In keeping with my theme lately of bad girls of history, here’s an excellent blog post (by a writer named Mike Dash) on a female serial poisoner from 17th century Rome who specialized in helping women escape their loveless marriages.  Dash does an excellent job getting beyond the rumors to the strange truth behind Giulia Tofana, one of the most notorious poisoners in history.  So famous was her mysterious “Acqua Tofana” (the name of her poison), that Mozart himself believed his early death was due to imbibing some.  Enjoy the re-blogged read below!


It was the deadliest poison known to 17th century Europe: odourless, colourless, tasteless, lethal. As little as four drops was enough to kill the strongest man – and to do so in a way that no doct…

Source: Aqua Tofana: slow-poisoning and husband-killing in 17th century Italy

Well, it’s been two full years since I last updated this blog, and if it weren’t for a helpful kick in the ass from Ugo in Florence, I’d probably still be hiding behind mounds of schoolwork trying not to think about how badly I need to get back to this site.  Thank you, Ugo!  You rock!


Portrait of Catalina in her “Lieutenant’s” clothes, by Spanish court painter Juan van der Hamen y Gomez de León. (Source)

When I last left you, I promised you a second fabulous Renaissance lesbian, and here she is, though it’s difficult to know whether to classify her as a lesbian, a trans man, both, or none of the above.  After giving it much thought, I think I’ll settle for “badass queer,” because that, she definitely was.  World, meet Catalina de Erauso, aka “The Lieutenant Nun,” (1) who spent the great majority of her life living as a man, having dashing adventures (both in and out of the bedroom), and who ultimately successfully petitioned both the Spanish court and the Pope himself (!) to recognize her as a legal male.  (3)

Gender Bending in the Renaissance

Now, as anyone even half-familiar with Shakespeare knows, Renaissance literature and theater were full of people and practices that we might now consider genderqueer.  From the boy actors who played female roles on the English stage, to literary gender-bending disguises in Shakespearean comedies, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and other Renaissance tales–gender fluidity abounds in the stories and plays of the Renaissance.  And there are tantalizing indications that though in some ways gender roles were more fixed than they are today, then as now, people found ways to express themselves in non-gender-conforming ways.  We saw an incredible real-life example of this in the last post, which looked at Splenditello, the truly fabulous male alter-ego of a Florentine Renaissance nun, Sister Benedetta Carlini.

squirrel nuts

Catalina had some big ones.  (Source)

However, even among the wide variety of literary and true-life stories of Renaissance gender fluidity, Catalina’s story stands out.  First of all, talk about cojones!  This woman had no problem filling a pair of breeches, as her story will make amply evident.  Second of all, like Sister Benedetta’s story, Catalina’s tale provides us with a rare glimpse of real-life lesbian relationships during the Renaissance–though, notably, like Benedetta, she engaged in these romances while in her guise as a man.  And last but not least in the list of reasons we should care about and study Catalina: much of her tale takes place in the frontier of New Spain (modern-day Central and South America), so her tale provides a window into some of the ways that gender figured in that tragic period of history when the genocide and epistemicide (3) of an entire hemisphere was in full swing.  As her story makes clear, the nascent, transitional social systems in the New World opened up gaps into which someone like Catalina, who wanted to reinvent herself, could slip and even flourish.

So…on with her story.

Catalina’s Early Life

Catalina gives us an account of her childhood in the autobiography she wrote later in life, when she had achieved international fame for her exploits. (4)  Many (though not all) facts from this account have subsequently been verified both in Renaissance times by the Papal and Spanish courts, and by modern scholars.

She was born in the Basque country to a captain in the Spanish military, Don Miguel de Erauso, and his wife, Doña Maria Perez de Galarraga y Arce–sometime in the mid-1580s-early 1590s. (5)  She seems to have been from a large family, as she was constantly bumping into various brothers in far-flung places on her many adventures.  At the age of four, she was placed in a convent along with two sisters.  Her maternal aunt was the prioress.  She remained there until the age of 15, when she was due to take her vows.  At that point, the resentful Catalina, who had been singled out for a beating by a much older novice, seized a moment when all the other nuns were at prayer (Catalina had conned her aunt into thinking she was ill), grabbed a needle and thread, some coins she found lying around, stole her aunt’s keys, ran out the door, into the streets and up into the woods surrounding the convent.  As a cloistered nun, she hadn’t been outside the convent since she entered as a toddler, so at first she wandered aimlessly, her only goal to avoid recapture.

mulan haircut

You knew I wouldn’t be able to get through this post without a Mulan picture, didn’t you?  (See the whole movie sequence here.)

From this exciting beginning, Catalina’s tale gets more and more incredible.  She hid for three days making herself men’s clothes (pants and a shirt) out of her habit and undergarment.  Then she chopped off her hair and headed for a nearby town.

There, in a scenario that would repeat itself many times in the years to come, Catalina’s natural charisma seems to have taken over, because a kindly gentleman (who happened to be married to her mother’s cousin, but didn’t recognize her) took her in, clothed her as the boy he believed she was, and put her up.  She only left three months later when he wanted her to study Latin, she refused, and he hit her.

Having left the gentleman’s house, she went to the king’s court and, calling herself Francisco de Loyola, found a position as a page to the king’s secretary. (6) According to Catalina, one day she witnessed her own father come to the secretary’s house as part of his ongoing search for her.  She encountered her dad in the doorway, but he didn’t give her a second glance.  This too, is a theme in Catalina’s biography–the way that, dressed as a man, she could pass unnoticed among even her closest relations.  That evening she decided her situation was too precarious, so once again she made off in the middle of the night, this time landing, after some time, in Navarre, as the page to a knight of Santiago.  In her two years of travels with him in and around Spain, she one day attended mass at her old convent, where her mother was in attendance and apparently looked directly at her without recognizing her.

How Did She Do It?

By this time Catalina was at least 17-18 years old, and one might think her femininity would be harder to disguise, but she apparently had her means.  The Spanish pilgrim Pedro de la Valle, whom met her later in life when she was at the Pope’s court in Rome, gives us some sense of her physique when he remarks that she was tall for a woman, and had confessed to him that she used some sort of very painful poultice or herbal remedy given to her by an Italian to “dry up” her breasts.  (7) This latter comment is perhaps one of the few testaments we have about pre-hormone therapy “transition” methods.

rupaul drag mother

The drag “mother” is a time-honored tradition.  Did Catalina have a drag father?  Seems like she may have, though I doubt he was as fierce as RuPaul. (Source)

To me, what’s fascinating about this little bit of side commentary by de la Valle is that it both implies that Catalina confided her secret early on to another man (maybe a local apothecary?), (8) and also that he gave her some sort of remedio that was in common use at the time. Which raises a few questions: Exactly how many people out there were looking to reduce their breast size and/or disguise themselves as men?  Clearly enough so that breast reduction herbs were something an Italian medical professional might have in his repertoire. (9)  And furthermore, how did Catalina know to trust her herb-wise mentor with her secret?  As with so many details of Catalina’s tale, we just don’t know.  Unfortunately, this is the only mention we have of the mysterious Italian and his gender-bending recipes.  In any case, the poultice seems to have worked.  What is certain is that by her late teens/early adulthood, she was successfully living as a man in the highest echelons of Spanish society, and that no one ever seems to have questioned her identity as a man.  Even when she was eventually discovered, it was due to her own (unforced) confession rather than the fact that someone had suspected her of being a woman.

“Well,” you might be thinking, taking a break and scrolling back up to the title to this post.  “This is certainly the Renaissance, and Catalina seems pretty boss, but really, I was promised lesbian love scenes.  Where are the lesbian love scenes?” Hang on, folks, because the ride is just getting started.  If you think living successfully as a trans man in Renaissance Spain was badass, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Catalina in the New World

jay z hustler

Jay-Z wasn’t the only hustler, baby.  Catalina was no slouch herself. (Source)

To pick up Catalina’s story, she once again ditched her patron on a whim (perhaps because of that close call with her mother), and this time, headed for New Spain.  The Spanish colonies were where Catalina really got down to the business of fully owning and embodying exactly what it meant to be a virile young Spanish gentleman.  Or some might say, a cad.  When she eventually confessed her true identity to the Bishop, Catalina summed up her time in the New World by saying:

I traveled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instance, at the feet of Your Eminence. (10)

I don’t know about you, but to me that reads like the résumé of an original gangsta.

Case in point:  Catalina had arrived in the New World as a cabin boy on a ship belonging to (of all people) her uncle, who in a now-familiar pattern, did not recognize her, but quickly adopted the young man as his protégé.  Catalina admits that the uncle was very good to her, but in the end, her ne’er-do-well instincts took over. Upon docking in Panama, their last stop before the return trip to Spain, she clubbed him over the head while he was sleeping (!) and made off with 500 reales.  (BTW, from what we can tell, her nom de guerre changed at this point–she used many throughout her remarkable life, but it appears as though this may be the moment when she changed from Francisco de Loyola to Alonso Díaz Ramirez de Guzmán.)

catalina rejected princesses

Just as I was going to press I found this AMAZING website featuring “princesses” too bold/quirky/badass to make Disney’s cut.  Catalina’s among their picks, obvs.

After a dramatic shipwreck and another bout living with yet another patron who outfitted her with not only clothes and a business, but slaves as well, Catalina/Alonso found herself in a pickle.  Having slashed the face of a local dandy in a sword fight, (10) she was thrown in jail.  The only way out, according to her patron, was if she (being to all parties concerned a “he,” of course) married the patron’s own mistress, whose niece was, in turn, married to Catalina’s victim.

Confused?  Join the club.  Shakespeare couldn’t invent better hijinks than these. Basically, the patron’s brilliant idea was to create an alliance between the two feuding families by having Catalina/Alonso marry his own (i.e. the patron’s) lover.  That way the boss would have a forever bond with his mistress, the mistress would have the income and security of a marriage (which the boss, being already married, couldn’t give her), and the blood feud between Catalina/Alonso and the young man she mutilated would be resolved through the marriage, thereby freeing Catalina/Alonso from prison.

Now here’s the interesting bit, as far as lesbian history goes.  From this first mention of the boss’ lover, Catalina/Alonso’s tale basically reads more or less as a series of seduction narratives and fight scenes, in which the protagonist is taken in by patron after patron (sometimes patronesses as well), only to become inescapably attractive to a young woman, usually either the daughter or niece of the person who is hosting her.  Catalina/Alonso always seems to enjoy the company of the lady, and to participate quite willingly in all sorts of caresses and fondlings.  Only when events climax (as it were) in the woman’s proposal of marriage does the young Alonso flee, often leaving a substantial promised dowry behind.  In other words, it appears as though Catalina/Alsonso actively participated in all the courting and foreplay of the relationship, only deserting her lover when her male alter-ego was about to be found out.

The Juicy Details


Don Juan could have learned a thing or two from Don Alonso, Catalina’s alter ego. (Source)

The story itself makes great reading in the tradition of all swashbucklers, and I encourage you to read it for yourself, which is easily done online.  (You can read it in about an hour, and really, anything that includes cross-dressing, lesbian affairs, numerous rapier duels, a torture scene, and a trans-friendly Pope should be on your “must-read” list.)  Here are just a few excerpts, though, of the parts that most directly address Catalina’s relationships with women.  These should give you a sense of both what is said and unsaid in her narrative. Her tone, as she describes these encounters, makes it clear that she fancies herself quite the Don Juan.  (Or rather, given the chronology of the two, that Don Juan may have fancied himself quite the Don Alonso.) She writes:

I used to slip out by night to that lady’s (i.e. the above mentioned patron’s mistress) house. There she caressed me passionately and, feigning fear of the police, begged me not to return to the church [where Catalina had sought sanctuary] but to stay there. One night she even locked me in and declared that in spite of the Devil I had to bed her. She held on to me so tightly that I had to pry her hands loose to get away.

And about Catalina’s/Alonso’s next conquest:

At the end of nine months he (i.e. Catalina/Alonso’s new patron) informed me that I should seek my living elsewhere. The reason for this was that he had two young maidens living in his house, sisters of his wife, and with whom (and above all with one who was especially fond of me) I used to frolic and fool around. And one day he happened by a window and saw us in the parlour. Reclining in her petticoats, she was combing my hair, our legs entangled. He heard her telling me that I should go to Potosí and earn money so we could get married. He withdrew and summoned me shortly. He questioned me, settled accounts, and I left.

And again, this time with her own brother’s lover (how she came to be the best friend of her brother, who didn’t know her identity, and how she eventually killed him in a duel after he found her sexing up his girlfriend, you will have to find out for yourself):

I remained with my brother as his aide, dining at his table for nearly three years without his ever realizing anything. I went with him sometimes to the house of a girlfriend he had there. Other times I went there without him. He found out about this and took it hard, telling me to keep away from there. He lay in wait for me and caught me at it again. When I came out, he attacked me with his belt and injured my hand.


