Had she been a man, Hildegard would have been recognized long ago as among the best known Christian medieval geniuses. A true sign of Hildegard’s transcendence in our time is that both conservative Joseph Ratzinger and the New Age movement have paid homage to her or, as one scholar puts it, “hijacked” her work.
Even her name is formidable. Hildegard, from the Germanic hild (battle) and gard (protection or enclosure), means “battle guard.” Indeed, in Scandinavian mythology the Valkyrie Hildegard was sent by Odin to escort battle heroes to Valhalla.
Childhood and Development
Although she is named after her place of residence as an adult, Hildegard was born in Böckelheim on the Nahe, in one of Germany’s winegrowing districts, not far from Frankfurt am Main. She was born about 1098 to a family of the free lower nobility, the youngest and possibly tenth child of Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, who may have directed her to a life in the church as a customary “tithe” of sorts.
As a girl she was sickly. Hildegard stated in her recollections that from a very young age she had experienced visions. It’s disputed whether the visions or her parents’ ambitions led to her placement, sometime between the ages of 8 and 14, with Jutta, the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim, at the monastery at Disibodenberg, to which a growing community of women who lived ascetic lives was attached.
Jutta was also a visionary and lived as an anchoress. The medieval anchors lived shut off from the world inside a small room, often built adjacent to a church so they could follow services, with only a small window used to convey for food and communication. Otherwise, they spent their days in prayer, contemplation, or solitary handiwork.
Hildegard lived monastically enclosed but, unlike Jutta, was not an anchoress. From Jutta she learned to read and write, recite the psalms, garden and do handiwork, as well as tend to the sick. The monk Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard musical notation.
Magistra, Visionary, Genius
Jutta’s death in 1136, when Hildegard was 38, was a transformative event. Hildegard was unanimously elected as magistra (the Latin feminine for teacher) of the community by her fellow nuns, which plunged her into a clash with the male-dominated church structure.
Abbot Kuno asked her to be prioress, also a distinctive position but under his authority. Hildegard wanted more independence for herself and her nuns, albeit toward more poverty, from an elaborate stone complex to a temporary dwelling place. She asked Kuno’s permission to move her community to Rupertsberg, a crag at the confluence of the Nahe and the Rhine rivers, in Bingen am Rhein. When the abbot declined, she went over his head and received the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz.
Even then, Abbot Kuno resisted the move until Hildegard fell ill, paralyzed and unable to move from her bed—a development she attributed to God's unhappiness at not following his orders to move her nuns to Rupertsberg.
In Hildegard’s own words:
“And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books... But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of God, I fell onto a bed of sickness.”The Abbot, suspecting a ruse, tried to move her from her bed; upon discovering he was physically unable to do so, he relented and granted the nuns their own monastery at Bingen, St. Rupertsberg’s. Hildegard acquired the land and the convent chapel was consecrated by Archbishop Henry in 1152. There, along with the nuns, Volmar served as provost, as well as Hildegard's confessor and secretary.
In 1165 Hildegard founded a second monastery for her nuns at Eibingen, on the other side of the Rhine. Buildings of an abandoned Augustinian monastery already existed so the nuns could renovate it and settle down there quickly.
Musician, Writer, Scientist
In the years that followed the move to Bingen, Hildegard produced a voluminous collection of music, theological works and scientific treatises and even developed a language, Lingua Ignota (unknown language) and an alternative alphabet.
Hildegard's music is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers, with 69 surviving musical works, each with its own original text. At least four other texts are known, although their musical notation has been lost. You can hear a virtual concert of roughly an hour clicking here. This is what I listened to as I wrote these lines.
Her best known major musical composition, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is arguably the earliest morality play, composed probably in 1151. The Ordo takes up the struggle between good and evil through monophonic melodies for the Anima (human soul) and 16 Virtues, which scholars believe were sung by nuns, and a speaking part for the Devil, which would have been played by Volmar.
No less artistic are her three most significant works of visionary theology. In them, Hildegard describes dreamlike visions often featuring allegorical female figures, then offers theological interpretation taking on the persona of what she calls the “voice of the Living Light.”
Scivias (“Know the Ways,” written 1142-1151), is a collection of six visions that run from creation to the end of history and its Symphony of Heaven. The Liber Vitae Meritorum (“Book of the Rewards of Life,” 1158-1163) tackles dramatic confrontations between alluring and seductive Vices against truth-telling Virtues. Lastly, the Liber Divinorum Operum (“Book of Divine Works,” 1163-1174), offers ten cosmic visions featuring the characters Divine Love (Caritas) and Wisdom (Sapientia).
An excerpt from the still uncompleted Scivias was read aloud to Pope Eugenius III at the Synod of Trier in 1148, after which he sent Hildegard a letter with his blessing and papal approval to document her visions as revelations from the Holy Spirit.
Writing on other matters, Hildegard authored Physica, on natural history, and Causae et Curae (Cause and Cure), on curative powers of various natural objects. Although not strictly theological, they reflect her view that the human was the peak of God's creation and everything was put in the world for humans to use.
In describing plants, trees, birds, animals and stones, Hildegard is most concerned with each object and its medicinal use. For example: “Reyan (tansy) is hot and a little damp and is good against all superfluous flowing humors and whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat tansy.”
She also displays an unusually positive view of sexual relations and pleasure from the point of view of a woman, including what may well be the first description of the female orgasm. Similarly, she linked the level of love and passion between parents and a child’s disposition.
Significance, Death and Legacy
Hildegard gained recognition despite the limitations imposed on women by Europe’s medieval customs. She had not received formal education but excelled in many fields. She used artistic devices to get around rules barring women from writing or speaking about theology.
She gained instant credence in her time once the pope authorized her writing down of visions and began preaching in four tours throughout Germany starting around 1160, speaking before clergy and laity in chapter houses and in public, mainly denouncing clerical corruption and calling for reform. Abbots and abbesses asked her for prayers and opinions on various matters.
She had several fanatical followers, including Guibert of Gembloux, who wrote to her frequently and became her secretary after Volmar's death in 1173. Hildegard corresponded with popes (Eugene III and Anastasius IV), statesmen (Abbot Suger, counsellor of Louis VI and Louis VII of France, and German emperor Frederick I Barbarossa) and notable figures such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
On September 17, 1179, when Hildegard died, the sisters who were with her claimed they saw two streams of light appear in the skies and cross over the room where she was dying.
Hildegard was one of the first persons whose life was subjected to the Roman canonization process; however, four attempts were not completed and she remained officially at the level of beatification (“blessed” rather than “saint”) until 2012. Her name was nonetheless added to the Roman calendar in the 16th century. Her feast day is September 17.
Several popes referred to Hildegard as a saint, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In 2012, the latter decreed the celebration of St. Hildegard to the entire Catholic Church in a process known as “equivalent canonization,” laying the groundwork for naming her a Doctor of the Church, the fourth woman among 35 saints given that title.
Hildegard of Bingen also appears in the calendar of saints of various Anglican churches, including the Church of England, which also commemorates her on September 17.