Hildegard von Bingen Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.

Principal Works

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.

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...

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Charles Singer (essay date 1917)

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...

(The entire section is 10795 words.)

Peter Dronke (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 16395 words.)

Barbara Newman (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 9567 words.)

Barbara J. Newman (essay date 1990)

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...

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Frances Beer (essay date 1992)

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.]


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Samuel Lyndon Gladden (essay date 1993)

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."]


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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 433 words.)