Like many famous lovers, Catalina was adept at juggling the attentions of two women. (Source)

And my personal favorite, the time that she juggled two different proposals at once by claiming that the gifts given to her by one prospective bride were really a wedding gift for the impending marriage to the other.  (She wound up dumping both girls just before the weddings.)  That story contains the line in which Catalina comes the closest as she ever does to declaring her sexual orientation outright, when she writes that one of the girls who desired her was “contrary to my taste, which was always the pretty faces.” (11)

Yes, but how Real is her Story?

There is so much more in her narrative that I can’t even begin to summarize it here: multiple duels and stints in prison, bouts of near-death in the high Andes, run-ins with frozen mummies, torture scenes in which she triumphs over the rack, feats of soldierly derring do, etc. etc.

If you are beginning to think to yourself that it is highly unlikely that a woman of her time could have gotten away with such brash deceit, and moreover, that all these adventures both in and out of the bedroom could not possibly have happened to one person, let me assure you that you are not the first to think so.  However, by and large, most of the major events in her tale do correlate with actual events, as far as church officials at the time and modern-day scholars have been able to tell. In other words, we don’t know for sure, for instance, whether or not the boss’ mistress really was in love with her and caressed her, but we do know that Catalina/Francisco/Alonso did serve such-and-such a master, that Alonso served in various Spanish forces in the New World, and we can verify that many of the people whom she mentions in the text did, indeed, interact with her.  Many of them even supported her (in writing and in person) in her eventual claim for a pension from the Spanish state.  Even the medical side of her story can be verified:  When she finally confessed her identity to the Bishop in Peru, she volunteered to have a gynecological exam by a panel of matron midwives, who legally vouched for the fact that Catalina did, indeed, have female “parts,” and that she was, moreover, a virgin. (12)


Catalina excelled at “realness.” (Source)

The Bishop’s response to the midwives’ report was sheer amazement–that Catalina could have fooled so many people in so many places, and that, despite having lived among sex-starved men (soldiers, sailors, etc) for so long, she remained a virgin–seemed to him proof of God’s miracles.  Rather than arrest her and condemn her for cross-dressing (as had happened to Joan of Arc, for instance), he simply asked her to live among a group of nuns so that she could preserve her chastity. Catalina agreed for the moment, although eventually, she would appeal to the Pope himself in order to continue living her life as a man.  (More on that later.)

The Downside of “Realness” and Food for Thought

Like certain drag kings and queens that specialize in “realness,” Catalina/Alonso could quite rightly be said to embody most of the most sought-after masculine traits of her time.  This can make her a really fun, and potentially inspiring role model for contemporary trans folk, who need more genderqueer heroes from history included in the textbooks they read.  However, in the age of conquistadores, nothing is without its shadow side.  For Catalina’s hyper-masculinity includes not just the fun stuff like hose, codpieces, and feathered hats, but also casual misogyny, a hyper-macho sense of easily slighted honor, a tendency to reach for one’s sword at the slightest provocation, and most disturbingly, a truly horrific active participation in the slavery and genocide upon which the Spanish empire was based.  Indeed, Catalina/Alonso’s rousing adventures would be fun and games on the order of an old Errol Flynn movie if it weren’t for the very disturbing scenes in which she, like most Spanish soldiers, not only engages in, but positively brags about her triumphantly genocidal tactics against the indigenous population. In by far the most troubling scene in the book, her military party kills a twelve-year-old Indian boy who shot an arrow at them from a tree, and then later massacres his village, boasting that “a gutter of blood like a river flowed down through the place.”


Like the scene depicted here, Catalina describes one of her party’s raids against indigenous groups as culminating in a “river of blood.” (Source)

Catalina/Alonso was no innocent bystander, folks.  For you teachers out there, this should be made abundantly clear to the students whenever we are teaching her.  Part of what makes Catalina so great for the classroom is that her story offers us both a way to celebrating early LGBTQ heroes AND a way to shine a light on the heinous human rights abuses of the time period.

So because I always like to be practical, as well as (hopefully) inspiring, here are some suggestions for classroom discussion.  For those of you who just want to get on with her story, you can just scroll down to continue her tale below.

Questions for Discussion

  • How did Catalina perform her gender?
  • What did it mean to be a man in her time, and how well did she embody those ideals?
  • Who needs to be put down, pushed aside, or altogether obliterated in order for Catalina to seem “manly”?

And taking off from this point, one could extend the discussion further by asking:

  • How do we all perform gender in our daily lives?
  • What negative sides are there to our own performances?
  • ratchet mileyAre there certain groups that must be dominated or put down in order to achieve “realness” of a particular gender role?  (e.g. The use of “bitch/ho” in certain rap subcultures to create a hyper-masculine African-American persona, or the class-based insult “ratchet” to cast aspersion on a woman’s femininity)
  • Are there certain subgroups of people excluded from embodying certain roles? (e.g. Are gay or East Asian men considered “real” men in the media? Can a dark-skinned, heavy woman be “truly” feminine to Madison Avenue standards?)
  • Must certain groups be abolished outright or given fewer freedoms as part of some other group’s gender performance?  (e.g. conservative groups that believe gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriage, and so must be prohibited)
  • And finally: Can we find ways to embody our own preferred gender role without engaging in the harmful stereotypes and practices that can accompany it?

If we play it right, Catalina’s story can become a springboard to much wider discussions that may help our students consider the intersection of power dynamics between gender, race, class, and ethnicity (among other things) in their own lives.

Catalina’s Significance

So in addition to her usefulness as a touchpoint for issues of cross-platform oppression, what makes Catalina so special?  Other than her setting during the Spanish conquest, what sets her apart from other famous cross-dressing women like Mulan and Joan of Arc?

I’ve thought about it and researched quite a bit, and here’s what I’ve come to:

Catalina/Alonso is important because she is (as far as I can tell) the first case we can find of a person going against deeply ingrained gender norms in order to successfully live out her life as a member of another gender for no other reason than that she wanted to.

Phew! That’s a mouthful.  Let’s unpack some key phrases.



A Roman Archigallus, a MtF priestess of the goddess Cybele. (Source)

She is the first case: There are plenty of other examples of cross-dressing and gender-bending way before Catalina, most notably the priests and priestesses of a variety of gods and goddesses throughout the Near East, India, Africa, and the Americas from ancient times all the way to the present.  Shamans, both ancient and modern, have also often practiced cross-dressing or engaged in other gender-bending acts as a way of reaching the divine.  To my knowledge, however, these practices were all undertaken in the context of larger religious/cultural systems that allowed, or in some cases, even encouraged gender fluidity.  This is not to downplay their significance in the history of gender identity, but simply to point out that a male-to-female priestess of Cybele, for instance, was engaging in behavior that had a socially sanctioned and ritual purpose, whereas Catalina’s transformation was neither ritualized, nor did it form part of a larger social order that would be recognized by her peers.


Going against deeply ingrained gender norms:  Again, even when cultures have very distinct gender roles for men and women, they may have specific proscribed ways of “violating” these norms.  I’m thinking, for example, of Indian hijras, or men who dress (and in some cases live) as women.  Traditional Hindu culture has very specifically delineated gender roles, that for the most part, are strictly enforced (as they were in the Spanish culture of Catalina’s time.)  But unlike the Spanish Renaissance, which had no specific outlet for fluid gender identities, the hijra is a proscribed role for men who wish to take on female characteristics.  Similar things could be said for most of the priests, priestesses, and shamans mentioned above.  (This of course, is not to deny the very real discrimination that hijras face, but simply to point out that a third category of gender identity is socially recognized.)  Not so in Catalina’s world.  She was going her own road, without the support of any community, and without any template to follow or specific role to fill.

Successfully lived out her life: As her story makes clear, Catalina lived most of her life as a man without being discovered, doing all those things (soldiering, seducing, dueling, praying, pillaging, traveling) that a Spanish gentleman was expected to do.  At no point was she discovered until she chose to reveal herself, and even then, she went on to secure the right to continue living as a man.  (More on that below.)  This is in stark contrast, to for instance, Joan of Arc, her more famous cross-dressing counterpart, who was burned at the stake for (among other things) wearing men’s clothes.

laverne cox

I think Catalina would approve. (Source)

For no other reason than that she wanted to: Here’s the part that to me, seems so stellar.  Catalina wasn’t living as Alfonso because she wanted to save her father from having to fight in a war (a la Mulan), or because she heard voices telling her to defeat the British (a la Joan of Arc), or because she was fulfilling a religious call (like so many priests, shamans, and religious figures from around the world).  Nor was she following an already-established pathway to gender difference, as was, say, a traditional two-spirit “berdache” in Mississippian culture.  Catalina seems to have chosen to live as a man simply because she wanted to.  Whether that desire came out of a deeply felt belief that she really was a man (as many trans people today feel), or because it was simply the most expedient way not to be confined by oppressive female gender norms, is almost impossible to say.  We do know this: Catalina insisted BOTH on the fact that she was a woman (and a virgin, at that), AND that she should have the right to be called “Alonso” (or one of her other male names) and live out her life as a man.  Just because.

That makes her, in my book, a boss.

Catalina, the Court, and the Pope

So how did Catalina’s story end?  Well, once she had confessed her identity to the Bishop in Peru, she was in a tricky legal position.  Of all the most pressing issues facing her, the most important, in that time period, was her commitment to the church.  If she had ever professed vows as a nun, she was legally obligated to return to her original convent. (In the meantime, because there was really no other option for single, virgin women of a certain age, she was housed temporarily in a convent.)  Given the distance and bureaucracy involved with establishing her legal status, it took several years for confirmation to reach Peru that she had not, in fact, ever taken orders officially.  At that point, she was urged by the new Bishop of Peru to take permanent vows in the convent in which she was temporarily housed, but Catalina pushed back.  She writes, “I told him that I had no order nor religious obligation and that I was trying to get back to my native land where I would do whatever seemed best for my salvation.”

equal pay

Catalina was one of the first in the long, unfinished fight for equal pay. (Source)

What seemed best to her for her salvation, apparently, was to see if she could get a pension from the Spanish court for serving as a soldier all those years in the Indies.  This took a fair amount of work.  She needed to prove her case–not that she was a woman (for that had already been established), but that she’d been a good soldier and worthy of the same treatment as her male compatriots.  This is when many of her past patrons, battalion leaders, and others came forward and vouched for the character and battle-worthiness of Alonso (or whatever name she had been fighting under when she was in their service).  Since none of them had known she was a woman when she served with them, they were initially baffled, but many supported her cause.

Wherever she went, Catalina attracted great crowds.  This is in large part because as soon as she left the convent, she took up wearing men’s clothes again, and people couldn’t contain themselves from ogling at the “Lieutenant Nun,” as she had come to be called.  Her fame was such that when she traveled to Rome, she was granted an audience with Pope Urban VIII, whom she asked for a special papal dispensation that would allow her to live out her life as a man.  This was a brilliant strategy–if he said yes, then she’d essentially be considered legally male in any Catholic country.  He did. Catalina relates his response:

gay urban

Pope Urban VIII is better known as the man who indicted Galileo, but he turns out to have been remarkably trans-friendly.

His Holiness showed himself to be astonished by such a tale, and kindly granted me permission to continue my life dressed as a man, charging me to live honestly henceforth and to abstain from offending my neighbor, attaching the threat of the wrath of God to his order, “Non Occides.” [Latin for “Do not kill.”]

What I think is particularly interesting in Catalina’s account is that the Pope seems not to be overly concerned with her gender identity, but rather, gives his attention to her propensity for murder and mayhem. (And rightly so, I might add.)  In fact, the implication seems to be that “living honestly” for Catalina would mean living peacefully as a man.  It’s a remarkably mild, even positive reaction.

From this point on, Catalina, or rather, Don Antonio de Erauso, as she was now legally known, became a minor celebrity, fêted by Cardinals, princes, and the like at every turn.  Catalina ends her autobiography on a happy note with typical zest, with an anecdote in which she deals with some would-be hecklers.  These are literally her last words:

While strolling along the wharf in Naples one day, I perceived the loud laughter of two girls who were chatting with a couple of boys. We stared at each other and one said to me, “Where to, Lady Catalina?”  I answered, “To give you a hundred whacks on the head, my lady whores, and a hundred slashes to whomever may wish to defend you!” They shut up and slipped away.

If that isn’t the very definition of having cojones, I don’t know what is.  Would to God that all haters were as easily and forcefully shut down.

trans meme

If Catalina were alive today, she might express herself like this. (Source)

Catalina/Antonio eventually returned to the Indies (modern-day Mexico), where she set up an import/export business and died “an exemplary death” in 1650 in Veracruz. (13) To the last of her days, she lived as a man.  As far as I can tell, she was the first and only person ever to receive papal dispensation to live as another gender. (14)

And with that, I rest my case.  Model Spanish cavalier (with all the good and bad that entails). Lesbian heartbreaker. Early trans success story.  Despite, or even because of, her many flaws, Catalina de Erauso should enter history textbooks (and classrooms) as an early “badass queer.” QED.



