Biography of Hildegard of Bingen, Mystic, Writer, Composer, Saint

Hildegard of Bingen, from the Eibingen Abbey
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Hildegard of Bingen (1098–September 17, 1179) was a medieval mystic and visionary and Abbess of Bingen's Benedictine community. She was also a prolific composer and the author of several books on spirituality, visions, medicine, health and nutrition, nature. A powerful figure within the church, she corresponded with Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and other major political figures of the time. She was made a saint of the Church of England and was later canonized by the Catholic Church.

Fast Facts: Hildegard of Bingen

  • Known For: German mystic, religious leader, and saint
  • Also Known As: Saint Hildegard, Sibyl of the Rhine
  • Born: 1098 in Bermersheim vor der Höhe, Germany
  • Parents: Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet, Hildebert of Bermersheim
  • Died: September 17, 1179 in Bingen am Rhein, Germany
  • Education: Privately educated in at the Benedictine cloister of Disibodenberg by Jutta, a sister of the count of Spanheim
  • Published WorksSymphonia armonie celestium revelationum, Physica, Causae et Curae, Scivias, Liber Vitae Meritorum, (Book of the Life of Merits), Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of the Divine Works)
  • Awards and Honors: Canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI; proclaimed a "doctor of the church" in the same year
  • Notable Quote: "Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman."

Hildegard of Bingen Biography

Born in Bemersheim (Böckelheim), West Franconia (now Germany), in 1098, Hildegard of Bingen was the 10th child of a well-to-do family. She'd had visions connected with illness (perhaps migraines) from a young age, and in 1106 her parents sent her to a 400-year-old Benedictine monastery that had only recently added a section for women. They put her under the care of a noblewoman and resident there named Jutta, calling Hildegard the family's "tithe" to God.

Jutta, whom Hildegard later referred to as an "unlearned woman," taught Hildegard to read and write. Jutta became the abbess of the convent, which attracted other young women of noble background. In that time, convents were often places of learning, a welcome home to women who had intellectual gifts. Hildegard, as was true of many other women in convents at the time, learned Latin, read the scriptures, and had access to many other books of religious and philosophical nature. Those who have traced the influence of ideas in her writings find that Hildegard must have read quite extensively. Part of the Benedictine rule required study, and Hildegard clearly availed herself of the opportunities.

Founding a New, Female House

When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected unanimously as the new abbess. Rather than continue as part of a double house—a monastery with units for men and for women—Hildegard in 1148 decided to move the convent to Rupertsberg, where it was on its own and not directly under the supervision of a male house. This gave Hildegard considerable freedom as an administrator, and she traveled frequently in Germany and France. She claimed that she was following God's order in making the move, firmly opposing her abbot's opposition. She assumed a rigid position, lying like a rock until he gave his permission for the move. The move was completed in 1150.

The Rupertsberg convent grew to as many as 50 women and became a popular burial site for the wealthy of the area. The women who joined the convent were of wealthy backgrounds, and the convent did not discourage them from maintaining something of their lifestyle. Hildegard of Bingen withstood criticism of this practice, claiming that wearing jewelry to worship God was honoring God, not practicing selfishness.

She later also founded a daughter house in Eibingen. This community is still in existence.

Hildegard's Work and Visions

Part of the Benedictine rule is labor, and Hildegard spent early years in nursing and at Rupertsberg in illustrating ("illuminating") manuscripts. She hid her early visions; only after she was elected abbess did she receive a vision that she said clarified her knowledge of "the psaltery...the evangelists and the volumes of the Old and New Testament." Still showing much self-doubt, she began to write and share her visions.

Papal Politics

Hildegard of Bingen lived at a time when, within the Benedictine movement, there were stresses on the inner experience, personal meditation, an immediate relationship with God, and visions. It was also a time in Germany of striving between papal authority and the authority of the German (Holy Roman) emperor and by a papal schism.

Hildegard of Bingen, through her many letters, took to task both the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the archbishop of Main. She wrote to such luminaries as King Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. She also corresponded with many individuals of low and high estate who wanted her advice or prayers.

