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Page 1 Sabina Flanagan: Hildegard von Bingen

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Hildegard von Bingen

Sabina Flanagan
University of Adelaide

Dictionary of Literary Bibliography, Vol. 148: German writers and works of the early middle ages, 800-1170 / edited by James Hardin, Will
Hasty. Detroit: gale research, 1995. Pages 59-73. The print-version contains also figures.

Scivias / Know the Ways
Liber vitae meritorum / Book of the Rewards of Life
Liber divinorum operum / Liber de operatione Dei / Book of Divine Works
Epistolae / Letters
Liber simplicis medicinae / Physica
Liber compositae medicinae / Causae et curae / Book of the Art of Healing
Hildegard von Bingen - visionary, poet, composer, naturalist, healer, and theologian - founded convents; corresponded with secular and
ecclesiastical leaders, as well as a vast range of people of lesser rank; and ventured forth as a monastic trouble-shooter, consultant exorcist, and
visiting preacher. Even more remarkable for a woman of her time was the body of written work she produced. Its range - from natural history
and medicine to cosmology, music, poetry, and theology - surpasses that of most other male contemporaries; it also possesses great beauty and
witnesses to Hildegard's intellectual power.
Born at Bermersheim in Rheinhesse in 1098, the tenth and last child of noble parents, Hildegard showed early signs of exceptional spiritual gifts.
Looking back, she placed the onset of her visionary experiences in early childhood, although at that stage she did not understand their
significance. As the monk Godfrey wrote in his and the monk Theodoric's Vita Sanctae Hildegardis (Life of Saint Hildegard, circa 1180s):
"nomine Hildegardis, patre Hildeberdo, matre Mechtilde progenita. Qui licet mundanis impliciti curis et opulencia conspicui creatoris tamen
donis non ingrati filiam pre-nominatam divino famulatui manciparunt. Eo quod cum ineuntis etatis eius prematura sinceritas ab omni carnalium
habitudine multum dissentire videretur" (Her parents, Hildebert and Mechtilde, although wealthy and engaged in worldly affairs, were not
unmindful of the gifts of the Creator and dedicated their daughter to the service of God. For when she was yet a child she seemed far removed
from worldly concerns, distanced by a precocious purity). The life they chose for her was that of a companion to Jutta, daughter of Count
Stephan of Spanheim, who lived in a cell near the church of the Benedictine monks at Disibodenberg. Jutta instructed her young charge in the
recitation of the Psalter, teaching her to read and (by no means an obvious corollary at the time) to write. In subsequent years Hildegard was
always quick to point out how limited her formal education had been, emphasizing that she had been taught by an "indocta mulier" (unlearned
woman) and, consequently, that any insight she gained into theological or secular matters was divinely inspired.
The reputation for holiness of Jutta and her pupil soon spread throughout the district, and other parents sought to have their daughters join what
was developing into a small Benedictine convent on the site of the monastery of Disibodenberg. By the time Hildegard was fifteen the process
seems to have been complete, for at that time she took the veil from the hands of the bishop of Bamberg.
The visionary experiences that set her apart as a child had continued, as had her recurrent illnesses. That there was a link between her visions
and her state of health was recognized by Hildegard herself (some modern commentators claim that the visions were occasioned by a migraine
condition). By this time, however, Hildegard had learned to conceal the visions. She confided them only to Jutta, who in turn informed the monk
Volmar of Disibodenberg, who was to become Hildegard's teacher, trusted assistant, and friend until his death in 1173.
Between the time other profession as a nun and the death of Jutta in 1136, when Hildegard was unanimously elected to head the convent, sources
give only the most conventional descriptions of the kind of life she led. Within a few years, however, this situation was to change. She recalled
the turning point in her life, the vision that suddenly enabled her to penetrate to the inner meaning of the texts of her religion: "Facturn est in
millesimo centesimo quadragesimo primo Filii Dei Iesu Christi incarnationis anno, cum quadraginta duorum annorum septemque mensium
essem, maximae coruscationis igneum lumen aperto caelo veniens totum cerebrum meum transfudit et totum cor totumque pectus meum velut
flamma non tamen ardens sed calens ita inflammavit.... Et repente intellectum expositionis librorum, videlicet psalterii, evangelii et aliorum
catholicorum tam veteris quam novi Testamenti voluminum sapiebam ..." (And it came to pass in the eleven hundred and forty-first year of the
Incarnation of Jesus Christ, Son of God, when I was forty-two years and seven 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
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suddenly I understood the meaning of the expositions of the books, that is to say of the Psalter, the evangelists and other catholic books of the
Old and New Testaments ... ).
