Hildegard of Bingen

From Academic Kids

A medieval illumination showing Hildegard von Bingen and the monk Volmar
A medieval illumination showing Hildegard von Bingen and the monk Volmar

Hildegard von Bingen or Hildegard of Bingen (September 16 1098September 17, 1179) was a German abbess, monastic leader, mystic, author, and composer of music.



Hildegard was born into a family of nobles in the service of the counts of Sponheim, close relatives of the Hohenstaufen emperors. Because she was a tenth child, and a sickly one from birth, at the age of eight Hildegard's parents sent her as a tithe to the church (as was customary in medieval times). Hildegard was put in the care of Jutta (sister of Count Meinhard of Sponheim) just outside the Disibodenberg monastery in Germany. Jutta was enormously popular and acquired so many followers a small nunnery sprang up around her. Upon Jutta's death in 1136 Hildegard was chosen superior of the community, and eventually moved the group to a new monastery on the Rupertsberg at Bingen on the Rhine.

From the time she was very young, Hildegard claimed to have visions. She received a prophetic call from God five years after her election as Mother Superior in 1141 demanding of her, "Write what you see". At first she was hesitant about writing her visions, holding them inside. She was finally convinced to write by members of her order after falling physically ill from carrying the unspoken burden.

The Awakening

During all these years Hildegard confided of her visions only to Jutta and another monk, named Volmar, who was to become her lifelong secretary. However, in 1141, Hildegard had a vision that changed the course of her life. A vision of god gave her instant understanding of the meaning of the religious texts, and commanded her to write down everything she would observe in her visions. And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books... Yet Hildegard was also overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and hesitated to act.

"But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of god, I fell onto a bed of sickness."

The 12th century was also the time of schisms and religious foment, when someone preaching any outlandish doctrine could instantly attract a large following. Hildegard was critical of schismatics, indeed her whole life she preached against them, especially the Cathars. She wanted her visions to be sanctioned, approved by the Catholic Church, though she herself never doubted the divine origins to her luminous visions. She wrote to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, seeking his blessings. Though his answer to her was rather perfunctory, he did bring it to the attention of Pope Eugenius (1145-53), a rather enlightened individual who exhorted Hildegard to finish her writings. To determine if her visions were divinely inspired he created a commission which came to visit Hildegard and they declared her to be a genuine mystic and not insane. With papal imprimatur, Hildegard was able to finish her first visionary work Scivias ("Know the Ways of the Lord") and her fame began to spread through Germany and beyond.


Missing image
"Universal Man" illumination from Hildegard's Liber divinorum operum.

Recent scholarly interest in women in the medieval church has led to a popularization of Hildegard - and particularly of her music. Approximately eighty compositions survive, which is a far larger repertoire than almost any other medieval composer. Among her better known works is the Ordo Virtutum ("Order of the Virtues" or "Play of the Virtues"), a type of early oratorio for women's voices, with one male part - that of the Devil. It was created, like all of Hildegard's music, to be performed by the nuns of her convent. The text of her compositions uses a form of modified medieval Latin unique to Hildegard, for which she created many invented, conflated and abridged words, while the music itself is monophonic, designed for limited instrumental accompaniment (usually just using hurdy gurdy drones), and characterised by soaring soprano vocalisations. In addition to music, Hildegard also wrote medical, botanical and geological treatises, and she even invented an alternative alphabet. Due to her inventions of words for her lyrics and a constructed script, many conlangers look upon her as a mediaeval precursor.

Around 1150 Hildegard moved her growing convent from Disibodenberg, where the nuns lived alongside the monks, to Bingen about 30 km north, on the banks of the Rhine. She later founded another convent, Eibingen, across the river from Bingen. Her remaining years were very productive. She wrote music and texts to her songs, mostly liturgical plainchant honoring saints and Virgin Mary for the holidays and feast days, and antiphons. There is some evidence that her music and moral play Ordo Virtutum ("Play of Virtues") were performed in her own convent. In addition to Scivias she wrote two other major works of visionary writing Liber vitae meritorum (1150-63) (Book of Life's Merits) and Liber divinorum operum(1163) ("Book of Divine Works"), in which she further expounded on her theology of microcosm and macrocosm-man being the peak of god's creation, man as a mirror through which the splendor of the macrocosm was reflected. Hildegard also authored Physica and Causae et Curae (1150), both works on natural history and curative powers of various natural objects, which are together known as Liber subtilatum ("The book of subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Things"). These works were uncharacteristic of Hildegard's writings, including her correspondences, in that they were not presented in a visionary form and don't contain any references to divine source or revelation. However, like her religious writings they reflected her religious philosophy-that the man was the peak of god's creation and everything was put in the world for man to use.

