Through her studies and writings, twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) helped German scholars to emerge from the Dark Ages by presenting a revisioning of the cosmos and the interrelationship between man and his environment.
German scientist, philosopher, theologian, and composer Hildegard of Bingen devoted half her life to sharing, through her writing, both the insight gained through her visionary experiences and her joy in the Christian faith. Many centuries later, historians still study her texts, and the over 70 chants and hymns she composed continue to be performed and recorded. An influential abbess, Hildegard was considered by historians to be among the most important scientists of her age and perhaps the most significant woman scientist in Medieval Europe. Her written works, which focus on natural history, medicine, and cosmology—a theory about the natural order of the universe—received renewed critical interest in the late twentieth century following a reevaluation of the previously overlooked contributions of female scholarship. In addition to the republication of her many books and letters, a recording of Hildegard's medieval-styled chants and hymns topped the classical music charts in 1998.
Visionary Child Destined to Serve God
Hildegard was born at her parents' home on the banks of the Nahe River in Bermersheim, Germany, some time during the summer of 1098. Her parents, believed to bear the Christian names Hiltebert and Mechthild, were most likely members of the local nobility. At the birth of their tenth daughter, they decided to follow the custom then practiced of giving their tenth child over to the service of God when she reached a suitable age. A sickly young girl destined to live a cloistered life rather than marriage, Hildegard was given little in the way of education or other training. Along with a series of physical infirmities, she experienced momentary experiences of a brilliant light. To young Hildegard, such experiences seemed normal, as they had been a part of her childhood since she could remember. However, when she admitted them to her nurse, the reaction of the older woman at such "visions" convinced Hildegard to keep such things to herself in future.
In 1106 Hildegard's parents made good on their commitment to tithe their daughter to the Church. The sickly, eight-year-old girl was delivered into the care of Jutta von Spanheim, a relative who served as abbess of a cloistered community of nuns associated with the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. While Jutta intended to provide the young Hildegard with a religious education, the child's frequent inability to either rise from her bed or focus her sight on things around her prevented more than a rudimentary education. However, the abbess was able to instill in Hildegard a knowledge and love of music, the Latin Psalms, and the Holy Scriptures.
Hildegard took her vows and became a Benedictine nun during her teen years. Her infirmities lessened after she gained adulthood, and she was able to fulfill her desire for knowledge, her interests ranging from natural history and German folk medicine to the ancient Greek cosmologies that were by now reaching the convents and monasteries of Germany in Latin translation. Unlike her illnesses, her visions continued, and even intensified after she reached puberty. However, Hildegard admitted them to only a few people, including Abbess Jutta and Volmar, a Disobodenberg monk who served as her mentor.
In 1136 Jutta passed away, leaving the 38-year-old Hildegard as abbess of the Disobodenberg community of women religious. Five years later, Hildegard experienced a vision of great intensity, which she later described as "a fiery light [that] flashed from the open vault of heaven. It permeated my brain and enflamed my heart and the entire breast not like a burning, but alike a warming flame, as the sun warms everything its rays touch. And suddenly I was given insight into the meaning of Scripture." Compelled by her faith to record what she had learned through 16 of her visions, and with the aid and encouragement of Volmar, Hildegard began what would be her first book, Liber Scivias, in 1141. In this work, destined to become widely read, she presents her unique cosmology by explaining the workings of the physical universe using a spiritual allegory based on Greek tradition. The earth, Hildegard maintained, was a sphere composed of the four elements—wind, fire, air, and water. Surrounded by layers of air and water, it was encased in an egg-shaped universe with an external "shell." A purus aether contained stars, the moon, and other planets, which were immobile. An inner "fire" or energy source generated thunderous lightening and hail, while an outer fire fueled the sun. Winds within this contained universe caused movements of clouds and resulted in seasonal changes on earth.
Writings Viewed as Voice of God
The "vision" that provided the impetus for Scivias was not unique to the book's author. Such mystical experiences were regularly reported throughout the Middle Ages and have been attributed by forensic archaeologists and secular historians to physical disorders such as epilepsy or severe migraine headaches. Also during this period, the Catholic Church provided the only environment in which studious activity could flourish; without the approval of the Roman Catholic Church new ideas were often met with charges of heresy that did not bode well for their originator. For this reason, religious numbered among the preeminent scientists, historians, theologians, and authors of the 12th century. Because insight and intellectual ability were fully integrated with religious faith, they were seen as gifts from God. Therefore, linking new scholarship or scientific discoveries to a "vision" implied a direct communication from God, thus earning more easy acceptance in a society still emerging from an age of superstition, fear, and widespread ignorance. For women, this stamp of approval from God was particularly important, and in Hildegard's case her visions perhaps accounted for the spread of her ideas over those of other scholarly female religious of the age.
