Barbara Lachman

Hildegard von Bingen has been the subject of two books by Barbara Lachman:

The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen: Inspired by a year in the life of the twelfth-century mystic. New York: Bell Tower, 1993. A trade paperback edition of this book is still in print and is available for $15, including postage. If you wish to order this item, please contact the author at BLachman@embarqmail.com.

Hildegard, the Last Year. Boston: Shambhala, 1997. This book is out-of-print, but can be located through Abebooks.com or a similar book-search site.

Women and Wisdom: Hildegard of Bingen

Even if Hildegard of Bingen were a woman of the 21st century, her accomplishments would be hard to fathom. She was the recipient of astonishing visions, a lyrical composer of liturgical music, and a gifted playwright whose manuscript of a sung morality play is the oldest we know of. With the aid of Volmar, a monk who devoted his life to her service as secretary, she compiled two medical treatises that are informed by her extensive practice as herbalist and healer. Most remarkably, Hildegard was the discern- ing founder and abbess (read absolute ruler) of two autonomous communities of nuns. Her life in the Rhineland of Germany spanned the twelfth century, from 1098 to 1179. Hildegard was both ensign and foremother of the dozens of medieval women mystics who followed her, from Clare of Assisi and Mechtild of Magdeburg in the 13th century to Teresa of Avila who died at the end of the 16th.

One of the great contributions of the 20th century is the rediscovery of this mysterious flowering of women mystics—shakers and movers, all of them—who followed Hildegard’s path in monastic Chris- tianity during the Middle Ages: their lives and works have been uncovered and translated with loving care and scholarship, largely by women. Thanks to feminist scholarship in the last twenty-five years, we now know that, contrary to long-held popular belief, the period of the Renaissance/Reformation wit- nessed the narrowing of opportunities for Christian women to serve in positions of authority and power. The growth of individualism and the emergence of secular courts as seats of power wrested from the monopoly of the Church did not serve women well. Rather, it was in the medieval period that women frequently became founders of communities, directors of double monasteries (housing both men and women), advising and sometimes even loudly criticizing men of the highest clerical status—even the pope himself.

Many of us, as post-Victorian, post-Freudian, modern Protestant women, tend to think of convents as enclosures for frightened, repressed women. This is not an accurate picture. For one thing, medieval monastic life offered women their only opportunity for education. The entire Bible, the Latin Vulgate, was repeatedly heard, chewed over, and digested. Benedictine nuns (by far the largest women’s order in Europe at the time) were required to memorize and sing the Psalter, all 150 Psalms, each week—in Latin, of course. The long Office of Matins required the women to rise in the middle of the night to sing responses to portions of sermons written such great Doctors of the Church as Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, and Jerome. Nuns who excelled at the arts of writing might become scribes or, if at the arts of miniature painting or elaborate calligraphy, might copy or decorate the pages of the illuminated manuscripts that were the only repository of continuous learning in the age before secular universities.

To function as scribe or painter of illuminated manuscripts is one thing. To be an author, another. One needs authority to be an author. In the medieval Church, authors were either men with an established function in the clergy, or they were anonymous. Because of her gender and lack of clerical status, Hildegard’s agonizing struggle with the dilemma of authority and authorship was lifelong.

The youngest of ten children born to an aristocratic family, she was given by her parents at age ten into the care of a young hermitess who lived within the walls of a male monastery in Disibodenberg. Living within an enclosed space with Jutta, the hermitess, Hildegard learned to sing the Latin Psalmodic liturgy that the monks sang in the monastery church. Seven Offices were sung each day—Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline—plus the great night office of Matins and the Mass of the day, each day’s fare structured around the complex calendar of fixed feasts for various saints and moveable feasts for the liturgical seasons of the year. These were her education.

As an adolescent, Hildegard took vows to live according to the Benedictine Rule, and, over time, other young women joined: a small community of Benedictine nuns then lived under the auspices of the male monastery. Into her well-ordered life, Wisdom intervened. From her earliest childhood (she once said it was from the time she was in her mother’s womb), Hildegard had experienced visions: the cosmos in the form of a multi-layered egg, Christ encircled with rings of fiery gold, the Virgin crowning a tree filled with women singing. She saw them in detail as to form and color. They were startling and bewildering, fearsome even, but she never told anyone about them. As she grew into adulthood, Hildegard’s visions were accompanied by a voice that interpreted the visions and demanded that she “write down” what she “saw and heard.” Hildegard identified the voice as the Voice of Wisdom. Yet, in answer to a letter from some monks, Hildegard identified herself as “a poor little figure of a woman” (ego paupercula feminea forma). As to the authority she could claim for these visions, it was God Himself, supported by the Voice of Wisdom—that clearly female form who describes herself again and again in what are often called the apocryphal books of the Old Testament. Hildegard grew ill from the conflict. Wisdom had set herself a tabernacle in Hildegard and would not be denied.

And hers was an insistent and sensuous voice. In all Bibles, Wisdom is found in the Book of Proverbs, most prominently in Proverbs 8 and 9. She is also introduced in Hildegard’s Vulgate Bible, in the Book of Wisdom (Sapientia),

And all such things as are hid and not foreseen, I have learned:
For wisdom, which is the worker of all things, taught me.
For within her is a spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle...
She is a breath of the power of God,
Pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
Hence nothing impure can find a way into her.
She is a reflection of the eternal light,
Untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of his goodness.
Although she is one, she can do all things,
And while remaining in herself, she renews all things. (7: 21-27)

Because of Wisdom’s female form, the Wisdom literature and language was, by the 7th century, incorporated into the various antiphons and responses for the feasts of the Virgin and of women saints that Hildegard sang throughout the year. In the Book of Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sirach), Wisdom speaks for herself:

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
the firstborn before all creation.

