Most Admired: Hildegard of Bingen

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Hildegard of Bingen (circa 1098-1179)
Hildegard of Bingen was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary and polymath (a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. An example of another famous polymath would be Leonardo da Vinci). She wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, poems, a morality play, also supervising over miniature illuminated manuscripts. Her morality play is the oldest surviving example of its form. In 1136 she was elected a magistra (teacher) by her fellow nuns. In 1150 she founded the monastery of Rupertsberg and in 1165 Eibingen.

It is believed she was born about 1098, but the exact date of her birth is unknown. She was the tenth child of a family of free nobles and was sickly from birth. From a very young age Hildegard experienced visions. Perhaps due to her visions her parents offered her as a tithe to the church. Her enclosure date is cloudy and there is no written record of the next twenty-four years of her life in the convent. She was enclosed with another girl Jutta who also had visions and attracted many visitors. Jutta taught her to read and write, but not how to interpret biblical meaning. The two of them likely prayed, meditated, read scripture and did some type of handwork together. It is also believed it was at this time she learned to play the ten string psaltery. Upon Jutta’s death in 1136 Hildegard was unanimously elected magistra of her community by her fellow nuns. She wanted more independence and requested Abbot Kuno to be able to move the convent to Rupertsberg. This was to be a move towards poverty. She was denied. Hildegard in return went over his head and was granted permission from the archbishop. In 1150 Hildegard and twenty nuns made the move and were granted their own monastery.

At age 43 she received a vision from God to write down all that she had seen. Her first book the “Scivias” (Know the Ways) was the result. In it she described her struggles from within:
“But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close – though just barely – in ten years. […] And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, ‘Cry out therefore, and write thus!”

In addition to her writing she composed sixty-nine musical compositions including the oldest surviving morality play “Ordo Virtutum.” This is one of the largest outputs among all medieval composers. She also wrote over 400 letters to people ranging from Popes, Emperors, abbots, and abbesses. In addition she wrote two volumes on natural medicines and cures, an invented language called, “Lingua ignota,” a gospel commentary, two works of hagiography (writings about holy people such as saints), and finally three volumes of visionary theology : the “Scivias (Know the Ways)”, “Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits)” and “Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works)”. In each of these texts she first describes the vision and then interprets them throughout the Bible. The books were celebrated in the Middle Ages in part because of the approval given by Pope Eugenius III. She also wrote “Physica” and “Causae at Curae”. Well known for her healing ability in these texts she describes the natural world including the cosmos, animals, plants, stones and minerals. She particularly focused on the healing abilities of plants, animals and stones. She also created her own alphabet with abridged words of a form of Latin. It is believed she used this alphabet to increase solidarity among her nuns.

Her belief was man and woman had complimentary roles and wrote,
“Man and woman are in this way so involved with each other that one of them is the work of the other. Without woman, man could not be called man; without man, woman could not be named woman. Thus woman is the work of man, while man is a sight full of consolation for woman. Neither of them could henceforth live without the other. Man is in this connection an indication of the Godhead while woman is an indication of the humanity of God’s Son”
~ Hildegard of Bingen

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