Received Papal Approval
Through the efforts of Volmar, the first sections of Hildegard's yet-unfinished Scivias were sent to the archbishop of Mainz. At the Council of Trier in 1147, the archbishop presented it to reforming Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153), who declared the abbess's prophecies to be authentic. Compelled by the pope to continue her work, Hildegard completed outlining her cosmology and also added to Scivias 14 liturgical songs and a morality play unusual for its day in that it was sung rather than recited. Composed in Latin as was all scholarship of the day, Scivias was recorded on a wax tablet—either by Hildegard herself or by Volmar—and then transcribed by Volmar onto parchment, with the inclusion of detailed illustrations likely the work of Volmar's assistants. While the text reflects its author's lack of literary sophistication and her rudimentary knowledge of Latin grammar, it is compelling in its imagery.
The approval of the Catholic Church caused interest in Hildegard's writings to spread across Europe, where she became known as the "Sibil of the Rhine." Hundreds of Catholic faithful undertook pilgrimages to Disobodenberg to visit with the abbess, and soon Hildegard's celebrity status began to interfere with her scholarship and writing. In 1148, claiming her decision the result of a vision from God, she decided to break with the monastery at Disibodenberg. Using her political influence to override the monk's opposition, in 1150 Hildegard founded the Benedictine convent of Mount St. Rupert, located near Bingen, Germany. Accompanying the abbess were over a dozen young novices and her devoted friend Volmar, who continued to serve as her secretary and scribe. At Mount St. Rupert she established a community that catered to aristocrats among the faithful, and an air of theatricality permeated the convent on feast days, when nuns dressed in flowing white robes, golden crowns atop their heads.
Due to Hildegard's growing celebrity, her move to Mount St. Rupert, and her need to review her work to be sure that it not be perceived in any way to be heretical, Scivias required over a decade to complete. In addition to presenting her view of the cosmos, it also contains Hildegard's ideas regarding the science of biology, among them the belief that, like plants, humans generated from seeds and inherited characteristics of their parents. As familiarity with her wide-ranging studies spread among scholars, Hildegard's study of the folk medicine of her country made her known among the common folk as a healer with miraculous powers. Beginning in 1155, when she was in her late fifties, she began to travel around Europe, preaching pacifism, promoting the Catholic faith, and spreading her ideas about science and medicine. A conservative Catholic who opposed the new religious orders that proliferated in the wake of the reforms of Pope Gregory, she also used her notoriety to encourage religious zealots to persecute sects she believed were heretical. She began to engage in an extensive correspondence with political leaders and church officials, answering requests for advice and giving prophesies. She also founded a second convent at Eibingen, Germany.
Authored Works on Nature, Medicine
Scivias was the first of many works Hildegard composed during her lifetime. An encyclopedic work on natural history, her Physica (Liber Simplicis Medicinae) contains detailed descriptions of numerous plants, animals, and geological formations existing in the abbess's native Europe, along with their German and Latin names. She categorizes her nine healing systems as Plants, Elements, Trees, Stones, Fish, Birds, Animals, Reptiles, and Metals, each group containing medicinal components. This work also includes information and medical applications for the many plants known by Hildegard to have healing powers, making the Physica useful to physicians advising poorer patients on the manufacture of simple home remedies. After its widespread publication during the Renaissance, Hildegard's Physica became a popular medical school text, making its author the first German medical writer to gain renown.
The abbess's visionary Scivias was followed by Liber Vitae Meritorum, a book of subsequent visions that Hildegard began in 1158 and finished in 1162. Her Liber Divinorum Operum Simplicis Hominis, finished in 1170 when its author was 64 years of age, reconciles the cosmology of Scivias with the notion of concentric spheres that shaped more the contemporary scientific theories of her age. In Liber Divinorum she focuses in detail on the relationship between the larger cosmos and the parallel, integrated "microcosm" of the human body, describing the manner in which the heavenly bodies influence the state of health of man. In the corner of several pages Hildegard is pictured receiving visions from God, a reminder to readers of the stamp of heavenly approval on her ideas. Her final book, Causae et curae, is a medical compendium that describes the causal relationship between the movement of the universe and the many diseases of the human body and provides medicinal cures. The importance of boiling drinking water figured prominently in her remedies. Like Physica, Hildegard's Causae et curae remained an influential work into the 16th century.
Truly a Renaissance woman, Hildegard of Bingen died in 1179 at the age of 81, and her biography was begun the following year by Benedictine monks Theodor and Godefrid, who had worked under the famed abbess at Mount St. Rupert. She quickly became known as St. Hildegard despite the fact that, while she was added to the Roman Catholic Martyrology and investigated for sainthood, she was never canonized by the Catholic Church.
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