Hildegard of Bingen – a perspective

 Hildegard of Bingen has a reputation as a visionary, a musician and a sort of feminist.

Illustration detail from 'Sanctae Hildegardis Revelationes' , Italian School (13th century) - Migraine cannot explain Hildegard<br /><br />

Illustration detail from ‘Sanctae Hildegardis Revelationes’ , Italian School (13th century) Photo: BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY


A woman who wrote a letter castigating the Emperor Barbarossa, and one to the Pope in similar terms, showed some temerity. That she received answers showed she was someone to be bargained with. Now there is talk that in October she will be declared a Doctor of the Church, like St Augustine or St Teresa.

Hildegard of Bingen has a reputation as a visionary, a musician and a sort of feminist. Because she lived from 1098 to 1179 we know fewer of the facts of her life than we should like to, and we find many of her ideas puzzling. Take those visions.

Hildegard spent 10 years writing her first book on the visions she had experienced by the age of 42. The book is called Scivias – “know the ways”, the ways of God. Most people are struck by the bright, strange illuminations in the original manuscript. Their jagged lights and castellated lines have encouraged hypotheses that Hildegard had migraine or temporal lobe epilepsy.

Perhaps she did, but that explains nothing. Hildegard wrote long books on her visions, which on their own are far from transparent. A crowned figure in front of a white flaming tower – what does that mean? It was in her long-meditated explanations that Hildegard’s genius lay.

In any case we do not know that she drew the pictures in Scivias. The manuscript containing them was lost during the destruction of Dresden and its occupation by the Soviets. What we see now are copies from the 1920s. Hildegard, we know, used a monk as a secretary, to render her thoughts grammatical in Latin. If she made the illuminations herself, no one mentioned it when writing of her life. Other manuscript illuminators, as in the 13th-century Italian detail pictured here, had their own ideas of what her visions would look like.

The art of illumination does not make anyone a Doctor of the Church. Nor does writing a long treatise on herbs, or even inventing a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words to talk of spiritual matters – another oddity of Hildegard’s. For someone who entered an anchorite’s cell as a girl and spent the last half of her life in the enclosed Benedictine convents she founded, Hildegard took an encyclopedic interest in everything under the sun. She set the microcosm of man in the macrocosm of the heavens and earth. By “man” I mean the human creature. Hildegard refers to herself as homo, a human being.

She brought all this, and her remarkable personality, to the advice that made her so widely sought by kings and saints. That teaching is based on Scripture and the excerpts from the Fathers of the Church that she came across in her monastic life. A fascinating book by Sabina Flanagan on Hildegard, gives as an example her treatment of one of the vices in a long work, Liber vitae meritorum.

First Hildegard describes a vision. “I saw a woman at whose back a tree was standing, wholly dried up and without leaves and by whose branches the woman was embraced.” The woman lamented her restraint by the dead wood, while wicked spirits swarmed over her. Later Hildegard explains the vision as a figure of the vice of “worldly sadness” (tristitia saeculi). It also sounds like accidie, the “eighth deadly sin” of John Cassian, the desert father.

Hildegard proceeded to give a dramatic dialogue between Worldly Sadness and Heavenly Joy. Sadness says: “I heave heard a lot from philosophers who teach that there is much good in God, but in all this God has done me no good. If he is my God, why has he taken all his grace from me?” Joy points to the sun and stars and says: “When day comes to you, you call it night; and when salvation is nigh, you call it damnation.” Worldly Sadness is like the dwarfs in CS Lewis’s The Last Battle, who, when given a feast, declared they were eating turnips.

There is now plenty of Hildegard published in translation. If she is made a Doctor more people might try reading it.

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