Hildegard's Favorite

Richardis or Ricardis von Stade, one of the convent's nuns who was a personal assistant to Hildegard of Bingen, was a special favorite of Hildegard. Richardis' brother was an archbishop, and he arranged for his sister to head another convent. Hildegard tried to persuade Richardis to stay and wrote insulting letters to the brother and even wrote to the pope, hoping to stop the move. But Richardis left and died after she decided to return to Rupertsberg but before she could do so.

Preaching Tour

In her 60s, Hildegard of Bingen began the first of four preaching tours, speaking mostly in other communities of Benedictines such as her own and other monastic groups, but also sometimes speaking in public settings.

Hildegard Defies Authority

A final famous incident happened near the end of Hildegard's life when she was in her 80s. She allowed a nobleman who had been excommunicated to be buried at the convent, seeing that he had last rites. She claimed she'd received word from God allowing the burial. But her ecclesiastical superiors intervened and ordered the body exhumed. Hildegard defied the authorities by hiding the grave, and the authorities excommunicated the entire convent community. Most insultingly to Hildegard, the interdict prohibited the community from singing. She complied with the interdict, avoiding singing and communion, but did not comply with the command to exhume the corpse. Hildegard appealed the decision to yet higher church authorities and finally had the interdict lifted.

Hildegard of Bingen Writings

The best-known writing of Hildegard of Bingen is a trilogy (1141–1152) including Scivias, Liber Vitae Meritorum, (Book of the Life of Merits), and Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of the Divine Works). These include records of her visions—many are apocalyptic—and her explanations of scripture and salvation history. She also wrote plays, poetry, and music, and many of her hymns and song cycles are recorded today. She even wrote on medicine and nature—and it's important to note that for Hildegard of Bingen, as for many in medieval times, theology, medicine, music, and similar topics were united, not separate spheres of knowledge.

Was Hildegard a Feminist?

Today, Hildegard of Bingen is celebrated as a feminist. This has to be interpreted within the context of her times.

On the one hand, she accepted many of the assumptions of the time about the inferiority of women. She called herself a "paupercula feminea forma" or "poor weak woman," and implied that the current "feminine" age was thereby a less-desireable age. That God depended on women to bring his message was a sign of the chaotic times, not a sign of the advance of women.

On the other hand, she exercised considerably more authority than most women of her time in practice, and she celebrated feminine community and beauty in her spiritual writings. She used the metaphor of marriage to God, though this was not her invention nor a new metaphor—and it was not universal. Her visions have female figures in them: Ecclesia, Caritas (heavenly love), Sapientia, and others. In her texts on medicine, she included topics that male writers usually avoided, such as how to deal with menstrual cramps. She also wrote a text just on what is today called gynecology. Clearly, she was a more prolific writer than most women of her era; more to the point, she was more prolific than most of the men of the time.

There were some suspicions that her writing was not her own and could instead be attributed to her scribe Volman, who seems to have taken the writings that she put down and made permanent records of them. But even in her writing after he died, her usual fluency and complexity of writing is present, which would be counterevidence to the theory of his authorship.

Sainthood

Perhaps because of her famous (or infamous) flouting of ecclesiastical authority, Hildegard of Bingen was not initially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint, although she was honored locally as a saint. The Church of England considered her a saint. On May 10, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI officially declared her a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Later that year on October 7, he named her a Doctor of the Church (meaning her teachings are recommended doctrine). She was the fourth woman to be so honored, after Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Térèse of Lisieux.

Death

Hildegard of Bingen died on September 17, 1179, at age 82. Her feast day is September 17.

Legacy

Hildegard of Bingen was, by modern standards, not as revolutionary as she might have been considered in her time. She preached the superiority of order over change, and the church reforms she pushed for included the superiority of ecclesiastical power over secular power, and of popes over kings. She opposed the Cathar heresy in France and had a long-running rivalry (expressed in letters) with another figure whose influence was unusual for a woman, Elisabeth of Shonau.

Hildegard of Bingen is probably more properly classified as a prophetic visionary rather than a mystic, as revealing knowledge from God was more her priority than her own personal experience or union with God. Her apocalyptic visions of the consequences of acts and practices, her lack of concern for herself, and her sense that she was the instrument of God's word to others differentiate her from many of the female and male mystics near her time.

Her music is performed today and her spiritual works are read as examples of a feminine interpretation of church and spiritual ideas.

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