The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a remarkable woman, a "first" in many
fields. At a time when few women wrote, Hildegard, known as "Sybil of the Rhine", produced major works of theology and visionary writings. When few women were accorded respect, she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, and wrote treatises about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones. She is the first composer whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were performed. Although not yet canonized, Hildegard has been beatified, and is frequently referred to as St. Hildegard. Revival of interest in this extraordinary woman of the middle ages was initiated by musicologists
and historians of science and religion. Less fortunately, Hildegard's visions and music had been hijacked by the New Age movement, whose music bears some resemblance to Hildegard's ethereal airs. Her story is important to all students of medieval history and culture and an inspirational account of an irresisible spirit and vibrant intellect overcoming social, physical, cultural, gender barriers to achieve timeless transcendence.
The Early Years
Hildegard was born a "10"th child (a tithe) to a noble family. As was customary
with the tenth child, which the family could not count on feeding, she was
dedicated at birth to the church. The girl started to have visions of luminous
objects at the age of tree, but soon realized she was unique in this ability
and hid this gift for many years.
At age 8, the family sent this strange girl to an anchoress named Jutta to
receive a religious education. Jutta was born into a wealthy and prominent
family, and by all accounts was a young woman of great beauty. She spurned all
worldly temptations and decided to dedicate her life to god. Instead of entering a convent, Jutta followed a harsher route and became an anchoress.
Anchors of both sexes, though from most accounts they seem to be largely women,
led an ascetic life, shut off from the world inside a small room, usually built
adjacent to a church so that they could follow the services, with only a small
window acting as their link to the rest of humanity. Food would be passed through
this window and refuse taken out. Most of the time would be spent in prayer,
contemplation, or solitary handworking activities, like stitching and embroidering.
Because they would become essentially dead to the world, anchors would receive
their last rights from the bishop before their confinement in the anchorage.
This macabre ceremony was a complete burial ceremony with the anchor laid out
on a bier.
Jutta's cell was such an anchorage, except that there was a door through which
Hildegard entered, as well as about a dozen of girls from noble families who
were attracted there by Jutta's fame in later years. What kind of education did
Hildegard receive from Jutta? It was of the most rudimentary form, and Hildegard
could never escape the feelings of inadequacy and lack of education. She learned to read Psalter in Latin. Though her grasp of the grammatical
intricacies of the language was never complete - she always had secretaries to
help her write down her visions - she had a good intuitive feel for the intrintricacies of the language itself, constructing complicated sentences fraught with
meanings on many levels, that are still a challenge to students of her writings.
The proximity of the anchorage to the church of the Benedictine monastery at
Disibodenberg (it was attached physically to the church) undoubtedly exposed
young Hildegard to musical religious services and were the basis for her own
musical compositions. After Jutta's death, when Hildegard was 38 years of age,
she was elected the head of the budding convent living within cramped walls
of the anchorage.
During all these years Hildegard confided of her visions only to Jutta and another
monk, named Volmar, who was to become her lifelong secretary. However, in 1141, Hildegard had a vision that changed the course of her life.
A vision of god gave her instant understanding of the meaning of the religious
texts, and commanded her to write down everything she would observe in her
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...
Yet Hildegard was also overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and hesitated to act.
But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of
myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call
to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down
by a scourge of god, I fell onto a bed of sickness.
The 12th century was also the time of schisms and religious foment,
when someone preaching any outlandish doctrine could instantly attract a large
following. Hildegard was critical of schismatics, indeed her whole life she preached
against them, especially the Cathars. She wanted her visions to be sanctioned,
approved by the Catholic Church, though she herself never doubted the
divine origins to her luminous visions. She wrote to St. Bernard, seeking his
blessings. Though his answer to her was rather perfunctory, he did bring it
to the attention of Pope Eugenius (1145-53), a rather enlightened individual
who exhorted Hildegard to finish her writings. With papal imprimatur, Hildegard was able to
finish her first visionary work Scivias ("Know the Ways of the Lord")
and her fame began to spread through Germany and beyond.
