Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen 1098-1179
German composer, poet, musician, natural historian, and playwright.
Hildegard was recognized by the twelfth-century Church as a visionary who possessed a divine gift for perceiving images and messages directly from God. Hildegard documented her elaborate visions in several important works, including the Scivias (c. 1151) and the Liber divinorum operum (c. 1170). She is also noted for her medical and scientific writings and musical compositions. Famed for her prophesies and wisdom, Hildegard's reputation as a source of advice led many people to seek her opinion on a variety of matters, a quality evidenced by her extensive surviving correspondence. Critics have even referred to Hildegard as the "Dear Abby" of the twelfth century. Hildegard's oeuvre has been of increasing interest to twentieth-century scholars, who have praised the diversity and vastness of her works as well as her inventive depiction of images and ideas.
What is known about Hildegard is derived from numerous surviving letters from her extensive correspondence and from a biography—Vita (c. 1179)—completed by Theodoric of Echternach, which incorporates memoirs dictated by Hildegard. Born into a noble family, Hildegard was the tenth child of Hildebert von Bermersheim and his wife, Mechthild. At the age of eight, Hildegard was entered by her parents into the hermitage attached to the isolated Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg, where she demonstrated a talent for leadership and theology. In 1136, when the abbess Jutta von Spanheim died, the nuns unanimously elected Hildegard as her successor. Although Hildegard possessed a gift for prophetic visions from an early age, it was not until she was in her forties that she revealed her visionary gifts to others. Kent Kraft comments: "[She] experienced an astonishing series of revelations that caused her to break a self-imposed silence concerning her visionary gifts. Above all she found herself subject to a divine command to 'write what you see and hear!'" During the next ten years, Hildegard worked toward the completion of the Scivias while her fame as a prophet, healer, and visionary grew. In 1148 Hildegard informed the abbot of Disibodenberg that she wished to establish her own convent near Bingen. When the abbot was reluctant to let her depart, Hildegard was stricken with a sudden illness that witnesses claim was a divine punishment for the rejection of Hildegard's request. The abbot capitulated shortly thereafter, and Hildegard moved with her nuns into a new convent at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, in 1150. Throughout the next decade, the convent flourished and Hildegard began to write works on medicine and natural philosophy, along with another visionary treatise, the Liber vitae meritorum (c. 1163; The Book of Life's Rewards). Between 1158 and 1161 she embarked upon a series of preaching tours, and in 1163 she began the last of her visionary writings, the Liber divinorum operum (Book of the Divine Works). The later years of Hildegard's life were marked by her controversial yet successful defiance church decrees when they were contrary to her own impulses and beliefs. For example, when Hildegard permitted an excommunicated nobleman to be buried in the convent cemetery (since he had been reconciled to the Church before his death), officials judged the atonement invalid and ordered Hildegard to have the body exhumed. The entire Rupertsberg convent was excommunicated when Hildegard refused to comply. Hildegard wrote an impassioned appeal to Archbishop Christian in Rome, and in March 1179 the convent was restored into the Church. Shortly thereafter, Hildegard became ill; she died on September 17, 1179. The title of "saint" is commonly given to Hildegard despite the fact that she was not in fact canonized, although attempts to establish her sainthood were made under the popes Gregory IX, Innocent IV, and John XXII.
Generally considered to be Hildegard's most remarkable literary efforts, the Scivias and the Liber divinorum operum contain some of her most significant visionary revelations. Composed in three parts, the Scivias records Hildegard's visionary account of the Creation through the Apocalypse. The first six visions of the work depict the composition of the universe and the evolution of the relationship of God to humanity, while the next seven visions illustrate the process of human redemption—the coming of the Savior, and the battle between the Church and Satan. The final book contains thirteen visions in which Hildegard describes an elaborate edifice containing the various divine virtues and concludes with her account of the final days of the apocalypse. In her 1985 essay "Hildegard of Bingen: Visions and Validation," Barbara Newman commented: "[In the Scivias], Hildegard ranged over the themes of divine majesty, the Trinity, creation, the fall of Lucifer and of Adam, the stages of salvation history, the Church and its sacraments, the Last Judgment and the world to come. She lingered long over he subjects of priesthood, the Eucharist, and marriage … and she returned time and again to two of her favorite themes, the centrality of the Incarnation and the necessity of spiritual combat." Often considered the most difficult of Hildegard's mystical writings, the visions recounted in Liber divinorum operum reveal Hildegard's scientific interest, depicting humanity's place in the scheme of the cosmos and emphasizing a sense of reason and harmony in nature. Also presenting Hildegard's visions is the Liber vitae meritorum (1163; The Book of Life's Rewards), in which she portrays dialogues between the various human vices and their corresponding virtues interspersed with Biblical glosses and theological commentary.