More important than this sudden access of understanding was the command that was part of the vision: Hildegard was to say and write what she
learned in this way. When she hesitated to start writing, doubting that she was equal to the task and fearful of the reaction of her male
contemporaries, she fell ill. She interpreted this phenomenon as a sign of God's displeasure and confided at last in Volmar. With his
encouragement, and the permission of Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg, she began recording the visions that formed the basis of Scivias (Know the
Ways [of God]. 1141 -1151), a work that took her ten years to complete.
While it was still in progress a portion of Scivias was shown to Pope Eugenius III; reading from it to the prelates assembled at the Synod of Trier
in 1147-1148, Eugenius gave papal approval both to this text and to whatever else Hildegard might produce by means of the Holy Spirit. Official
recognition that Hildegard's work was divinely inspired served to disarm potential critics and allowed Hildegard a good deal of freedom to
criticize the shortcomings of her secular and spiritual superiors. She saw herself as continuing the work of the prophets in proclaiming the truths
that God wished humanity to know.
The longest of Hildegard's three theological works some commentators consider Scivias, Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of Life's Merits,
1158-1163), and Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of the Divine Works, 1163-1173/1174) a trilogy, even though Hildegard may not have
envisaged them as such Scivias is divided into three books of six, seven, and thirteen visions, respectively. In each case Hildegard describes
the vision and then explains its meaning. The explanation, which she received via the "vox de caelo" (voice from Heaven), follows the method
used by medieval cxegetes to gloss written texts.
Scivias covers a wide range of topics in a fairly unsystematic way; Barbara Newman describes it as "a comprehensive guide to Christian doctrine
... ranged over the themes of divine majesty, the Trinity, creation, the fall of Lucifer and Adam, the stages of salvation history, the church and its
sacraments, the Last Judgment and the world to come." Book 1 deals principally with the Creator and Creation. It begins with the theme of
wisdom and the knowledge of God, introduces humanity, the Fall and its consequences - including prescriptions for sexual morality - and
anticipates the Redemption. Book 2 expands on the theme of Redemption, considering God's remedy for the world and humankind in the fallen
state depicted in the first book. Here such topics as the sacraments, the priesthood, and eucharistic theology are especially notable. Book 3
concentrates on salvation history and explores the work of the Holy Spirit in building the Kingdom of God by means of the virtues. Its
apocalyptic ending includes visions of the Last Judgment and the creation of the New Heaven and Earth. The thirteenth vision incorporates an
early version of Hildegard's Ordo virtutum (Play of the Virtues, 1150s?).
It is almost impossible to convey the powerful effect that the visions of Scivias produce when reviewed one after the other, but an extract from
the fourth vision of book 2, dealing with the sacrament of confirmation, may give something of the flavor of the whole. Here a series of
interconnected visions depicts Ecclesia (the Church) as a beautiful and powerful woman: "Et deinde vidi velut magnam et rotundam turrim,
totamque integrum et album lapidem exsistentem, tresque fenestras in summitate sui habentem, ex quibus tantus fulgor resplenduit quod etiam
tectum turris illius quod se velut in conum erexerat, in claritate eiusdem fulgoris manifestius videretur. Ipsae autem fenestrae pul-cherrimis
smaragdis circumornatae erant. Sed et eadem turris velut in medio dorsi praedictae muliebris imaginis posita erat, secundum quod aliqua. turris
in murum urbis ponitur, ita quod cadem imago prae fortitudine eius nullo modo cadere poterat ..." (And then I saw, as it were, a huge round
tower entirely built of white stone, having three windows at its summit, from which such brightness shone forth that even the conical roof of the
tower appeared very dearly in the brightness of this light. The windows themselves were decorated round about with most beautiful emeralds.
