Hildegard of Bingen, 12th-century prophet extraordinaire, would not have been alarmed by the outbreak of Y2K fever, but she would have known how to seize the moment. Eight hundred years ago, readers treasured yet trembled at her predictions of the apocalypse to come, asking: When will the ominous ‘Age of the Fiery Dog’ begin? Which monasteries were to be seized by secular lords, humbled and disendowed? Had the Antichrist already been conceived in his mother’s womb? Was there still time to avert the threatened wrath of God?
In later centuries, Hildegard would be credited with predicting everything from the English Reformation to the Napoleonic Wars. Protestant polemicists saw her as a reformer avant la lettre, while other parts of her legacy were claimed by Catholic humanists and esoteric philosophers. After a long eclipse, her star rose once more in the 1980s, and for the last twenty years she has been the darling of early music lovers, Christian feminists, holistic health practitioners and New Age spiritual seekers. During her 900th birthday festivities in 1998, pilgrims flocked by the busload to the Rhineland abbey she founded, the home today of a flourishing Benedictine community. By the time the nuns of Eibingen had received 150,000 guests in six months, they decided that it was time to pull down their cowshed and build a visitors’ centre. At the Vatican, however, Pope John Paul II disregarded a petition to complete Hildegard’s formal canonisation process (aborted in 1243) and declare her a doctor of the Church. Evidently, this most uppity of medieval women is not a model the Pope wants to raise up for emulation in the new millennium.
The popular cult has been accompanied by a scholarly boom: at least four essay collections devoted to the visionary abbess appeared in her anniversary year. At the same time, capable translators have begun to make Hildegard’s voluminous writings available to non-specialists. Yet admirers excited by her unconventional life – her visions, her forays into medicine and music, her bold denunciations of bishops and emperors, her celebrity as a preacher – may be nonplussed by a first exposure to her writings. For Hildegard was at once prodigiously learned and, as she somewhat disingenuously claimed, ‘a poor, uneducated little female’. The point of this claim was to underline the prophetic authority on which her career depended: since she lacked human instruction, her mysterious wisdom could have come only from God, who ‘chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise’, as St Paul had written.
But there is also some worldly truth in the claim, for Hildegard was one of history’s great autodidacts. Borrowing books from the libraries of her monastic friends, she read everything she could lay hands on, from standard Bible commentaries to obscure astronomical treatises and the latest translations of Arabic medical writers. Yet she lacked what every Benedictine monk began to acquire at the age of seven: a solid grounding in Latin grammar. To the end of her days, she needed a copy-editor to correct her cases and tenses; she never mastered the subjunctive; and her rhetoric owed more to the Hebrew prophets than it did to the polished, humanistic Latin of her contemporaries. The combination of Hildegard’s rough-hewn style with her daunting range is what makes her so difficult – not to mention the veils of allegory that she and other prophets deliberately used to cloak their sensitive political message. Hildegard may be best appreciated in small doses, although she wrote mainly in large ones. Even in the Middle Ages, her public knew of her visions through anthologised snippets; her original books were too long to be frequently copied, let alone read.
Taking a cue from late medieval readers, the novice is well advised to begin with an anthology such as Sabina Flanagan’s Secrets of God. This slender volume by the seer’s Australian biographer provides a sampler of her work. It includes excerpts from each book in Hildegard’s visionary trilogy: Scivias (‘Know the Ways of the Lord’), The Book of Life’s Merits and The Book of Divine Works. Flanagan also supplies brief translations from her medical and scientific writings, her song cycle, her correspondence and the two saints’ lives she composed. Aside from the overview it affords on an exceptional career, Secrets of God enables readers to familiarise themselves with the habits of holistic and symbolic thought, so characteristic of her age, that pervade all of Hildegard’s writing. What may appear to be digression or free association opens time and again onto her central themes. In The Book of Life’s Merits, for example – an ethical handbook on the depressing topics of vice, penance and purgatory – Hildegard manages to find room for a paean to the earth’s fertility, which leads her in turn to reflect on the Incarnation: ‘For earth is the material of God’s work in mankind, who is the material of the humanity of the Son of God.’