  1. This is an English translation of Catalina’s Spanish moniker, given to her by her contemporaries, “La Monja Alférez.”
  2. It has been very difficult to figure out which gender pronoun to use when speaking about Catalina and her male alter-egos.  On the one hand, most scholarship refers to Catalina as “she,” and Catalina herself was insistent that she was, indeed, a woman. On the other hand, she herself spent most of her life dressed and living like a man, and clearly (and on more than one occasion) pled, ultimately successfully, to be treated as a man, complete with the use of an alternate name. Switching back and forth between “she” and “he” for Catalina and her various male alter-egos might make things a bit too complex for readers to follow, so I reluctantly am going to go with the scholarly crowd here.  However, I do this with quite a bit of unease.  I also might change my usage if I were teaching Catalina in class, since I tend to follow modern gender pronoun and vocabulary usage when working with teenagers.  For more of my thoughts on why this is an especially important point for teens, see my note on my use of words like “gay,” “trans,” “genderqueer,” etc. from the first note in my last post.  Having a commonly accepted English-language gender neutral pronoun would make things so much easier. *Deep sigh*
  3. The concept of “epistemicide” or the annihilation of non-Western (particularly indigenous) systems/paradigms of knowledge is one that is increasingly important in academic work on the colonial and post-colonial eras.  Even the World Bank now makes use of the concept when trying to preserve indigenous farming and medical knowledge.  It’s beyond my purview to really investigate this theme closely here, but I do think it’s interesting to note that Catalina finds her opportunity not in the Old World, where she was born, but in a place that is at the epicenter of a shift in world systems, where identities in general are to some degree both more fixed (as in the designation of people as being “pure” Castilian vs. “mestizo,” etc.) and more fluid, as the “wild west” setting of her tale makes clear.  I also think it’s important to note that Catalina, as a Spaniard, enjoyed privileges not available to many indigenous or even mestizo individuals, and so it may have been easier for her to “pass.”
  4. All the quotes from and autobiographical information about Catalina are taken from her book, “The Autobiography of Doña Catalina de Erauso,”an English translation of which can be found here online.
  5. Catalina herself gives her birthdate as 1584, but her baptismal certificate would seem to indicate it was 1592.
  6. Catalina used a variety of names throughout her life, a few of which were Pedro de Olive, Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman, and Antonio de Erauso.  See the Spanish-language article in ARTEHISTORIA. “Monja alférez. Catalina de Erauso – Personajes – ARTEHISTORIA V2”
  7. From what I’ve been able to tell, given my admittedly scant knowledge about Renaissance herbal lore, there certainly were (and are) herbal remedies used to “dry up” milk after miscarriages or unsuccessful births; how effective these would be at eliminating breasts altogether remains unclear to me.  Or perhaps Catalina was using something that we now might recognize as an anti-estrogen. Or an acid-like concoction that literally burned her glands (perhaps explaining the pain?).  Who knows.  I should definitely take this moment, though, to add that I am NOT endorsing trying this at home, folks.  Although herbs continue to be popular among some trans folk as a way of making a supposedly kinder, gentler transition, botanicals can be just as powerful as pharmaceuticals, and I would urge extreme caution when going it alone.  Plus, we (thankfully) have WAY more options now than Catalina did.
  8. The original Spanish makes it clear that the person in whom Catalina confided and received a remedy from was male (“un italiano”).
  9. Catalina drops one other tantalizing hint that gender-bending behavior was perhaps more common during the Renaissance than we know.  She writes that, upon hearing her confession about her identity, the Bishop stated “that he considered this the most remarkable case of its type he had ever heard of in his life.” [My italics.] A lot hangs on those three little italicized words.  On the one hand, they could mean simply that the Bishop found Catalina’s story remarkable because it was more outrageous than the relatively common literary trope of cross-dressing.  On the other hand, it could also imply that the Bishop knew of other such contemporary real-life cases of women dressing as men, and that among these, Catalina’s was the most remarkable.  It’s impossible to know for sure, but the latter interpretation certainly piques one’s interest.
  10. Catalina’s military prowess has been the subject of much speculation.  Some have conjectured that she was taught sword-fighting by her father, but this seems unlikely, since she entered the convent when she was four.  It’s far more likely that she learned her military skills during her stints as a page.  In other words, she was trained exactly like any other young gentleman of the period.
  11. I should note here that this is one of the places where the ugly social and racial realities of the time are made explicit in the text.  The reason given by Catalina for her dislike of the young woman in question is that she is “very dark and ugly as the devil.”  By Catalina’s own account, the girl was the daughter of a woman who was herself the product of a mixed Spanish-Indigenous marriage.  As a pure-blood Spaniard, Catalina/Francisco was therefore situated much higher up in the colonial apartheid system, and was clearly not above abusing her own privilege, marginalized (in some ways) as she was herself.
  12. There has been a certain amount of speculation over the years about whether or not Catalina was intersex (e.g., whether or not she really had two X chromosomes, or whether she actually was XY).  Of course, barring a DNA examination of her remains (and we don’t know where she is buried), this will remain a mystery.  What we do know, though, is whatever her genes, she at least appeared to the midwives who examined her to be a woman.
  13. This quote comes from a legal document (another relación) written in 1653 in Mexico, quoted here.
  14. This is of course, discounting the legend of “Pope Joan,” a supposedly female pope who lived in the Middle Ages.  She is believed by nearly all modern scholars to be fictitious.


Renaissance Lesbians--the truth is stranger than fiction! (Source)

Renaissance Lesbians–the truth is stranger than fiction! (Source)

It’s hard to believe I haven’t posted in nearly a year.  My first year of full-time teaching kicked my butt–so much fun, but so many lesson plans to make!  Now that I can take a breather, I finally have time to post here about some of the amazing women from history I’ve discovered in the last year–many of them the result of insightful questions asked of me by my students.  This particular post comes about because while we were studying Renaissance artists and authors, Fiona asked (apropos of Michelangelo and Leonardo): It seems like there was some sort of more-or-less openly gay culture in the Medici courts.  What about lesbians?  Do we know anything about Renaissance lesbians?

Darn it!  I’d been so focused on providing examples of female writers and artists that I’d overlooked the sexual orientation piece!  And I was embarrassed to admit that day that beyond knowing they MUST have been out there, I had no actual examples of Renaissance lesbians to provide. (1)

So…off I went to do some research, and the first example I came across was so wonderfully strange, so incredibly surreal, that, dear readers, I knew not only that I would bring it back to class, but that I would eventually share it with you here.  Nothing I’m about to write is new–whole books have been written about these wonderful characters from history: the Tuscan nun Sister Benedetta Carlini, her young lover (also a nun), and a randy male angel named – wait for it – Splenditello, who possessed Benedetta from time to time, and whose supernatural presence presumably both explained and condoned her lesbian relationship (at least in Benedetta’s own eyes). (2)

Although I pictured Splenditello looking like this, according to Benedetta, he was an eight or nine-year-old boy.

Although I pictured Splenditello looking like this, according to Benedetta, he took the form of an eight or nine-year-old boy. (Photo Source)

Splenditello, the Best Alter-ego Ever

Yes, that’s right.  Benedetta believed that she was possessed by a male angel named Splenditello.  I’m not sure if the name sounds more like a low-sugar Nutella substitute or a dominatrix.  All I know is that if I ever live out my fantasy of being a DJ in a New York City club, that will be my nom de guerre.  And I’ll wear a black catsuit with a cape and wings while in the DJ booth.

Ahem… back to Renaissance history.  Benedetta and her fabulous alter-ego Splenditello would remain unknown to us were it not for the work of historian Judith Brown, who discovered the transcripts of church inquests into Benedetta’s mystical claims while doing research in the Florence city archives.  Dating from 1619-1623, these investigations were carried out by a series of local and papal officials not because of Benedetta’s lesbian relationship (at least not at first), but rather, because she claimed to have had a series of increasingly fervent visions and mystical experiences.  Church authorities were bent on determining whether or not Sister Benedetta’s exceptional religious life was the work of God or of demonic forces.

Benedetta: The Life of an Ordinary Woman?

So who was Benedetta, anyway?  As far as we know, she was just plain folk–the daughter of a middle-class villager from one of the numerous hamlets that dot the Apennine mountains. That, in and of itself, makes Benedetta special.  We have so few accounts of “regular” women’s lives before relatively modern times.   And then there’s the fact that though we possess a fair number of references to lesbian conduct (especially by finger-wagging male authors of church moral codes), we can count on fewer than 10 fingers the number of pre-modern, detailed accounts of lesbian love affairs.  Thanks to those nosey inquisitors, we have nothing if not a wealth of details about Benedetta’s (and her young lover, Bartolomea’s) love life.  So in some ways, Benedetta represents a rare glimpse into the life of an “ordinary” Renaissance woman.

Apparently, Benedetta's fantasy lives on in lesbian wedding photography. (Source)

Apparently, Benedetta’s fantasy lives on in lesbian wedding photography. (Source)

Except for that angel thing.  That makes Benedetta (or should I say, Splenditello?) just a little bit special.  Apparently, though Benedetta was given to the Theatine nuns at age nine, she was not content to remain an anonymous country girl alongside her more urbane fellow sisters.  Far from staying in the lower position indicated by her humble village birth, she quickly rose to a position of prominence within the convent based on the splendor of her visions.  While in trances, she spoke in the voices of angels, or even of Jesus; at times, she even seemed to her sisters to take on the appearance of a young man.  Eventually, she even displayed the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) on her hands, feet, side, and head.

At least at first, many of her sisters and local church officials were persuaded. But the visions were also accompanied, at times, by painful episodes of diabolical temptation and pain.  Benedetta’s superiors were both amazed and alarmed by her “visitations,” so they assigned her a younger companion, Bartolomea Crivelli, to share her cell, observe her during her visions, and provide whatever assistance Benedetta’s unusual situation required.  (It was Bartolomea who initially confirmed that Benedetta’s stigmata had appeared as the result of a visit from Christ himself on the night of the second Friday of Lent, 1618.)

As Benedetta’s stature in the convent grew, so did the outrageousness of her visions.  By 1619, she was the abbess, delivering sermons to the assembled nuns while they scourged themselves with whips in an attempt to purify themselves.  To give some perspective, even without the whips, Benedetta’s preaching alone would probably have earned her the suspicion of the various male church authorities: women were not permitted to preach.  Benedetta, however, neatly side-stepped that rule by insisting that it was not she herself who was preaching; she was merely speaking in trance while possessed by a (male) angel.  Further night-time visitations followed–Catherine of Siena appeared, as did the aforementioned Splenditello, a beautiful boy in a white robe.  Each time, these “visitors” didn’t so much appear to Benedetta as take up residence in her body. In her voice they would issue commands (don’t eat meat, eggs, and milk products), or dole out praise (usually for Benedetta herself). One time, Bartolomea reported, Jesus visited, tore out Benedetta’s heart, and then three days later, replaced it with his own.  Bartolomea had confirmed this rather startling encounter by feeling a deep “void” when she placed her hand on Benedetta’s chest.

Nobody Likes a Bridezilla

Benedetta should have heeded this advice: nobody likes a bridezilla. (Source)

Benedetta should have heeded this advice: nobody likes a bridezilla. (Source)

Eventually, though, Benedetta’s visions went too far.  In May of 1619, Jesus appeared to Benedetta insisting on, not just marrying her, but marrying her publicly, and with a very specific bridezilla-like set of wedding demands: the guest list, the decorations, the precise (and elaborate) specifications for the procession and ceremony.  And to top it off, when the nuptials were finally performed before her incredulous sisters, Christ (speaking through Benedetta, of course) insisted that his new bride be made “empress of all nuns.”   Apparently her sisters disagreed, for as Judith Brown noted laconically in her book, “The investigation began the next day.” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine they put up with her demands for as long as they did.  Scourging with whips?  OK.  Ripping out hearts?  No problem.  Wedding with Christ that ends in demands for coronation?  Whoa there, girl.  You’ve gone too far now.

As is the case for so many of us, Benedetta’s weak spot was her addiction to antipasti.

At first, the ecclesiastical authorities who were called in upheld her visions, but over time, her claims began to crumble.  Some nuns who spied on her through a keyhole saw her pricking herself in the hands with a needle–evidence that her “stigmata” was self-produced.  And then the (extremely Italian) climax: Benedetta, who claimed to be too saintly to eat meat, was spotted sneaking salami and mortadella on the side.  Who could blame her, really?  What’s the point of being Italian if you can’t enjoy a little antipasti?  But that was it.  The church determined it was time to get to the bottom of this salami-eating bride of Christ.

You’ll never look at a sappy angel statue the same way after learning the tale of Splenditello. (Source)

Sister Bartolomea was questioned, and under oath, revealed that Benedetta (in the guise of Splenditello), made passionate love to her.  (And, perhaps even more touchingly, taught her how to read.)  According to the records, he called Bartolomea his beloved as he touched her breasts and kissed her.  Benedetta’s young companion claimed that she was an unwilling recipient of Splenditello’s affections, and perhaps for this reason, was never censured for her role in the affair.  Benedetta, on the other hand, was imprisoned within the convent until her death, 35 years later.