And this tower seemed to be placed in the middle of the back of the woman mentioned above [Ecclesia], as a lower is placed in a city wall, so
that the image might never fall, because of its strength ... ). This section is glossed by the voice from Heaven: "Sed quod eam vides magnam et
rotundam toiamquc integrum et album lapidem exsistentem: hoc est quod immensa est dulcedo Spiritus sancti et volubilis in gratia omnes
creaturas circuiens, ita quod nulla corruptio in integritate plenitudinis iustitiae eam evacuat;quoniam ipsa torrens iter habens, omnes rivulos
sanctitatis in claritate fortitudinis illius emittit, in qua nunquam maculositas ullius sordis inventa est;quia ipse Spiritus sanctus est ardens et
lucens serenitas quae numquam evacuabitur et quae ardentes virtutes fortiter accendit, ac ideo omnes tenebrae ab eo fugantur" (Now the reason
why you see a huge round tower entirely built of white stone is because the sweetness of the Holy Spirit is immense and comprehensively
includes all creatures in its grace, so that no corruption in the integrity of the fullness of justice destroys it; since glowing, it points the way and
sends forth all rivers of sanctity in the clarity of its strength, in which there is found no spot of any foulness. Wherefore the Holy Spirit is ablaze,
and its burning serenity which strongly kindles the fiery virtues will never be destroyed; so all darkness is put to flight by it). While this account
is at a fairly high level of abstraction, the explanation is sometimes more concrete and specific - as where the three windows are said to represent
the Trinity and the emeralds surrounding them are said to signify "viridissimis virtutibus et aerumnis apostolorum" (the most green virtues and
pains of the apostles).
During the time Hildegard was writing Scivias, she also undertook the relocation of her convent. When she received what she took to be an order
from God to move to Rupertsberg, near Bingen on the Rhine, and set up her own establishment, she met with opposition from the abbot and
monks of Disibodenberg, who would suffer both spiritual and material losses from the move. But Abbot Kuno decided that the illness with which
she was stricken when she found herself unable to carry out God's plan was of divine origin, and he gave his permission (if not his blessing) for
the move. In 1150 Hildegard and some twenty nuns moved to her new foundation. There Hildegard faced substandard accommodations, loss of
revenues, claims on the convent's inadequate resources from the surrounding populace, and internal dissension. With perseverance and, as she
believed, the help of God she overcame these problems.
At this time Hildegard's writings take a somewhat more pragmatic turn. To provide for the needs of her own and surrounding communities for
liturgical compositions, she continued to write the poetry and music she had first mentioned as early as 1148 in a letter to Odo of Soissons.
Worked into a song cycle, these hymns and sequences were to form the mature Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum (Symphony of the
Harmony of Celestial Revelations, 1150s). The themes of the more than seventy hymns, sequences, antiphons, versicles, and responsaries
encompass the heavenly hierarchy, with special attention to Mary and to Saint Ursula. While in modern times Hildegard's poetry had an early
champion in Peter Dronke, the striking originality of her music is only now being demonstrated, both by musicological analysis and in
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The Ordo virtutum, included in some manuscripts as part of the Symphonia, has been called (by Bruce W. Hozeski) "the earliest morality play."
In the play an errant soul wavers between the blandishments of the devil and a choir of virtues. It is possible that the play was performed by the
nuns of Hildegard's convent at the dedication of the church at Rupertsberg in 1152.
Also belonging to this period are the enigmatic Litterae ignotae (Unknown Writing) and Lingua ignota (Unknown Language). The latter is a
glossary of some nine hundred invented words (mostly nouns), thematically arranged. They include the names of plants and herbs and so may
have been related to Hildegard's scientific interests. Although the invented alphabet is used occasionally for titles in her correspondence, her
only use of the unknown language occurs in the Symphonia. One antiphon for the dedication of a church includes five words from the unknown
0 orzchis Ecclesia,
armis divinis precincta
et iacincto ornata,
tu es caldemia stigmatum loifolum
et urbs scientiarum.
0, o, tu est etiam crizanta
in alto sono
et es chortza gemma.
Newman gives a literal translation: "0 measureless Church, / girded with divine arms / and adorned with jacinth, / you are the fragrance of the
wounds of nations / and the city of sciences. / 0, 0, and you are anointed / amid noble sound, / and you are a sparkling gem." Whether Hildegard
encouraged her nuns to speak this rather limited language with its Germanic-sounding vocabulary and Latinate syntax so as to communicate in
secret, as some have suggested, has not been determined. The passing of secret messages might have been more feasible if they had used the
litterae ignotae, Hildegard's alternative alphabet.
Hildegard's medico-scientific writings also date from these years. Such writings may reflect the fact that Benedictine monasteries at the time
were often resorts of the sick and afflicted. Hildegard's Subtililates diversarum naturarum creaturarum (The Subtleties of the Diverse Nature of
Created Things, circa 1151-1158) has been preserved as two texts, the Physica (Natural History), also known as Liber simplicis medicinae (Book
of Simple Medicine), and the Causae et Curae (Causes and Cures), also known as Liber compositae medicinae (Book of Compound Medicine).