Not every page, however, supports the current image of Hildegard as poster child for a politically progressive, earth-centred, inclusive spirituality. In her natural history, a discussion of metals contains an offhand analogy whereby brass, being an alloy, is ‘like a knight who is not a knight by his own birth but is made a knight’. In medicine, therefore, brass harms more than it heals. The metaphor reveals much about the conservative social views that Hildegard, an aristocrat by birth, brought with her to the monastery. Thus, to a fellow superior who had criticised her policy of admitting only noblewomen as nuns, she replied that just as no farmer would house his oxen, sheep and asses in one barn, monastics of different classes must be kept separate, lest they be ‘scattered in the pride of their elevation or in the ignominy of their difference’. The telling assimilation of class to species, or of a self-made man to a counterfeit coin, opens a window onto the unabashedly hierarchical worldview of feudal society at prayer. No less important than class was the great divide between clergy and laity, with monks and nuns (the ‘spiritual people’) enjoying the highest rank on account of their chaste, contemplative lives. These two great systems for classifying human beings coincided more often than they diverged, since most monks and virtually all nuns in the 12th century were recruited from the upper class. Tengswich of Andernach, the reformer who reminded Hildegard that Christ chose poor fishermen to be his aposdes, represented a decisively new impulse whose climax would come, sixty years later, with the radical poverty of Francis and Clare.
Hildegard’s correspondence with Tengswich is one of more than two hundred exchanges translated in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. When the Latin edition of her vast correspondence is complete, it will contain over four hundred letters to and from the abbess, making it one of the most significant letter collections of the Middle Ages. So far two of a projected four volumes in English translation have been produced. The most capacious 12th-century manuscript of the letters arranges them in hierarchical rather than chronological order – beginning with Popes, archbishops and bishops, moving down through abbots and abbesses to monks, nuns and priests. It then begins again with a secular hierarchy, descending from the Holy Roman Emperor through counts and countesses to a few ordinary matrons. Only the clerical and monastic letters have been translated so far. In them Hildegard’s prophetic persona emerges in full force: speaking not in her own voice but as the trumpet of the Living Light or of Him Who Is, she dazzles her correspondents with visions, instructs them with parables, and browbeats them with commands from heaven. She is harshest to the mightiest, denouncing Frederick Barbarossa’s imperial bishops for their careerism, militarism and neglect of pastoral duties, while often full of sympathy and pragmatic wisdom for a harried abbess or an overscrupulous priest.
Almost as revealing as Hildegard’s own letters are those she received. Contemporaries expressed a degree of reverence for her that surpassed even the effusive conventions of epistolary style then in vogue. Hildegard is ‘the refulgent glory of sacred religion’, an abbot writes; to her friend Sophia, an abbess, she is ‘the instrument of the Holy Spirit foreordained for the chimes of so many virtues, mystically embossed with so many miracles’. From a master at the University of Paris, who was later appointed cardinal-bishop of Tuscany, comes one of the most stunning formulas of abjection: ‘Odo of Soissons, a broken reed, the embodiment of evil, food for the devil, sends greetings to Hildegard, saint, friend of God, bride of Christ.’ Many of these correspondents had never met her, yet begged her plaintively for an ‘admonition’ or ‘consolation’ straight from the mouth of God. In their hunger for the prophet’s oracular word, they were willing to take an astonishing number of direct hits from her unflinching pen. Not everyone was awed by the seer, nor did she fear to make powerful enemies; yet her mystique remained largely impervious to criticism. Hildegard’s imperious will and forceful intelligence, but above all, her overpowering conviction of being a mere ‘feather upon the breath of God’, brushed misogynist taboos aside like so many cobwebs. To Guibert of Gembloux, the friend and secretary of her last years, she was a second Mary: ‘no other woman in the history of the world save you has ever brought it about that the female sex, which brought the darkness of death into the world, has been marked with the privilege of a greater gift.’