Which is Worse: Lesbianism or Demon Possession?

It seems fairly clear from the archival material that Benedetta was imprisoned for fraud, not for her lesbian activities.  That’s not to say that her relationship was condoned–the lesbian sex certainly was censured and produced as further evidence of her overall unreliability.  However, what’s interesting to note about the entire episode is how relatively little scandal is attached to the lesbian behavior.  Honestly, Salami-gate (as I like to call it) appears to have been more damning in the eyes of the church authorities.  Whether that’s because lesbianism was regarded as a relatively minor sin, or whether the magnitude of Benedetta’s false claims was so great that they eclipsed the other elements of her tale is difficult to tell.

Reports of “possession” were making both Protestant and Catholic authorities increasingly nervous. By the 1680s, posters like these were commonplace. (Source)

It’s certainly true that by Benedetta’s time, issues of demon possession and witchcraft were becoming ever more prominent.  The counter-reformation, which pitted the Catholic church against the various new religious groups that blossomed after Luther’s reforms, highlighted questions of religious authority.  When someone made new religious claims, the Church wanted to know who was speaking.  Did the mystic in question really speak for Christ, or did some more nefarious element stand behind his or her words?  Was his or her message Truth with a capital T, or superstition?

The latter was a category of thought that had gained new importance in the climate of scientific inquiry heralded by the Renaissance thinkers.  Protestant reformers and Catholic counter-Reformation preachers alike hurled accusations of superstition at one another: the Catholic mass was superstitious in its insistence on the physical transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood; reformers within the Catholic church were sometimes labeled “superstitious” when they advocated for greater freedom to interpret the scriptures; women who previously had held sway in their villages as herbal healers and midwives were deemed superstitious because their traditions didn’t find a basis in either Catholic dogma or Protestant scripture.  In this light, Benedetta’s attempt to ground her own authority in the seemingly unquestionable guise of male angels and Christ himself seems understandable.  At least, sort of.

Catherine of Siena's mystical marriage to Christ, as depicted by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1460.

Catherine of Siena’s mystical marriage to Christ, as depicted by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1460.

As several scholars have noted, Benedetta’s claims might have passed muster a century or two earlier, when female mystics (and indeed, mystics of all sorts) were less likely to produce a paranoid reaction on the part of a Church that was now being dragged apart by sectarian violence.  But then again, perhaps the audacity of Benedetta’s claims would have done her in irregardless.  It does seem that both the increasing narcissism of her visions and the demands made on her fellow nuns were her undoing.  Other nuns had had visions of being wed to Christ (most notably Catherine of Siena, who “visited” Benedetta and may have inspired her own nuptials).  But these other women were noted for their humility, a trait that does not appear to have been Benedetta’s forte.

It’s also true that just as Benedetta grounded her transgressive claim to authority in mystical garb, so too she grounded her transgressive sexuality the same way.  Her excessive religious experiences were what first created the conditions for her to have a round-the-clock female companion in her cell; “Splenditello” and his cherubic charms then wrapped the two women’s lesbian affair in a feathery halo of angel light.  Whether or not her lover Bartolomea really felt coerced into the relationship or was simply cowered by the Church authorities into disowning it, we’ll never know.  One thing’s for sure: for a short time, Benedetta created an enchanted fantasy world in which she could enjoy a same-sex relationship with another lower class woman.  Not only that, but she could work those very interactions into a complex imagery that very nearly secured her position as abbess of a convent full of her socio-economic “betters.”  Plus, she left us a story that seems to put the oomph into that old chestnut, “the truth is stranger than fiction.”  It’s hard to believe her story hasn’t yet been made into a softcore period drama featuring two young Hollywood starlets. (3)

Lesbians in the Classroom

So, to circle back to the question of teaching: what, if anything, does the story of Benedetta offer our students beyond a ripping good yarn?  Well, to begin with, there’s that.  She’s got to be one of the more colorful figures from history–one who, like so many women from the past, would have been overlooked had it not been for the work of a diligent female historian.  That alone should recommend her inclusion among the canon of “historical figures we love to hate/hate to love.”  For every Alcibiades or Billy the Kid, there’s a Sister Benedetta waiting to be found.  We owe it to our students to present them with rip-roaring tales of female hucksters and bad girls just as much as we feed them better-known tales of male ne’er-do-wells.

This t-shirt makes the point well.  (Source)

This t-shirt makes the point well. (Source)

But perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that, as I mentioned before, Benedetta and Bartolomea’s affair is one of a handful of pre-modern lesbian sexual relationships we have detailed information about.  Finding a way to work in those few examples we do have is vital for the overall academic and social health of our classrooms as we strive to diversify our curriculum.   Making sure we include gay and lesbian figures in our canon can often be as simple as mentioning the sexuality of figures we already teach–from Alexander the Great to Leonardo da Vinci and beyond.  It doesn’t add much in the way of extra work or prep time, and it makes visible what has so often remained hidden or secret.  More importantly, it can give wind to the wings of the kids in our classes who need help claiming and owning their own identities.

But for the history of women and lesbians, we usually need to dig a little deeper.  We know so little about the sexual relationships of pre-modern women that we have to be more actively on the lookout for those few examples available to us.  Benedetta is one of those rare women.  And not only that, but her story fits nicely into the Waldorf curriculum.  Almost every Waldorf high school does a block on Renaissance/Reformation history.  (As do many public schools.) And in that block, one inevitably winds up addressing the way the Church fractured and fought about questions of authority.  Benedetta is a beautiful example to single out as a representation of the tensions and complexities of the period:  a middle-class Catholic girl tries to gain authority within a system that was stacked against her on multiple counts.  She manages to “play” the system for awhile, working every possible angle to achieve her ultimate ends, which appear to have been two-fold: to become abbess (and possibly “empress”) of the convent, and to win Bartolomea’s affections.  And she succeeded at both before her own sense of inflated worth tripped her up.  When she finally fell, she fell hard, and was condemned by the Church authorities to a pretty miserable end.  But the fact that there were women out there who “played the system” and very nearly won can inspire our students, who are so often on the verge of becoming disillusioned by the sheer weight of the historical inequities suffered by women, the poor, and the many others oppressed by Renaissance and Reformation religion and politics.

I know my own students, when I brought them this story, whooped with glee when they heard the name “Splenditello.”  Their faces hung slack-jawed when I described to them Benedetta’s increasing demands for glory, and her daring courtship of Bartolomea in the guise of the cherubic boy.  And they let out a groan of pity when I revealed Benedetta’s fate.  The whole thing took about five minutes of class, but it was certainly the high-point of the day.  Though they may forget the details of Benedetta’s tale (though I doubt they’ll forget the name “Splenditello”), they won’t forget the most important point of the story, the one that answered Fiona’s question that day we studied the Medici:  lesbian women certainly DID exist in the Renaissance, Fiona.  And some of them were ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS.


1.  A caveat here: I realize that classifying same-sex behavior during the European Renaissance as “gay” or “lesbian” is neither historically accurate nor optimal, given the different ways both gender and sexuality were figured in that period (and varied dramatically region to region).  However, it’s both quicker than all the longer ways of designating homoerotic/homosocial behavior, and, perhaps more importantly, it’s more true to high school classrooms.  In my experience, most high school kids fundamentally want some sort of connection to the people they study.  Kids either questioning their own sexuality or trying to figure out their response to how our own culture treats people in same-sex relationships don’t necessarily want to hear about how same-sex relationships were DIFFERENT historically–they’re often looking for confirmation that someone out there before them experienced something SIMILAR to what they’ve been going through. (Or witnessing around them.)  This is not to say that there’s no place for the discussion of how sexuality has been envisioned differently at different times in history; it’s just to note that these questions tend to be loaded for high schoolers, and should be approached with a gentleness that might not be as vital when talking to adults or even college students.

2.  The definitive book about Sister Benedetta is Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, by Judith C. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).  A great summary and review of the book can be found in the NYTimes archives: Frederika Randall, “Divine Visions, Diabolical Obsessions” The New York Times, January 19, 1986.  See also Stephen Greenblatt’s review in the London Review of Books, No. 8. Vol. 11.  June 19, 1986.  There’s also a terrific, very readable overview of Medieval and Renaissance lesbianism in both Europe and the Near East here; it includes (towards the end) some rather racy quotes from the inquest conducted against Benedetta.

3.  It has, however, been made into a play that was performed at the 2006 New York Fringe Festival:  Vanda, “Vile Affections: Based on the True Story of Benedetta Carlini,” 2006.

Mulan on horseback

Mulan on horseback

Continuing my theme of girlhood in poetry, here’s one more strong image of girlhood for you all, while I procrastinate doing my lesson plans.  This one comes from northern China in the sixth c. CE, when it was ruled by the Tartars.  I just love the ending, which seems to imply the type of gender fluidity we associate with much more modern times.  The poem asks us: who could tell boys and girls apart if we dressed them the same way and allowed them to engage in the same activities?  (Take that, Disney princesses!)
We do not know the author, so I can’t tell you if this was written by a man or a woman.  The translation is by Arthur Waley, from his wonderful little book entitled Chinese Poems (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983).


Mulan was a skilled archer to survive 12 years of war.

Click, click, forever click, click;
Mulan sits at the door and weaves.
Listen, and you will not hear the shuttle’s sound,
But only hear a girl’s sobs and sighs.
“Oh tell me, lady, are you longing for your love,
Oh tell me, lady, are you longing for your dear?”
“Oh no, oh no, I am not thinking of my love,
Oh no, oh no, I am not longing for my dear.
But last night I read the battle-roll;
The Khan has ordered a great levy of men.
The battle-roll was written in twelve books,
And in each book stood my father’s name.
My father’s sons are not grown men,
And of all my brothers, none is older than me.
Oh let me to the market to buy saddle and horse,
And ride with the soldiers to take my father’s place.”
In the eastern market she’s bought a gallant horse,
In the western market she’s bought saddle and cloth,
In the southern market she’s bought snaffle and reins,
In the northern market she’s bought a tail whip.
In the morning she stole from her father’s and mother’s house;
At night she was camping by the Yellow River’s side.
She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,
But only the voice of the Yellow River as its waters swirled through the night.
At dawn they left the River and went on their way;
At dusk they came to the Black Water’s side.
She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,
She could only hear the muffled voices of foreign horsemen riding on the hills of Yen.
A thousand leagues she tramped on the errands of war,
Frontiers and hills she crossed like a bird in flight.
Through the northern air echoed the watchman’s tap;
The wintry light gleamed on coats of mail.
The captain had fought a hundred fights, and died;
The warriors in ten years had earned their rest.
They went home, they saw the Emperor’s face;
The Son of Heaven was seated in the Hall of Light.
The deeds of the brave were recorded in twelve books;
In prizes he gave a hundred thousand cash.
Then spoke the Khan and asked her what she would take.
“Oh Mulan asks not to be made aCounsellor at the Khan’s court;
I only beg for camel that can march a thousand leagues a day, to take me back to my home.”


A more modern rendition, with her armor peeking out from under her robes.

When her father and mother heard that she had come,
They went out to the wall and led her back to the house.
When her little sister heard that she had come,
She went to the door and rouged her face afresh.
When her little brother heard that his sister had come,
He sharpened his knife and darted like a flash
Towards the pigs and sheep.
She opened the gate that leads to the eastern tower,
She sat on her bed that stood in the western tower.
She cast aside her heavy soldier’s cloak,
And wore again her old-time dress.
She stood at the window and bound her cloudy hair;
She went to the mirror and fastened her yellow combs.
She left her house and met her messmates in the road;
Her messmates were startled out of their wits.
They had marched with her for twelve years of war
And never known Mulan was a girl.
For the male hare sits with its legs tucked in,
And the female hare is known for her bleary eye;
But set them both scampering side by side,
And who so wise could tell you, “This is he?”

Statue of a Spartan girl warming up for a race. c. 500 BCE

Statue of a Spartan girl warming up for a race. c. 500 BCE (Source)

It’s mid-August, and I’m in the midst of preparing for the upcoming school year, so I don’t have time for a long blog entry right now.  However, I couldn’t resist passing on this lovely poem by Alcman, a (male) Spartan lyric poet from the 7th century BCE.  I thought it might be of particular interest to all of us who are teaching either the 5th or 10th grade, since in Waldorf schools, those are the years that we focus on Greek history.

Apart from Sappho’s poems, we have very few depictions of ancient Greek girlhood that don’t involve somewhat depressing images of girls and women being confined to the house, in scenarios more reminiscent of the Taliban than the “glory that was Greece” depictions that were popular among the Victorians.  (Who, not incidentally, had their own program of repression they were famous for imposing on women.)

However, as is well-known, Spartan girls were different.  Spartan women were given much greater liberty than in other Greek city-states; they were even encouraged to exercise heartily and dance in public.  Of course, all this was for the greater aim of making them strong, healthy child-bearers for the State–not exactly the same goals we have in mind when we encourage our daughters and students to develop their physical abilities.  But if we’re looking for pictures of a free, relatively uninhibited (for the time period) ancient Greek girlhood, look no further than Sparta.

