōnagon and Hildegard of Bingen

“Pleasing things: finding a large number of tales that one has not read before. Or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed. But often it is a disappointment.”
— Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book

Imagine the President finding someone’s personal diary, and having him enjoy it so much that he decides to have it published and read aloud all over the country. Japanese court lady Sei Shōnagon found herself in a similar situation when the Empress she served in the eleventh century [~1000 A.D.] found Shōnagon’s “pillow book” and decided to have it read in the Court. Shōnagon could not fathom how her “casual jottings [could] bear comparison with the many impressive books that exist in [her] time”[1].  This is ironic in hindsight, as many ancient Japanese texts have been lost due to the ravages of time, yet The Pillow Book continues to humor and amaze people to this day.

Sei Shōnagon wrote The Pillow Book primarily for herself. It was a diary in the sense that it was private and recorded her private thoughts and feelings, but not quite limited to day-to-day minutiae. Daily activities were recorded, to be sure, but mostly Shōnagon seemed to write whatever happened to be on her mind at any given time. There are a large number of “lists;” that is, a sort of catalog that details certain things in which she was personally invested. For example, “Hateful Things” is quite literally about the things that she hated. What keeps this sort of indexing from being boring or repetitive is Shōnagon’s unique wit, embossing a certain undefinable charm, and the utilization of “prose poems” [lyrical, poetic prose]. Under the list, “Depressing Things,” she wrote, “A letter arrives from the provinces, but no gift accompanies it. It would be bad enough if such a letter reached one in the provinces from someone in the capital; but then at least it would have interesting news about goings-on in society, and that would be a consolation.”[2] This passage not only highlights Shōnagon’s peculiar style of sarcasm, it only shows what mattered most to her — not necessarily receiving gifts from lovers — but the upholding of the values and manners of the day, and overall being very class-conscious.

Shōnagon was part of a very stylish society, in which beauty and “the [admiration and] enjoyment of beauty was a primal experience.”[3] This observation is not to make her work suddenly seem shallow and unimportant, but to more fully understand the world in which she resided. Being an educated court lady, she had noble blood and the superior attitude that is most commonly associated with aristocrats. That “judgments of quality and standards of taste [was] the … equivalent of a moral code”[4] and the fact that Shōnagon can write critically shows that her writing is quite definitive. She actually writes, “I am the sort of person who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like,”[5] causing her great surprise when people enjoy and agree with her writings. Overall, what mattered most to Shōnagon was the upholding of the rules of her society by herself and that of her fellow citizens [“I am most pleased when I hear someone I love being praised or being mentioned approvingly by an important person.”[6]]. Despite petty observations and sometimes selfish behavior, Shōnagon is the model court lady and female writer, showing that even in a dominantly male society, a woman’s voice can still be heard and praised — even unintentionally.

One of her female literary successors, however, fully intended to have her dreams publicized. Hildegard of Bingen, German writer of the twelfth century [~1141 A.D.][7], apparently received a vision created by God, who told her to “speak […] these miracles and write and say the things taught thus”[8], referring to the other visions that Hildegard experienced. She took this message to heart and ended up writing over a hundred works of literature, including music, letters, poems, and books.[9]

While Shōnagon is a vibrant and dynamic personality, Hildegard is the very epitome of saintliness. Her claim to fame is her extraordinarily vivid visions that she apparently began having when only five years old.[10] What is perhaps even more remarkable is Hildegard’s ability to transcribe her dreams. Her narrative style could be straight out of the Bible, but with a novel twist [both meanings intended]. The beginning of one of Hildegard’s revelations is as poetic as any one of her poems:

And behold! A lake of great width and depth appeared, having a mouth like … a pit, belching forth fiery smoke with a great stench, from which a foul cloud, extending itself, touched what looked like a vein of deceptive appearance, and … it blasted through a white cloud, which proceeded from a certain beautiful human form containing in itself … stars, and thus it drove forth both the cloud and the human form from that place.[11]

Since her only formal education was indeed studying the Bible while growing up in a convent, it is little wonder that her writing should have mimicked it.

It is also due to this religious background that allowed Hildegard’s works to become known in the first place. The Church was deeply hierarchical and patriarchal, and even nuns were discouraged from seeking higher positions. Hildegard was back-bendingly humble, however, claiming, “because of doubt and a low opinion of myself and because of people might say, I refused for a long time the call to write.”[12] What mattered most to her was strict devotion to the God she worshiped and obedience to Him and the Church. It is unlikely that Hildegard would have written anything if she claimed her writing to be inspired by anyone other than God [whether her visions are true or not is moot], and as such, this female writer was able to make her mark in a time when women had few opportunities for anything significant.

Both Shōnagon and Hildegard have more in common than simply being prominent women writers of their day: their works tell vividly of their own lives and give a unique picture of how they became writers. The ability and power to express themselves through literature is impressive, not the least of how each woman chooses to tell her story: Shōnagon reveals her inner self through her many lists and observations, while Hildegard bares her soul using the power of religion.


  • [1] Sei Shōnagon. The Pillow Book. p.2300. PDF.
  • [2] Sei Shōnagon. The Pillow Book. p.2280. PDF.
  • [3] Sarah Lawall, ed. The Pillow Book. p.2272. PDF.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Sei Shōnagon. The Pillow Book. p.2300. PDF.
  • [6] Ibid., 2298.
  • [7] “Hildegard.” Shapiro, Thelda. University of California, Riverside. 4 May 2011. Lecture.
  • [8] Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. p.9. PDF.
  • [9] “Hildegard.” Shapiro, Thelda. University of California, Riverside. 4 May 2011. Lecture.
  • [10] Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. p.9. PDF.
  • [11] Ibid., p.12
  • [12] Ibid., p.11



I remember this class (Introduction to World Literature by Women, 2011), but I don’t recall many of the writings. XD The Pillow Book sounds familiar, though, and I’m pretty sure I still have my textbooks, so y’know, it’s not a total loss. You’ll notice that is one of the few (if not the only) essays that I had to use footnotes for; most humanities courses call for MLA style, which uses in-text citations and a bibliography.

“Japanese Garden, Kyoto” by Joe deSousa is under Public Domain (CC0 1.0)

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