Hildegard of Bingen stands out as a visionary and strong intellectual power of the Middle Ages. She was a writer of letters to people of all rank and standing and of books on subjects ranging from theology to medicine, natural history, poetry and cosmology. She was also a composer, both of words and music. What really makes Hildegard extraordinary is she did this at a time when women rarely did these things.
She was born in the summer 1098 to a German noble family of the Rhineland town of Bermersheim, near Mainz into a large family. We know the first names of her parents were Hildebert and Mechthild. Her father was a soldier in the service of Meginhard, Count of Spanheim and her mother was well born. Hildegard was a weak and sickly child. In her later writings, she mentions she began having visions at the age of three. It may be because of her ill health her parents decided to dedicate Hildegard to the church.
At the age of eight, Hildegard was brought to an anchoress’ cell at the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. The anchoress was named Jutta of Sponheim and she was the daughter of a local count. Instead of entering Hildegard into the church as a nun, they took the more radical step of enclosing their daughter. Because they were noblewomen, a servant was enclosed with them in the cell. The women lived according to the Benedictine rule and Hildegard was raised on a frugal diet and wore simple clothes.
Jutta taught Hildegard to read the Book of Psalms in Latin and to sing the psalms of the monastic hours, the Divine Office and also to accompany herself on the ten-string psaltery, a kind of dulcimer plucked by hand. Apparently Hildegard spent a lot of time reading during her enclosure as her writings suggest she was extremely well read. There are references in her works not just to the Psalms but other books of the Bible, especially the Prophets. She also refers to the Benedictine rule, the usual biblical commentaries, liturgical texts, to the Western fathers of Jerome, Augustine, Gregory and Bede as well as many other writers. There are hints she had access to Greek and maybe Arabic medical texts. It is very unlikely Jutta had these books in the cell. Mostly likely the books were lent to her by the monks of Disibodenberg.
During these early years, the monastery attracted many spiritual pilgrims and the daughters of the local nobility were sent by their parents to live there. By the time Hildegard was fifteen and able to take her vows as a nun, the community had become a small convent under the supervision of the monastery of Disibodenberg. From the time she took her vows until Hildegard was about thirty eight years old, we have little information on her life. We do know she told Jutta about the visions she was experiencing and Jutta informed a certain monk about them. It was probably Volmar of Disibodenberg who would become Hildegard’s teacher, assistant and friend. Jutta may have taught Hildegard the organizational skills she would become known for. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was chosen unanimously as head of the small convent.
The year of 1141 was a turning point for Hildegard. She experienced a blinding vision and heard a command to write down her visions. She hesitated. She felt unworthy of the task and took to her bed in sickness. With the permission of Volmar and the abbot of the monastery, she began writing her visions down and describing their meaning in what would become her book “Scivias” (Know the Ways of God). A commission came to study her early writing and a synod was held. Even the pope read her early chapters. Consequently she received full permission to transcribe and make known her visions. She was the first woman to be officially recognized as a prophetess by the Roman Catholic Church.
With Hildegard’s increasing fame, more pilgrims flocked to the small convent and accommodations became scarce. Included in these additions to the convent was the daughter of a nobleman named Richardis von Stade. Hildegard announced she had a vision and she was to move the convent to Rupertsberg to the northwest of Disibodenberg. She faced stiff opposition to her plan. After writing letters to all her superiors, including the pope and enlisting the help of Richardis von Stade’s mother, Hildegard took to her sickbed, immobile and mute. The abbot of Disibodenberg finally relented and Hildegard began the construction of the convent at Rupertsberg. In 1150, Hildegard and twenty nuns moved into the new space.
In these early years, she continued to write “Scivias”, wrote new music and worked on writings which would later be published and known as “Physica” (Natural History) and the medical text “Causae et curae” (Causes and Cures). She was supported and assisted in her writings by Richardis von Stade. In 1151, Richardis’ family obtained a position for her as abbess of Bassam. Hildegard objected vociferously to the loss of Richardis as she had a close personal connection to the young woman. But she could not stop the transfer. Richardis left and went to Bassam but died shortly after arriving.