The Physica consists of nine sections or books, the first and longest comprising accounts of more than two hundred plants. There follow books
devoted to the elements (earth; water, including local German rivers; and air), trees, precious stones, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and metals.
The medical uses of these objects are paramount, descriptions often being reduced to statements of their four cardinal properties - that is,
whether they are hot, dry, wet. or cold. This lack of information makes some of the plants, especially those that only appear under German
names, hard to identify today. For example, "Pruma valde calida est. Et qui leprosus est Prumam in manibus terat, et succum exprimat, et suo
illo ubi leprosus est saepe liniat, et lepram mitigat.... Sed et flores ejus in butyro vaccarum coquat, et sic unguentem faciat, et saepe cum illo se
ungat, et lepra minorabitur . . ." (Broom [?] is very hot. And let those suffering from leprosy squeeze broom in their hands and express the juice
and often smear it on themselves where they arc affected.... Or let them also cook up its flowers in butter to make an ointment and apply it
frequently to themselves, and the sores will diminish).
The Causae et Curae consists of five sections of varying lengths. It proceeds from cosmology and cosmography to the place of humanity in the
world. There follows a version of traditional humoral theory, although with some striking differences, which leads to a list of more than two
hundred diseases or conditions to which humans are subject. The following two sections are concerned with cures for a selection of illnesses,
using mostly herbal remedies, as foreshadowed in the Physica. The difference between the cures suggested in the Physica and those in the
Causae et Curae is that in the latter there is some attempt to provide actual proportions for the ingredients used in the recipes. The final section
includes discussions of uroscopy, cherries, and astrological prognostications (lunaria) according to the phase of the moon at the time of
conception. Thus, "Qui in tricesima luna concipitur, si masculus est, pauper erit, et si nobilis est, semper ad inferiora descendet nec felicitatem
habebit, et in corpore, viribus et carne facile deficit, sed satis diu vivet. Si vero femina est, pauper erit ... et cum alienis hominibus libentius est
quam cum notis; et non multum in-firma in corpore erit et satis diu vivet" (Those conceived on the thirtieth day of the moon, if male will be poor
and if noble will always descend to lower things and will not have happiness; they will easily fail in bodily strength and the flesh but will live
quite a long while. Females will be poor ... and will more willingly live among foreign folk than familiar ones; they will not be very weak in body
and will live long enough).
Hildegard's production of such a variety of works in the 1150s can be seen as her response to the increased possibilities for autonomous action
that she gained by the move to Rupertsberg. Ironically, her second great visionary work, Liber Vitae Meritorum, may owe more to the early
difficulties she experienced as a result of the move to Rupertsberg than to the advantages she derived from it.
Scivias can be viewed, on one level, as an attempt to answer the question of how Christians should live their lives so as to reach the Heavenly
City; the Liber Vitae Meritorum seems to be a deeper exploration of the same subject, dealing at length with the vices that beset the traveler on
the way. This concentration on the negative side of human nature may have been uppermost in Hildegard's mind after the difficulties she had
with some of the nuns who were dissatisfied with the move to Rupertsberg.
During this time she also suffered the defection, as she saw it, of Richardis von Stade, her friend and supporter in difficult times and her assistant
in writing Scivias. Shortly after the move to Rupertsberg, Richardis, the sister of Archbishop Hartwig of Bremen, was appointed abbess of the
convent of Bassum in Saxony. Despite Hildegard's protests (she appealed, as a last resort, to the pope), Richardis left to take up the position.
Hildegard was only able to overcome her sense of betrayal when Richardis died within a year of leaving Rupertsberg. On reflection Hildegard
believed that she recognized God's hand in the affair and acquiesced in all that had happened.
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In the Liber Vitae Meritorum the virtues are described, but more as a means of defining the corresponding vices than as a positive aid to
overcoming them. The emphasis of the book is on future punishment and present penance as a way of avoiding or minimizing it. The work can be
seen as an early contribution to the development of the theology of Purgatory that was to become so important a feature of the later Middle Ages.
The structure of this second visionary work is somewhat simpler than that of Scivias, with its series of apparently unrelated visions. The six
visions of the Liber Vitae Meritorum are all variations on the same theme: the figure of a man superimposed on the world from the heavens to
the abyss, who turns through the points of the compass and observes the various interactions between the powers of light and darkness. The
methodology of this work resembles that of the later books of Scivias in that the boundary between the vision and its explication is not so clearly
drawn as in the earliest visions. For instance, the punishments do not form part of the vision as first described but are introduced by some blanket
justification such as "vidi et intellexi haec" (I saw and understood all this).