Alcman’s poem is precious to us in this regard–he not only extols the beauty of two individual Spartan girls (Agido and Hagesikhora), he also gives us a wonderful picture of girls as a group racing (presumably in a foot-race), and the crowd cheering them on, often by name.  Another terrific aspect of the poem is his imagination that he himself is one of the girls in the choir singing at the race.  Such a beautiful, awe-inspiring picture!

A statue from the temple of Artemis at Brauron.  There, young girls between 5-10 years old, served the goddess and, apparently, had some time to play as well.  (Source)

A statue from the temple of Artemis at Brauron. There, young girls between 5-10 years old, served the goddess and, apparently, had some time to play as well. (Source)

Without further ado, then, here is the poem.  It is a part of a longer piece, of which much is just in fragments.  Luckily for us, the part that survives the best is the part about the girls.  The translation comes from this excellent site that focuses on women and gender issues in the ancient world.

And I, I sing of Agido,

Of her light.  She is like the sun

To which she makes our prayers,

The witness of its radiance.

Yet I can neither praise her nor blame her

Till I have sung of another,

Sung of our choirmaster,

Who stands among us as in a pasture

One splendid stallion

Paws the meadow, a champion racer,

A horse that runs in dreams.


Imagine her if you can. Her hair,

As gold as a Venetian mane,

Flowers around her silver eyes.

What can I say to make you see?

She is Hagesikhora and

Agido, almost, almost as beautiful,

Is a Kolaxaian filly running behind her

In the races at Ibeno.

A Pleiades of doves they are

Contending at dawn before the altar of Artemis

For the honor of offering the sacred plow

Which we have brought to the goddess.

They are the white star Sirius rising

In the honey and spice of a summer night.

Neither abundance of purple

Can defend us with its glory,

Nor golden snakes engraved with eyes and scales,

Nor bonnets from Lydia and brooches,

Nor our sweet violet eyes.

Nor can Nanno’s hair, Areta’s goddess face,

Thylakis nor Kleësithera,

Nor Ainesimbrota to whom we cry                     

Let Astaphis be ours,

Let Philylla look our way sometimes,

Damareta and the lovely Wianthemis,

Keep back defeat unless

Hagesikhora alone, our love,

Be our victory’s shield.

And she is, she is our own,

The splendid-ankled Hagesikhora!

With Agido, by whose side she lingers,

She honors the rites with her beauty.

Accept her prayers O gods,

For she is your handiwork,

Perfect of her kind.


And I, I, O Choirmaster,

Am but an ordinary girl.

I hoot like an owl in the roof.

I long to worship the goddess of the dawn

Whose gift is peace. For Hagesikhora

We sing, for her we virgin girls

Make our lovely harmonies.


Enjoy the rest of your summer.  To my fellow-teachers, bon courage in the weeks ahead!

Hildegard didn't have to fly to get a bird's-eye view of the cosmos.  Her visions took her to the heavens and back. (Source.)

Hildegard didn’t have to fly to get a bird’s-eye view of the cosmos. Her visions took her to the heavens and back. (Source.)

A word to the wise: in case you haven’t been following the thread of this series on Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval visionary nun, you should check out my first and second posts (first one on her life and times, second one on her Big Idea).  It will make the following much easier, well, to follow.

God as Verb

When last I left you, we had examined Hildegard’s use of the term viriditas, a word she is often described as using to denote God’s generative, or “greening” power.  However, I’d taken the step of expanding the interpretation of viriditas slightly.  I’d related it to other words and images she uses frequently–fiery power, Reason, life, wind-tossed flame.  And I’d suggested that Hildegard uses viriditas (among other words and images) not to describe the actions or power of God as a Person (that is, as a noun), but rather, to situate God Him/Herself in that in-between area of matter and energy.  In other words, Hildegard experiences God as verb.

Thank goodness others have gone before us to part the seas of theological conundrums. (Source)

Thank goodness others have gone before us to part the theological waters. (Source)

Now, once we start talking about God as noun vs. God as verb, we’re treading into fairly deep theological waters.   Luckily for us, there are others who have gone before to part the seas, and they’ve made it relatively easy to understand.  So hang in there.

In order to explain myself (and Hildegard), I’m going to borrow here for a moment from David A. Cooper, who has written about Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah in his aptly entitle book, aptly God is a Verb:

“The closest we can come to thinking about God is as a process rather than a being.  We can think of it as “be-ing,” as verb rather than noun.  Perhaps we would understand this concept better if we renamed God.  We might call It God-ing…. a mutually interactive verb, one which entails an interdependency between two subjects, each being the object for the other….Moreover, creation should not be treated as a noun.  It too is an interactive verb; it is constantly creation-ing.  And, dear reader, you should not treat yourself as a noun–Joan, or Bill, or Barbara, or John.  With regard to God as an interactive verb, you are also verbs; you are Joan-ing, Bill-ing, Barbara-ing, or John-ing in relation to God-ing.” (1)

Hildegard, like so many other great minds, was interested in that place where matter and energy meet. (Source.)

Hildegard, like so many other great minds, was interested in that place where matter and energy meet. (Source.)

This understanding of God seems, to me, to shed light on Hildegard’s often baffling array of metaphors.  In each of her terms (fiery power, viriditas, Reason), she is fundamentally pointing to the living activity inherent in them.  And this is where we need to be very careful in understanding her.  She is NOT saying that nature (stones, plants, humans, etc.) exists as fundamentally dead or inert matter that is animated by some sort of ubiquitous life energy (á la the Jedi “Force”).  That would actually be relatively easy for us to grasp.  We’re all very familiar with the idea of matter (inert) and energy (animate).

But that’s a fundamentally dualistic way of looking at things. Hildegard takes us a step further.  She is inviting us to step from duality to unity–to see creation itself as “creation-ing” (to steal Cooper’s word) and God as “God-ing.”  Let’s look again the first passage I quoted in my last post:

“The viriditas of the earth and plants greatly thrive in the morning, because the air is cold and the sun is warm.  And the herbs very strongly suck viriditas, like a lamb who sucks milk, because the heat of the day is barely sufficient to…cook and fortify the day’s viriditas so far as it is made fertile for the producing of fruit.” (2)

You see what she’s doing here?  The herbs “suck” viriditas from the air; they “cook” viriditas so it’s available to produce fruit.  So, yes, God’s viriditas is filling and animating them, but the plants themselves are also playing an active role in “drawing” the viriditas down.  In other words, viriditas seems to somehow encapsulate the exchange between God and creation–a moment-by-moment “God-ing” that brings the universe (herbs, earth, lambs, fruit) into being.   Viriditas is not a thing, it’s a movement. (3)

Back to the Word

Apparently dualism generates its own internet memes.  (Source.)

Apparently the problem of dualism is widely-enough known to generate internet memes. (Source.)

But it’s important to watch your step, here.  We have to constantly guard against our tendency to see the world in dualistic terms, matter and energy.  It would be easy to fall back into a pattern of seeing God (noun) and creation (noun) with some sort of action (verb) between them.  Hildegard’s insight is to continually invite us to see them as parts of one and the same process–the process of the Word, which she associates with Reason (and sometimes with Wisdom). (4)  Taking a moment to look at how she uses the term “Reason,” can give us an extra window into what she’s trying to tell us.

So…Let’s take a second look at part of the longer passage I had quoted in my second post, where Hildegard speaks with the voice of the divine being she saw in a vision:

“I am life.  I am also Reason, which bears within itself the breath of the resounding Word, through which the whole of creation is made.  I breathe life into everything so that nothing is mortal in respect to its species.  For I am life.  I am life, whole and entire [vita integra]…all life has its roots in me.  Reason is the root, the resounding Word blooms out of it.” (5)

A fiery-looking neural map of the brain. (Source.)

A fiery-looking neural map of the brain. (Source.)

For Hildegard, then, Reason is the link between God (here, represented as the Word) and creation.  (6) Reason is the root of life–the life that lives in and flows out of God, and the life that lives in and flows through creation.  Reason is not opposed to matter (á la Cartesian dualism); rather, it is the basis of it all, a fiery life flow that is constantly “God-ing” and “creation-ing” our whole universe into being.

A Reasonable Question

So, you might wonder, does Hildegard’s divine Reason have anything to do with our own capacity as humans to reason?

So glad you asked.

For Hildegard, human reason is not only the link between humans and God, but actually an aspect of the very lifeblood of divinity itself, flowing in and through us, bringing us into being moment by moment.  As such, it is an essential part of our nature:

“This life is God, who is always in motion and constantly in action, and yet this life is manifest in a threefold power. For eternity is called the ‘Father,’ the Word is called the ‘Son,’ and the breath that binds both of them together is called the ‘Holy Spirit.’  And God has likewise marked humanity; in human beings there are body, soul, and reason.” (7)

“Every human soul endowed with reason exists as a soul that emerges from the true God….This same God is that living fire by which souls live and breathe.” (8)

Reason, fiery power, viriditas--for Hildegard, it's all good. (Source)

Reason, fiery power, viriditas–for Hildegard, it’s all good. (Source)

For Hildegard, then, humans possess a threefold nature modeled on the activity of God Him/Herself, with one of those parts made up of the very Reason that is the root of the Godhead itself.  The soul’s rational activity is therefore not so much modeled on God’s divine Reason (as we see in later Enlightenment notions of reason); it is divine Reason.  Our rational activity is God Him/Herself at work in us. (9)

Making over our Minds: Hildegard and Steiner

Once we’ve looked closely at Hildegard’s understanding of Reason, it’s clear that for her, Reason wasn’t just a tool her intellect deployed.  Rather, she felt, lived, and experienced her own thinking as a communion with the spiritual realm.  Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising to us–after all, she was a visionary, and we expect such extraordinary experiences from mystics.  However, what’s interesting is that she clearly expects her audience, to some degree, to be able to follow her.  She expects them to experience, in some real sense, their own Reason as an active, living, “flow” of God.  She expects them to actually participate in divine Reason. (10)


For Steiner, the death of God was not irreversible. He believed we could develop our capacity to experience phenomena directly, overcoming the subject/object dichotomy that is built into post-Enlightenment modes of consciousness. (Source.)

This is not, to say the least, how we usually experience our own intellectual activity on a day-to-day basis in the 21st century.  As Nietzsche famously announced, God is dead and we killed him.  It’s hard for any of us these days to think of our own thinking activity as something that connects us to God, much less as God him/herself at work in us.

As always, the philosopher and founder of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, had something to say about this matter.  (Is there anything the man didn’t weigh in on?) In effect, Steiner took Nietzsche’s observation one step further, pointing out that the way in which our minds now work, the very way we cognate, no longer allows us to participate in this living, spiritual flow unless we take extra steps to overcome the subject/object divide that is built into our current mode of cognition.

That’s a tad dense, so let me unpack it for you a bit.  Steiner’s idea was that the way the modern post-enlightenment mind thinks presupposes a divide between observer and observed; this, he held, has not always been the case for all humans in all times and places.  I would point out that Hildegard’s work is one of those places where we can see the rift between earlier modes of consciousness and our own.  Her expectation that her audience will be able to experience their own cognition as an inflowing of the Divine is fundamentally foreign to our own experience of our thinking activity.

The Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would have agreed with both Hildegard and Steiner.  (Source)

The Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would have agreed with both Hildegard and Steiner. (Source)

What Steiner offers us, though, is a little glimmer of hope.  Rather than throwing up his hands and bewailing the fact that we can no longer experience our own thinking as a Divine inflowing, he, first of all, notes a few places where we DO have access to forms of non-dualistic thinking–poetic and artistic inspiration being paramount among them.  He then also offers us the insight that all our thinking is, when you get down to it, non-dualistic.  We cannot understand ourselves as a separate subject without thinking; in order to even perceive ourselves as the subject who is thinking about that object (or idea) over there, we already have to be thinking.  So thinking, in effect, gives rise to both subject and object.  It exists prior to or outside of the dualistic realm.  As such, Steiner argues, it can therefore can be understood to be a fundamentally spiritual activity. (11)

Even Homer Simpson's thinking connects him to the spiritual realm.  (Source)

Even Homer Simpson’s thinking connects him to the spiritual realm. (Source)

And this is where I think Steiner and Hildegard would find themselves in agreement: it is not so much the ideas (nouns) that result from thinking that bring us closer to the Divine; it is the act of thinking (verb) itself that is an experience of the Divine.  Whether you are thinking about God or thinking about those delicious donuts sitting on the table in front of you, your act of thinking is what connects you to the spiritual realm, not the content of your thoughts.  (12)

The question, to my mind, that both of them raise for us is this: once we see how the very activity of our thinking connects us to the Divine, how do we choose to use or develop our cognition?  Should we continue to go around as usual, thinking about ourselves (nouns) and the stuff or people around us (nouns), as though the dualistic mirage is the truth?  Or do we choose to develop that side of ourselves that can always remain alert to the fact that what is transpiring at any moment is, in fact, a verb? A you-ing and me-ing and God-ing (and even donut-ing) that is fundamentally beyond subject and object.

