Hildegard of Bingen

views updated May 17 2018


HILDEGARD OF BINGEN . Few medieval figures enjoy as much popularity in the contemporary Western world as the German Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (10981179). Her influence reflects the combination of authentic discovery and creative misreading that so often characterizes modern appropriations of religious figures from history. She appears in some ways to be very much a twelfth-century phenomenon in her rationalistic optimism, her persistent interest in questions of cosmology, and her openness to the use of art in the service of theological truths as well as her exaltation of virginity and assertion that women are the weaker sex. Hildegard was a visionary, a theologian, a musician, and a correspondent of popes and princes. She founded two religious houses for women and undertook a number of preaching tours.

In her theological writings Hildegard felt able to explore distinctively feminine aspects of the revelation, which is apparent in her imaginative and repeated use of feminine imagery to express the dynamic and creative qualities of God, who is often depicted as a nurturing mother or as Wisdom. Hildegard had an ability to bring her experience as a woman to bear on some of the major moral and doctrinal themes of the day, and she was happy to reinterpret Christian Scripture from a female perspective without any hint that she might be departing from orthodox readings. The fact that Hildegard had the freedom to develop in this way is a reminder of the extent to which she belongs to the twelfth centurybefore the period of the increased centralization and clericalization of the church and the rise of the universities that characterized the century that followed.

Hildegard's Life

Little of Hildegard's background is known, but her biographer records that from her earliest years she possessed an unusual visionary gift of being able to foretell the color of a calf in its mother's womb. This may have prompted Hildegard's parents to offer their tenth child to the nearby Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg as an oblate. The eight-year-old Hildegard was placed in the care of a noblewoman, Jutta von Spanheim, and together with their servants, Jutta and Hildegard formed the nucleus of the women's community at Disibodenberg.

Hildegard's visions continued throughout her adolescence, but it was not until several years after Jutta's death in 1136, when Hildegard was the magista (leader) of the women's community, that she received what she took to be a divine command to disclose the content of her visions. She confided in the provost of the community, a monk named Volmar, who had responsibility for the nuns' spiritual welfare. Volmar was to play an important role in Hildegard's life, encouraging and supporting her, often in the face of sceptical opposition, and acting as her amanuensis. The sense that she was guided by God through her visions was a pivotal feature of Hildegard's spiritual life. When she resisted the divine command, she became sick and was forced to take up her pen, recording not only her visions but letters of instruction, admonishment, and encouragement both to ordinary people and to the secular and religious leaders of her day.

By 1150 Hildegard's community of nuns had outgrown their cramped quarters on Mount Disibodenberg, and they moved to Rupertsberg in the Rhine Valley opposite the town of Bingen. Here, free of the overweening authority of the abbot, Kuno, Hildegard flourished and produced many of the splendid liturgical works that illustrate her vision of the female monastic vocation, with gorgeously dressed virgins occupying the place of honor while singing and giving glory to God. At the age of sixty, following an illness that preceded most of Hildegard's major decisions and after nearly fifty years enclosed in a convent, Hildegard embarked on the first of four preaching tours. In 1165 Hildegard established a second community of Benedictine nuns on the opposite bank of the Rhine at Eibingen, and the successors of this community continue to publish Hildegard's works, sing her anthems, and live according to her inspiration. Hildegard's feast day is celebrated on September 17, the anniversary of her death.

Hildegard's Contributions

Hildegard's personality appears at once complex, appealing, and exasperating. She was imperious toward kings and popes but not free of self-doubt, often taking to her bed for long periods when thwarted or uncertain which way to move. She was deeply touched by God but not free of social snobbery (the communities she founded admitted only highborn women) and possessed a love of finery and dramatic liturgical performance. Her letters reveal her to be both wise and insecure, demanding loyalty and devotion, and peevish when she felt betrayed. Although essentially a conservative figure, indebted to the spirit of orthodoxy and deeply committed to her work as a theologian with a moral and spiritual message, Hildegard also transcended the parameters of her age. Of particular resonance in the twenty-first century is her emphasis on the fertility and fecundity of God, expressed in the recurrent image of viriditas or "greenness," a term that encompasses the natural world as the living body of God, the life of the church, the saints in heaven, and the grace given to individual believers.

