Hildegard of Bingen: a mediaeval female genius

by frankbeswick

Abbess Hildegard of Bingen was a polymath who achieved much in music, theological and medical writing.

Plenty of highborn young girls with limited marriage prospects were sent to convents from an early age and most belong to the anonymous mass of human history, but occasionally one stands out from the rest, and one of these was Hildegard of Bingen. She was a scholar of repute, the confidante of bishops, some of whom she admonished, and Popes, who sought her advice. She is believed to have been responsible for some of the musical compositions that later became part of church religious music, and she wrote scholarly texts on botany, theology and medicine.

Thumbnail courtesy of laufer

Her Life

What do you do about young Hildegarde? This must have been the problem faced by her aristocratic parents, for by eight and a half years old she was not only sickly, but strange. She suffered from what seemed to be migraines, but more problematic still, she had visions. Sickness and visions hardly did much for  a girl's marriage prospects; and as aristocratic families used their daughters to secure alliances with other powerful families, Hildegard must have been a potentially unmarried daughter and a burden.

The answer was to have her fostered, not an unusual arrangement at that time. She was offered as the family's tithe to God. They had just the woman, Jutta von Sponheim, herself an aristocrat and single, whether by never having married or widowhood. But importantly she and Hildegard had one thing in common:they were both visionaries. So to Jutta the young girl went.  Hildegard's family did not realize that they were disposing of a genius.  

Jutta was an anchoress, a hermit whose cell was joined to a church. What kind of life the young Hildegard enjoyed with Jutta is unknown, but Jutta taught her young charge to read and write. She also taught her singing and the playing of the psaltery, a ten stringed instrument. It is also likely that  the two women borrowed books from the local monks, and scholars think that Hildegard read widely, as they find many allusions to literature in her works. The relationship between Jutta and Hildegard exemplifies the principle that behind a great genius is a good teacher.

Jutta also introduced her to Volmar,a monk who was to guide her throughout much of her life until his death.Volmar had been consulted by Jutta on the subject of Hildegard's visions, for the Roman Catholic Church keeps a keen eye on visions, which though sometimes positive and beneficial, can be signs of illness or from evil sources. 

In 1112 both women joined a newly established women's section of the monastery of Disibodenburg, where Jutta became magistra, the senior nun and until 1136 Hildegard served under her, studying and nursing in the infirmary, it is believed. Having the women's section attached to a monastery was a good idea, as the women could benefit from the already established building and the men's wealth. Then in 1136 Jutta died and the nuns elected Hildegard as magistra in her stead. The abbot Kuno highly rated Hildegard and asked her to be prioress,very senior, only one step below abbot, but sometime  later Hildegard asked to move the female section to its own site at Rupertsberg. Abbot Kuno, acting within his rights, refused, and so Hildegard went over his head to the archbishop, who approved. Kuno  resisted, but after a while yielded and Hildegard got her way. 

She was now an abbess. And this is when her influence hit the wider world. Besides guiding her nuns she wrote books and music, and many letters to senior figures in the church,many of whom sought her advice. Finally in 1179 at the age of eighty one Hildegard died.Over the years her status earned her the rank of saint, but more recently Pope Benedict the Sixteenth declared her  a Doctor of the Church, a title given only to leading theological thinkers, one of only four women to be so honoured.


Statue of Hildegard
Statue of Hildegard

Hildegard's Works.

While we have copies of all of Hildegard's works,  the illuminated copy of her theological work, Scivias,is lost.During World War Two it  was sent to Dresden for safe keeping, but this was unfortunate, as the Allies bombed Dresden and the city became a fire storm. Compared to the lives that were lost, a book is a small, though regrettable matter. 

It is said that she wrote more prolifically than any women of her time, but she wrote more than most men as well. It has been noted [ www.hildegardeofbingen.net ] that while there were always influential women, most wielded influence through their menfolk, but Hildegard was a woman whose influence rested on her accomplishments, and these grew out of her profound religious experience that came to her as visions. For many years she kept the visions to herself until in one vision God told her to write them down and they became the basis of her works of theology.

There were three long theological works: the Scivias [Know the Ways] Vitae Meritorum [Of Life's Merits, Liber Divinorum Operum. Each one details her visions, which are then interpreted in terms of her completely orthodox theology. There was nothing uncatholic about Hildegard. Each of these works was written by hand in Latin, and as one early image of  her seems to show her as an illustrator it is likely that she was talented in illustration as well. She also  wrote the Ordo Virtutum, n allegorical morality play, possibly the first of its kind. 

Yet her experience in nursing led to her to take an interest in medicine, and this meant botany, so she wrote  works on natural medicine. She broke new ground in writing about women's subjects, one of which was gynecology, so it is likely that she and the nuns were dealing with the health of women in their locality. She also touches on sex, writing on the female orgasm, about which none seems to have written before. Yet she also found time to compose music. She composed within the plainchant traditions of the Catholic Church. Still much of her music survives. 