I made a never-setting light to rise in the heavens,
and like a mist I covered the earth.
I had my dwelling in the heights,
and my throne in a pillar of cloud.

Then the Creator of all things instructed me,
and he who created me took his rest in my tabernacle...

From the beginning, before the world, I was created,
and for eternity I shall remain. (24: 5-8, 12, 14)

Wisdom is finally manifest as a tree that takes root among the Israelites:

I took root in an honorable people, and in the portion of my God his inheritance, and my abode is in the full assembly of saints.

I was exalted like a cedar in Libanus, and as a cypress tree on Mount Sion.

I was exalted like a palm tree in Cades, and as a rose plant in Jericho.

As a fair olive tree in the plains, and as a plane tree by the water in the streets was I exalted.

I gave a sweet smell like cinnamon and aromatical balm: I yielded a sweet odor like the best myrrh:

And I perfumed my dwelling as storax, and galbanum, and onyx, and aloes, and as the frankincense not cut, and my odor is as the purest balm.

I have stretched out my branches as the turpentine tree, and my branches are of honor and grace.

This, then, is the sumptuous but stern Voice of Wisdom that accompanied and interpreted each of Hildegard’s visions, giving exegesis according to Christian doctrine and scripture, but also admonishing Hildegard to write down all that she saw and heard.

By the time she was 43, Hildegard’s conflict about making her visions public deepened. Constantly ill, occasionally to the point of paralysis, she was encouraged by the monk Volmar (her confessor and lifelong friend) and by a beloved young nun, Rikkarda, to begin writing down her visions, partially on wax tablets and partially in dictation to Volmar. She wrote to the influential Cistercian cleric Bernard of Clairvaux, who referred her work to the pope himself at a synod held in Trier during the winter of 1147-48.

After an examination of the visions she had so far recorded, as well as examining the character of the woman herself, Pope Eugenius III and his clerics at the synod declared Hildegard’s gift to be that of prophecy. Judging by the prophets of the Old Testament, prophecy long ago meant not so much looking into the future as interpreting events at their deepest possible level. In medieval times it also meant understanding the events of the day in their relation to both Old and New Testaments.

The gift of prophecy was one of the seven charisms or gifts of the Holy Spirit in the medieval Church. Eugenius III confirmed the fact that Hildegard’s visions were authentic: they were of God, not of the Devil. Nearly a hundred years after Hildegard’s time, the philosophic cataloger and Doctor of the Church Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed the Church’s limitations on women in his famous Summa Thologica. Aquinas wrote that it was indeed possible for a woman to receive the gift of prophecy, as long as she—like Mary—kept it hidden in her heart. It was even possible for a woman to teach—as long as she taught no more than two or three women, privately, and in her own home.

Yet we know from letters of Hildegard and her correspondents that she undertook three extensive preaching tours, speaking not only to monastic communities in the Rhineland, but in a few instances to large audiences of the faithful in urban cathedrals. To prioresses heavy with responsibility for the forma- tion and leadership of unruly, usually privileged women, Hildegard wrote mostly words of encourage- ment and common sense. She advised them to rule with firm but loving hands, to guard against extreme fasting and penitential practices, to hold fast in faith when tempted to leave the post and go off on pilgrimage.

Quite evenhandedly, Hildegard offered similar advice to the abbots of men’s monasteries. However, to male clergy who assembled to hear her preaching as well as asking her advice in letters, Hildegard warned of abuses of power, of bearing false witness. In the case of Frederic Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor whom she personally knew and visited, she answered his letters with ever- increasing warnings about his attitudes and actions and the ultimate punishment he courted. She warned him of a visionary dream she had that branded him a “madman” for repeatedly supporting illegitimate anti-popes.

In spite of her justified fear of criticism, even censure, from the hierarchical male clergy of the Church, in Hildegard’s case the authority for writing down what she saw and heard in her astounding visions was the ultimate authority—that of God Himself, accompanied by the Voice of Wisdom. Nor did the Voice of Wisdom ever leave Hildegard. Shortly before she was 50, a vision interpreted by the Voice of Wisdom commanded Hildegard to take her women, leave the male monastery that housed them, and found an autonomous community. Another struggle ensued, accompanied by illness and disputation. Obedience to her male superior conflicted with obedience to a higher power. In the end, and after a bitter dispute, Hildegard and the Voice of Wisdom prevailed.

Not surprisingly, Hildegard believed that women had an important role to play in the history of salvation. She wrote liturgical songs about her women, to be sung at Offices once they had moved and she was in absolute charge of the liturgy. Of the 77 songs for which she wrote both music and text, a large proportion were about women. For example, fifteen are about the Virgin and thirteen about Saint Ursula and her courageous women followers, while there are only three for Christ and one for the Trinity. Hildegard’s picture of the Virgin is a composite of images from Isis, Demeter, and Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn. The language, however, is almost entirely that of Wisdom literature. In the midst of a sequence about the Virgin, we hear

O green branch, God had foreseen your flowering
On the first day of his Creation.
And out of his Word he made a golden vessel,
Praiseworthy maiden.
What great strength is in the side of man,
From which God brought forth the form of woman
Whom He made the mirror of his every jewel
And the embrace of all his Creation.
In response the heavenly instruments sing in chorus,
And the entire earth wonders, most praisworthy Mary,
That God has loved you so intensely.