To be born the 10th child in her family predestined Hildegard to be given as a tithe to the Lord, and to spend her life as a nun. She had no say in that decision, but lest we feel sorry for her, she became one of the most influential women of the Middle Ages (even though this sounds like an oxymoron), who not only pushed at glass ceilings long before they were named, she actually shattered more than one.

Being spared the drudgery of married life and the associated risks of pregnancy and childbirth prolonged a woman’s life expectancy, and Hildegard lived to the remarkable-for-the-age age of 81. Born in 1098 in Germany’s Rhine-Hesse region (one thing she and I have in common), she left her family and joined the Benedictine order at the Disibodenberg Cloister near Bad Sobernheim as an eight-year-old, with Jutta von Sponheim becoming her Mother Superior of sorts. Not content with being cloistered, Jutta was an anchorite—meaning that she confined herself to a life of prayer and contemplation in a tiny cell. Typically this had only one opening through which food went in and refuse out, but because Jutta had several aspirants under her spiritual care, her cubicle also had a door through which the girls could enter and exit. Hildegard received instruction not only in reading and writing, but in all things theological, and when Jutta died in 1136, her fellow sisters elected her as their new leader, their “magistra.”

Conflicts with the abbot led Hildegard and her nuns to make an exodus to the Rupertsberg near Bingen on the Rhine in 1150, where she had arranged for the construction of a new cloister. 15 years later, she founded a second convent on the opposite side of the river in Eibingen, near Rüdesheim (well known to American tourists who take a Rhine River cruise).

Hildegard of Bingen, as she became known (another moniker was “Sybil of the Rhine,” likening her to the prophetess Sybil of Greek mythology), shines like a bright meteor in the sky of the Dark Ages. She became a well-known theologian who not only taught at her cloisters, but also at cathedrals in Mainz, Trier, and Köln in public (imagine that). She corresponded both with fellow abbesses and with male church leaders, including several Popes, one of whom attested that the religious visions, for which she became known (which modern-day neurologists have attributed to complex migraines), came from God, and not the Devil, as was asserted by some jealous and disgruntled monks. A thorn in the side of many superior (only in terms of church hierarchy) clergy, she was threatened at least once with excommunication. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa met with her in person to be advised on spiritual matters. Hildegard invented a language (“lingua ignota,” or unknown language) so she and her companions could communicate in code. In addition to being a teacher, she became a published author, celebrated composer, and esteemed healer.

At least in Germany, Hildegard experienced a resurrection in the late 20th century. Scholars reexamined, revised, and republished her writings, she was the protagonist of a number of biographies, and her musical arrangements were recorded by modern artists. Her medical publications were rediscovered and popularized. A wholesome diet was considered a prerequisite for good health, and she attributed particular powers to spelt. As was the norm during her lifetime, herbal remedies were the mainstay of medicine, but animals and minerals were equally employed in the service of healing. To modern ears, many of her concepts sound as medieval as they are.

There is no doubt that she was—and still is—commercialized, with Hildegard books, recipes, musical compositions, spelt products, wine, and herbal treatments becoming all the rage, but I have the impression that in the last five to ten years the Hildegard fire doesn’t burn as hotly as it did at its height. Considering that nearly an entire millennium separates us, we can’t accept her world view without questioning, but she continues to inspire. While I don’t believe in the categorization of people into saints or sinners, the Catholic Church made Hildegard a Saint and a “Doctor of the Church” in 2012, the latter a rare distinction for a mere woman. Only three others were similarly honored: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

What has become of Hildegard’s erstwhile domains? All but a few walls of the Cloister at Disibodenberg have been gnawed on by the tooth of time, and only foundations remain of the Rupertsberg Cloister, which was destroyed in 1632 during the Thirty Years’ War. The Cloister in Eibingen was secularized in 1802, and subsequently dismantled, but surviving portions of the structure became a parish church which today harbors the Hildegard reliquary. Just a short distance away, nestled on top of the rolling hills that border the Rhine River, a new Benedictine convent opened in 1904. Named Abbey St. Hildegard, it is still active today. Its beautiful church is open to visitors, a gift shop sells all things Hildegard, and rooms can be rented for spiritual retreats.

Hildegard died on September 17, 1179, and on this day in any other year but 2020, pilgrims watch as the golden shrine that purportedly holds some of her relics, is carried in a procession through Eibingen (if you find the idea of people’s body parts being venerated alienating, you are not alone).

Thank you for reading this rather lengthy article. My interest in Hildegard’s remarkable life has taken me to the main locales where she was active. I’m curious to learn if you have heard of Hildegard, or have visited any of these destinations.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

If you are interested in hearing modern-day music based on her compositions, here is a link to a youtube recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2j_t1o_g5U&list=PLeYfIuyXgO3PNk6mgzaCph79nqasEhxyh&index=29

If you would like to read a historical novel about Hildegard, I recommend Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations. Here is a link to the goodreads review:  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13326422-illuminations

42 thoughts on “Hildegard

  1. You wrote: “I’m curious to learn if you have heard of Hildegard….” For all of my adult life I’ve listened to radio stations that play classical music, so I heard about Hildegard von Bingen when her music became popular several decades ago. The rising of her star coincided with, and was aided by, her canonization in feminist circles (ah, the irony of devoutly secular groups having saints).

