Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hildegard of Bingen: "A Feather on the Breath of God"

Hildegard of Bingen (canonized 10 May 2012)


More than 800 years after her death, on 10 May 2012, the incomparable Hildegard of Bingen was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. Five months later, on 7 October 2012, she was named as a Doctor of the Church, one of thirty-five to have been awarded that title, but only the fourth woman to have gained that recognition.*

Hildegard receiving one of her visions,
from a manuscript of Scivias
Hildegard of Bingen was a remarkable woman in one of the most remarkable periods of western European history, a period of social and political change and of the flourishing of art and architecture, science, theology, philosophy, and education. 

Born in 1098 to a wealthy family of minor nobility, Hildegard was placed under the care of Jutta von Sponheim at the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. The circumstances of her placement with Jutta are widely discussed--Hildegard may have been the tenth child, and thus offered as a kind of "tithe" by her parents; she may have been placed with Jutta, the daughter of an influential count, as a political maneuver by her parents; she may have been placed in the convent because of the visions that had begun to manifest themselves when she was very young. The age at which she joined Jutta is also unclear--Hildegard would later say that she was placed with Jutta when she was eight, though she may have been older, perhaps twelve or fourteen. 

As her spiritual director, Jutta provided Hildegard with a rudimentary education--she taught her how to read and write, play music, pray and meditate. (Jutta was, like her young charge, a visionary.)

But Hildegard would later say that she had been instructed by an "unlearned woman" (indocta mulier)--whatever the extent of her theological and philosophical insights, her intellectual achievements, and her artistic and political accomplishments, they came to Hildegard directly from God. Or so she claimed.

And whatever their source, her theological insights, intellectual achievements, and artistic and political accomplishments were manifold. 

Her theology was conveyed in three comprehensive visionary works: Scivias (Know the Ways), composed between 1142 and 1151; the Liber vitae meritorum (The Book of Life's Merits), composed between 1158 and 1163; and the Liber divinorum operum (The Book of the Divine Works), composed between 1163 and 1173. About the revelations in her visions, Hildegard asserts that she was commanded to write them by God--she describes herself as being a mere "feather on the breath of God." Manuscripts of these visionary works are vividly illustrated, and their programs of illustration may well have been designed by Hildegard herself. 

Shorter theological treatises include her Solutiones triginta octo quaestionum (Answers to Thirty-Eight Questions), Explanatio regulae Sancti Benedicti (Explanation of the Rule of St. Benedict), and Explanatio symboli sancti Anthanasii (Explanation of the Symbol of St. Athanasius)

Centuries before Leonardo's Vetruvian Man
is Hildegard's "universal man,"
from The Book of  Divine Works
In addition to her theological books and treatises, she wrote two scientific works, probably between 1151 and 1158, the Liber simplicis medicinae (Book of Simple Medicine), and the Causae et Curae (Causes and Cures).

She also composed two saints lives, the Vita Sancti Disibodi (Life of Saint Disibod), written about 1170, and the Vita Sancti Ruperti (Life of Saint Rupert), probably written between about 1173.

She invented an alphabet and a language, recorded in her Litterae ignotae (Unknown Writing) and Lingua ignota (Unknown Language).

In addition, she composed a cycle of liturgical songs, Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations), for which she wrote both the music and the lyrics, and the Ordo virtutum (Order of the virtues), an allegorical drama filled with more musical compositions. Both were written in the 1150s. 

Her political accomplishments are equally impressive. She negotiated with religious authorities as she became, first, the head of her convent and, then, as she broke away from the community at Disibodenberg and built monasteries at Rupertsberg and then Eibingen. Hildegard wrote to Pope Eugene III and Pope Anastasius IV, she wrote to the French Abbot Suger and to the influential theologian and reformer Bernard of Clairvaux, she wrote to the Emperor Frederick Frederick I, to Henry II of England, to Eleanor of Aquitaine. She argued, she heckled, she offered unsolicited advice. She also wrote to relatives, and she wrote to strangers who addressed her, offering them prayers, encouragement, and consolation. More than three hundred of her letters survive

She undertook four separate preaching tours of Germany between 1158 and 1173, speaking publicly to clerical audiences as well as to groups of lay men and women.

Hildegard of Bingen died at the age of eighty-one on 17 September 1179. 

There is so much out there about Hildegard that it is difficult to know where to begin--I suggest just browsing at your favorite online book site. I will also provide a link to the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies--where you'll find many resources. You can read some of her letters at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters. Here's a link to Hildegard's place setting in Judy Chicago's multi-media installation, The Dinner Party. And you may want to listen to an excellent podcast on Hildegard of Bingen, from the BBC's In Our Time.

Finally, a couple of personal notes. Several years ago, in a course on medieval women writers, a student just about hopped out of her seat one day when we turned our attention to Hildegard of Bingen. As I passed out a big, fat handout, filled with various selections of Hildegard's texts, my student grew more and more excited. When she finally stuck her hand up in the air, she said that a long-forgotten memory had just emerged--she recalled being a kid, the daughter of a G.I. stationed in Germany, and her mom had dragged her along on some kind of pilgrimage. My student had just realized that her mom had taken her to Eibingen Abbey. She made a quick trip home that weekend, after our class discussion, and returned the next week with all the brochures her mom had picked up and the photos she had taken on that trip. Her mom was thrilled.

And now, another note: back when Borders was still a place you could go to buy books and music, I had a sudden craving for some music by Big Mama Thornton, so I found myself one day on the second-floor music department at my local Borders. Sure, there was a section for Big Mama Thornton, but it was absolutely empty. However, when I looked a little further, I found three entire rows full of different CDs of Hildegard's music . . . So there you go. Nothing from an American rhythm-and-blues singer born in 1926, but dozens of recordings of music composed by a woman born in 1098. Go figure. (By the way, here's a link to Big Mama Thornton's 1952 recording of "Hound Dog." Entirely inappropriate here, of course, but . . . Think of it as a bonus for reading this long post.) 


*The other three are Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Ávila, both named Doctors of the Church in 1970, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, in 1997.