The Liber Vitae Meritorum covers a total of thirty-five vices and outlines the punishment and penance for each. Little prominence is given to the
virtues, perhaps because they have already been described in some detail in Scivias. That the vices do not seem to be confined to those likely to
be practiced by her nuns may reflect Hildegard's tendency, already seen in the Physica, for inclusiveness. Such a desire for encyclopedic
completeness was common in medieval thought, as the many summae of the period attest. But some of the vices depicted, such as tristitia saeculi
(worldly sadness), are mentioned in the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis as afflicting some of Hildegard's charges. The vice is described in the Liber
Vitae Meritorum: "Quintam vero imaginem vidi, muliebrem forman habentem; ad cujus dorsum arbor stabat, quae tota arida sine foliis erat, et
cujus ramis eadem imago implexa fuit. Nam ramus unus verticem capitis ejus obtexerat, et unus collum et guttur ejus circumdederat. Et unus
circa dextrum brachium, unus circa sinistrum se extendit, ipsis tamen brachiis non expansis, sed ad se collectis, ac manibus ab eisdem ramis
dependentibus .... Pedes autem illius lignei fuerunt. Alia autem indumenta non habebat, nisi quod hoc modo ramis circumdaia fuit. Et maligni
spiritus cum nigra nebula valde foetente venientes, ipsam invascrunt, ad quos gemendo se reclinabat" (I saw a fifth image in the form of a
woman at whose back a tree was standing, wholly dried up and without leaves and by whose branches the woman was embraced. For one branch
went around the top of her head, and another her neck and throat and one round her left arm and one to her right; her arms were not outstretched
but held close to her body with her hands hanging down from the branches .... Her feet were of wood. She had no other clothes but the branches
going around her. .And wicked spirits coming with a very fetid black cloud swarmed over her, at which she lay down lamenting).
The explanation of the figure's attributes serves to emphasize the paralyzing effects of the vice. The sense of apathy and inability to turn either to
the world or to God makes the condition sound rather like what today might be called clinical depression. The dry and lifeless tree (the symbolic
opposite of all natural vitality and spiritual growth) oppresses the mind of the sufferer, preventing contrition. It constrains the neck and throat,
thus preventing the assumption of the Lord's yoke or nourishment with the Food of Life. The branches hold the arms close to the body so they
cannot be extended in the performance of secular or spiritual works. The blocklike feet indicate that such people do not follow the path of faith
or hope. "Nullam viriditatem in viis suis habentes" (there is no greenness in their ways), as Hildegard puts it, using one. of her favorite concepts.
Finally, the figure is naked because "nulla gloria, nulla honestate decoratos" .(it has no glory or goodness to adorn it). The evil spirits are to be
taken literally, rather than symbolically; Hildegard believed in their existence and thought that they took advantage of people in such
circumstances, entering into their bodies and manipulating them from within.
Around the time when she wrote the Liber Vitae Meritorum, Hildegard emerged even further into public life, embarking on a series of preaching
tours. On the first, which took her along the river Main as far as Bamberg, she preached to monastic communities at Wrzburg and Kitzingen.
During her second tour in 1160 she took the highly unusual step (for a woman) of preaching in public at Trier, as well as visiting communities at
Metz and Krauftal. On her third tour, undertaken sometime before 1163, she went north to Cologne and Werden; her fourth, in 1170, took her
south to Zwiefalten.
In 1163 Hildegard began to write the final part of the theological trilogy, the Liber Divinorum Operum, considered by many to be her most
impressive work. Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies describe it as "a broad cosmological reflection on the Christian revelation from a profoundly
anthropocentric point of view according to which men and women, who are themselves the 'work' of God, are called to co-operate actively with
God in the perfection of his creation." Like Scivias, this work is divided into three parts; it comprises ten visions of varying lengths. The first
book, which consists of the first four visions, deals with God's creation of the world, aided by Charitas (Love), and the privileged place of
humanity within it. The second book, taken up by the fifth vision, develops the idea of humanity as the moral center of the world, faced with the
ultimate judgment. The third book, incorporating the final five visions, is once again concerned with salvation history, especially the Incarnation
and the end of time.
