Article abstract: The first major German mystic, Hildegard, in her prolific writings and extensive preaching, exerted a widespread influence on religious and political figures in twelfth century Europe.
Born in 1098 in Bermersheim bei Alzey, Rheinhessen (in modern Germany), Hildegard von Bingen was the tenth and last child of Hildebert von Bermersheim, a knight in the service of Meginhard, Count of Spanheim, and his wife, Mechtild. At her birth, her parents consecrated Hildegard to God as a tithe. As early as the age of three, Hildegard had her first vision of a dazzling white light, which she was later to call the umbra viventis lucis (shadow of the living Light), which appeared to her as reflected in a fons vitae (shining pool). Other visions followed, along with accurate premonitions of the future. When she was eight years old, her parents entrusted her to the care of the learned Jutta of Spanheim, a holy anchoress attached to the Benedictine Abbey of Mount Saint Disibode.
Hildegard’s visions continued during her adolescence, but, embarrassed when she began to realize that she was alone in seeing them, she began to keep them to herself, confiding only in Jutta. In spite of her ill health, Hildegard began her studies under Jutta, learning to read and sing Latin. Her further education was entrusted to the monk Volmar of Saint Disibode, who, over time, became her lifelong friend, confidant, and secretary. At age fourteen, she took vows and received the veil from Bishop Otto von Bamberg, the hermitage of Jutta having by this time attracted enough followers to become a community under the Rule of Saint Benedict.
The next two decades were formative years for Hildegard: She acquired an extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, the church fathers and later church writers, the monastic liturgy, science, medicine, and philosophy. From her later writings it is possible to trace specific writers she studied during this period: Saint Augustine, Boethius, Saint Isidore of Seville, Bernard Silvestris, Aristotle, Galen, Messahalah, Constantine the African, Hugh of Saint Victor, Alberic the Younger. Meanwhile, she continued to experience the charisma of her mystical visions. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard, at thirty-eight, was unanimously elected abbess by the nuns of her community.
The turning point in Hildegard’s life came in 1141, when she received a commandment from God: “Write, what you see and hear! Tell people how to enter the kingdom of salvation!” She initially went through a period of self-doubt—how could she, ego paupercula feminea forma (a poor little figure of a woman), be chosen as a mouthpiece for God?—and was concerned as to whether others would give credence to her visions. She finally confided fully in her confessor, the monk Godfrey, who referred the matter to his abbot, Kuno. Kuno ordered Hildegard to write down some of her visions, which he then submitted to the Archbishop of Mainz. The archbishop determined that Hildegard’s visions were indeed divinely inspired, and Hildegard ultimately came to accept a view of herself as a woman chosen to fulfill God’s work.
A ten-year collaboration between Hildegard and her secretary Volmar began, as she dictated to him her principal work, Scivias, an abbreviation for nosce vias [Domini], or “know the ways of the Lord,” (1141-1151; English translation, 1986), consisting of twenty-six visions dealing with the relationships and interdependence between the triune God and humans through the Creation, Redemption, and Church. The visions also contained apocalyptic prophecies and warnings, which would motivate Hildegard to begin an extensive correspondence of more than one hundred letters to popes, emperors, kings, archbishops, abbots, and abbesses; she also began to journey throughout Germany and France preaching against the abuses and corruption of the Church. As her visions led her to an active role in church and social reform, she came to accept her link with the tradition of the female prophets (Deborah, Olda, Hannah, Elizabeth).
In 1147, when Pope Eugenius III held a synod in Trier, he appointed a commission to examine Hildegard’s writing. Bernard of Clairvaux, with whom Hildegard had corresponded, spoke affirmatively of her. Subsequently, in a letter to Hildegard, the pope approved her visions as authentic manifestations of the Holy Spirit and, warning her against pride, gave her apostolic license to continue writing and publishing. Hildegard, in return, wrote the pope a long letter urging him to work for reform in the Church and the monasteries. The woman who initially had felt timid serving as a mouthpiece for the Word of God was beginning to speak with the uncompromising sense of justice that was to characterize her prophetic and apostolic mission for the rest of her life.
With the pope’s endorsement of her visions, Hildegard’s renown and the number of postulants at her convent grew, and she determined to separate from the monastery of Saint Disibode and to found a new community at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, a site which had been revealed to her in a vision. Despite the objections of the monks of Saint Disibode and their abbot, Kuno, who would lose prestige and revenue with her departure, Hildegard used family connections with the Archbishop of Mainz to secure the property and personally oversaw the construction of a convent large enough to house fifty nuns. In 1150, she moved to Rupertsberg with eighteen other nuns. As abbess, Hildegard managed to obtain exclusive rights to the Rupertsberg property from Abbot Kuno in 1155, and several years later it was arranged that she would respond directly to the Archbishop of Mainz as her superior rather than to the abbot of Saint Disibode.
Under Hildegard’s leadership, the new community flourished, as did her own work and creative production. In 1151, she completed Scivias, concluding the...
(The entire section is 2465 words.)