Although Hildegard has been espoused as an "ecological saint" and in her native Germany is followed for her herbal cures, she is also widely known and appreciated through her musical compositions. For Hildegard, music was not peripheral to the religious life; rather, it invoked the harmony of the celestial spheres. In addition to over seventy liturgical pieces, she wrote an operatic psychodrama composed as part of a healing process for a distressed sister. Two of Hildegard's visionary manuscripts were richly illustrated (although probably not by her hand), and artists have drawn inspiration from the imageryverbal and pictorialexpressed in these works. It has been suggested that Hildegard's visions are typical of a migraine sufferer, which may also explain her frequent illnesses, but Hildegard's genius is misunderstood if the medium of her visions is confused with the profound and inspirational nature of her theology and art. Hildegard is recognized as a local saint of the Catholic Church, acclaimed by the popular devotion of the people of the Rhineland, and continues to inspire countless people from many nations who rediscover the breadth, beauty, and majesty of her work.

See Also

Benedictines; Nuns, article on Christian Nuns.


Hildegard's visionary works include, Scivias [Know the ways], Liber vitae meritorum [The book of life's merits], and Liber divinorum operum [The book of divine works]. The modern German translations of these texts are published by Otto Müller Verlag (Salzburg, 1954, 1972, 1965). Adelgundis Führkötter and Angela Carlevaris, HildegardisScivias. Corpus Christianorum: Continuation mediaevalis, vols. 43 and 43A (Brepols, Belgium, 1978), provides a modern critical edition of Scivias ; and Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, trans., Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, Classics of Western Spirituality series (New York, 1990), provides an English translation of Scivias. For an abridged English translation of Liber divinorum operum that also includes some of Hildegard's letters and songs, see Matthew Fox, ed., Hildegard of Bingen's Book of Divine Works (Santa Fe, N. Mex., 1987). P. Dronke's Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1970) includes a critical edition of Hildegard's "opera," the Ordo virtutum [Play of virtues]. B. Newman's Saint Hildegard of Bingen Symphonia (Ithaca, N.Y., 1987) is a critical English edition of another of Hildegard's major musical works. For anthologies of Hildegard's work, see Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, Hildegard of Bingen (London, 1990); and Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings, Penguin Classics (London, 2001).

Secondary works in English include Charles Burnett and Peter Dronke, eds., Hildegard of Bingen: The Context of Her Thought and Art (London, 1998); Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen 10981179: A Visionary Life (London, 1989); Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley, Calif., 1987); and Barbara Newman, ed., Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World (Berkeley, Calif., 1998).

Fiona Bowie (2005)

Oliver Davies (2005)

Hildegard of Bingen

views updated May 14 2018

Hildegard of Bingen

Through her studies and writings, twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) helped German scholars to emerge from the Dark Ages by presenting a revisioning of the cosmos and the interrelationship between man and his environment.

German scientist, philosopher, theologian, and composer Hildegard of Bingen devoted half her life to sharing, through her writing, both the insight gained through her visionary experiences and her joy in the Christian faith. Many centuries later, historians still study her texts, and the over 70 chants and hymns she composed continue to be performed and recorded. An influential abbess, Hildegard was considered by historians to be among the most important scientists of her age and perhaps the most significant woman scientist in Medieval Europe. Her written works, which focus on natural history, medicine, and cosmology—a theory about the natural order of the universe—received renewed critical interest in the late twentieth century following a reevaluation of the previously overlooked contributions of female scholarship. In addition to the republication of her many books and letters, a recording of Hildegard's medieval-styled chants and hymns topped the classical music charts in 1998.

Visionary Child Destined to Serve God

Hildegard was born at her parents' home on the banks of the Nahe River in Bermersheim, Germany, some time during the summer of 1098. Her parents, believed to bear the Christian names Hiltebert and Mechthild, were most likely members of the local nobility. At the birth of their tenth daughter, they decided to follow the custom then practiced of giving their tenth child over to the service of God when she reached a suitable age. A sickly young girl destined to live a cloistered life rather than marriage, Hildegard was given little in the way of education or other training. Along with a series of physical infirmities, she experienced momentary experiences of a brilliant light. To young Hildegard, such experiences seemed normal, as they had been a part of her childhood since she could remember. However, when she admitted them to her nurse, the reaction of the older woman at such "visions" convinced Hildegard to keep such things to herself in future.

In 1106 Hildegard's parents made good on their commitment to tithe their daughter to the Church. The sickly, eight-year-old girl was delivered into the care of Jutta von Spanheim, a relative who served as abbess of a cloistered community of nuns associated with the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. While Jutta intended to provide the young Hildegard with a religious education, the child's frequent inability to either rise from her bed or focus her sight on things around her prevented more than a rudimentary education. However, the abbess was able to instill in Hildegard a knowledge and love of music, the Latin Psalms, and the Holy Scriptures.

Hildegard took her vows and became a Benedictine nun during her teen years. Her infirmities lessened after she gained adulthood, and she was able to fulfill her desire for knowledge, her interests ranging from natural history and German folk medicine to the ancient Greek cosmologies that were by now reaching the convents and monasteries of Germany in Latin translation. Unlike her illnesses, her visions continued, and even intensified after she reached puberty. However, Hildegard admitted them to only a few people, including Abbess Jutta and Volmar, a Disobodenberg monk who served as her mentor.