Her scientific views were derived from the ancient Greek cosmology of the four elements-fire, air, water, and earth-with their complementary qualities of heat, dryness, moisture, and cold, and the corresponding four humours in the body-choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm, and melancholy (black bile). Human constitution was based on the preponderance of one or two of the humours. Indeed, we still use words "choleric", "sanguine", "phlegmatic" and "melancholy" to describe personalities. Sickness upset the delicate balance of the humours, and only consuming the right plant or animal which had that quality you were missing, could restore the healthy balance to the body. That is why in giving descriptions of plants, trees, birds, animals, stones, Hildegard is mostly concerned in describing that object's quality and giving its medicinal use. Thus, "Reyan (tansy) is hot and a little damp and is good against all superfluous flowing humours and whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat tansy. It will bind humors so that they do not overflow, and thus will lessen."

She collected her visions into three books: the first and most important Scivias ("Know the Way") completed in 1151, Liber vitae meritorum ("Book of Life's Merits") and De operatione Dei ("Of God's Activities") also known as Liber divinorum operum ("Book of Divine Works"). In these volumes, written over the course of her life until her death in 1179, she first describes each vision, then interprets them. The narrative of her visions was richly decorated under her direction, presumably drawn by other nuns in the convent, while transcription assistance was provided by the monk Volmar (see illustration) with pictures of the visions. Her interpretations are usually quite traditionally Catholic in nature. Her vivid description of the physical sensations which accompanied her visions have been diagnosed by neurologists (including popular author Oliver Sacks) as symptoms of migraine; however others have seen in them merely colorful illustrations of the prevailing church doctrine of her time, which she supported, rather than actual visions. The book was celebrated in the Middle Ages and printed for the first time in Paris in 1513.

Hildegard's writings are also unique for their generally positive view of sexual relations and her description of pleasure from the point of view of a woman. They might also contain the first description of the female orgasm.

"When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man's seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman's sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can old something enclosed in his fist.

She also wrote that strength of semen determined the sex of the child, while the amount of love and passion determine child's disposition. According to Hildegarde, the worst case scenario occurs when the seed is weak and parents feel no love, leading to a bitter daughter.

Divine Harmonies

Music was extremely important to Hildegard. She describes it as the means of recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise. According to her, before the Fall, Adam had a pure voice and joined angels in singing praises to God; after the Fall, earthly music was invented and musical instruments created in order to worship God appropriately.

Hildegard wrote hymns and sequences in honor of saints, virgins and Mary. She wrote in the plainchant tradition of a single vocal melodic line, the predominant method of liturgical singing in the 12th century.

Currently her music is undergoing a popular revival and enjoying public success. One group, Sequentia, recorded virtually all of Hildegard's musical output in time for the 900th anniversary of her birth in 1998, including examples of Hildegard's metaphorical writing, imbued with vibrant descriptions of color and light, that occur in her visionary writings.


Hildegard was a powerful woman for medieval times. She communicated with Popes such as Anastasius IV, statesmen such as Abbot Suger, German emperors such as Frederick I Barbarossa, and heads of monastaries like St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Often they asked her for prayers, and other times they asked her for her opinion on various matters. She traveled widely, giving public speeches, a rarity for a woman of the time.

Hildegard was one of the first saints for which the canonization process was officially applied, but the process took so long that all four attempts at canonization (the last was in 1244, under Pope Innocent IV) were not completed, and remained at her beatification. However, she was already called a saint by the people before the canonization attempts. As a result of the long-standing devotion of the people to Hildegard, her name was taken up in the Roman martyrology at the end of the sixteenth century without a formal canonization process, earning her the title of saint. Her feast day is September 17. The shrine with the relics of Hildegard is in her second monastery in Eibingen near R?im (on the Rhine).


  • Joseph L. Baird (trans.), Radd K. Ehrman (1994). The letters of Hildegard of Bingen. New York : Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (1990). "Scivias", The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1990.
  • Audrey Ekdahl Davidson, ed. (1992). The "Ordo virtutum" of Hildegard of Bingen : critical studies. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1992.
  • Sabina Flanagan (1989). Hildegard of Bingen, a Visionary Life. Routledge, London, 1989.
  • Matthew Fox (1985). Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Santa Fe, N.M. : Bear & Co., 1985.
  • Bruce W. Hozeski, trans. (1994). Hildegard of Bingen : the Book of the rewards of life (Liber vitae meritorum). New York : Garland Pub., 1994.
  • Barbara Newman (1987). Sister of wisdom : St. Hildegard's theology of the feminine. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1987.
  • Barbara Newman, trans. (1988). Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the "Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988.
  • Ingeborg Ulrich (1990). Hildegard von Bingen : Mystikerin, Heilerin, Gefahrtin der Engel. Munchen: Kosel, 1990.
  • Andrew Weeks (1993). German mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein : a literary and intellectual history. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

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