Hildegard has also been regarded by several scholars as Germany's first woman doctor and scientist. The Physica (1158), for example, is a pharmacopoeia and an encyclopedia denoting the characteristic medicinal properties of various plants, animals, and minerals, while the Causae et curae (1158) also contains discussion of the origin and treatment of disease. Peter Dronke comments: "After a description of the constitution of the world, we find chapters [in Causae et curae] on topics ranging from nutrition and metabolism to gynecology and emotional hygiene."
Music was a fundamental aspect of daily life in the Benedictine convents, and musical compositions are an important part of Hildegard's diverse oeuvre. Scholars have noted the innovation of such musical works as the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (1158; Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), which is distinguished from standard Gregorian chant by Hildegard's unique approach to melody and musical structure. The poetry that accompanies her musical sequences employs a method strikingly similar to modern free verse. Using unrhymed lines and an uneven meter, her poetry is characterized by a freedom from the strict metrical conventions of most twelfth-century compositions.
Hildegard's works have attracted increasing interest from the academic community in the areas of literature, women's studies, theology, the history of science, and music history and performance. Peter Dronke, for example, has contributed substantially to the awakening of current interest in Hildegard; his 1970 essay "Hildegard of Bingen as Poetess and Dramatist" pointed to her vivid and original use of imagery as "some of the most unusual, subtle, and exciting poetry of the twelfth century." A feminist impulse has characterized much Hildegard commentary, with some critics observing that divine visions served Hildegard by imbuing her ideas with an accepted voice of ecclesiastical authority. Samuel Lyndon Gladden has argued against the notion of Hildegard as a passive agent of the voice of God, suggesting that she "knowingly and willfully encodes a feminine voice in the midst of what appears to be the message of an obviously male-identified God." Also relevant to feminist and historical concerns is Frances Beer's examination of Hildegard's career in the context of twelfth-century life within the Benedictine convents. Beer discusses the abbess's overt challenges to the policies of several male figures in positions of power and authority and her "effective imperviousness to the potent medieval tradition of antifeminism." A physiological interest in the specific source of Hildegard's inspiration has also characterized modern scholarship, with such commentators as Charles Singer suggesting that the images and voices she witnessed may have been in part the by-product of a migraine condition. With the rise of the performance art movement during the 1970s and 1980s, Hildegard's musical compositions have also become the subject of popular performance and recording as well as scholarly attention.
Scivias [Scito vias Domini; or, Know the Ways of the Lord] (visions/theology) c. 1151
**Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturarum creaturarum libri novum [Nine Books on the Subtleties of Different Kinds of Creatures] c.1158
Ordo virtutum (liturgical drama) 1158
Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum [The Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations] (songs) 1158
Liber vitae meritorum [The Book of Life's Rewards] (visions/theology) 1163
Liber divinorum operum [The Book of the Divine Works] (visions/theology) c. 1170
Vita (completed by Theodoric of Echternach) c. 1179
*Works are listed in order of approximate date of completion.