In 1136 Jutta passed away, leaving the 38-year-old Hildegard as abbess of the Disobodenberg community of women religious. Five years later, Hildegard experienced a vision of great intensity, which she later described as "a fiery light [that] flashed from the open vault of heaven. It permeated my brain and enflamed my heart and the entire breast not like a burning, but alike a warming flame, as the sun warms everything its rays touch. And suddenly I was given insight into the meaning of Scripture." Compelled by her faith to record what she had learned through 16 of her visions, and with the aid and encouragement of Volmar, Hildegard began what would be her first book, Liber Scivias, in 1141. In this work, destined to become widely read, she presents her unique cosmology by explaining the workings of the physical universe using a spiritual allegory based on Greek tradition. The earth, Hildegard maintained, was a sphere composed of the four elements—wind, fire, air, and water. Surrounded by layers of air and water, it was encased in an egg-shaped universe with an external "shell." A purus aether contained stars, the moon, and other planets, which were immobile. An inner "fire" or energy source generated thunderous lightening and hail, while an outer fire fueled the sun. Winds within this contained universe caused movements of clouds and resulted in seasonal changes on earth.

Writings Viewed as Voice of God

The "vision" that provided the impetus for Scivias was not unique to the book's author. Such mystical experiences were regularly reported throughout the Middle Ages and have been attributed by forensic archaeologists and secular historians to physical disorders such as epilepsy or severe migraine headaches. Also during this period, the Catholic Church provided the only environment in which studious activity could flourish; without the approval of the Roman Catholic Church new ideas were often met with charges of heresy that did not bode well for their originator. For this reason, religious numbered among the preeminent scientists, historians, theologians, and authors of the 12th century. Because insight and intellectual ability were fully integrated with religious faith, they were seen as gifts from God. Therefore, linking new scholarship or scientific discoveries to a "vision" implied a direct communication from God, thus earning more easy acceptance in a society still emerging from an age of superstition, fear, and widespread ignorance. For women, this stamp of approval from God was particularly important, and in Hildegard's case her visions perhaps accounted for the spread of her ideas over those of other scholarly female religious of the age.

Received Papal Approval

Through the efforts of Volmar, the first sections of Hildegard's yet-unfinished Scivias were sent to the archbishop of Mainz. At the Council of Trier in 1147, the archbishop presented it to reforming Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153), who declared the abbess's prophecies to be authentic. Compelled by the pope to continue her work, Hildegard completed outlining her cosmology and also added to Scivias 14 liturgical songs and a morality play unusual for its day in that it was sung rather than recited. Composed in Latin as was all scholarship of the day, Scivias was recorded on a wax tablet—either by Hildegard herself or by Volmar—and then transcribed by Volmar onto parchment, with the inclusion of detailed illustrations likely the work of Volmar's assistants. While the text reflects its author's lack of literary sophistication and her rudimentary knowledge of Latin grammar, it is compelling in its imagery.

The approval of the Catholic Church caused interest in Hildegard's writings to spread across Europe, where she became known as the "Sibil of the Rhine." Hundreds of Catholic faithful undertook pilgrimages to Disobodenberg to visit with the abbess, and soon Hildegard's celebrity status began to interfere with her scholarship and writing. In 1148, claiming her decision the result of a vision from God, she decided to break with the monastery at Disibodenberg. Using her political influence to override the monk's opposition, in 1150 Hildegard founded the Benedictine convent of Mount St. Rupert, located near Bingen, Germany. Accompanying the abbess were over a dozen young novices and her devoted friend Volmar, who continued to serve as her secretary and scribe. At Mount St. Rupert she established a community that catered to aristocrats among the faithful, and an air of theatricality permeated the convent on feast days, when nuns dressed in flowing white robes, golden crowns atop their heads.

Due to Hildegard's growing celebrity, her move to Mount St. Rupert, and her need to review her work to be sure that it not be perceived in any way to be heretical, Scivias required over a decade to complete. In addition to presenting her view of the cosmos, it also contains Hildegard's ideas regarding the science of biology, among them the belief that, like plants, humans generated from seeds and inherited characteristics of their parents. As familiarity with her wide-ranging studies spread among scholars, Hildegard's study of the folk medicine of her country made her known among the common folk as a healer with miraculous powers. Beginning in 1155, when she was in her late fifties, she began to travel around Europe, preaching pacifism, promoting the Catholic faith, and spreading her ideas about science and medicine. A conservative Catholic who opposed the new religious orders that proliferated in the wake of the reforms of Pope Gregory, she also used her notoriety to encourage religious zealots to persecute sects she believed were heretical. She began to engage in an extensive correspondence with political leaders and church officials, answering requests for advice and giving prophesies. She also founded a second convent at Eibingen, Germany.