Around 1150 Hildegard moved her growing convent from Disibodenberg, where the
nuns lived alongside the monks, to Bingen about 30 km north, on the banks
of the Rhine. She later founded another convent, Eibingen, across the
river from Bingen. Her remaining years were very productive. She wrote
music and texts to her songs, mostly liturgical plainchant honoring saints
and Virgin Mary for the holidays and feast days, and antiphons. There is some evidence that her music and moral play Ordo Virtutum ("Play of Virtues")
were performed in her own convent. In addition to Scivias she wrote
two other major works of visionary writing Liber vitae meritorum (1150-63) (Book of Life's Merits) and Liber divinorum operum(1163)
("Book of Divine Works"), in which she further expounded on her theology
of microcosm and macrocosm-man being the peak of god's creation, man
as a mirror through which the splendor of the macrocosm was reflected.
Hildegard also authored Physica and Causae et Curae (1150), both works on natural history and curative powers
of various natural objects, which are together known as Liber subtilatum ("The book of subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Things"). These works were
uncharacteristic of Hildegard's writings, including her correspondences, in that
they were not presented in a visionary form and don't contain any references
to divine source or revelation. However, like her religious writings they
reflected her religious philosophy-that the man was the peak of god's
creation and everything was put in the world for man to use.
Her scientific views were derived from the ancient Greek cosmology of
the four elements-fire, air, water, and earth-with their complementary
qualities of heat, dryness, moisture, and cold, and the corresponding four
humours in the body-choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm, and melancholy
(black bile). Human constitution was based on the preponderance of one or
two of the humours. Indeed, we still use words "choleric", "sanguine", "phlegmatic" and "melancholy" to describe personalities. Sickness upset the
delicate balance of the humours, and only consuming the right plant or animal
which had that quality you were missing, could restore the healthy balance
to the body. That is why in giving descriptions of plants, trees, birds,
animals, stones, Hildegard is mostly concerned in describing that object's quality
and giving its medicinal use. Thus, "Reyan (tansy) is hot and a little damp
and is good against all superfluous flowing humours and whoever suffers from
catarrh and has a cough, let him eat tansy. It will bind humors so that they
do not overflow, and thus will lessen."
Hildegard's writings are also unique for their generally positive view of sexual
relations and her description of pleasure from the point of view of a woman.
They might also contain the first description of the female orgasm.
When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain,
which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight
during the act and summons forth the emission of the man's seed. And when
the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her
brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman's sexual
organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time
of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can old something
enclosed in his fist.
She also wrote that strength of semen determined the sex of the child, while
the amount of love and passion determine child's disposition. The worst case,
where the seed is weak and parents feel no love, leads to a bitter daughter.
Music was extremely important to Hildegard. She describes it as the means of recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise. According to her before the Fall, Adam had a pure voice and joined angels in singing praises to god. After the fall, music was invented and musical instruments made in order to worship god appropriately. Perhaps this explains why her music most often sounds like what we imagine angels singing to be like.
Hildegard wrote hymns and sequences in honor of saints, virgins and Mary. She
wrote in the plainchant tradition of a single vocal melodic line, a tradition
common in liturgical singing of her time. Her music is undergoing a revival
and enjoying huge public success. One group, Sequentia, is planning
to record all of Hildegard's musical output in time for the 900th anniversary of
her birth in 1998. Their latest recording Canticles of Ecstasy is superb. Be sure to read the translations of the latin text of the songs
which provide a good example of Hildegard's metaphorical writing, and are imbued
with vibrant descriptions of color and light, that also occurs in her
The Most Distinguished Migraine Sufferer
It is now generally agreed that Hildegard suffered from migraine, and that her
visions were a result of this condition. The way she describes her visions,
the precursors, to visions, to debilitating aftereffects, point to classic
symptoms of migraine sufferers. Although a number of visual hallucinations may
occur, the more common ones described are the "scotomata" which often follow
perceptions of phosphenes in the visual field. Scintillating scotomata are also associated with areas of total blindness in the visual field, something Hildegard
might have been describing when she spoke of points of intense light, and also
the "extinguished stars." Migraine attacks are usually followed by sickness,
paralysis, blindness-all reported by Hildegard, and when they pass, by a period
of rebound and feeling better than before, a euphoria also described by her.
