Hildegard von Bingen


Hildegard von Bingen
(1098–1179)
   Medieval mysticism found one of its earliest and best representatives in Hildegard of Bingen. She was born in 1098, as the 10th child of the nobleman Hildebert of Bermersheim and his wife Mechthild, near Alzey in the vicinity of the Rhine. When she was eight, her parents oblated her to monastic life (i.e., committed her, as a child, to the church), handing her over to the hermit Jutta of Spanheim, who lived next to the Benedictine convent of Disibodenberg. After Jutta’s death, Hildegard became the leader (magistra) of the women’s convent and gained considerable reputation as a prophetess (“prophetissa teutonica”), attracting to Disibodenberg many people who sought Hildegard’s advice and help.When Hildegard tried to establish her own convent, she experienced severe conflicts with the abbott, who was afraid of losing the financial income resulting from the considerable landholdings of the nuns and from the money donated by the streams of pilgrims who wanted to see Hildegard. After bitter struggles with the abbott, the local authorities, and the Mainz canons, Hildegard moved, with a small group of nuns, to a new location and built the women’s convent at Rupertusberg near Bingen in 1147 (destroyed by Swedish forces in 1632). Financially this proved to be highly risky, and the new women’s convent gained a solid foundation only when they reached an agreeable settlement with the community of Disibodenberg in 1158.
   Hildegard had experienced mystical visions— live experiences with the Godhead—since her early childhood, but she began to write them only in about 1141, when she was 42. She was assisted in her massive enterprise by the monk Volmar of Disibodenberg and the convent sister Richardis of Stade. During a church synod in Trier in 1147–48, Hildegard received official recognition as a mystic by Pope Eugen III, who acknowledged that God had revealed Himself to her.Hildegard particularly enjoyed the support of the famous Cistercian scholar, theologian, and politician BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX, who also believed in her mystical visions. Despite a series of long illnesses throughout her life, Hildegard became a major public figure and was consulted by people all over Europe for religious, political, and medical advice. Between 1158 and 1161 she went on her first major preaching tour (unheard of for a medieval woman), followed by a second tour in 1160, a third one between 1161 and 1163, and a fourth one between 1170 and 1171. She died on September 17, 1179, when she was 82 years old.
   Hildegard went through many political and personal conflicts and fought on many fronts during her life, but this did not diminish the extraordinary admiration she enjoyed as abbess, mystical visionary, political adviser, and medical scholar. Shortly before her death she faced her most serious challenge by the Mainz Cathedral canons because she had allowed a repentant nobleman to be buried in sacred ground next to their convent, whereas the church had excommunicated him before his death and did not recognize his final confession.Mainz then imposed a strict interdict on the convent, which banned the singing of the divine office and receiving of communion, but eventually Hildegard, who had appealed to the Mainz archbishop in 1179, managed to achieve a repeal of this interdict, which restored the regular church service. Hildegard’s followers tried to initiate a canonization process during the 13th century, which received the support of the popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV, but never reached the desired goal. Nevertheless, since the 15th century Hildegard has been venerated locally as a saint.
   Hildegard wrote major mystical and medicalscientific texts: Scivias (Know your way; 1141–51); Liber simplicis medicinae (The book of simple medicine) and Liber compositae medicinae (The book of compound medicines; both before 1158); Liber vitae meritorum (The book of life’s merits; 1158–63); and Liber divinorum operum (The book of the divine works; 1163–73/74). She also composed a liturgical play for her nuns, Ordo virtutum (The order of virtues), and more than 70 hymns, collected in her Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations). Moreover, Hildegard is famous for her nearly 300 finely crafted letters to popes and kings, bishops, and many other dignitaries. Most curiously the abbess developed a secret language for her convent, Lingua ignota (ca. 1150; contains approx. 900 words), wrote the Vita Sancti Disibodi (1170; Life of Saint Disibodus), the Vita Sancti Ruperti (ca. 1173; Life of Saint Rupertus), and some other theological texts.
   Hildegard formulates, in her Scivias, the most amazing mystical visions of the universe, presenting the image of the universal egg as its center.Here she observes the incarnation of Christ and traces world history in 26 visions, beginning with the fall of Lucifer and taking us up to the Day of Judgment. The first book represents God as the creator, the second Christ as salvation, and the third the Holy Ghost. As the title of this text indicates (Know your ways), Hildegard intended her text as a guidebook for the spiritual seeker, as the evil in this world is caused by an imbalance of the cosmic harmony. Hildegard’s almost scientific-mathematical visions explicitly insist on the equality of men and women in God. In her Liber divinorum operum the author portrays in ALLEGORY virtues and vices, who discuss with one another the cosmic correlation between man and the Godhead.
   In her medical tracts, Hildegard emphasizes, above all, gynecological issues, herbal medicine, and the healing power of the elements; jewels, animals, and metals seen in light of humoral pathology (the medieval theory of the humors); and human sexuality, and advocates a mystical anthropology embedded in medical sciences.
   Bibliography
   ■ Bowie, Fiona, and Oliver Davies, ed.Hildegard of Bingen: An Anthology. With new translations by Robert Carver. London: SPCK, 1990.
   ■ Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 10981179: A Visionary Life. London: Routledge, 1989.
   ■ Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
   ■ Newman, Barbara. Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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