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