The central part of the work is Hildegard's meditation on the opening of Saint John's Gospel (in vision four). Although here the exegesis is
virtually confined to the literal level, her subsequent commentary on the first book of Genesis in vision five interprets each verse literally;
allegorically, as referring to the progress of the faith and the growth of the church; and tropologically or morally, as pertaining to the actions of
the individual Christian. Her commentary on the words "And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep,"
for example, begins with an explanation of the literal level of the text: "terra fuit inanis, scilicet forma carens, et invisibilis, lumen non habens,
quia necdum splendore lucis, nec claritate solis, lunae aut stellarum illustrabatur, et inculta, quoniam nulla creatura sulcabatur, et vacua, id est
incomposita, quia nondum plena erat, cum necdum viriditatem, germen, aut floriditatem herbarum, seu arborum haberet" (the earth was
formless, that is to say, lacking form, and invisible, having no light because it was not yet illuminated by the splendor of light, nor the brightness
of the sun, moon, or stars, and uncultivated because it had been tilled by no one, and void, that is, without order, because it was not yet full, as it
did not yet have the greenness, promise, or burgeoning of plants or trees). The same passage receives an allegorical gloss: "Omnis populus,
scilicet Judaicus et gentilis, qui super faciem abyssi, id est terram caecus et surdus in agnitione Dei fuit, et vacuus a bonis operibus,
quoniam ea secundum doctrinam Altissimi Filii non operabatur, donec ipse ad Patrem ascendit. Et sic super terram, quae facies abyssi est
tenebrae infidelitatis erant, in qua homines Deum non cognoscentes quasi caeci vivebant" (All the people, that is, the Jews and Gentiles, who
lived on the face of the deep, that is the earth . . . were blind and deaf to recognition of God, and empty of good works, since they did not live
according to the teaching of the Son of the Highest, until he ascended to his Father. And thus on the earth, which is the face of the deep, was the
darkness of unbelief, in which men lived, not recognizing God, as if they were blind). The tropological explanation follows: "Homo qui in
moribus suis nunquam stabilis esse potest, magna inanitas est, quasi fluctuatio maris semper inundat .... tenebrosis factis quae ad pravos mores
pertinent circumdatus est .... Et corpus quasi facies abyssi, anima autem velut abyssus est, quia corpus visibile et palpabile sicut facies abyssi,
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anima vero invisibilis et impalpabilis sicut abyssus terrae existit" (The person who can never be steadfast in behavior is quite formless and ever
flooding like the sea .... surrounded by dark deeds which pertain to depraved actions ... and the body is like the face of the abyss, the soul like
the abyss, because the body is visible and palpable like the face of the deep, the soul invisible and impalpable).
While writing the Liber Divinorum Operum Hildegard also produced many letters, musical works, and other minor pieces. One was the Vita
Sancti Disibodi (Life of Saint Disibod), written in 1170 at the request of Abbot Helenger and the monks of the parent house to supply an
embarrassing lack of written evidence about their founder. She believed that by consulting her source of divine knowledge she was able to
amplify whatever oral traditions had been preserved by the monastery.
Saint Disibod, despite various vicissitudes in his youth due to the rule of a tyrant in his native Ireland, maintained his devotion to religious studies
and rose through the appointed grades to become a priest by the age of thirty. Later he was elected bishop, and he sought to instruct his flock in
Christian ways. Schisms and apostasy were rife in Ireland, however, and after wrestling vainly for ten years with the intransigent populace he
decided to take his missionary efforts elsewhere. On his travels through Germany he heard of Saint Benedict. (Since Benedict is described as
having died only recently, Disibod's travels must be dated soon after 550.) After ten years he came on the wooded mountain at the junction of
the Nahe and Glan that now bears his name and settled there as a hermit with three companions who had come from Ireland, Gillilaldus,
Clemens, and Salustus. The fame of the hermits soon spread, and, having learned the language, Disibod began to preach the word and succor the
poor and sick. He died there in the odor of sanctity thirty years later at the age of eighty. The rest of the life deals with the development of the
monastery and includes the detail that Disibod never actually became a member of the monastery he founded, preferring to maintain his eremitic
way of life.