Authored Works on Nature, Medicine

Scivias was the first of many works Hildegard composed during her lifetime. An encyclopedic work on natural history, her Physica (Liber Simplicis Medicinae) contains detailed descriptions of numerous plants, animals, and geological formations existing in the abbess's native Europe, along with their German and Latin names. She categorizes her nine healing systems as Plants, Elements, Trees, Stones, Fish, Birds, Animals, Reptiles, and Metals, each group containing medicinal components. This work also includes information and medical applications for the many plants known by Hildegard to have healing powers, making the Physica useful to physicians advising poorer patients on the manufacture of simple home remedies. After its widespread publication during the Renaissance, Hildegard's Physica became a popular medical school text, making its author the first German medical writer to gain renown.

The abbess's visionary Scivias was followed by Liber Vitae Meritorum, a book of subsequent visions that Hildegard began in 1158 and finished in 1162. Her Liber Divinorum Operum Simplicis Hominis, finished in 1170 when its author was 64 years of age, reconciles the cosmology of Scivias with the notion of concentric spheres that shaped more the contemporary scientific theories of her age. In Liber Divinorum she focuses in detail on the relationship between the larger cosmos and the parallel, integrated "microcosm" of the human body, describing the manner in which the heavenly bodies influence the state of health of man. In the corner of several pages Hildegard is pictured receiving visions from God, a reminder to readers of the stamp of heavenly approval on her ideas. Her final book, Causae et curae, is a medical compendium that describes the causal relationship between the movement of the universe and the many diseases of the human body and provides medicinal cures. The importance of boiling drinking water figured prominently in her remedies. Like Physica, Hildegard's Causae et curae remained an influential work into the 16th century.

Truly a Renaissance woman, Hildegard of Bingen died in 1179 at the age of 81, and her biography was begun the following year by Benedictine monks Theodor and Godefrid, who had worked under the famed abbess at Mount St. Rupert. She quickly became known as St. Hildegard despite the fact that, while she was added to the Roman Catholic Martyrology and investigated for sainthood, she was never canonized by the Catholic Church.


Bowie, Fiona, editor, Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings, Crossroads Press, 1990.

Crane, Renate, Hildegard: Prophet of the Cosmic Christ, Crossroad Publishing Co., 1997.

Flanigan, Sabina, Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life, Routledge, 1998.

King-Lezneier, Anne H., Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision, Liturgical Press, 2001.

Maddocks, Fiona, Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age, Doubleday, 2001.


Commonweal, May 19, 1995, Lawrence Cunningham, review of The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, p. 40.

Washington Post, April 4, 1999.

World & I, January 1998.


"Saint Hildegard," Catholic Encyclopedia,http://www.newadvent.org (October 30, 2001). □

Hildegard of Bingen

views updated Jun 08 2018

Hildegard of Bingen

(b. Bermersheim, Germany, 1098; d. Rupertsberg, near Bingen, Germany, 1179)


Also called Hildegardis de Pinguia and often called St. Hildegard, Hildegard was a writer on nature and medicine (probably also a practicing “doctor”), a visionary, and transmitter and original transformer of Oriental, Judeo-Christian, and Greek cosmological and allegorical ideas. She was the tenth child of Hildebert of Vermersheim, a member of the gentry, whose estate was near Alzey on the Nahe River in the Palatinate. From 1106 to 1147 she lived at a small nunnery attached to the cloister of Disibodenberg, serving as its head from 1136. She founded her own convent on the Rupertsberg in 1147. Beginning in 1141 Hildegard followed an internal command to “write what you see and hear,” that is, the visions of which she had been conscious from about 1113. After a papal inquiry she was encouraged to continue her literary and practical activities by Pope Eugene III and was enthusiastically supported by Bernard of Clairvaux. She now became the spiritual center ot which popes, kings, and ecclesiastical and secular dignitaries turned for advice and augury. Her influence was felt throughout Europe, notably in France and England, and even as far as Greece and Palestine. The Holy Roman emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, submitted to her rebuke, met her at Ingelheim, granted the Rupertsberg convent an imperial letter of protection in 1163, and left it unmolested when his troops devastated the Rheingau. Although papal proceedings for canonization were instituted in 1233, it is uncertain that canonization took place.