Also, writes Oliver Sachs
Among the strangest and most intense symptoms of migraine aura,
and the most difficult of description and analysis, are the occurrences
of feelings of sudden familiarity and certitude... or its opposite. Such
states are experienced, momentarily and occasionally,by everyone;
their occurrence in migraine auras is marked by their overwhelming intensity
and relatively long duration.
It is a tribute to the remarkable spirit and the intellectual powers of this woman
that she was able to turn a debilitating illness into the word of god, and
create so much with it.
- Hildegard of Bingen, a Visionary Life, by Sabina Flanagan. (Routledge, London, 1989).
- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sachs. (New York : Perennial Library, 1987).
- Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the "Symphonia armoniae celestium
revelationum, trans. and commentary Barbara Newman (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.
- Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, The Classics
of Western Spirituality (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1990).
- Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, text by Hildegard of Bingen with
commentary by Matthew Fox. (Santa Fe, N.M. : Bear & Co., 1985).
- Hildegard of Bingen : the Book of the rewards of life (Liber vitae
meritorum), translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. (New York : Garland Pub., 1994).
- The letters of Hildegard of Bingen, translated by Joseph L. Baird, Radd
K. Ehrman. (New York : Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Sister of wisdom : St. Hildegard's theology of the feminine, by Barbara
Newman. (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1987).
- The "Ordo virtutum" of Hildegard of Bingen : critical studies edited by
Audrey Ekdahl Davidson. (Kalamazoo, Mich. : Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1992).
- Hildegard von Bingen : Mystikerin, Heilerin, Gefahrtin der Engel, by Ingeborg Ulrich. (Munchen : Kosel, 1990).
- German mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein : a
literary and intellectual history, by Andrew Weeks. (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1993).
Bison Tales has recently released two recordings of Hildegard's music and spoken word by Ellen Oak. Ellen Oak has been studying and performing the life and work of Hildegard for more than a decade.
CDConnection has the following disks available.
- Harmony of Heaven
- Sounding the Living Light
- Hildegard of Bingen Canticles of Ecstasy DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 12/94 Sequentia - excellent
- DES77051 Hildegard of Bingen Ordo Virturum Vol 1 DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 4/90 1:29 DDD Sequentia - a bit weird, not for the faint of heart.
- DES77020 Hildegard of Bingen Symphoniae Spiritual DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 10/89 Sequentia - pleasant and beautiful.
- CHW41 Hildegard Antiphons and Songs CHRYSALIS 11/93
- CHW74584 Hildegard Hildegard & Her Time CHRYSALIS 3/93
- HYP66039 Hildegard of Bingen Feather on the Breathe of God HYPERION 2/88 Emma Kirkby/Page/Gothic Voices
plain·chant or plain·song \'plaÅn-,chant\ n or \'plaÅn-,soÇn\ n
1: GREGORIAN CHANT
2: a liturgical chant of any of various Christian rites
cho·ler·ic \'kaÈl-e-rik, ke-'ler-ik\ adj
1: easily moved to often unreasonable or excessive anger: hot-tempered
2: ANGRY, IRATE
an·ti·phon \'ant-e-fen, -,faÈn\ n
[LL antiphona Ð more at ANTHEM] (1500)
1: a psalm, anthem, or verse sung responsively
2: a verse usu. from Scripture said or sung before and after a canticle, psalm, or psalm verse as part of the liturgy
san·guine \'san-gwen\ adj
[ME sanguin, fr. MF, fr. L sanguineus, fr. sanguin-, sanguis]
2a: consisting of or relating to blood
b: SANGUINARY 1
c: of the complexion: RUDDY
3: having blood as the predominating bodily humor; also: having the bodily conformation and temperament held characteristic of such predominance and marked by sturdiness, high color, and cheerfulness
4: CONFIDENT, OPTIMISTIC
phleg·mat·ic \fleg-'mat-ik\ adj
1: resembling, consisting of, or producing the humor phlegm
2: having or showing a slow and stolid temperament
[ME malencolie, fr. MF melancolie, fr. LL melancholia, fr. Gk, fr. melan- + choleÅ bile Ð more at GALL]
1a: an abnormal state attributed to an excess of black bile and characterized by irascibility or depression
b: BLACK BILE
2a: depression of spirits: DEJECTION
b: a pensive mood
Last modified: 5/24/95
Kristina Lerman, firstname.lastname@example.org