The first decade at Rupertsberg were years of great struggle for the women. Between 1158 and 1163, Hildegard worked on her book called “Liber vitae meritorum” (Book of Life’s Merits) which addressed life’s vices and virtues. She also wrote letters to many individuals across Europe of all ranks. Some wrote her seeking advice and sometimes she wrote congratulations and advice to royalty such as the German King Frederick Barbarossa and King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of England. Hildegard did not hesitate to use her position as prophetess to criticize the church in some letters. She mentions that she suffered one long illness that lasted from 1158-1161. Despite this, she embarked on a preaching tour.
It goes without saying that for a woman to speak in public during this time was extraordinary. She began by addressing monks at various monasteries such as Siebert or Zwiefalten. She spoke in public in Trier, Metz and Krauftal. Her grandest tour took place in 1163 when she was sixty-five years old. Her visits included Cologne, Boppard, Andernach, Siegburg, Werden and Liège. In 1170, she traveled to Swabia, visiting many monasteries and traveling nearly two hundred and fifty miles.
In 1163, Hildegard began work on her most ambitious theological work, “Liber divinorum operum” (Book of Divine Works). It would not be completed until 1174. In 1165, Hildegard founded a second convent at Eibingen across the Rhine from Bingen, presumably to accommodate overflow from Rupertsberg. She would visit Eibingen twice a week. Hildegard’s health, while never good, appears to have worsened about this time. She still managed to write the “Vita Sancti Disibodi” (Life of Saint Disibod) in 1170. She also wrote a life of St. Rupert and a commentary on the Benedictine rule.
For almost sixty years, the monk Volmar had been a teacher, confessor, friend and secretary to Hildegard and served as provost for the convent at Rupertsberg. In 1173, Volmar died leaving Hildegard in great grief. She spent much time and energy looking for a replacement and finally found one in the monk Godfrey. He came from Disibodenberg in late 1174 or early 1175. In addition to being the secretary to Hildegard, he began writing her biography but left it unfinished when he died in 1176.
Shortly before Godfrey died, Hildegard had begun a correspondence with the monk Guibert of Gembloux in what is now Belgium. From their correspondence we have a chronology of the later years of her life. It also gives us many details of her visionary experiences and her methods of writing. Guibert was invited to be Hildegard’s secretary in 1177 and remained until shortly after Hildegard’s death.
In the last year of her life, Hildegard was involved in a dispute with the clergy of Mainz. When the convent at Rupertsberg was founded, privileges were given to bury rich and noble residents from the surrounding area. Hildegard had allowed a man to be buried there and the Mainz authorities believed he had been excommunicated. Mainz demanded the man be disinterred and taken out of the sacred ground. Hildegard wrote that the man had been reunited with the church before he died and she felt it would be a grievous sin to do what the clergy asked. Mainz responded by forbidding the celebration of mass at Rupertsberg and only allowing the Divine Office to be performed in undertones behind closed doors. After many letters back and forth and calling on her friends in the church hierarchy, the interdict was finally lifted in March of 1179. Hildegard spent the last six months of her life in relative peace and died on September 17, 1179.
There is no account of her death. Guibert’s “Life” of Hildegard had only been written up until the move to Rupertsberg. Ten years later, Theodoric of the monastery of Echternach finished Hildegard’s biography. He gives a description of her death based on accounts of the nuns from Rupertsberg. He also made additions that included some autobiographical work from Hildegard. It has been recently suggested that Hildegard’s illness may have been migraine headaches.
Hildegard’s heart and tongue are preserved in a golden reliquary in the parish church of Eibingerstrasse in Rüdesheim on the River Rhine. Hildegard was considered a saint for centuries but her sainthood was never officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. On Thursday, May 10, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI ordered Hildegard’s name be inscribed in the catalogue of saints, thus extending her cult to the universal church.
Sources: “Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life” by Sabina Flanagan, “St. Hildegard” from the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Mysteries of the Middle Ages and the Beginning of the Modern World” by Thomas Cahill