Hildegard’s mystical, visionary, and spiritual writings include Liber Scivias (1141–1151), a description (and illustration in a remarkable series of illuminated plates) of visions, notably of the cosmos and man’s position therein; Liber vitae meritorum (1158–1163), a continuation of her visions, reflecting on ethics and the cosmic effects of virtue and sin; and Liber divinorum operum (1163–1170), on the theological significance of the cosmos. To these should be added the corpus of letters, poems (“Symphonia harmoniae coelestium revelationum”), hermeneutica, and other works.

Naturalistic and medical books include Liber simplicis medicinae (Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturarum creaturarum) (ca. 1150–1160), also called (although not by Hildegard (Physica, on plants, trees, animals, stones, metals, and elements, chiefly from the medical (curative) point of view; and Liber compositae medicinae (causae et curae—de aegritudinum causis, signis et curis), on the nature and forms of diseases and their causes, notably the forces of the cosmos—elements, winds, stars—based on an allegorical microcosmic physiology.

All the works listed above are genuine, although there have often been doubts about the naturalistic and medical books and some interpolations do exist. The cosmological motives and allegorical interpretations are identical in both “scientific” and “nonscientific” works. We possess the testimonia of the inventories and necrologia of Hildegard’s convent and of Trithemius (1462–1516), who had seen the original manuscript of Liber simplicis medicinae there—it was listed with Hildegard’s other works and he copied it for himself. Hildegard herself mentioned it as her own work in the preface to Liber compositae medicinae (prior to 1158).

Hildegard was a “simple” woman, typical of the unlearned mystic idiota who wrote down what she “saw and heard,” following a command given to her by “voices”. She is therefore basically original in both her spiritual and her naturalist and medical work. She is depicted as receiving her visions through the head—perhaps reflecting the Platonic idea of the seat of the soul—although she herself located the soul in the heart. This represents the biblical view rather than an Aristotelian allusion. It was too early for such an allusion in the West; and in any case such fundamental Aristotelian concepts as hyle, ether, generation, and corruption do not appear except in marginalia by copyists and in interpolated sections. Her Latin, picked up and inspired rather than properly learned, was richly interlarded with German terms and polished and scripted by her close collaborator Volmar, a monk who died in 1170.

The most important naturalist sources for Hildegard were probably folk medicine and popular tradition, notably a welter of recipes, nostrums, amulets, and magico-religious procedures, such as that for the execration of demons. In addition there was the fundamental Galenic humoralism, which formed part of the Benedictine heritage. Thus phlegm figures as the main cause of disease, since it is connected with the fall of man, who made himself more similar to earth from which he was originally formed. Just as earth brings forth good and evil herbs, good and bad humors arise in man. Flesh ulcerates and is “perforated” because Adam’s blood was converted into the evil foam that serves for procreation.

Such biblical and microcosmic analogies form a kind of medicine that is indeed original and, on the practical side, partly the result of her firsthand experience in nature studies and medicine. In Liber simplicis medicinae the curative virtue of precious stones plays a prominent part—the devil hates them because their fire-born splender illuminated him before he fell. In their use Hildegard followed a tradition somewhat different from that emerging later in the Paracelsian corpus. She regarded sapphire as good for the eyes and as an antiaphrodisiac, whereas it is a cure for cardiac pain in the Paracelsian corpus, in which emerald assumes the roles of Hildegard’s sapphire. Carnelian (chalcedony) is a hemostatic in both traditions; but Hildegard omitted the emerald, which is also recommended as hemostatic in the Paracelsian corpus. Hildegard’s use of the amethyst to treat rash is perhaps related to that stone’s application in the Paracelsian corpus to plague boils.

Hildegard admitted that knowledge of nature can be derived from magia, including information from evil spirits, but inveighed against diabolical arts (maleficium), which turn knowledge to impurity and the pursuit of evil. She paid much attention to the wholesomeness of waters and the necessity to boil some of them. Arabic-Salernitan concepts are absent, as are traces of the philosophical and naturalistic trends characteristic of mid-twelfth-century Chartres, which led half a century later to those of Oxford, Paris, and Toledo.

Hildegard thus remains original in her mystical and naturalist work, the sound as well as the fantastic lore. Perhaps this judgment also applies to her ideas that. all brooks and rivers derive from a large salt sea, that salt sources have more fire and virtue than ordinary water, and that soft rain is descending when the sun spends heat—analogous to men who weep for joy. Hail, on the other hand, is regarded as the “eye,” that is, the eye fluid, of thunder.

