HILDEGARD VON BINGEN Biography - Religious Figures & Icons


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Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a remarkable woman, a "first" in many fields.       
At a time when few women wrote, Hildegard, known as "Sybil of the Rhine",               
produced major works of theology and visionary writings. When few women were             
accorded respect, she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings.           
She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, and wrote treatises         
about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones.           
She is the first composer whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant               
convent, where her musical plays were performed. Although not yet canonized,             
Hildegard has been beatified, and is frequently referred to as St. Hildegard.           
Revival of interest in this extraordinary woman of the middle ages was initiated         
by musicologists and historians of science and religion. Less fortunately,               
Hildegard's visions and music had been hijacked by the New Age movement, whose           
music bears some resemblance to Hildegard's ethereal airs. Her story is                 
important to all students of medieval history and culture and an inspirational           
account of an irresisible spirit and vibrant intellect overcoming social,               
physical, cultural, gender barriers to achieve timeless transcendence.                   
The Early Years                                                                         
Hildegard was born a "10"th child (a tithe) to a noble family. As was customary         
with the tenth child, which the family could not count on feeding, she was               
dedicated at birth to the church. The girl started to have visions of luminous           
objects at the age of tree, but soon realized she was unique in this ability and         
hid this gift for many years.                                                           
At age 8, the family sent this strange girl to an anchoress named Jutta to               
receive a religious education. Jutta was born into a wealthy and prominent               
family, and by all accounts was a young woman of great beauty. She spurned all           
worldly temptations and decided to dedicate her life to god. Instead of entering         
a convent, Jutta followed a harsher route and became an anchoress. Anchors of           
both sexes, though from most accounts they seem to be largely women, led an             
ascetic life, shut off from the world inside a small room, usually built                 
adjacent to a church so that they could follow the services, with only a small           
window acting as their link to the rest of humanity. Food would be passed               
through this window and refuse taken out. Most of the time would be spent in             
prayer, contemplation, or solitary handworking activities, like stitching and           
embroidering. Because they would become essentially dead to the world, anchors           
would receive their last rights from the bishop before their confinement in the         
anchorage. This macabre ceremony was a complete burial ceremony with the anchor         
laid out on a bier.                                                                     
Jutta's cell was such an anchorage, except that there was a door through which           
Hildegard entered, as well as about a dozen of girls from noble families who             
were attracted there by Jutta's fame in later years. What kind of education did         
Hildegard receive from Jutta? It was of the most rudimentary form, and Hildegard         
could never escape the feelings of inadequacy and lack of education. She learned         
to read Psalter in Latin. Though her grasp of the grammatical intricacies of the         
language was never complete - she always had secretaries to help her write down         
her visions - she had a good intuitive feel for the intrintricacies of the               
language itself, constructing complicated sentences fraught with meanings on             
many levels, that are still a challenge to students of her writings. The                 
proximity of the anchorage to the church of the Benedictine monastery at                 
Disibodenberg (it was attached physically to the church) undoubtedly exposed             
young Hildegard to musical religious services and were the basis for her own             
musical compositions. After Jutta's death, when Hildegard was 38 years of age,           
she was elected the head of the budding convent living within cramped walls of           
the anchorage.                                                                           
The Awakening                                                                           
During all these years Hildegard confided of her visions only to Jutta and               
another monk, named Volmar, who was to become her lifelong secretary. However,           
in 1141, Hildegard had a vision that changed the course of her life. A vision of         
god gave her instant understanding of the meaning of the religious texts, and           
commanded her to write down everything she would observe in her visions.                 
And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 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 suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions           
of the books...                                                                         
Yet Hildegard was also overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and hesitated to           
But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of           
myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call           
to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a           
scourge of god, I fell onto a bed of sickness.                                           
The 12th century was also the time of schisms and religious foment, when someone         
preaching any outlandish doctrine could instantly attract a large following.             
Hildegard was critical of schismatics, indeed her whole life she preached               
against them, especially the Cathars. She wanted her visions to be sanctioned,           
approved by the Catholic Church, though she herself never doubted the divine             
origins to her luminous visions. She wrote to St. Bernard, seeking his blessings.       
Though his answer to her was rather perfunctory, he did bring it to the                 
attention of Pope Eugenius (1145-53), a rather enlightened individual who               
exhorted Hildegard to finish her writings. With papal imprimatur, Hildegard was         
able to finish her first visionary work Scivias ("Know the Ways of the Lord")           
and her fame began to spread through Germany and beyond.                                 
Major Works                                                                             
Around 1150 Hildegard moved her growing convent from Disibodenberg, where the           
nuns lived alongside the monks, to Bingen about 30 km north, on the banks of the         
Rhine. She later founded another convent, Eibingen, across the river from Bingen.       
