Bingen, Hildegard of 1098–1179

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Bingen, Hildegard of

Born in 1098, the tenth child of Hildebert and Mechtild von Bermersheim, Hildegard of Bingen was a product of the German nobility. Hildegard is remembered as a mystic, a scholar, a playwright, a poet, and a musician. The earliest manuscript of her great visionary work, Scito vias Domini, better known to modern readers as Scivias, was illuminated with sensitive and creative images of her visions made in the scriptorium at Rupertsberg in 1165. Medieval evidence suggests that the illuminations were painted by a "gifted Rupertsberg nun, or perhaps a monk from St. Disibod" (Hart and Bishop 1990, p. 26). The illuminated Scivias, perhaps the best known of Hildegard's works, embodies in its unique artistic and theological approach the creativity, originality, and spirituality of Hildegard's life and work.

Hildegard began her spiritual life with Jutta von Spanheim, who lived as an anchoress at the Benedictine monastery in Disibodenberg. Although she is most famous for the visions that occurred "in the forty-third year of [her] earthly course," Hildegard confessed later in life that she had experienced visions beginning in early childhood. Sickly as a young child, she had much time for introspection and thought, and although she would not write about them until much later in life, her visionary experiences seem always to have been a part of how she approached God and her world. In 1106 Hildegard went to live with Jutta, and stayed with her for thirty years. She followed Jutta's example and served as abbess of Disibodenberg starting in 1136, and she founded two additional convents, at Rupertsberg near Bingen and at Eibingen.

Hildegard traveled throughout Germany and the Low Countries, and she was a prolific writer of letters. These letters—written to the leaders of her time, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204), Henry II of England (r. 1154–1189), Abbot Suger (1081–1151), and Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1152–1190); to friends, leaders, and to lay supporters and advocates—represent an excellent cross-section of twelfth-century society and culture, both within and beyond the circle of Church authority, and demonstrate Hildegard's contemporary reputation for wisdom and theological knowledge. Among her more well-known correspondents is the Benedictine nun, mystic, and author Elizabeth of Schönau (1129–1165). Hildegard's mystical authority was actually sanctioned by a pope, based on an investigation requested by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), who brought her work to the attention of Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–1153).

In the early twenty-first century, Hildegard can be seen as participating in a literary tradition through such female authors and mystics as the ninth-century Carolingian writer Dhouda, the tenth-century playwright Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, and the visions of the early Christian martyr Saint Perpetua (d. 203). However, these women were unknown to her (Hart and Bishop 1990, p. 9), so her independence and both her theological and literary authority have seemed, traditionally, to be anomalous for a woman of her time. Hildegard was also fairly well educated for a twelfth-century woman, although her Latin was imperfect and she questioned her own literary abilities. Thus, she dictated her works to several scribes, among whom the best known was Volmar; he transcribed her works until his death in 1151. Her final scribe, Guibert of Gembloux, was one of her most vocal admirers, including in his transcriptions some of his own opinions about Hildegard, such as comparing her to the Virgin Mary in her influence and sanctity.

During the time in which Hildegard flourished, female mysticism, as it has often been termed, was a new concept: much of what would later be attributed to this genre has its origin, to some extent, in the works of Hildegard. Two major influences on these works—the biblical Song of Songs and Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons on this text—seem to have influenced all devotional writers of the twelfth century but particularly the women who experienced mystical encounters and those who recorded those encounters. It is clear that Bernard's sermons reached Hildegard, who frequently uses the language of bridal mysticism in her works, particularly in Scivias and Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (a separate publication that compiles the musical compositions found in part III of Scivias). Hildegard and Bernard probably never met, but Hildegard uses Bernard's own language from the sermons on the Song of Songs when she writes to him in 1147: "And so I beseech your aid, through the serenity of the Father and through His wondrous Word and through the sweet moisture of compunction … and through the sublimity of the Father, who sent the Word with sweet fruitfulness into the womb of the Virgin, from which He soaked up flesh, just as honey is surrounded by the honeycomb" (Baird and Ehrman 1994–2004, pp. 27-28). This is a clear echo of the Song of Songs: "Thy lips, my spouse, are as a dropping honeycomb, milk and honey are under thy tongue" (Canticles 4:11). Thus, although Bernard makes every effort to avoid sexualizing the relationship between the soul and Christ in his own works, he may have unwillingly influenced Hildegard's erotic imagery and, through her, the erotic language and sensual imagery of medieval mystical writers after the twelfth century, such as the authors of Ancrene Wisse, Hali Meiðhad, and the Wooing Group in England, as well as the works of Elizabeth of Schonau and Mechthild of Magdeburg, who allude directly to Hildegard in their own mystical writings.