Besides this she found time to found two convents, one at Rupertsberg and one at Eibingen, which replaced an earlier Augustinian foundation. This abbey still survives today. 

Along with this came at least four hundred letters to the leading people of the age, including the following: various popes, Emperor Barbarossa, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Henry II af England and his queen Eleanor. All these letters give advice. And this is in addition to her being the spiritual leader of  an abbey, responsible for guiding the nuns in their religious life.

The energy to work as hard as this derives from her deeply spiritual life, and this sort of work rate is not unusual among saints, for they are energized and motivated by God's power. Yet if you examine the image above you see her bearing a feather, which symbolizes what she saw as her weak body, for she was always conscious of her frailty.    


Reflections on Hildegard

What are we to make about her visions? They often involved lights and pain, so some think that she had migraine attacks. The pain seems to have often penetrated very deep into her and she would at times be left immobile for a while.One of the elements was a light, but there was within it a light within a light, which was brilliant white and which eliminated all anxiety. She always interpreted these visions in the light of orthodox Catholic Theology.

We must beware of the reasoning error of reductionism, which explains away strange phenomena by saying, "It was only a [whatever]" This can sometimes be correct, but not always. Skepticism is not a useful tool, as the skeptic cannot discover truth in the unconventional. I have warned elsewhere about falling into the Scylla of skepticism and the Charybdis of gullibility. A middle way must be followed. Certainly the bright light is a characteristic of religious experiences. Another characteristic of religious experiences of the mystical kind present in her visions was a loss of sense of self. What might be happening is that there was an interaction between her religious experiences and her brain condition that was similar to migraine, but the intricacies of what was happening in her brain are a mystery beyond my comprehension. There is one thing for sure, she was not mad!

Fortunately Hildegard was a member of the Benedictine order, which at that time placed great emphasis on personal  religious experience and was open to visions, though like all Catholic institutions it insists that visions be declared to the religious authorities and supervised.I once knew a priest who told me that he had three people a week reporting visions to him, but that he took them gently by the arm and led them back to the mental hospital round the corner! The church supervises visionaries very carefully, and Hildegard passed all the tests.One vital test is whether the visions contribute to or militate against growth in the religious life, and Hildegard passed this with flying colours.

She was capable of being quite assertive. There was a nun called Richardis who assisted Hildegard in her work and the two were close friends in Hildegard's later life.But Richardis' brother,a bishop, decided to move her to another convent as abbess, depriving Hildegard of her assistant. I am not convinced of the legality of this move, as he should have asked Hildegard, but does not have appeared to have done so, Hildegard wrote a scathing letter to the offending bishop, who continued with his decision, But the unhappy Richardis decided to move back to Rupertsberg with Hildegard, though she died before the move cold take effect.

That she did so much with a frail body is a sign of the immense mental strength that she had in compensation for her physical weakness. The mere feather seems to have had more mental strength than many a powerful person. 

Updated: 08/18/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 08/23/2017

No, only very recently was she proclaimed by Benedict the Sixteenth.

blackspanielgallery on 08/20/2017

There were few Doctors of the Church, which indee was a high recognition. I believe it was often proclaimed when the person was alive, for I remember having heard Henry VIII was a Doctor of the Church before he broke away, and he certainly would not have been so named after he left. Was the title given when she was alive?

frankbeswick on 08/20/2017

Correct. The process of her canonization was started early, but was stalled because she often flouted ecclesiastical authority and while she was honoured locally as a saint it was only in 2012 that Benedict the Sixteenth completed the process. She was the earliest of the four female doctors of the church, but the last recognized.

One instance of her flouting authority was when a man who had been excommunicated but absolved was buried in her abbey, The clergy wanted him exhumed and reburied elsewhere, but Hildegard rightly refused, saying that the exhumation was unjust and against God's will. What the clergy said did not matter, she obeyed God and that was that! End of story. Once she thought that something was the will of God she would not move an inch.

blackspanielgallery on 08/19/2017

I realize the date of her death would make her life after the rules for canonization were established. Earlier a person might be called a saint, but not really accepted as such by the modern church, But this was over a hundred years after the rules were established, so I read into this she was indeed canonized.

frankbeswick on 08/19/2017

I think it worth noting that Hildegard never sought political power. She seems to have been content to write books, letters and musical scores. She probably enjoyed the refined femininity of the convent and was happy to stay there.

frankbeswick on 08/19/2017

I don't think that they are plants special to her, but as she was a herbalist and wrote texts on botany and medicine, which then was herbalistic, she must have mentioned in her books very many plants which she would have used in treating her patients, who probably included not only nuns but local people.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/19/2017

frankbeswick, The statue of Hildegard is lovely. Is the bouquet symbolic of plants that she particularly valued?

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