Hot off the presses--the first issue of Waldorf Covergirl!

Hot off the presses–the first issue of Waldorf Covergirl! (Source for background photo.)

Steiner, of course, had an answer.  He said that we should engage in those activities–art, poetry, music, meditation, close observation of nature–that are most likely to help us surmount that subject/object divide.  With practice, he held, the type of intuitive thinking that characterizes those activities will become more habitual, and in fact, may lead us to higher forms of cognition that we normally plaster over with all our dualistic nonsense.  (Well, he didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but that’s what he meant.)  And if we look at Hildegard’s own life, we can see that she spent it doing precisely those things Steiner identifies as exemplary of non-dualistic intuitive thinking:  composing breathtakingly beautiful music, writing poetry and dramas, illustrating her visions, meditating and praying, examining the herbs and natural remedies around her and writing extensive treatises on them.   In fact, you couldn’t really imagine a better poster-child for Steiner’s program–not even Steiner himself.

And that, my Waldorf-inspired friends, is why it behooves each and every one of us to learn about and teach Hildegard every chance we get.  ‘Nuff said.



(1) Rabbi David A. Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997. pp.69-70.  I should note here that in using Cooper’s work, I’m not suggesting that there’s a direct link between Hildegard and Kabbala (though the thought is interesting, given the time period she’s writing and the possible theological works to which she might have been exposed).  Rather, I’m using Cooper because I’ve found his description of God as verb the easiest to understand and most clearly written.  I think his discussion of Kabbalist understandings of the Divine helps illuminate both Hildegard’s work and Steiner’s.
 For more on Hildegard von Bingen, other medieval Christian writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux (with whom we know she corresponded), and Kabbalah, see Peter Shäfer, Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to Early Kabbalah.  New York: Princeton University Press, 2004.  
And of course, I can’t end this note without mentioning that the original statement “God is a verb” seems to have been made by Buckminster Fuller in 1963, in his book No More Secondhand God.  I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with Kabbalah and/or other forms of medieval mysticism, though the fact that he was a Unitarian and the grandson of the major transcendentalist figure Margaret Fuller opens up the possibility that he might have been familiar with these or other similar ideas.

2) Hildegard von Bingen, Physica, pdf, pg. 164.  You can find it online here.

3)  Indeed, you do sometimes see viriditas translated simply as “greening,” though most translators put another word like, “power” or “force” on the end, in order to be consistent with the original Latin form.  However, I think that it’s precisely this impulse to make viriditas into a “thing” (i.e. a noun) that makes it so difficult to grapple with what Hildegard trying to say.  If we were to translate viriditas as a gerund (that funny grammatical construction that hovers in the realm between verb and noun, as in “I enjoy playing football”), it might be easier to get at what she’s trying to describe.

4) By “The Word,” of course, Hildegard is referring back to the beginning of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word…”).  The history of the complex theological relationship between the Word, Wisdom, and the other parts of the Trinity is way too complicated to go into here, since attempting to relate Wisdom (usually, for linguistic reasons, depicted as feminine) to the Godhead has always been a potentially incendiary topic.  One brief example will have to suffice:  my former professor (and Syriac scholar) Susan Ashbrook Harvey once told me that the original Syriac feminine ending for “Holy Spirit” had been expunged at a certain point in late antiquity, thereby complicating further efforts to relate this aspect of the Trinity to Wisdom (which is feminine in both the Greek and Latin, as well as the Syriac).  Apparently, a wise, female Holy Ghost was just too much for the Syriac fathers to take.

In Hildegard’s case, she seems to move between the Son/Word, the Holy Spirit, and Wisdom rather fluidly, a fact that has made her somewhat of a darling of contemporary feminist theologians.  Hildegard plays pretty fast and loose with her terminology, though, sometimes even seeming to equate the Holy Spirit and Wisdom with the Virgin, thereby opening up some interesting theological possibilities for how the Virgin participates in the life of the Trinity.  For instance, compare these three brief passages from her songs: Hildegard on Wisdom in O Virtus Sapientiae: “O moving force of Wisdom, encircling the wheel of the cosmos/ Encompassing all that is, all that has life, in one vast circle….” Hildegard on the Holy Spirit in her song O Spiritu Sancto: “Holy Spirit, making life alive, moving in all things, root of all creating being…”.  And then, to Mary in De Sancta Maria: “Hail to you, O greenest (viridissima) branch!  You budded forth amidst breezes and winds in search of the knowledge of all that is holy…Because of you, the heavens give dew to the grass, the whole Earth rejoices, Abundance of grain comes from Earth’s womb….”  I’d argue that Hildegard is not trying to be systematic here in the way modern theologians (feminist or otherwise) might want her to be: rather, she is trying to capture something that inheres in all these different understandings of God–namely, the flow of divinity that is constantly creating and sustaining the universe.

5) Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, Vision 1:2.  p. 10.  ed. Matthew Fox.  trans. Richard Cunningham.  Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1987.

6) In formulating her theology, Hildegard probably drew on ideas of Reason popularized by the late Roman Christian philosopher Boethius, whose work On the Consolations of Philosophy was beginning to be circulated more widely in her time.  Boethius was very influential among later mystical writers, who used his differentiation of intellect (intellectus) and reason (ratio) in order to better explain their experiences.  She may be leading the pack here, though.  Other great thinkers who took up Boethius’ ideas about Reason during this time were mostly associated with the (heavily neo-Platonist) cathedral school at Chartres–Gilbert of La Porrée, Thierry of Chartres, and Richard of Saint-Victor.  The latter wrote extensively on mystical experience and reason, and he was writing at the same time as Hildegard.  This is a rare case where the work of a female writer is much better known and explicated than that of her male contemporaries–probably precisely because her writings were not nearly as (let’s face it, boys) mind-numbingly dull.  For more on twelfth century notions of reason, M-D Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Tweltfth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. pp. 75ff.  Chenu also has a fascinating account of the Hermetic and Muslim sources of neo-Platonism–raising a whole other set of questions about the various streams that flow together to inform Hildegard’s work.

7) Divine Works, Vision 1:2.  Fox, p. 11.

8) Divine Works, Vision 10:2.  Fox, p. 224.

9) It’s important, as I hinted above, to differentiate Hildegard’s view of Reason from Enlightenment understandings of reason as a critical intellectual tool.  Back in Hildegard’s time, we’re not only pre-Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), but over 100 years prior to Thomas Aquinas and the revival of Aristotelian philosophy.  The Deists and other Enlightenment fans of reason are a good 600 years later.  Whereas the Enlightenment thinkers tend to deploy reason as a tool that “I” (the subject/noun) can use for determining whether or not God (another noun) exists, Hildegard experiences Reason as a flow of “God-ing.”  This shift from an imminent spiritual Presence to the centrality of a separate human “self” is one of the defining moments in the evolution of consciousness.

The Inklings (clockwise from upper left: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Lewis, and Owen Barfield) (Source)

Barfield was a member of the famous Oxford literary group The Inklings, who met every Tuesday to drink beer and discuss their latest works. Clockwise from upper left: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. (Source)

(10) Anyone familiar with the work of Owen Barfield can see here that I’m plainly and unabashedly stealing his language to describe Hildegard’s experience.  Barfield coined the incredibly illuminating and helpful term “participation” to describe the state of consciousness in which “self and non-self are identified in the same moment of existence.” (Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1965. p 32, note 1.)  Barfield argues that for modern humans, this form of perception that is “nearer to unity than dichotomy” is fairly rare–he gives the examples of “semi-subjective” realms such as intuition, panic, or irresistible semi-conscious urges (e.g. sexual drive) as the few places in which we still experience ourselves to be under the influence of some power external to ourselves, and yet simultaneously wholly a part of us.  On the other hand, he notes that linguistic and cultural evidence reveals that humans in earlier eras experienced this feeling of unity with the exterior world on a regular basis–indeed, for much of history, humanity seems to have experienced the world with precisely this form of monistic consciousness.  If you’re interested in delving further into Barfield’s insights, his seminal work Saving the Appearances is probably the best place to start.  The Owen Barfield Society also provides helpful links to many resources on Barfield’s work.

11)  Steiner’s views on cognition are pretty heavy philosophical stuff.  If you’d like to delve deeper into his understanding of thinking as a fundamentally non-dualistic, spiritual experience, his very dense, but extremely enlightening book Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path is the best place to start.  If you’d prefer something a little less, shall we say, abstruse, Owen Barfield’s book Romanticism Comes of Age picks up many of the same ideas, but is a much easier read.

12) Interestingly, Steiner only mentions Hildegard explicitly once, as far as I can tell–in his fourth lecture on “Man in the Light of Occultism, Philosophy, and Theology,” (given in 1912) where he gives an account of the different types of mystics.  He doesn’t really describe the content of any of her work (though it’s obvious he must have read her in order to be able to place her within a continuum of different types of mysticism).  What little he says is not terribly flattering: he says she has “good and beautiful impulses but…also a considerable measure of ordinary earthly instinct and desire, and this taints [her] mystical feelings and perceptions.”  (Access the online version of the lecture here.) He then goes on to compare Hildegard unfavorably to Mechthild of Magdeburg, a later female mystic, whom Steiner believes “expresses herself always with a certain touch of humor.”  The irony of this criticism is that it comes from a man who, though apparently jovial enough in person, left a body of scholarship which is rather heavy and often difficult to read, to put it mildly.  Steiner wrote that at least some of his own works were meant to be difficult to penetrate, the idea being that the individual had to wrestle with the ideas in such a way as to spur them beyond usual categories of thought.  As I’ve said in previous posts, I wonder if Hildegard’s shifting vocabulary and enormous body of work are attempts to do much the same thing.

I should mention, though, that there is one other place where some people believe Steiner was referencing Hildegard–in a passage from 1924 where he links an unnamed medieval female “visionary…who unfolded truly wonderful insight into the spiritual world.”  He notes that this unnamed nun had no outward conflicts with orthodox Christianity, but that later, her brand of “deeply personal Christianity” found no place in received Catholic tradition.   He then links this female mystic’s oeuvre with that of Vladimir Solovyov, a late nineteenth-century Russian mystic who experienced profound visions of Sophia (Divine Wisdom).  Given the very brief description provided by Steiner in the text, his unnamed nun certainly could be Hildegard; but then again, his words could also apply to any number of other medieval female mystics, not the least of whom is Julian of Norwich.  I think it is therefore difficult to say for certain whether he was revising his earlier assessment of Hildegard or whether he had in mind a different medieval visionary entirely.  In any case, I think that once you read both Steiner and Hildegard closely, it’s obvious that there is a true affinity between them–not only in the content of their thought, but in the way in which they lived their lives as mystic polymaths whose spiritual experiences in no way excluded them from a full immersion in all the problems and activities of this world.


Hildegard didn’t pack heat, but she was seemingly superhuman in her accomplishments. (Source)

Well, it’s been way too long since my last post on Hildegard. To tell you the truth, the delay has been partly due to extreme busy-ness, but also partly because the thought of trying to sum up the main themes of Hildegard’s work and her importance to Steiner’s thought was, to say the least, slightly daunting.  The more I thought about it, the more connections there seemed to be. Indeed, as far as her relationship to Waldorf teaching is concerned, there hardly is a subject that is NOT impacted in some way by this truly magisterial woman’s work.  Theater? She invented the morality play.  Music? Hers is the best-preserved body of work by any medieval composer, and her work so completely original that it is hard to imagine a history of music class without her.  Life sciences?  Her medical treatises and herbals rank with the most sophisticated works of her day.  Likewise in the fields of theology and cosmology.  The woman was literally instructing the greatest minds of her day in the fine points of the composition of heavenly spheres. Not to mention the relationship of the planets to both the human form and the divine.

Viriditas: Hildegard’s Big Idea

So… given all that, how to summarize her contributions? And more importantly (for the Waldorf folk among us) how to examine her relationship to the work of Rudolf Steiner?  Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Steiner it’s this: when in doubt, meditate.  So off I trotted to the meditation cushion and after, oh, about three months, here’s what came to me:  if there’s one central theme that both ties together Hildegard’s body of work and connects it to Steiner’s thought, it’s her notion of viriditas.

Is Hildegard's notion of viriditas related to images of the "Green Man" like this one from a 13th c. church in Bamberg, Germany? (Source.)

Is Hildegard’s notion of viriditas related to images of the “Green Man” like this one from a 13th c. church in Bamberg, Germany? (Source.)

Bear with me, please! Rest assured, I’m not going to start throwing around Latin like some papal dignitary.  But I really must use this one term from Hildegard’s oeuvre in the original because there really is no equivalent in English.  Or in any other language, as far as I know.  And that’s not surprising, because Hildegard took the word, which can be found in only a handful of passages before her, and made it central to her whole cosmology.  In fact, if you Google the term, you’re basically directed to sites dealing with Hildegard.  So what, exactly, did viriditas mean?