The nature and impact of Hildegard's relationships with other women is still being investigated by scholars, some of whom interpret her affection and intimacy for her female companions as "queer," or at least as being edged with erotic desire. The most obvious case for this argument is her relationship with Richardis von Stade, a nun with whom she lived for several years, first in Disibodenberg and then in Rupertsberg when Hildegard became abbess. Richardis may have served as Hildegard's scribe for a time, and she is pictured with Hildegard (and her scribe Volmar) in a well-known miniature from the thirteenth century. Richardis had been a long-time companion and friend to Hildegard, nursing her through bouts of migraines and illness, and encouraging her writings. When, in 1151, Richardis was elected abbess of the neighboring convent of Bassum, Hildegard protested strongly to Richardis's family and to church authorities, including the pope, who deferred to Heinrich, Archbishop of Mainz (who had already clearly indicated his approval of Richardis's move to Bassum). In letters she wrote to Richardis, Hildegard seems to reveal her love for her, although the nature of that love is unclear. Some see their relationship as that of a mother and her prodigal daughter; some see it clearly as an articulation of lesbian desire between the two women. Susan Schibanoff, for example, has argued that Hildegard experienced a "homoerotic attachment" to Richardis (2001, p. 69). Citing Thomas Stehling, whose work includes a study of medieval "lesbian love letters," she argues that Hildegard's echo of Lamentations in her letters to Richardis ("let all who have sorrow like my sorrow mourn with me" [Baird and Ehrman, 1994–2004, p. 144]) follows the pattern of other homoerotic letters by medieval women that derive from Song of Songs, a source well known and frequently used by Hildegard.

Although it is not possible to fully understand Hildegard's relationship with Richardis, it is clear that the younger nun's absence generated for her, in Schibanoff's words, "a desperate and physical loneliness" (p. 54). In her work Ordo virtutem, composed about the time that Richardis was sent to Bassum, Hildegard seems to struggle with the power of the flesh and a desire to enjoy the pleasures of the world. This allegorical text tells the story of a virtuous soul who is tempted by the Devil and must be brought back to God through the virtues (such as chastity, humility, and patience). When the soul asks for salvation, she thus describes her sinfulness: "a scorching sweetness devoured me in my sins" (Zaerr translation 2005), indicating Hildegard's own knowledge of the seductiveness of sin and transgression. Homoerotic desire may also be present in Hildegard's Symphonia when she describes the beauty of the Virgin Mary using the language of erotic desire (she writes, for example, "the sweetness of all delights / is forever in you" in O clarissima Mater) (Gentile translation 2006). However, other scholars have countered that very often when desire, even erotic desire, was expressed for the Virgin Mary, it was not understood as erotic in the same way that such desire is understood or expressed for modern audiences—indeed, it has been viewed as not queer but "aheterosexual" (Holsinger 1993, p. 119)—and thus, although compelling, the homoerotic voice of Hildegard is difficult to ascertain in her works without extensive modern interpretation.

The impact of Hildegard's life and writings cannot be underplayed. As Barbara Newman noted, "if Hildegard had been a male theologian, her Scivias would undoubtedly have been considered one of the most important early medieval summas" (quoted in Hart and Bishop 1990, p. 23). Hildegard influenced Elizabeth of Schönau and Mechthild of Magdeburg directly, as well as any number of other authors, male and female, mystic and traditional, who have made use of her imagery, language, and theological insight for more than eight centuries. She is an important participant in the history and development of female experience, spirituality, and authorship, but her place in history is beyond the influence of gender and places her as a leading voice in the tradition of medieval spirituality and thought.


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                                 Susannah Mary Chewning

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Bingen, Hildegard of 1098–1179

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