Hildegard von Bingen Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.