It’s usually translated as “greening power” or “sustaining life force,” or something similarly new-age-y sounding. Essentially, for Hildegard, it denoted God’s generative power that permeates and upholds the creation.  If you’re like me, as soon as you read the translations “greening power” and “life force” you made several mental leaps–perhaps associating viriditas with pagan/Wiccan notions of fertility, especially the many medieval depictions of the “Green Man.” Or maybe your mind turned to Chinese ideas about qi.  Or, if your brain is as influenced by pop culture as mine, your very first thought might have been something closer to this:

Did Hildegard anticipate "The Force" by a thousand years or so? (Source)

Was “The Force” with Hildegard? (Source)

In some respects, any of these associations (even Yoda) is appropriate.  It’s certainly interesting to note that some “Green Man” images predate Hildegard, so she may have been picking up on a strain of popular belief when she chose vocabulary that evokes growth and greenness. (1)  And even ideas about Chinese qi and the Jedi “Force” aren’t completely off-base.  Hildegard definitely believes that viriditas, like qi, can be transmitted to humans through the food they eat, giving them a greater vitality.  (Any Chinese grandma would heartily agree.)  Indeed, Hildegard’s cures (that is, the recipes for health that fill her books Physica and Causes and Cures) are full of descriptions detailing how the sick can benefit from harnessing the viriditas that flows through nature, imbuing humans, plants, animals, and even stones with various degrees of energetic power.  She writes:

“The viriditas of the earth and plants greatly thrive in the morning, because the air is cold and the sun is warm.  And the herbs very strongly suck viriditas, like a lamb who sucks milk, because the heat of the day is barely sufficient to…cook and fortify the day’s viriditas so far as it is made fertile for the producing of fruit.” (2)

obi hildegard

Hildegard and Obi Wan: separated at birth? (Source for Hildegard’s image; source for Obi Wan)

You can see from this passage that, like the Jedi “Force,” Hildegard’s viriditas isn’t really a thing, so much as it is an energy.  All the different parts of nature (earth, air, animals, plants, humans, and even, for Hildegard, stones) have their role to play in circulating, condensing, and conveying viriditas.  So far, so good.  But was Hildegard’s main achievement that she anticipated George Lucas by a millenium?  Should we picture her with lightsaber in hand, her habit looking remarkably like Obi Wan’s robes, intoning, “Feel the viriditas, Luke…”?

Well, much as I love that image, it would seem that, in fact, Hildegard’s viriditas has a lot more to it than Lucas’ rather impersonal, ubiquitous “Force.”  For Hildegard, viriditas comes close to being God Him/Herself.  And that’s where it gets interesting–both in terms of Hildegard’s theology, and also in terms of her relationship to Rudolf Steiner.

Viriditas and the Word

Hildegard's illumination of the diving being she saw in her first vision.  (Source.)

Hildegard’s illumination of the diving being she saw in her first vision. (Source.)

The starting point for Hildegard’s deeper understanding of viriditas is the Biblical passage from the beginning of John:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Fine, I can hear you thinking–but what does the Word have to do with “greening power” or “life force”?  Well, that’s the interesting part.  Hildegard moves freely between a variety of words and concepts in her work, grasping at different ways for conveying the power of what she has experienced in her visions. (3)  Bear with me, here, because I’m going to quote at length from one of her passages where I think you can see her many streams of thought coming together–from her use of elemental imagery (earth, air, fire), to her deployment of the term viriditas, to her relation of all these things to Reason and the Word.  This is from her Book of Divine Works (Liber divinorum operum), and she is speaking in the voice of the divine being she observed in her first vision:

“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows; I gleam in the waters; and I burn in the sun, moon, and stars.  With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything, I awaken everything to life.  The air lives in green-ness (viriditas) and in flowers, waters flow as if alive, the sun, too, lives in his light. . . .And thus I remain hidden in every kind of reality as a fiery power.  Everything burns because of me in such a way as our breath constantly moves us, like the wind-tossed flame in a fire.  All of this lives in its essence, and there is no death in it.  For I am life.  I am also Reason, which bears within itself the breath of the resounding Word, through which the whole of creation is made.  I breathe life into everything so that nothing is mortal in respect to its species.  For I am life. . . .Reason is the root, the resounding Word blooms out of it.  Since God is Reason, how could it be that God, who causes all divine actions to come to fruition through human beings, is not active?…For this life is God, who is always in motion and constantly in action…” (4)

Traditional views see God as active, but still fundamentally a Person (whether anthropomorphic or not). (Source.)

Traditional views see God as active, but still fundamentally a Person (whether anthropomorphic or not)–in other words, as a noun.  (Source.)

So…just in case that was a little long and heavy for you, here’s the recap: God is Life, Viriditas, Fiery power, and Reason.  As such, God is active.  “Well,” you might say, “Big deal.  Of course God is active.  What’s the point of an inactive, dead God?”  I think, though, that when Hildegard uses so many different terms and ideas in this one passage, she’s trying to get at something quite different than the usual idea that God, as a person or proper noun (even as “Person” with capital “P”) performs actions. Rather, she’s suggesting that God somehow is action.  Or at least, that God cannot be understood outside the realm of action.  Look at the words she uses–life, viriditas, fiery power (and flames), Reason.  These things (if you can call them “things”) all exist in the boundary between matter and energy.  God, in other words, is not a thing, not a noun.  God is a verb.


And on that theological cliff-hanger, I’ll leave you until my next post, which I promise will follow much sooner on the heels of this one than this one did on my previous Hildegard post!  Stay tuned…Hildegard has some pretty good surprises up her sleeve.  As a great philosopher once said, shit is about to get REAL.



1) The most famous “Green Man” images in Hildegard’s area of Germany post-date her by a century or two, as indeed, do most of the “Green Man” images.  It appears as though the first “Green Man” sculptures in Western Europe date from the early 4th century CE (in France).  Their popularity seems to have increased slightly during the early Middle Ages, and then taken off after Hildegard’s time, with the most famous literary example, of course, being the Green Knight of Sir Gawain’s adventure.   The imagery was somewhat transformed during the Renaissance, when animal heads with vegetation, rather than human ones, predominated.  But to tell you the truth, it can be difficult to follow the development in a scholarly way, since nearly all of the literature about it is written from a neo-pagan viewpoint that emphasizes continuity over historical development.  One neo-pagan site that does have some helpful chronological charts is Mike Harding’s Green Man site, which lists the images according to century.
And then there’s also Tom Cheetham’s book, Green Man, Earth Angel, which covers the 20th c. Islamic scholar Henry Corbin’s work on Muslim images of the “Green Man,” who is identified in Sufic tradition with the figure al-Kadir.  (Tom Cheetham.  Green Man, Earth Angel. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2004.)  What’s interesting about Corbin/Cheetham’s work (though the book doesn’t actually trace this out explicitly) is that it suggests that the explosion of “Green Man” imagery in the high Middle Ages might have its origins in the transmission of Sufic ideas from Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain).  Since many scholars now believe that medieval ideas of courtly love and chivalry have their origins in Moorish courts, it certainly isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that notions of “greening power” and the “Green Man” might be traceable to Islamic mystical thought as well.   But as far as I know, no one has actually examined the topic in any depth.

2) Hildegard von Bingen, Physica, pdf, pg. 164.  Available online here.   For this quote and other insights, I’m indebted to a paper written by Allison Jaines Elledge, “You Are What You Eat: Hildegard of Bingen’s Viriditas.” available online here.

3) This is a point Hildegard had in common with Rudolf Steiner, who also used different vocabulary and idioms to try to describe his spiritual experiences.  Both of them seem to have moved fluidly through a number of different metaphors and descriptors to try to capture something that is ultimately indescribable in ordinary language.  In fact, Hildegard went so far as to create her own alphabet, the “Litterae Ignotae,” a series of unique letters that she used in some of her hymns and songs to capture the mysterious “unknown language” (Lingua Ignota) she heard in her visions.  (For more on the Lingua Ignota and Litterae Ignotae, click here.)  I’m indebted to a personal conversation with Fred Amrine on the topic of his lecture “The Seven Languages of Anthroposophy,”  for first spurring me to think about Steiner’s different “languages,” and the possible parallel to Hildegard’s shifting imagery.

4) This is my “tweak” of Richard Cunningham’s translation in Hildegard von Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs. ed. Matthew Fox. Santa Fe: Bear & Company, 1987.  For the original Latin and an alternate translation, I used the very interesting article by Jeannette Jones, “A Theological Interpretation of ‘Viriditas’ in Hildegard of Bingen and Gregory the Great.” BU Dept of Musicology & Ethnomusicology Online Archive, May 11, 2013.
Jones’ article is interesting not only for it’s look at Hildegard’s use of viriditas, but also for her examination of Gregory the Great, who is the one other theologian prior to Hildegard who used the word with some regularity.  The upshot of Jones’ argument is that for Gregory, viriditas is used to describe the church as it grows in holiness (using the earth as a metaphor for the church).  Hildegard, she argues, continues his imagery of vitality and growth, but extends the word to refer to a specific kind of thriving that is created and sustained by God, specifically through Christ as the “viriditas of God’s finger.”  I should note, here, that I actually disagree with Jones about the “viriditas of God’s finger” being Christ in his male form.  I think that, rather, Hildegard is talking about Divine Wisdom, as indicated by the use of the feminine “gloriosa” in the original Latin.  But more on that topic in my next (third and final?) post on Hildegard.

This week I’ve had the pleasure of teaching 12th graders in Ann Arbor, MI about the Iranian Revolution–based on the amazing graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. If you don’t already own Persepolis, RUN (do not walk) to your nearest bookstore and buy it. It’s an amazing tool for understanding the political situation in Iran, as well as the deep suffering of the Persian people. The comic, besides being incredibly beautifully drawn, is heart-wrenching, tender, and hilariously funny at the same time. (And if you’re not a book person, there’s a movie version too that is equally as good.)

In any case, when I stumbled on this video made by A$a Soltan Rahmani (a self-described citizen of “Tehrangeles,” CA), it made me think of my new Michigan friends. Enjoy it, and listen carefully to the lyrics as she describes her own journey from a small desert town in Iran to the big desert town of LA, where the LA river is “paved in gold.”  (One caveat: though it starts out fairly innocently, the video does contain some footage from the 1979 revolution and thereafter, so it’s not one to show young children.)

Thanks, Ann Arbor folk, for making me feel so welcome in your class! (And a shout-out to my soul sistah Sianne Ngai, English professor extraordinaire, who first introduced me to A$a’s work.  A$a’s a one-of-a-kind woman who, in her own unique way, plays with and challenges the stereotypes of what a “Persian woman” should be.)

And for those of you waiting for part 2 of my post on Hildegard von Bingen, it’s coming, albeit slower than expected.  Just hang in there!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

How will you make history this year?

Hildegard recording one of her visions, from a manuscript of her work "Book of Divine Works."  Source.

Hildegard recording one of her visions, from a manuscript of her work “Book of Divine Works.” Source.

So, after a hiatus of a few weeks (during which time I co-taught a class on Dante and was down with the flu), I’m back with another post, inspired by my time spent considering medieval cosmology.  Here’s the deal, yo: Hildegard von Bingen is the most crazily comprehensive and erudite philosopher-cum-mystic you’ve (probably) never heard of.  So read on, and prepare to be impressed…

Name: Hildegard von Bingen

Birthplace/Dates:  Bermersheim, in Rheinhessen (in what is now Germany); 1098-1179.

Occupation/Claim to Fame:  Where do I begin?  Hildegard was a visionary who wrote extensive works of mysticism, philosophy, astronomy, and medicine.  She also carried on correspondences with popes, kings, and prominent theologians of her day.  She composed breathtakingly beautiful music (which is how she is most widely known today), supervised illuminations of her visions, wrote dramas, and invented her own language.  It is nearly impossible to overestimate the breadth and depth of her work, or its importance in its day.

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  Hildegard perfectly captures the medieval way of looking at the world.  In particular, her ideas of the macrocosm/microcosm and of the principle “as above, so below” can be used in any number of lesson blocks relating to the Middle Ages–history or literature.  Plus, Rudolf Steiner mentions her specifically as an important historical figure.  So we really have no excuse to not include her in our lesson plans.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum:  HS 11th grade Medieval History; 11th grade Dante block (as a background for Dante’s world-view); 6th grade Medieval History; 11th grade History of Music; any time you are doing History of Science/Medicine.

If you read only one thing by Hildegard, I’d recommend: Peter Dronke’s chapter on her (which quotes extensively from her works) in his book, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.  pp. 144-201.  Or, alternatively, you could use a reader that contains selections of all her many writings.  Two good readers are Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, eds. Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings.  New York: Crossroad, 1995; and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Hildegard von Bingen, a spiritual reader.  Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007.  Both have helpful maps and chronologies.  For some online excerpts, try this site, which has a brief bio followed by selections from her works.

Hildegard Stands Alone


Ryan Gosling’s down with Hildegard–are you?

