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
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 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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.