The making of Hildegard, from her early formation as a nun to her eventual promotion as a saint, is amply documented by Anna Silvas in Jutta and Hildegard: The Biographical Sources. Silvas, an Australian medievalist and former Benedictine, has assembled and translated a variety of contemporary sources bearing on Hildegard’s life. Chief among these is her vita, or saintly biography, which charts the complex negotiations by which Hildegard received first local, then diocesan, and finally papal recognition as an approved prophet. On one level, the narrative is a spiritual drama full of visions and miracles, unexplained illnesses and sudden healings; on another, it is a testament to Hildegard’s political savvy in the skilful deployment of her familial and ecclesial connections. The core of the vita is a memoir written or dictated by Hildegard herself around 1170, marking her as the first saint since Augustine to be an auto-biographer. The obligatory miracles attached to this account afford glimpses into the popular piety of the age: we learn how the mayor’s wife eased her labour pangs by girding herself with a plait of the abbess’s hair, how Hildegard exorcised a noblewoman possessed by demons, and how she healed the lovesickness of a girl who ‘burned with a mad passion for a certain youth’. Curiously, her extensive preaching tours receive only the barest mention, as a bland list of destinations sandwiched between two miracles. She had to tread cautiously here: to say too much about these forceful public sermons, unprecedented for a woman, might have jeopardised the cause of her canonisation. Fortunately, their actual texts have survived among the abbess’s letters.
The Jutta referred to in Silvas’s title is Jutta of Sponheim, the daughter of a powerful count, who took solemn vows as a recluse at the age of 20. At the turn of the 12th century, eremitic life was on the rise all over Europe, and Hildegard’s parents probably considered it a coup when the well-connected noblewoman agreed to accept their 14-year-old daughter as her companion and disciple. So, on All Saints’ Day in 1112, Jutta, Hildegard and one other girl professed lifelong virginity and were formally enclosed on the property of St Disibod, an ancient but newly refurbished men’s monastery, from which Hildegard would break away almost forty years later in search of spiritual and financial independence. Jutta’s own biography, only recently discovered, is here presented for the first time in English. The older woman had already been acclaimed as prophet, healer and saint, and Hildegard no doubt learned much from her. But her memoirs suggest a slight coolness between foster mother and daughter, due perhaps to a difference in temperaments. Jutta, we now learn, was a savage ascetic. If her biographer can be trusted, she undertook severe fasts, ‘inflicted relentless torments and wounds on her body’ with a hair-shirt and an iron chain, and daily recited the entire psalter barefoot, ignoring the winter cold, until she could scarcely walk. Jutta died at 44. Hildegard, believing that ‘a person who afflicts his body with immoderate abstinence always walks in anger,’ lived to be 81.
Like many who suffer from chronic frailty, she developed a passionate interest in wellness. Medical practice by monastics was nothing new: every monastery had its herb garden and infirmary for the care of its ailing members, and many were frequented by the local sick, who did not always distinguish between natural and supernatural healing. But the author of a vita would record only those cures ascribed to miraculous means, so it is impossible to know how much of Hildegard’s reputation as a healer depended on her prayers and how much on her extensive knowledge of herbs and other remedies. What is certain, however, is that her copious medical writings far surpass those of any other woman known to us before modern times. Unlike her visionary works, they do not lay claim to divine inspiration and may never have been meant for publication. In any case, Hildegard’s secretaries did not copy her medical works with the same painstaking care they devoted to her spiritual writings, so the manuscript tradition is late and garbled, resulting in doubts about authenticity that have taken decades to resolve. It is still not clear whether Hildegard originally intended to write one medical-scientific work or the two separate texts that have come down to us. Since critical editions of both have yet to appear, these translations must be considered provisional. Nevertheless, they afford a fascinating insight into the natural world as it appeared to one observant, pragmatic, well-read and highly idiosyncratic 12th-century woman.