Her remaining years were very productive. She wrote music and texts to her songs,       
mostly liturgical plainchant honoring saints and Virgin Mary for the holidays           
and feast days, and antiphons. There is some evidence that her music and moral           
play Ordo Virtutum ("Play of Virtues") were performed in her own convent. In             
addition to Scivias she wrote two other major works of visionary writing Liber           
vitae meritorum (1150-63) (Book of Life's Merits) and Liber divinorum operum(1163)       
("Book of Divine Works"), in which she further expounded on her theology of             
microcosm and macrocosm-man being the peak of god's creation, man as a mirror           
through which the splendor of the macrocosm was reflected. Hildegard also               
authored Physica and Causae et Curae (1150), both works on natural history and           
curative powers of various natural objects, which are together known as Liber           
subtilatum ("The book of subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Things"). These             
works were uncharacteristic of Hildegard's writings, including her                       
correspondences, in that they were not presented in a visionary form and don't           
contain any references to divine source or revelation. However, like her                 
religious writings they reflected her religious philosophy-that the man was the         
peak of god's creation and everything was put in the world for man to use.               
Her scientific views were derived from the ancient Greek cosmology of the four           
elements-fire, air, water, and earth-with their complementary qualities of heat,         
dryness, moisture, and cold, and the corresponding four humours in the body-choler       
(yellow bile), blood, phlegm, and melancholy (black bile). Human constitution           
was based on the preponderance of one or two of the humours. Indeed, we still           
use words "choleric", "sanguine", "phlegmatic" and "melancholy" to describe             
personalities. Sickness upset the delicate balance of the humours, and only             
consuming the right plant or animal which had that quality you were missing,             
could restore the healthy balance to the body. That is why in giving                     
descriptions of plants, trees, birds, animals, stones, Hildegard is mostly               
concerned in describing that object's quality and giving its medicinal use. Thus,       
"Reyan (tansy) is hot and a little damp and is good against all superfluous             
flowing humours and whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat           
tansy. It will bind humors so that they do not overflow, and thus will lessen."         
Hildegard's writings are also unique for their generally positive view of sexual         
relations and her description of pleasure from the point of view of a woman.             
They might also contain the first description of the female orgasm.                     
When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which             
brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during           
the act and summons forth the emission of the man's seed. And when the seed has         
fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the           
seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman's sexual organs contract, and           
all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now             
close, in the same way as a strong man can old something enclosed in his fist.           
She also wrote that strength of semen determined the sex of the child, while the         
amount of love and passion determine child's disposition. The worst case, where         
the seed is weak and parents feel no love, leads to a bitter daughter.                   
Divine Harmonies                                                                         
Music was extremely important to Hildegard. She describes it as the means of             
recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise. According to her before the         
Fall, Adam had a pure voice and joined angels in singing praises to god. After           
the fall, music was invented and musical instruments made in order to worship           
god appropriately. Perhaps this explains why her music most often sounds like           
what we imagine angels singing to be like.                                               
Hildegard wrote hymns and sequences in honor of saints, virgins and Mary. She           
wrote in the plainchant tradition of a single vocal melodic line, a tradition           
common in liturgical singing of her time. Her music is undergoing a revival and         
enjoying huge public success. One group, Sequentia, is planning to record all of         
Hildegard's musical output in time for the 900th anniversary of her birth in             
1998. Their latest recording Canticles of Ecstasy is superb. Be sure to read the         
translations of the latin text of the songs which provide a good example of             
Hildegard's metaphorical writing, and are imbued with vibrant descriptions of           
color and light, that also occurs in her visionary writings.                             
The Most Distinguished Migraine Sufferer                                                 
It is now generally agreed that Hildegard suffered from migraine, and that her           
visions were a result of this condition. The way she describes her visions, the         
precursors, to visions, to debilitating aftereffects, point to classic symptoms         
of migraine sufferers. Although a number of visual hallucinations may occur, the         
more common ones described are the "scotomata" which often follow perceptions of         
phosphenes in the visual field. Scintillating scotomata are also associated with         
areas of total blindness in the visual field, something Hildegard might have             
been describing when she spoke of points of intense light, and also the "extinguished   
stars." Migraine attacks are usually followed by sickness, paralysis, blindness-all     
reported by Hildegard, and when they pass, by a period of rebound and feeling           
better than before, a euphoria also described by her. Also, writes Oliver Sachs         
Among the strangest and most intense symptoms of migraine aura, and the most             
difficult of description and analysis, are the occurrences of feelings of sudden         
familiarity and certitude... or its opposite. Such states are experienced,               
momentarily and occasionally,by everyone; their occurrence in migraine auras is         
marked by their overwhelming intensity and relatively long duration.                     
It is a tribute to the remarkable spirit and the intellectual powers of this             
woman that she was able to turn a debilitating illness into the word of god, and         
create so much with it.