Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was the tenth child born to a noble family in Bermersheim, Germany. When she was just seven years of age, her parents dedicated her to a life of service to the church. This was common practice at the time, because many parents could not afford such large families.
Visions, Migraines, and Religious Isolation
At the age of three, Hildegard started to have visions of strange luminous objects. Realising this was rather unusual, she kept her gift hidden for many years. Modern historians believe these luminous objects were the manifestation of migraine. The symptoms she describes, such as sickness, temporary blindness and paralysis, all point to that debilitating illness.
At age eight, her family sent her to an anchoress named Jutta who undertook her religious education. The life of an anchoress (or anchorite) was extremely hard. Shut off from the outside world, living in one small room, often attached to a church, they followed services through a small window. Food would be passed in through the window, and refuse taken away.
The recluse would pass the time in prayer and contemplation. Anchorites were usually supported by the church and the local community. In return for food, the recluse might sew or embroider shirts and other garments. Hildegard received only a rudimentary education from Jutta and throughout her life this was a constant source of frustration. She could read the Psalter in Latin but had a poor understanding of grammar, relying on a monk named Volmar, who became her lifelong secretary.
At the age of fifteen, Hildegard took permanent vows. On Jutta’s death she became abbess of her Benedictine community at Disibodenberg. With the community growing rapidly, Hildegard founded the monastery of Rupertsberg in 1150. She also founded another monastery at Eibingen in 1165.
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Hildegard – Prolific Writer and Composer
Hildegard was a prolific writer of letters, poems, hymns, medical works, commentaries on the Gospels and the Rule of St Benedict. Her play Ordo Virtutum is possibly the oldest surviving musical morality play. Music was also important to Hildegard as a way of enhancing worship.
Despite having no musical training, she wrote more than seventy musical compositions, many honouring the saints and the Virgin Mary. She brought them together into a cycle known as The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations. Her music sounds like this:
Dr. Nancy Fierro, in her essay titled Hildegard of Bingen: Symphony of the Harmony of Heaven describes Hildegard’s music:
″For Hildegard, music was an all-embracing concept. It was the symphony of angels praising God, the balanced proportions of the revolving celestial spheres, the exquisite weaving of body and soul, the hidden design of nature’s creations. It was the manifest process of life moving, expanding, growing towards the joy of its own deepest realizations and a profound unity of voices singing the praises of God here on earth. It was beauty, sound, fragrance and the flower of human artistry.″
Hildegard of Bingen’s Divine Command to Write
In about 1141, while recovering from serious illness, Hildegard claimed to have received a divine command to write. New Advent, The Catholic Encyclopedia gives this quotation from Hildegard’s writings:
″And it came to pass … when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming… and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books…″
Hildegard had grave reservations and did not fulfil the command immediately. This was a time of intense unrest within the church. Anyone with unconventional ideas instantly attracted a large following and plenty of criticism.
At no point did Hildegard doubt the divine origins of her visions, but before setting pen to paper she sought approval from the Catholic church. Pope Eugenius III (1145-53), known as a somewhat enlightened man, encouraged Hildegard to complete her writing.
She embarked on three major theological works: Scivias (Know the Way), Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits), and De operatione Dei (Of God’s Activities). Her work, an intermingling of religious and physiological concepts, reflects her medical and scientific ideas.
Mystical experiences – that is private revelations from God – were not compatible with the dogmatic structure of the Catholic church. Of the few mystics accepted by the Church, little is known about their works. Few left any enduring record of their visions which makes Hildegard all the more exceptional.
Hildegard and Medicine
Dating back to classical times, the basic theory underlying medieval medicine was the theory of humours.
Doctors believed every person had four main bodily fluids, known as humours. In The Medieval World Complete, Robert Barlett explains the humours. He tells us these were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. The four humours were closely linked to the four seasons: black bile – autumn, yellow bile – summer, phlegm – winter, and blood-letting – spring.
According to these beliefs, the humours must balance for the body to stay healthy. If the body produced excessive phlegm the patient suffered from lung disorders such as coughs – the body’s attempt to eject phlegm and restore the balance. Doctors cured their patients with special diets, medicines and blood-letting, using leeches.
Hildegard wrote about natural philosophy and medicine in the Liber simplicis medicinae, later called the Physica (Natural History), and Causa et curae (Causes and Cures) in which she places medical theory in the context of Christian history. Hildegard investigated the medicinal use of plants as cures for common illnesses such as headaches, fevers, skin rashes, abscesses, sterility, baldness and intestinal worms.
According to Hildegard, if you had toothache, you would cook wormwood and verbena in wine and use it as a poultice. You would also puncture the gum around the tooth ″so that the pus can come out.″ Hildegard was particularly outspoken when it came to sexuality, highlighting female desire and pleasure in sex. To cool lust, in both men and women, she recommended a bath in cooked wild lettuce.
Hildegard’s Lasting Legacy
Hildegard died in 1179. Her contribution to church music cannot be denied. Even today, recordings of her liturgical music are best-sellers throughout Europe and the United States and her play, Ordo Virtutum, is regularly performed. Her contribution to the history of science is particularly important because of her detailed focus on female physiology.
She is one of only two medieval women known to have written about female anatomy, the other being Trotula of Salerno. Attempts to canonize her during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were unsuccessful, although her name appears in the Roman martyrology.