The Physica, also known as The Book of Simple Medicine, has been translated in its entirety by Priscilla Throop. A veritable encyclopedia of natural science, it consists of nine books, covering plants (grains and medicinal herbs), ‘elements’, trees, gemstones, fish, birds, animals (mammals), reptiles and metals. Each entity is analysed with respect to its physical properties (hot, cold, moist and dry), its nutritional and medical uses, its toxic qualities, and in the case of animals, its habits and behaviour. Lovers of the quaint and curious will be delighted to learn that the elephant has beautiful bones (ivory tusks?) and mates only when it smells the water of paradise; the lion and lioness roar with their newborn cub, just as Adam and Eve learned to lament from the cry of their firstborn son; and the fleet-footed unicorn, true to legend, can be captured only by virgins – provided they are noble (country girls won’t do). The cat, sad to say, was not much prized in medieval Germany: according to Hildegard, ‘it does not abhor airy spirits’ (demons) and ‘has some natural affinity with the toad and the serpent’.
Medical practices recommended in the Physica range from the routine to the magical. Hildegard gives detailed instructions for making various potions, usually involving wine, honey and herbal powders, and for preparing fumigations and hot baths. One favourite medicinal herb, plantain, is recommended for ailments as diverse as gout or arthritis, swollen glands, insect bites, broken bones and lovesickness due to enchantment – this was evidently a common malady in Hildegard’s world. Gemstones were prized as much for their occult virtues as for their beauty. For instance, the sapphire, symbolising love of wisdom, cures inflammations of the eyes; placed in the mouth and moistened with saliva, it bestows ‘pure understanding and knowledge’ while also healing the stomach; sewn into a leather sack and worn around the neck, with suitable incantations, it banishes devils.
One might expect such lore to be of purely antiquarian interest. Remarkably, however, Hildegard’s practices – or at any rate, therapies that claim to be hers – form the basis of a growing movement that has now spread from Germany to Switzerland and North America. Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine, written by Gottfried Hertzka, a physician, and his successor Wighard Strehlow, formerly a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, distils the principles of their ‘Hildegard Practice’, founded about forty years ago in Konstanz. Published in 1988, this curious book blends Hildegard’s remedies and regimens (loosely interpreted) with an eclectic set of principles drawn from modern alternative systems. It presents such recommendations as the ‘Hildegard diet’ (‘spelt porridge, spelt bread and spelt coffee constitute the ideal breakfast’); a cure for rheumatoid arthritis featuring vermouth elixir and powdered gold; a post-operative treatment for mastectomy patients with a salve of olive oil, goat’s fat and the juice of violets; and an ‘intelligence cookie’ said to make schoolchildren cleverer. I actually sampled one of these cookies at a conference; it was tasty, not unlike gingerbread, but no obvious medical effects were observed.
For the real principles underlying Hildegard’s remedies, we can consult Margret Berger’s volume. On Natural Philosophy and Medicine is an abridged translation of the work usually known as Causes and Cures, a text more theoretical though less systematic than the Physica. Academic purists may object that Berger has reorganised Hildegard’s material, which appears in haphazard order in the sole surviving manuscript, but the result is a net gain in clarity and logic. This text succinctly lays out the central axioms of Hildegard’s worldview, including the correspondences between macrocosm and microcosm, or the universe and the ‘little world’ that is the human being; the origin of disease in the corruption of Adam’s body at his fall; the four humours or temperaments (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic), with strategies for restoring their equilibrium; sexual function and character types in males and females; principles of heredity, gynaecology and embryology; and the rationales for a wide range of hygienic practices and therapeutic procedures. A comparison between Berger’s translation and Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine may redound to the 12th-century thinker’s credit; she, at least, used the best science available in her day.
Finally, it is perhaps for her music that Hildegard today is best known. At least thirty CDs currently on the market are devoted wholly or chiefly to her liturgical songs – an a capella repertoire so virtuosic and expressive it can hardly be described as ‘plainchant’. There are some wonderful discs to choose from. I recommend Hildegard’s complete Symphonia as recorded by Sequentia – an early music ensemble based in Cologne – on five discs, beginning with Canticles of Ecstasy in 1994.When their director, the incomparable Barbara Thornton, died shortly after the release of Saints in 1998, the medieval performance world lost not only an extraordinary voice, but one of its most learned and impassioned interpreters. These recordings, ethereal yet earthy, stand as a lasting memorial to composer and singers alike:
At daybreak the heavens blaze
and ring with praise.