Hildegard’s influence was considerable in her own time and lasted far into the Renaissance, when the first printed edition of Liber Scivias was published by J. Faber Stapulensis in Liber trium uirorum et trium spiritualium uirginum (paris, 1513), fol. 28r–118v, and two editions of Liber simplicis medicinae appeared (1533, 1544). Reference is made to Hildegard even in the Paracelsian corpus (Fragmenta cum libro de fundamento sapientiae congruentia, Sudhoff, ed., XIII, 334); and there are concepts common to both, although they are not necessarily derived from Hildegard or even from a common source. Trithemius praised Hildegard’s naturalist and medical work as being of “wonderful and secret things of nature with fine understanding and for a mystical design.” Her influence, conceptual as well as iconographical, is prominently recognizable in Agrippa von Nettesheim’s De occulta philosophia (1531)—Agrippa was a friend and pupil of Trithemius—and particularly in the microcosmic allegorical anthropology and the pictures of Robert Fludd (1617).


I. Original Works. Editions and translations of Hildegard’s writings include two collections: S. Hildegardis abbatissae opera omnia, J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologia latina, CXCVII (Paris, 1855; 1888; 1952); and Analecta S. Hildegardis, J. B. Pitra, ed., Analecta sacra, VIII (Monte Cassino, 1882). Individual works are Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturarum (the Liber simplicis medicinae, or Physica), F. A. Reuss, ed., in Migne, Patrologia latina, CXCVII; Die physica der heligen Hildegard, translated, with introduction and notes, by J. Berendes (Vienna, 1897), reprinted from Pharmazeutische Post, 29–30 (1896–1897); Causae et curae, Paul Kaiser, ed. (Leipzig, 1903); Hildegard von Bingen, Wisse die Wege—Scivias—nach dem Originaltext des illuminierten Rupertsberger Kodex ins Deutsche translated and edited by Maura Böckeler (Berlin, 1928; Salzburg, 1954), with color plates, an important app., and biobibliographical notes; Der Äbtissin Hildegard von Bingern Ursachem und Behandlung von Krankhiten (Cause et curate), translated by Hugo Schulz (Munich, 1933; repr,. Ulm, 1955); Hildegard von Bingen, Heilkunde. Das Buch von dem Grund und Wesen und der Heilung der Krankheiten (Salzburg, 1957), translated, with extensive introduction, a running commentary, and text-critical notes, by Heinrich Schipperges; Hildegard von Bingen, Naturkunde. Das Buch von dem inneren Wesen der verschiedenen Naturen in der Schöpfung... (Salzburg, 1959), trans. of Liber simplicis medicinae, with glossary and critical notes, by Peter Riethe; and Hildegard von Bingen, Welt und Mensch. Das Buch “De operatione Dei” aus dem Genter Codex, translated, with intro. and notes, by H. Schipperges (Salzburg, 1965).

II. Secondary Literature. See H. Fischer, “Die heilige Hildegard von Bingen, die erste deutsche Naturforscherin und Ärztin,” in Münchener Beiträge zur Geschichte und Literature der Naturwissenschaften und Medizin7–8 (1927), 377–538; C. Jessen, “Über Ausgaben und Handschriften der medizinisch-naturhistorischen Werke der h. Hildegard,” in Sitzungsberichte der K. Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Math-nathist. Kl., 45, sec. 1 (1862), 97–116; P. Kaiser, Die Naturwissenschaftlichen Schriften der Hildlegard von Bingen (Berlin, 1901); W. Lauter, Hildegard-Bibliographie. Wegweiser zur Hildegard-Literatur (Alzey, 1971); H. Liebeschütz, Das allegorische Weltbild der heiligen Hildegard von Bingen, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, no. 16 (Leipzig, 1930), of particular importance for establishing the authenticity of all parts of Hildegard’s writings and also for tracing her sources for allegorical cosmology and Kosmos-mensch, notably the imagery and iconographic tradition down to Persian and Gnostic ideas; E. H. F. Meyer, Geschichte der Botanik, III (Königsberg, 1856 repr., Amsterdam, 1965), 517–536, with valuable app. on doubtful herbs quoted in Liber simplicis medicinae (Physica); F. W. E. Roth, “Studien zur Lebensbeschreibung der heiligen Hildegard,” in Studien und Mitteilungen zur Geschichte des Benediktiner-Ordens,39 (1918), 68–118; G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, II (Baltimore, 1931), 386–388; H. Schipperges, “Ein unveröffentlichtes Hildegard Fragment (Cod. Berol. Lat. Qu. 674),” in Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin, 40 (1956), 41–77; and “Zur Konstitutionslehre Hildegards von Bingen,” in Arzt und Christ (1958), pp. 90–94; M. Schrader and A. Führkötter, Die Echtheit des Schrifttums der hl. Hildegard von Bingen (Cologne-Graz, 1956), a profound study of all existing MSS and their transmission; and L. Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, II (New York, 1923), 124–154.