Most people these days, if they know Hildegard at all, know her as a composer, since her work has become fairly popular among early music lovers.  Others might have heard her mentioned as one of many female mystics of the middle ages.  Though she is both of these things, she is so much more–so much, in fact, that it can be difficult (not to mention overwhelming) to try to sum her up in one or two blog entries.  But I’m going to give it my best shot.  Hildegard, if you’re reading this somewhere, forgive me for my manifold sins of omission as I attempt to encapsulate your work.  But girl, there’s just so damn much of it!

In fact, in preparing to write this post I racked my brains to find someone to compare Hildegard to in terms of the sheer breadth and depth of her work.  There certainly aren’t many other medieval figures (male or female) that easily come to mind in comparison.  Even authors like Aquinas didn’t attempt to write medical tracts and compose music (not to mention cookbooks and morality plays) alongside their theological work.

The three figures I finally came up with as possible comparison points?  Aristotle, Goethe, and Rudolf Steiner.  I later read another scholar compare her to the medieval Islamic philosopher Averroës (and also Goethe).  Someone else said Avicenna.  So, ok, there were some other medieval writers who are just as impressive, but I mean, come on!  When you’re being compared to Averroës, you KNOW you’re a big deal.  So I’m not just making this stuff up.  She really is all that AND a bag of chips, as my sister would say.

Hildegard, The Early Years

So who was this nun about whom we know so little these days?  Hildegard started life as the 10th child of a couple, who, in keeping with medieval custom, gave her for the church as a “tithe,” since she represented 1/10th of the children they had produced.  At age eight she was “enclosed” in a cell with an older religious woman named Jutta, who taught her rudimentary Latin, how to chant Psalms, and all the other things a female hermit would need to know.

The chamber of an anchoress (called an "anchorhold") at a small church in Hislip, England. Source.

The chamber of an anchoress (called an “anchorhold”) at a small church in Hartlip, England. Source.

The practice of enclosure, though strange to us now, was fairly common during that period.  (English female mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich is perhaps the most famous example of this practice.) Women called “anchoresses” would live in cells (called “anchorholds”) adjoining the wall of a church, praying the liturgical hours, living a simple life, and offering prayers and advice to churchgoers.  The role of an anchoress fell somewhere between that of a nun, a hermit, and a lay person; though they never left their anchorholds and focused all their attention on God, they did have regular contact with the outside world through the window of their enclosure, which gave onto the church, and sometimes through an exterior window, through which they could consult with parishioners. They also often retained a servant girl who went out to do shopping and other daily tasks, leaving them free to focus on the prayer and contemplation that was their raison d’être.   Apparently Hildegard’s teacher Jutta was rather popular, because she accepted so many girls under her tutelage that they all eventually moved to a separate facility that became a convent.  When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected abbess–a position she retained until her own death in 1179.

Hildegard receiving one of her visions (depicted as fire raining down from heaven) and dictating it to her male scribe, Volmar.

Hildegard receiving one of her visions (depicted as fire raining down from heaven) and dictating it to her male scribe, Volmar. Source.

Ever since she was a toddler, Hildegard had experienced visions.  She was only three when she “saw so great a brightness that my soul trembled; yet because of my infant condition I could express nothing of it.”  She apparently did not lose consciousness during these visions, but, as she writes, “whenever I saw these things deep in my soul I still retained outer sight, and… heard this said of no other human being.”  (1)  Perhaps related to these visions were the migraine headaches Hildegard suffered throughout her life–she writes in several places of the “frequent illness” that she suffered that “wore my body out and made my powers fail.”  Much scholarly ink has been spilled over whether her visions can be reduced to simply the side-effect of the migraines.  To my mind, the issue of headaches or no is a red herring.  I mean, really–I don’t know any other migraine sufferer who has gone on to produce canons of work comparable to Hildegard’s, so even if the visions and headaches were related, her experiences (and more importantly, what she made of them) can’t be explained away so neatly.

During her own time, at least, Hildegard was widely known and well-regarded, though she didn’t “come out” as a visionary until she was middle-aged.  As a child and teen, Hildegard writes, she did occasionally speak about otherworldly things that seemed strange to others.  On occasion she even predicted future events.  But she revealed the source of her otherworldly knowledge (her visions) to no one save Jutta.  Even after the elder nun’s death, Hildegard hid her visions from her superiors, until finally, at age 40, she experienced “painful pressures” that led her to believe she must reveal her experiences to her male superior.  He immediately had her write them down and, taking them to his superiors for verification, they were eventually pronounced genuine–the product of “that gift of prophecy which the prophets of old had proclaimed.”  Within a few years, her writings went so far as the Pope, who read them out “with joy” to an assembly of high churchmen at Trier in 1147-48.  He then wrote Hildegard a letter commanding her to write her visions down more systematically so that they could be disseminated among the theologians, churchmen, and laypeople of the day.

Hildegard, the Teacher

Like another "Hil," Hildegard von Bingen's advice was sought by people from all walks of life.   Source.

Like another “Hil,” Hildegard von Bingen’s advice was sought by people from all walks of life. Source.

The effect of this Papal commendation was immediate and far-reaching.  Within a few years Hildegard was carrying on correspondences with all the major figures of her day–kings, theologians, and scholars from all the major universities, as well as common laypeople who sought her advice.  Although she was careful to always distinguish that, as a “poor, little figure of a woman,” her power came from God and not from herself, she did not exactly shy away from doling out advice.  Quite the opposite.  She clarified points of theology for the scholarly superstars of the day in Paris, and even went so far as to upbraid King Henry II of England in a letter written before the murder of Thomas à Becket: “the foul habits of others overwhelm you and you become entangled in them….Shun this, with all your might.” (2)  Henry, apparently, did not give her sufficient heed.

If Hildegard’s opinion was widely sought-after in her day, it was with good reason.  The woman had something to say about everything, from the deepest theological mysteries to what you should feed a sick person in wintertime.  (Spelt porridge, in case you were wondering).  She expounded her ideas about God and the universe in several volumes: Scivias, her first book of visions; The Book of the Rewards of Life, a proto-Dantean look at the afterlife; and The Book of Divine Works, a later magisterial work that laid out a systematic mechanics and meaning of the cosmos.  There is just so much to cover in these works that you’ll have to wait for my next post to get the gist of what she wrote about there.  Suffice it to say, for now, that she believed that the entire cosmos, including the human being, was permeated by and continually upheld by the divine.

We have Campbells, they have Hildegard.  Source.

We have Campbells, they have Hildegard. Source.

As if her weighty tomes of visions and theology weren’t enough, she also produced learned commentaries on medicine that were at the cutting edge of medieval understandings of the human body.  Indeed, hers is the first medical description of the female orgasm that we have on record, leading one to wonder exactly how, as a life-long nun, she came about that intimate piece of knowledge.  (Given the complete absence of evidence that she ever strayed from the religious fold, scholars conjecture she pieced it together from accounts by her nuns and other women in the community.)  Her medical work has been called “materialist,” because she was quite committed to understanding the human body via the actions of the four elements.  This view came to be mainstream in later years, but at the time she wrote, it represented a fairly avant-garde use of the neo-Aristotelian corpus coming out of the Near East and Moorish Spain. (3)  Hildegard, however, was not interested in medical theory in the abstract; her works are filled with actual recipes for tinctures, herbal preparations, and other “on the ground” advice for physicians. This interest in the practical details of life characterizes her work as much as the high-and-mighty visions of the cosmos.  Apparently, her fame as a cookbook-writer must still be strong in Germany, where her name must conjure up images of good, down-home cooking, judging from the label on this soup can.

Hildegard, the Artist

The list of her accomplishments just goes on and on.  She wrote and directed plays–in fact, most scholars believe her “Ordo Virtutum,” composed in 1151, is the oldest medieval morality play by over a century.  This makes her the inventor of an entirely new type of drama, one that we think of as prototypical of the medieval period.  (Steinerfolk, take note: all those mystery dramas at the Goetheanum have their origin in Hildegard!)

As well as being the first morality play, “Ordo” is also the only one that has survived to us with both script and music relatively intact.  (Hildegard wrote both.)  The plot is relatively simple–a human soul (Anima) struggles between the Virtues (sung by 17 solo female voices) and the Devil.  (There is also a chorus of Patriarchs sung by men and a chorus of Souls sung by still more women.)  The work provides a lovely illustration of the practical application of her more theoretical writings on music.  For instance, the devil only yells or screeches, since according to what Hildegard wrote elsewhere, the devil cannot sing or produce mellifluous speech, music being thoroughly permeated by the divine.

And speaking of divine melody…Hildegard’s liturgical music has a soaring beauty that is clearly inspired by her visions of the heavens.  As you might expect from so accomplished a master, Hildegard’s work stands head and shoulders above traditional chant or plainsong–almost literally.  Just listen to how the voices swoop up to the heavens:

Her musical compositions must have appealed to the generations that came after her as well; the only medieval composer for whom we have as complete a canon of works is the famous 12th century monk (and legendary lover) Peter Abelard.

Her poetry, written on religious themes common to the middle ages, likewise reveals her unique way of looking at the world.  As with many 12th century thinkers, Mary plays a pivotal role.  But we also hear Sophia, Divine Wisdom, extolled in feminine form; and Love herself is rendered in the feminine and assigned a high place in Heaven.  Here’s a sample of one of my favorite verses:

Hildegard's depiction of Mother Wisdom, from the manuscript of her Scivias.  Source.

Hildegard’s depiction of Mother Wisdom, from the manuscript of her Scivias. Source.

O power of Wisdom!

You encompassed the cosmos,

encircling and embracing all

in one living orbit

with your three wings:

one soars on high,

one distills the earth’s essence,

and the third hovers everywhere.

Praise to you Wisdom, fitting praise! (4)

Hildegard, the Wrestler

Of course, life was not always sweetness and light for Hildegard, even once she’d achieved great fame.  She struggled several times with the church authorities over issues related to her convent.  In fact, the initial move of her convent from one town to another was over the objections of the monks associated with the establishment.  She also argued (this time, unsuccessfully) with an archbishop over the appointment of his sister, one of her favorite nuns, as Abbess of a different convent.  But her greatest challenge came in the last year of her life, when she decided to bury a patron of hers whom she had judged repentant in consecrated ground.  The man (whose name we do not know) had been excommunicated, possibly as a heretic.  Hildegard believed the man had changed his ways, but the authorities stood firm: until he was disinterred and reburied in unholy ground, her entire convent would remain under interdict–unable to say the daily offices or celebrate Mass.

This was a huge blow for Hildegard, and she didn’t take it lying down.  Instead, she fired back letters to the Archbishop and his prelates, arguing that she had had a vision that forewarned a “terrible and lamentable danger” would come down like a “dark cloud” upon those who forced the removal of the body.  She went on to give a very sly defense of her actions that contrasted the “upright men” who had ordered the interdict with the potential “feminine harshness [and] injustice to the sacraments of Christ” her nuns would be engaging in if they were to follow through with the orders to disinter the body.  In other words, she was not going to give an inch.  Eventually, the Archbishop relented, and six months before Hildegard’s death, lifted the interdict.

Dorothy was not the first person to go over the rainbow--Hildegard beat her by about 750 years.  (But didn't take a dog along with her.) Source.

Dorothy was not the first person to go over the rainbow–Hildegard beat her by about 750 years. (But didn’t take a dog along with her.) Source.

Hildegard passed away at the age of 81, having previously told her nuns that her life was nearing its close.  When she died, wrote her faithful monk admirers, two rainbows appeared in the sky over her room.  They widened and reached up to the four corners of the earth, and a full moon illumined the point where the two arcs crossed.  A red cross appeared there, surrounded by multicolored circles of light, in each of which a small cross reposed.  He wrote: “It is worthy of belief that by this sign God was showing how bright was the splendor with which he was illumining his beloved one in heaven.” (5)

That seems as good as any a place to leave off this post.  Next time, I’ll try my best to encapsulate some of the major themes of Hildegard’s work, as well as give suggestions for teaching, and a brief look at her significance for Waldorf teachers and students of Rudolf Steiner.  (Phew!  Wish me luck!)



(1) Gottfried of Disibodenberg and Theodoric of Echternach, Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, quoted in Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. p. 145.  When she says that she “heard this said of no other human being,” Hildegard is probably referring to the fact that many of the most famous visionaries lost normal consciousness when they saw their visions, whereas she retained full awareness of what was going on around her, “seeing” her visions inwardly, in her soul.

(2) Hildegard, “Letter to King Henry II of England,” quoted in Fiona Bowie & Oliver Davies, Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings.  New York: Crossroad, 1995.  p. 140.

(3) To give you an idea of the timeline here, Hildegard very slightly predates her rough contemporary Averroës, who helped popularize the work of Avicenna and other Muslim Aristotelian scholars.  This means that in all likelihood she had other sources for her Aristotelian understanding of the elements and their relation to the human body.

(4) Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Univ. of California Press, 1978, p. 64.

(5) Gottfried and Theodoric, Vita, quoted in Fiona Maddocks, Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of her Age.  New York: Doubleday, 2001.  p. 249.

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