Friday Hoyden: Hildegard von Bingen

Long ago I promised a set of the “three wise H’s”. After Hrotsvit and Heloise, we are overdue to hear about Hildegard, and Good Friday seems like the perfect time to promote one of the great medieval Christian philosophers.

She lived for most of the twelfth century, born in 1098 and dying in 1179 at the age of 81 (pretty impressive for that time). We have such accurate dates for her because, as the Abbess of a prominent Benedictine convent and published theological writer, she was one of the minority of people of this period whose lives were documented extensively.

Medieval painting of a nun writing on a tablet, attended by a monk.

Hildegard receiving a vision, and transcribing it

Hildegard entered a convent at the age of eight, which was not unusual for girls of good family joining an institution designed for and run by the nobility for their daughters, but she had been having religious visions since she was three. These convents provided excellent opportunities for girls to gain an education, and to continue to live with autonomy. As she grew the directives she believed she was receiving from God became more sophisticated and related to doctrine. According to David Bird, “Pope Eugenus gave his approval that she document her visions. Even more unusual, he authorized her to preach.”

This hoyden is one of the great thinkers of Western history. A Renaissance woman well before the Renaissance, she wrote long tracts on theology, but also wrote music and poetry.

This is also from Bird: “She wrote two volumes on natural medicine; a gospel commentary; three volumes of her visionary experiences; and a morality play, which was popular during the latter part of the Middle Ages, entitled, Play of the Virtues. The morality plays of that time included music, which were precursors to later polyphonic music and included instruments in its performance. She developed her own alphabet, indeed her own language called, ‘Lingua ignota’, and was a prolific correspondent by letter. She wrote monophonic music, elaborately and delicately ornate, some based upon existing chant, and some her own. About 70 pieces of her music are known to us, much of it with her poetic text.”

Hidegard had numerous tussles throughout her life with Abbots and other male religious leaders who wanted to curb the high level of self-governance of her convent. She always won. She never ceased her work in pioneering areas of thinking and writing, and the results are still known and valued.

I can’t hope to compete with the detailed biography provided by Sabina Flanagan from the University of Adelaide, everything you could want to know is there.

From Fordham University, this biog is also good.

Categories: gender & feminism, history, religion

Tags: , ,

4 replies

  1. Is she being touched by his noodly appendage or attacked by Cthulhu in that illustration?

  2. A contemporary and correspondent of Eleanor of Aquitaine, too. A fascinating period for self-determining aristocratic women, one wonders how and if that influenced women of the lower social orders, whose lives of course were hardly ever documented.

  3. This is the weirdest coincidence – I was only today hearing about Hildegard von Bingen for the first time, in a Twelfth Planet Press/Fablecroft book launch at Swancon. Juliet Marillier spoke about her contribution to Cranky Ladies of History (a collection of stories from Fablecroft, released on International Women’s Day this year). Marillier’s story in the anthology is about Hildegard.

  4. I haven’t started reading my copy yet but I am quite excited about it. I should
    probably just have a running Pozible tab for Fablecroft/Twelfth Planet Press.

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