Walter Pagel

Hildegard of Bingen

views updated May 14 2018

Hildegard of Bingen

Poet, healer, and theologian


Entering the Religious Life. Hildegard of Bingen was the tenth and last child of noble, wealthy German parents who were involved in worldly affairs. Despite their worldly preoccupations, they supported Hildegard’s early interest in a pious life. As a child, she was made the companion of Jutta, daughter of Count Stephan of Spanheim, who was living a life of religious seclusion in a cell near a neighboring Benedictine monastery. Jutta taught young Hildegard to read and write, and the reputation of these two young women eventually led to the establishment of a convent near the site of Jutta’s cell. At fifteen Hildegard took a nun’s vows and joined this monastery, where she gained some local renown as a visionary. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard took over Jutta’s position as head of the convent. In 1150, after disputes with the abbot and monks who supervised the convent, Hildegard founded a new convent near Bingen, which she led until her death in 1179.

Mysticism and Theology. Surviving records suggest that Hildegard lived a rather ordinary life until 1141, when during an illness, she began having a series of visions. In these visions, which recurred for the rest of her life, she heard God tell her to write down what she had learned about scripture, the psalter, and other holy writings. When she doubted her abilities, she fell ill, which she regarded as a sign of God’s displeasure. Unlike the writings of many other visionaries, Hildegard’s books received the highest earthly approval, being blessed by Pope Eugene III at a synod in 1147. Throughout her life Hildegard wrote books and letters in Latin on a variety of theological and mystical topics, and these writings were apparently widely circulated. In a trilogy written during the 1140s and 1150s Hildegard analyzed a wide range of theological subjects, from the creator and creation to the redemption and the apocalypse. Like many medieval writings, her works could be allegorical, as in this passage from Know the Ways of God:

then I saw, as it were, a high 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.… Now the reason why you see a huge round tower… 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….

Medicine and Herbs. Beginning in the 1150s, Hildegard also wrote on practical subjects such as medicine and science. Benedictine monasteries had a long tradition of being refuges for the sick, and Hildegard’s interest in these subjects may have stemmed from that background. In her scientific writings she analyzed metals, stones, plants, birds, and mammals according to current medical theories of humors and properties. In this sense, her works on nature were closely related to her books on medicine, in which she listed hundreds of medical conditions and a selection of herbal cures. Like many medieval medical treatises, Hildegard’s analysis could move quickly from diagnosis to prognostication. For example, she wrote “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.”

Music and Ministry. In her role as the head of a convent, Hildegard undertook to guide the spiritual life of her fellow nuns. As her renown increased, people from all over Europe also wrote to her for spiritual advice. Hundreds of letters and several lives of saints that she wrote have survived and attest to her concern to spread the insights she gained through her visions. She also believed that music could touch the holy in a way that verbal prayer could not, and she composed more than seventy songs for her convent. Hildegard was also called on to preach publicly, an unusual position for a medieval woman. She went on three preaching tours throughout Germany during the 1160s and 1170s. Hildegard’s life demonstrates that women could have active, public lives in medieval Europe.


Charles Burnett and Peter Dronke, eds., Hildegard of Bingen: The Context of her Thought and Art (London: Warburg Institute, 1998).

Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life (London & New York: Routledge, 1989).

Hildegard of Bingen

views updated Jun 11 2018

Hildegard of Bingen



A Mystical Dramatist.

Hildegard of Bingen (c. 1098–1179) is one of only a few of the men and women known by name who authored plays in the Middle Ages, and the only one about whom modern scholars have a substantial amount of information. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, polymath and mystic, was the composer of the Ordo virtutum or "Service of the Virtues," among many other works. Hildegard's extraordinary life and achievements have attracted the attention of an extremely wide and varied audience—including medievalists, feminist critics, New Age spiritualists, historians of science, and fans of medieval music.

An Eclectic Education.

Hildegard was the tenth child born into an aristocratic family. She suffered from ill health throughout her life, and by the time she was eight years old her parents apparently decided that she should be dedicated to religion. She was entrusted to the care of a young anchoress called Jutta, who lived in seclusion in a cell attached to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg, near the German city of Speyer. There, Hildegard learned some Latin and also apparently received informal instruction in a wide and eclectic array of subjects, including medicine and the natural sciences. Above all, she learned the elements of musical composition, which she would later employ in her drama. At the same time, Hildegard began to experience the visions for which she would later become renowned. By the time Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard had acquired a secretary, the monk Volmar, to whom she dictated and described the visual and aural messages that came to her from God. In the ensuing decade, Hildegard attracted many young women to the tiny convent that had grown up around her, and by 1147 was actively in search of a new home for her burgeoning community.

Drama in the Convent.

