Hildegard von Bingen lived in Germany over 800 years ago. Yet today, in any local book or music store one will find as many C.D.’s under her name as there are under Hannah Montana.
Some of those are recordings by Worcester Chorus’ own mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal’s.
So what is the mystique around this 12th century mystic?
One reason for her popularity could be that she was so diverse in knowledge and interests that, in truth, she could be called a polymath; one who masters a variety of different subject areas, especially both arts and sciences; like Leonardo da Vinci, for example.
Since his time, such geniuses are more commonly known as Renaissance Men, but there seems to be no such term for women geniuses, like Hildegard, or Sor Juana de la Cruz, for example.
As was customary in 1098, born the tenth child, she was ‘tithed’ to the Church, and at age eight years old was sent to live with the then renowned anchoress Jutta, who’s cell was attached to the Church of the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenburg. It was herein that she learned to sing, read and write and also, where she began to experience visions and the call to record them in some form or another.
But for a woman to prophesy in a male dominated religiously ruled world took courage and Hildegard agonized over her calling.
“Because of my low opinion of myself, I refused for a long time the call to write, not out of stubbornness, but out of humility. I kept thinking that I was just a poor little female,” (qtd. in Flanagan)
But the messages of the visions burned in her heart to the point of making her physically ill. Hence, she confided in a few key people; Bernard of Clairvaux, for one, who was so moved by her writings that he brought them to the pope. Pope Eugenius III, after reading her testimonies, approved their authenticity and compelled Hildegard to continue to write down and publish her visions.
And although these important men of the Church had validated her, to Hildegard, the very deep-rooted biases pertaining to gender haunted her with feelings of ineptitude and self-doubt.
“Many were saying, “What is this? So many mysteries are revealed to this foolish and unlearned woman when there are so many strong and wise men. It will come to nothing!” (qtd. in Flanagan).
But, with the help of her friend and confessor, Volmar the monk, who became her secretary, at the age of forty-two, Hildegard began her first major work, Scivias or Know the Way, a report of twenty-five visions that summed up Christian doctrine and salvation history. It took ten years to complete.
Later, after experiencing the struggle of monastic life, Hildegard wrote the Liber Vitae Meritorum, or Book of Life’s Merits, wherein, through God’s inspiration, she addresses everyday moral issues in a list of thirty-five vices or common pitfalls of life.
By 1158 Hildegard had become a celebrity of sorts, actually going out on public preaching tours to monasteries and, on a few occasions, in public forums. For thirteen years of her life, until she was an old woman of seventy-three, she engaged in such travel, spreading the word to a troubled world.
During this time, she wrote the third of what is sometimes called her visionary trilogy which had begun with Know the Way, and continued with The Book of Merits.
Considered by some to be the greatest of the three, in Liber Divinorum Operum, or The Book of Divine Works, God speaks through Hildegard of Salvation history and its deepest meanings.
With her celebrated status, Hildegard ventured out of the constraints of the Church and experimented in creativity, producing plays such as Ordo Virtutum and a miriad of songs.
Her popularity grew to the point that, not only did ordinary folks seek her council, but bishops, popes and even kings wrote to her for advice, earning her the title, the Sibyl of the Rhine.
As if this isn’t enough brilliance, aside from her theological visions, writings and music, Hildegard developed a fascination with the science of the body, and its relationship to the cosmos resulting in two volumes, Causes and Cures, and Physica, or a Book of Simple Medicine, which was a sort-of medical handbook for ordinary folk using herbal and natural remedies.
Some of her medical terminology is still used today, such as “choleric”, “sanquine”, “phlematic” and “melancholy.” In fact, she developed so many of her own terms that some credit Hildegard for being a con-linguist or, one who constructs a language.
But perhaps the story about Hildegard and a certain young nobleman who lived among the nuns in the final years of her life defines her best.
When the young man died in the convent, in Christian compassion, Hildegard and her sisters buried him in their cemetery...holy ground. Later, they discovered that the man had been excommunicated, reportedly, a homosexual.
After a lifetime of dedicated service to the Church, the incident became an ugly episode in the latter years of her life. Hildegard was ordered to exhume his body from their lot.
Hence, as an old woman she suffered through an interdiction; banned from reception of the sacraments.
Later, she would fight and be allowed back into full communion with the Church. However, after a legacy of service to God, Hildegard von Bingen, for reasons unclear, would never be canonized.
Instead, she has become the champion for contemporary causes like the feminist movement, gay rights and new-age religions.
Whatever the case, Hildegard only ever considered herself to be a “poor timorous woman” and a voice for God.
Yet, we can remember her now as Hildegard von Bingen, polymath for God.
Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179; a visionary life. London; New York; Routledge, c1998.2nd edition.
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