Jean Baptiste Pitra dates the Vita Sancti Ruperti (Life of Saint Rupert) to the years 1170 to 1173 as well, although it may have been written as
early as the 1150s, as Newman suggests. On the other hand, it is not specifically mentioned in the preface to Liber Vitae Meritorum, which is
generally taken to provide a summary of Hildegard's literary activity for the decade. In this short work Hildegard furnishes a history of the patron
saint of her own convent and of his mother, who outlived him by many years. Sometime in the ninth century - her father is said to have
flourished under Charlemagne - Bertha, a noblewoman and a devout Christian from the vicinity of Bingen, married a nobleman, Robold, whose
faith was at best lukewarm. Widowed when their son, Rupert, was three. Bertha moved to Bingen. There she led a quasi-monastic life with a
group of like-minded men, repelling many offers of marriage from the secular nobility. Bertha began to teach her son letters when he was age
seven, although he wanted to be a Christian knight rather than a cleric. When he was twelve Rupert had the first of a series of prophetic dreams
that resulted in his and Bertha's establishment of a hospice for the poor. There Rupert spent the next three years washing feet and making beds.
Bertha and Rupert were assisted in the running of the establishment by a priest named Wigert and an unlettered man. Urged by relatives to lead a
secular life, Rupert made a pilgrimage to Rome; returning, he redoubled his charitable works. At the age of twenty he fell ill with a fever and had
a dream presaging his death, which occurred thirty days later. After his burial at Rupertsberg he worked many miracles. When Bertha died
twenty-five years later she was buried in his tomb. Bingen was sacked by the "Normans" (that is, the Vikings) around 882, but the church where
Rupert and Bertha were buried miraculously survived so that Hildegard could eventually reclaim the site for her convent.
Some of Hildegard's remaining minor works occur among her letters. Though it was common at the time for short treatises to take epistolary
form, it is not clear that all were actually sent as letters. Hildegard's homilies on the Evangelists and the so-called epilogue to Vita Sancti Ruperti,
probably delivered orally to the nuns at Rupertsberg. seem to have been subsequently written down and incorporated among the letters for want
of a better place. On the other hand, the Explanatio Symboli S. Athanasii (Commentary on the Athanasian Creed) occurs in a letter to her own
community; the Explanatio Regulae S. Benedicti (Commentary on the Benedictine Rule) was sent in response to a request from a German
monastery; and her reply to the thirty-eight questions was directed to the monks of Villers.
Hildegard's correspondence dates from around the time other recognition by the Synod of Trier and increases in volume and in variety of
recipients until her death in 1179. More than three hundred of her letters survive, along with many letters written to her. The expectation that the
letters will provide an insight into her inner thoughts and feelings is generally disappointed, however, partly because most medieval letters were
intended for public consumption rather than being intimate expressions of emotion or thought. This aspect is heightened in Hildegard's case by
the virtual eschewal of her own voice in preference to that of God. One of the few exceptions is the exchange of letters relating to the move of
Richardis von Stade. Another letter in which Hildegard reveals something of herself (though she declares that "Haec verba non a me ... dico, sed
ea ut in superna visione accepi profero" [The words come not from me ... but as I received them in a vision from above]) is directed to Guibert of
Gembloux, the Walloon monk who became her secretary in 1177. Some years before, he had written to Hildegard to inquire about the nature of
her visionary powers. In her reply she describes how most of her knowledge comes from what she calls "umbra viventis luminis" (the shadow of
the Living Light) but that sometimes, "in codem lumine aliam lucem, que lux vivens michi nominata est, interdum et non frequenter aspicio, et
quando et quomodo illam videam pro-ferre non valeo, atque interim dum illam intueor, omnis tristicia et omnis angustia a me aufertur, ita ut tunc
mores simplicis puelle, et non vetule mulieris, habeam" (in that light occasionally and infrequently I see another light, which I have been told is
the Living Light, and I am unable to say when and how I see it, and while I apprehend it, all sadness and all pain is lifted from me, so that I feel
like a simple girl again, and not an old woman).