In the meantime, the fame of her visions and holiness had spread, and Hildegard began to preach in public, as well as to circulate her writings. These controversial activities brought her to the attention of the bishop of Mainz and also to that of Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–1153), both of whom eventually declared her teachings to be divinely inspired and encouraged her to complete work on what is now recognized as one of the great mystical books of the Middle Ages, the Liber Scivias, roughly translated as "The Book on Knowing the Ways." By 1150, Hildegard and her followers were established in a new and larger convent at Rupertsberg on the banks of the Rhine, near Bingen. It was here that Hildegard composed the Ordo virtutum, a drama about a female soul appropriately called "Anima" and her journey through life. This work is only one of many innovative liturgies, hymn sequences, and song-cycles intended for performance by her nuns. She also oversaw the copying of the books containing her writings and personally directed the production of the many manuscript images designed to illustrate these books and to capture the extraordinary visual qualities of her mystical communications with God. The color, vibrancy, and sensuality of these illuminations provide some indication of the qualities that must also have enriched the spectacle of performance in the convent.

An Unorthodox Career.

Hildegard died in 1179, and it was widely believed that she would be canonized as a saint. An official biography was produced, and a number of miracles were attributed to her. However, the late twelfth century was a time when the process of canonization was becoming highly politicized, and when control over this procedure had shifted from local authorities to the papal court. Official enquiries were conducted four times over the course of the next two centuries but, on each of these occasions, objections to the orthodoxy of Hildegard's life and works were raised by various factions within the church. To this day, only a few religious communities acknowledge her sanctity and celebrate her feast on 18 September.


Charles Burnett and Peter Dronke, eds., Hildegard of Bingen: The Context of Her Thought and Art. Warburg Institute Colloquia no. 4 (London: Warburg Institute, 1998).

Barbara Newman, ed., Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998).

Hildegard (of Bingen), St

views updated May 17 2018

Hildegard (of Bingen), St (1098–1179). Medieval mystic and visionary. Brought up by a recluse, Jutta, in c.1116 she entered the Benedictine community that had gathered round her. In 1136 she succeeded Jutta as abbess. About 1150 she moved her community to Rupertsberg, near Bingen, on the Rhine. Encouraged by her confessor, she recorded some of her visions, and in 1147 Pope Eugenius III, under Bernard of Clairvaux's influence, gave guarded approval to them. Gathered together in her Scivias (‘Know Thy Ways’), her visions condemn contemporary vice and prophesy forthcoming disaster. But more importantly, they record an intelligent and direct seeing. Hildegard was immensely accomplished: as an artist, she illustrated her own books; as a healer, she wrote a vade mecum of medicine, The Book of Simple Medicine; as a musician, she composed a Symphonia with many song settings, and a morality play with eighty-two melodies. She was also a splendid correspondent, who saw women and men as equal in their work for God in the ‘creative greenness’ of his Spirit. Feast day in Germany, 17 Sept.

Hildegard of Bingen

views updated May 11 2018

Hildegard of Bingen



The First Female Composer.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) is the earliest known female composer, and possibly the most famous woman of her time. She was a member of a noble family near Spanheim in the Rhineland (modern Germany), and was educated at the Benedictine cloister of Disiboden. She was elected abbess in 1136, but in 1147 left Disiboden with eighteen other nuns and founded a convent at Rupertsberg in the Rhine valley near the town of Bingen. She was a prolific writer on subjects as diverse as science, medicine, and saints' lives, and during her own time was revered as a prophet and mystic. Her musical compositions include a number of sequences, antiphons, hymns, and other sacred forms for the feasts of women saints and the Blessed Virgin. She also is the author of the Ordo Virtutum (Play of Virtues), the earliest surviving morality play with music.


Peter Dronke, Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

Hildegard of Bingen

views updated May 14 2018

Hildegard of Bingen (b Bemersheim, 1098; d Rupertsberg, 1179). Ger. abbess, mystic, and writer. Took veil at 15. Became superior at Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg 1136. c.1147 founded monastery on the Rupertsberg, near Bingen, Rhine Valley. Wrote lyrical poetry from 1140, setting it to her own mus., much of it of strong individuality and complexity. She collected it together in 1150s under title Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. Her morality play, Ordo Virtutum, a kind of pre-opera, representing the struggle for the soul between 16 virtues and the devil, contains 82 melodies. Edn. of her mus., ed. by J. Gmelch, pubd. Düsseldorf 1913.

Hildegard of Bingen, St

views updated May 29 2018

Hildegard of Bingen, St (1089–1179), German abbess, scholar, composer, and mystic. A nun of the Benedictine order, she became Abbess of Diessem in 1136, later moving her community to Bingen. She wrote scientific works, poetry, and music, and described her mystical experiences in Scivias. Her feast day is 17 September.

About this article

Hildegard of Bingen

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic