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Who was Hildegard of Bingen?

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen, also known as Blessed Hildegard or Saint Hildegard, was a German Benedictine abbess in the 1100s. Her life’s work included forays into writing, pharmacology, composition, preaching, and illumination. She led a female monastery, reproved an emperor, and designed an abbey with central plumbing. But she was perhaps most well-known for her visions. Hildegard of Bingen was honored in Roman Catholicism by being named a Doctor of the Church in 2012.

Hildegard, the tenth child of a knight, was born in 1098. At eight years old, she was sent to school at the co-ed monastery Mount St. Disibode in Disibodenberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, where she spent the next several decades. Her supervisor taught her to read and write Latin, but not German, and was unable to give her any biblical or theological training. At 18, Hildegard took orders to become a nun. After twenty years, she was promoted to leader of the female population of the monastery. Despite the abbot’s protestations, Hildegard oversaw their removal to more spacious accommodations near Bingen, about forty miles west of modern-day Frankfurt.

From the age of three, Hildegard had experienced visions, often of light, that were accompanied by a deeper understanding of Scripture and the cosmos and humanity’s place in it. When Hildegard became a nun, her confessor told her to keep track of her visions. Eventually, she received permission to compile them in books for the public.

Scivias (“Know the Ways [of God]”) combines biblical commentary with the chronicles of 26 visions regarding the place of mankind in the universe. The book includes 35 illuminations that she’s thought to have designed, although it’s not believed she drew them. Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist from the movie Awakenings, agreed with a 1913 diagnosis that the nature of the mandala-like illustrations and the light-filled visions suggests the artist suffered from migraines. The original manuscript of Scivias was lost in World War II. What we have today is the result of a facsimile based on photographs taken in 1925.

Hildegard of Bingen’s second book of visions, Liber Vitae Meritorum (“The Book of the Rewards of Life”), is a six-part treatise on human morality and the importance of repentance. Most of the writing is comprised of allegories about the struggles between 35 pairs of virtues and vices. The last part of the book considers more specifics about the vices, their required penance on earth, and their punishment in the afterlife. The author’s aim was to show how we are continually in a fight between virtue and vice and have a responsibility to choose the right path. Liber Vitae Meritorum includes the “Singspiel” Ordo Virtutum (“Order of the Virtues”), an opera about a person who listens to the virtues, is seduced by Satan, and then returns to the virtues. Ordo Virtutum is thought to be the oldest existing morality play.

De Operatione Dei, also called Liber Divinorum Operum (“The Book of Divine Works”), is the most ambitious of Hildegard’s books. It is partially based on the teachings of the Word in John 1:1–18 and explains how the spirit and body are inextricably connected, the spirit impelling the body to do good works. The second part covers a vision she had of creation, and the third builds on Scivias and goes into salvation. Hildegard believed that “all science comes from God” as a gift but that it is important to combine science with mysticism, to meld the intellect with the heart, which naturally leads to justice and peace. According to Hildegard, science and mysticism merely create the message; art (illustrations, poetry, and music) draws people to the message.

Hildegard of Bingen’s book or books on healing and natural history are famous, but probably lost. The manuscripts attributed to her are thought to be heavily edited and compiled with other works. They are not based on visions but on traditional German folklore as well as her experience in the monastery garden and in caring for the sick. Physica (taken from a word meaning “pharmacology”) is a book of German folk healing. It covers the natural healing properties of plants, stones, and animals. But Hildegard always mixed the practical with the spiritual; she emphasized healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and balancing work and leisure, but she also believed that following the virtues would ensure psychological health.

Her second book on nature, Causae et Curae (“Causes and Their Cures”), covers diseases, their causes, and the appropriate treatments. It includes sections on creation, the universe, man as a metaphor for the cosmos, original sin, the four humors or “juices” (air, fire, wind, and earth), child development, anatomy, diseases and cures, symptoms, and the effect of the moon on one’s character, constitution, and conception. Hildegard is known as the founder of natural history in Germany.

Although Hildegard’s teaching was deemed orthodox by the Roman Catholic Church, her theology dabbled in the extra-scriptural because of her visions. She emphasized an interconnectedness of body and soul and mankind and creation that appeals to New-Agers today. She taught that men and women are completely equal because woman is the form given to the love of man, and, if the love in each is identical, they must have equal worth. She believed that being virtuous not only keeps one in a right relationship with God but it imbues one with creation ability.

Hildegard was a prolific writer. We still have nine books, about 70 poems, 75 liturgical chants, and almost 150 letters—she even created her own language. Some consider this medieval woman to be the first “Renaissance man.” Her letters may be most revealing of her personality and place. In one, she chastises Pope Anastasius IV for compromising his clerical authority in the face of Emperor Frederick I. Other letters are actually transcribed from her sermons, which give practical application of her theological/cosmological works. Throughout is a prophetic call for the church to champion justice.

Hildegard’s scientific exploration, dedication to virtues, and emphasis on social justice within the church are all remarkable. It is her mysticism, promotion of Roman Catholic doctrine, and reliance on extra-biblical visions that are problematic. Her accounts of a light that filled her brain, that was not spatial and had no height, length, or width, are consistent with symptoms of an ocular migraine. In the end, the teachings of this woman, an inspiration to Christian mystics, New-Agers, Buddhists, and feminists around the world, may have been influenced by a neurological disorder.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022