In the preface to the Liber Vitae Meritorum Hildegard refers to her already substantial correspondence as "responsa et admoniliones" (replies
and advice [or sermons]). In the manuscript known as the Riesenkodex her correspondence has been arranged in such a way as to pair requests
for advice with Hildegard's responses, but other letters survive from which it seems that she sometimes gave unsolicited advice (to the emperor
Frederick Barbarossa, for example) and also that she did not reply to every letter she received, as was the case with the importunate monks of
Many of the letters ask Hildegard in fairly nonspecific terms for messages of encouragement, admonition, or consolation, or simply for her
prayers. Such requests came from people known to her, including her relatives, as well as from strangers. The reason such correspondents give
for their faith in her help is her acknowledged gift of prophecy, in the medieval sense of being privy to God's secrets. Such, presumably, were the
letters that prompted hers to Henry II of England and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Hildegard gives them general words of encouragement
and admonition, indicating that the exchange took place well before the murder of Thomas Becket. She tells Henry: "Ad quemdam virum,
quoddam officium habentem, Dominus dicit: Dona donationum tibi sunt, velut regendo, tegendo, protegendo, providendo, coelum habeas; sed
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nigerrima avis de Aquilone ad te venit, et dicit: Tu possibilitatem habes facere quodcumque volueris; fac ergo hoc et illud, et causam hanc et
illam, quia tibi non est utile ut justitiam inspicias, quoniam si eam semper inspexeris, non est dominus, sed servus ..." (To a certain man who
holds a certain office, the Lord says: "Yours are the gifts of giving: it is by ruling and defending, protecting and providing, that you may reach
heaven." But a bird of blackest hue comes to you from the North and says: "You are able to do whatever you want; so do this and do that; make
this excuse and that excuse, for it docs not profit you to have regard to Justice; for if you always consult her, you are not the master but the
slave"). Sometimes, however, the narrower meaning of prophecy is assumed, as when Hildegard is asked to prognosticate on the course of an
illness and the spiritual state of a husband: "0 creatura Dei Luthgardis, dispone res tuas sccundum necessitatem tuam, quia non video languorem
viri tui ab eo recedere ante finem suum. Obsecra ergo, corripe et mone illum pro salute animae suae, quoniam multas tenebras in eo video ..." (0
Luitgard, God's creature, arrange your affairs according to your needs, because I do not sec your husband's illness lifting before his end.
Therefore, beg, correct and warn him for the safety of his soul, because I see much darkness in him ...). More specialized concerns are to be
found in an exchange of letters with the monks of Brauweiler concerning the exorcism of a young woman named Sigewize. Another group of
letters addresses particular monastic concerns about the burdens of authority. There are also letters from various heads of houses who write
about their desire to put aside their office for a simpler and more spiritual lifestyle.
Another series of letters charts the course of a dispute, which clouded the last year of Hildegard's life, concerning the burial of a young nobleman
who had been excommunicated. Hildegard, believing that the sentence had been lifted before he died, allowed his burial at Rupertsberg. A few
days later the clergy of Mainz ordered the body to be disinterred and cast out on pain of interdict. Hildegard, having consulted "the Living
Light," was convinced that they were wrong but complied with the interdict, which meant refraining from singing the Divine Office and from
receiving communion. In a letter to her superiors at Mainz she expounded the fundamental importance of music in the divine plan. After some
further exchanges Hildegard prevailed, and the interdict was lifted. Thus, the final months before her death in 1179 were spent peacefully at
Rupertsberg, where full performance of the Opus Dei was restored. She has not been officially canonized by the Roman Catholic church, but her
cult has local recognition.
In her letters, as in most of her other works, Hildegard's reforming mission is evident. Although she gave advice to lay and ecclesiastical figures,
it can be seen that her chief concern was with reform of the clergy, since they were the ones on whom the leadership of the church and the
teaching of the people depended. Indeed, she justified her prophetic role by claiming that in such disjointed times, when the world was hastening
toward its end, the expected leaders and teachers had failed in their task. This was the reason that she, though a "paupercula forma" (poor weak
woman), had been chosen to express God's will, whether in the extended and general form of her theological trilogy or more directly in sermons
and letters.
Various events of the time gave credence to such a point of view. One such was the eighteen-year schism that began in 1159 when, on the death
of Hadrian IV, two rival popes were elected. Hildegard's younger contemporary, Elisabeth of Schonau, supported (or said that God supported)
Victor IV, recognized by Frederick Barbarossa; Hildegard favored Alexander III and grew increasingly disenchanted with the emperor for his
support of a series of antipopes. Both visionaries linked the failure of the clergy to lead exemplary lives and to teach the people with the rise of
heretical sects, notably Catharism; several of Hildegard's letters urge groups of clergy to preach against the heresy, which was gaining ground
along the Rhine as well as in southern France. Some of Hildegard's more startling pronouncements on sexual matters may be seen as a response
to the Catharist rejection of the body and denigration of sexuality.
Such considerations indicate the importance of viewing Hildegard's work in its historical context. Failure to do so has contributed to misreadings
of Hildegard as an exponent of Creation Spirituality, environmentalism, or feminism. Hildegard's views are best understood in the context of her
own times and of her entire oeuvre, rather than being selectively quarried to support currently popular positions. Such treatment ultimately
diminishes, rather than enhances, her reputation. She is remarkable enough in her own right.