**Comprises the Physica and the Causae et curae.
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Principal English Translations
Hildegard of Bingen's Book of Divine Works [translated by Robert Cunningham, Jerry Dybdal, and Ron Miller; edited by Matthew Fox] 1987
Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum [translated by Barbara Newman] 1988
Hildegard of Bingen: An Anthology [translated by Robert Carver; edited by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies] 1990
Mystical Writings [translated by Robert Carver; edited by Fiona Bowie] 1990
Scivias [translated by Columba Hart and Jane Bishop] 1990
Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life (Liber vitae meritorum) [translated by Bruce W. Hozeski] 1994
Holistic Healing [translated by Manfred Pawlik] 1994
The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen [translated by Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman] 1994
Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen [translated by Sabina Flanagan] 1996
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SOURCE: Charles Singer, "The Scientific Views and Visions of Saint Hildegard (1098-1180)," in Studies in the History and Method of Science, edited by Charles Singer, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1917, pp. 1-58.
[In the following excerpt, Singer focuses on Hildegard's scientific thought, examining the sources of her scientific ideas, her conception of the structure of the material universe, and her theological interpretation of nature and the human body.]
In attempting to interpret the views of Hildegard on scientific subjects, certain special difficulties present themselves. First is the confusion arising from the writings to which her name has been erroneously attached. To obtain a true view of the scope of her work, it is necessary to discuss the authenticity of some of the material before us. A second difficulty is due to the receptivity of her mind, so that views and theories that she accepts in her earlier works become modified, altered, and developed in her later writings. A third difficulty, perhaps less real than the others, is the visionary and involved form in which her thoughts are cast.
But a fourth and more vital difficulty is the attitude that she adopts towards phenomena in general. To her mind there is no distinction between physical events, moral truths, and spiritual experiences. This view, which our children share with their mediaeval ancestors, was developed but...
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SOURCE: Peter Dronke, "Hildegard of Bingen," in Women Writers of the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 144-201.
[In the following excerpt, Dronke draws upon "the twelve principal autobiographic passages that are still preserved in Hildegard's Vita in the form in which she set them down, " in order to discuss the genesis of Hildegard's visionary capacities, the gradual public acceptance of her prophetic voice, and her political sensibility as an abess.]
Hildegard of Bingen still confronts us, after eight centuries, as an overpowering, electrifying presence—and in many ways an enigmatic one. Compared with what earlier and later women writers have left us, the volume of her work is vast. In its range that work is unique. In the Middle Ages only Avicenna is in some ways comparable: cosmology, ethics, medicine and mystical poetry were among the fields conquered by both the eleventh-century Persian master and the twelfth-century 'Rhenish sibyl'.1 In more recent centuries, Goethe—who saw and was astonished by the illuminated Scivias manuscript in Wiesbaden2—shows perhaps most affinity to that combination of poetic, scientific and mystic impulses, that freedom with images and ideas, which characterized Hildegard.
To sketch the ways in which Hildegard understood herself and the world around her, we have...
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SOURCE: Barbara Newman, "A Poor Little Female," in Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 1-41.
[In the following excerpt, which has been revised and updated by the author, Newman articulates Hildegard's worldview as depicted in the three books of her trilogy, describes her unique and obscure writing style and the nature of her extensive correspondence, and comments on her influence on the intellectual development of her protégée, Elisabeth of Schönau.]
Hildegard's visionary oeuvre—rich, opaque, and unwieldy—is a phenomenon unique in twelfth-century letters; yet at the same time her books provide a compendium of contemporary thought. In the Scivias her emphasis is doctrinal; in the Book of Life's Merits, ethical; in the Book of Divine Works, scientific. But despite their differences in content, the three volumes of the trilogy bear one unmistakable impress. Hildegard's is a world in which neither the distinctions of the schoolmen, nor the negations of the apophatic doctors, nor the raptures of the nuptial mystics have any place; yet no less than theirs, it is a world instinct with order, mystery, and flaming love. Her universe rings with the most intricate and inviolate harmonies, yet seethes with the strife of relentlessly warring forces. Things above answer to things below: the eyes of...
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SOURCE: Barbara J. Newman, in an introduction to Hildegard of Bingen; Scivias, translated by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, Paulist Press, 1990, pp. 9-53.
[In the following excerpt, from her introduction to a translation of Hildegard's Scivias, Newman discusses "the essentially prophetic character of Hildegard's spirituality": the "blend of renunciation with privilege" which characterized the abbess 's leadership, and the nature of Hildegard's apocalyptic message.]