    On the etymological side, the good Germanic name Hildegard is a compound of hild ‘battle’ and gard ‘enclosure’ (= English yard).

    As a lover of nature, you’ll perk up at this statement: “The definition of viriditas or ‘greenness’ is an earthly expression of the heavenly in an integrity that overcomes dualisms. This ‘greenness’ or power of life appears frequently in Hildegard’s works…. Her hallmark is to emphasize the vital connection between the ‘green’ health of the natural world and the holistic health of the human person. Thus, when she approached medicine as a type of gardening, it was not just as an analogy. Rather, Hildegard understood the plants and elements of the garden as direct counterparts to the humors and elements within the human body, whose imbalance led to illness and disease.”


    Liked by 2 people

    • Nein, liebe Ulrike, bin ich leider nicht. All meine Besuche in Verbindung mit Hildegard haben sich in der Vergangenheit abgespielt, doch ich habe schon länger vor, von ihr zu berichten, und jetzt hat es endlich geklappt.

      Ich weiß leider noch nicht, wann ich meine im April abgesagte Reise nach Deutschland nachholen werde. Mal sehen, wie sich alles entwickelt.

      Sei herzlich gegrüßt,

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ach schade, ich dachte Du hättest Deinen Besuch schon nachholen können. Aber so kannst Du Dich ja immer noch drauf freuen.

        Hildegard von Bingen ist mir geläufig, ich habe sogar ein Rezeptbuch von Ihr und den “Herzwein” schon öfter zubereitet. Schmeckt lecker, an die Wirkung muss man glauben 😉
        Liebe Grüße, Ulrike

        Liked by 1 person

    • Ich danke Dir, liebe Brigitte. Ich glaube heutzutage wäre es für ein Mädchen etwas schwierig, mit dem Namen Hildegard aufzuwachsen, aber wir wissen ja, wie schnell sich der Geschmack ändern kann. Viellieicht kommt er ja irgendwann mal wieder in Mode, und ein gutes Vorbild ist diese Hildegard allemal.
      Liebe Grüße zurück,

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ich habe von ihr gehört, allerdings nicht so ausführlich, wie du sie uns beschrieben hast.
    Eine meiner Verwandten hat ein Buch über sie „Gesundheit aus Gottes Apotheke“ und schwört drauf. Ich bin da eher ein Skeptiker.
    Interessant ist, dass sie in ihrer Zeit, in einer doch von Männern dominierten Szene, zu so hohem Ansehen gekommen ist.
    Viele Grüsse

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wie wir wissen, kann Glauben ja bekanntlich Berge versetzen, und was die Gesundheit anbelangt, ist der Plazebo-Effekt nicht zu unterschätzen. Und außerdem haben Pflanzen ja auch bekannte Heilkräfte.

      Ich würde nicht versuchen, jemandem seinen Glauben an gewisse Heilmethoden auszureden, denn die sogenannte moderne Medizin stößt noch immer ganz oft an ihre Grenzen.

      Herzliche Grüße zurück nach Kanada,


  3. Fascinating post, Tanja. Although I was aware of the name – mainly in relation to choral music, I think – I knew nothing of the woman. Plainly a remarkable person, particularly when seen in the context of the misogynistic times in which she lived. I followed up the link in your post and several others on YouTube to listen to the music she inspired. Beautiful, sublime, haunting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. She’s been one of my favorites — particularly musically — for years. I’m glad you added the note that the cherries were unrelated art; at first I thought they might have been related to her views on health and medicine!

    Have you come across Hortus Deliciarum, a recording of 12th century music that incorporates both von Bingen’s work and that of Harrad of Landsberg, an almost-contemporary? The review in Gramaphone offers this summary:

    “‘Hortus deliciarum’ is truly a garden of delights, a recital of mainly 12th-century pieces, planned by Marie-Noël Colette and Brigitte Lesne and performed unaccompanied by Discantus. Some of the pieces come from a transcription made in 1818 of Herrad of Landsberg’s wonderful manuscript of that name, sadly destroyed in 1870. Others come from various manuscript sources, including Hildegard von Bingen’s Symphonia Harmoniœ cœlestium revelationum.”

    Happily, the recording is available on YouTube.
    I wonder what Hildegard and Harrad of Landsberg would think about that?

    There’s a wonderful book by Susan Signe Morrison, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages, that you might enjoy. She kicks to the curb quite a few misunderstandings about women of that time, and it’s a good read, as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am just catching up on blogs from a while back, and truly enjoyed reading this! Hildegard was such an amazing woman. (Right up there with Julian of Norwich when listing important women of early times. ) I love her art and especially her music. When listening to chant, I can usually tell if its Hildegard–it has a subtle emotion and drama that is missing when “the men” sing. 😉 Lucky you to have visited the historical places related to her! She is such an inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking a look at this older post, Julie. I enjoyed visiting the stations of Hildegard’s life very much, and agree that her music sounds unique and just thinking about it makes me want to listen to it for a while. Maybe this evening with a mug of tea. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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