Although Hildegard is frequently classified as a mystic, she may be more precisely identified as a visionary and prophet. Classical definitions of mysticism stress the union of the soul with God and the whole system of ascetic and contemplative disciplines that aim to facilitate that union. But Hildegard, while she certainly had a powerful sense of the divine presence, did not follow the unitive way. "Prayer" to her meant primarily petition and liturgical praise, while "the love of God" meant reverence, loyalty and obedience to his commands. In the rare texts where she portrays herself as a partner in dialogue with God, she is not the enamored bride longing for divine union, as in St. Bernard's Sermons on the Song of Songs, but the fragile and woefully inadequate mortal—"ashes of ashes, and filth of filth"—trembling before the great commission she has received. Like Moses "stuttering and slow of speech," and like Isaiah...
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SOURCE: Frances Beer, "Hildegard of Bingen," in Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, 1992, pp. 15-55.
[In the following essay, Beer provides a historical context for Hildegard's poetic and intellectual achievements, discussing the nature of life in twelfth-century Benedictine monasteries and convents and the increased credibility of the church as a moral force during this time. The critic then discusses Hildegard's life as an administrator, noting her challenges to the policies of several authoritative male figures, her "effective imperviousness to the potent medieval tradition of antifeminism," and her fundamental concern with spiritual growth.]
Hildegard of Bingen, born at Bemersheim in 1098, was a figure for whom superlatives seem inadequate. Peter Dronke, for example, author of the major biographical work on Hildegard, resorts to adjectives such as 'over-powering' and 'electrifying', while Matthew Fox, one of her most ardent contemporary admirers, places her among 'the greatest intellectuals of the West'; praising her as a 'woman of genius', instigator of the flowering of German mysticism, Rufus Jones had earlier written that she possessed the 'visionary power and moral passion of the Hebrew prophets'.1 Her prodigious creative output includes a mystical trilogy for which justifiably she is now best known: Scivias, The Book of Life's Merits, and...
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SOURCE: Samuel Lyndon Gladden, "Hildegard's Awakening: A Self-Portrait of Disruptive Excess," in Representations of the Middle Ages, edited by Bonnie Wheeler, Academia Press, 1993, pp. 217-33.
[In the following essay, Gladden challenges the notion (promoted by Hildegard herself) that Hildegard was a passive agent of God's will whose writings merely record divine truth as it was imparted to her. Gladden argues that "Hildegard's role as an active, subjective editor of God's message becomes clear" and attempts to demonstrate that Hildegard 'knowingly and will-fully encodes a feminine voice in the midst of what appears to be the message of an obviously male-identified God."]
The twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen is perhaps best known for her extraordinary relationship with God, a relationship which apparently enabled Hildegard to communicate directly the voice and words of God to humans. Appearing to Hildegard in a series of visions, God made clear his desire that the holy woman communicate all which she saw and heard and, further, that she refrain from offering any sort of interference—whether that interference take the form of interpretation, explanation, or intentional editing—so that God's message might be delivered intact, so to speak, without the taint of mortal desire. Scivias, a text written between 1141 and 1151 and which has become one of Hildegard's most...
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Eckenstein, Lina. "St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Elisabeth of Schonau." In Woman under Monasticism: Chapters on Saint-Lore and Convent Life Between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500, pp. 256-85. Cambridge at the University Press, 1896.
Provides an overview of Hildegard's life and career and examines the religious and political context of twelfth-century Germany.
Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life. London: Routledge, 1989, 230 p.
Presents a comprehensive introduction to Hildegard's life and work, maintaining that Hildegard's written works "not only surpassed those of most of her male contemporaries in the range of their subject matter … but also outshone them in visionary beauty and intellectual power."
Baumgardt, David. "The Concept of Mysticism: Analysis of a Letter Written by Hildegard of Bingen to Guibert of Gembloux." The Review of Religion XII, No. 3 (March 1948): 277-86.
Examination of Hildegard's description of her mystical experiences in her 1171 letter to the monk Guibert of Gembloux.
Dronke, Peter. "Hildegard of Bingen as Poetess and Dramatist." In Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages: New Departures in...
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