St Hildegard of Bingen- The German Visionary Saint
St Hildegard of Bingen officially holds title of Patron Saint of Writers and Composers (and some suggest she’s unofficially the patron saint of both Beer, and of Women… especially those of a certain age). Beyond the trappings of Sainthood, Hildegard was most certainly an extraordinary woman. The Benedictine Abbess was a Polymath who received visions from God, wrote books about Science and Nature, wrote music used in the church, corresponded and gave consultation to Kings, Queens, and Bishops, invented her own language, painted, started her own Abbey (against the will of the Benedictine Monks), traveled extensively in Europe on a sort of speaking/preaching tour, was placed under interdict and venerated, and is thought to be the reason we put hops in beer. That’s quite a resume for a woman of the 1100s.
St Hildegard of Bingen
Sometime in 1098 (exact date is unknown), little Hildegard was born, the tenth child of a wealthy family, and in the custom of the time, she was “tithed” to the church. (A tithe is a donation to the church of 10% of your income…. as the 10th child, Hildegard was promised to the church). When she turned 8, Hildegard’s parents turned her over to Jutta, an anchorite of the Benedictine monastery in Disibodensberg.
(quick aside- An anchorite is defined as a religious recluse, but unlike a Hermit, an anchorite lives in a small room sealed off from the world. The only window leads in to the church, so that she can take part in services, and receive food. The days are spent in religious contemplation and embroidery. What’s interesting is that anyone becoming an anchorite is given “last rights” before being sealed in, as they are considered dead to the world.)
Jutta von Sponheim had modest fame in her own way. Her religious fervor and asceticism drew other pupils, as well as Hildegard. She taught them basic reading and writing, Canonical hours (official church prayers), and how to play the psaltery (a stringed instrument that looks a little like a harpsicord…. or an autoharp without keys.) When Jutta died, in 1136, the other pupils, now nuns, elected Hildegard as their convent.
Hildegard and Volmar – Visions from God- Public Domain
Visions from God
Hildegard started receiving visions from God at age 3, but she told no one except Jutta, and a monk named Volmar. (At the time, many people were making religious claims, causing splinters in the church. Her strong faith kept her from disclosing anything that might be considered problematic). Then in 1141, (at age 42) Hildegard claimed God sent a strong vision which gave her instant understanding of religious texts. He also commanded her to write the visions down. Still, she was troubled…
“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. “
When Hildegard finally got out of bed, she resolved to get approval from the Church. Her letter went to St Bernard, who passed the correspondence along to Pope Eugenius. The pope gave his consent and encouragement. So, with Volmar acting as secretary, she started writing. Her first work Scivias (“Know the Ways of the Lord”), hit the medieval equivalent of the Best-Seller Lists… and Hildegard’s fame spread across Germany and beyond.
She followed up with other divine books, Libervitae Martorium (Book of Life’s Merits) and Liber Divinorum operom (Book of Divine works)
Medieval depiction of a spherical earth with different seasons at the same time (from the book “Liber Divinorum Operum”). Public Domain
Hildegard Starts her own Convent
“Women may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman”
By 1150, Hildegard and her nuns were feeling a bit constrained living at the Benedictine Monastery. Hildegard claimed that God told her she no longer required the supervision of men, and that building the new Abbey was his order. She found the perfect location, and using the Dowry money that the wealthy girls under her care brought in, bought land and began construction in Rupertsberg (near Bingen).
(Before we go further… let’s consider the time frame in relation to what was going on in Germany. Frederick I becomes King of Germany in 1152, then Holy Roman Emperor in 1155. Munich in the South, and the Hanseatic League in the North, would not be founded for another 8 years, in 1158. And it was incredibly unusual that a woman would have so much political power and wealth at that time.)
Monastery Rupertsberg, Germany during 30 Years war- public domain
Over time Rupertsberg grew to a population of 50 women. Mostly came from wealthy families, bringing money in with them to maintain their accustomed lifestyle. They wore comfortable white gowns, and left their hair down and flowing. (Think of the Abbey more like a finishing school than a Convent).
Then as THAT convent outgrew its walls, Hildegard founded another convent at Eibingen.
Hildegard the Writer
St Hildegard of Bingen spent much of her time writing and corresponding with religious leaders and Head’s of State all over Europe. Over 300 of these letters still survive, including letters to 4 different Popes (some had a distinctly chiding tone over policy disputes), Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in England, Abbots and Abbesses to explain her visions, and she even lectured Frederick Barbarossa for supporting the Anti-Pope. People wrote to her about everything from clarification of scriptures to political insight.
(aside- Hildegard had SERIOUS issues with the Holy Roman Emperor. She felt his Ecclesiastical appointments overstepped the authority of the Pope, and blatantly insults him in a letter. “…[I]n a mystic vision I see you like a little boy or some madman living before Living Eyes. Yet you still have time for ruling over worldly matters. Beware, therefore, that the almighty King does not lay you low because of the blindness of your eyes, which fail to see correctly how to hold the rod of proper governance in your hand. See to it that you do not act in such a way that you lose the grace of God” (Letter #45, p.78). Ironically, when Barbarossa attacked Rome in 1166 to put his Anti-Pope on the papal seat, he and his troops were struck by incapacitating sickness. I’m sure it was just coincidence…. Imagine the sheer guts! Taking on the Holy Roman Emperor!)
But it wasn’t merely correspondence.
The Universal Man, Liber Divinorum Operum of St. Hildegard of Bingen, 1165- Public Domain
A typical Polymath, Hildegard of Bingen’s writings showed off her knowledge on a wide range of subjects.
She wrote a collection 77 poems with accompanying music, the Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum [Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations]. She claimed that music was invented to worship God properly, and she wrote hers as a reflection of what Angels sound like. (You can enjoy a recorded piece of her music here)
“The word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. The word manifests itself in every creature”
People still refer to her volumes on Natural History and Medicine, and consider her book Physica Causae et Curae, a cornerstone of Western herbal medicine. This incredibly detailed book details the curative powers of natural objects… everything from plants and animals, to minerals and metals. The volume included drawings and illustrations. Imagine the time it must have taken to collect and test all of these things. Another book Liber Subtilatum, (The diverse nature of Things) clarifies her belief that man was God’s greatest creation, and all things were put on the earth for man to use. Even more “shocking” for its time, Hildegard wrote about gynecology, woman’s health issues, and sexual relations.
Hildegard made four major tours, traveling extensively in the German empire, sharing her visions and the explanations. (She was a ROCK STAR)
And if that wasn’t enough, she invented her own language and alphabet, Lingua Ignota (Latin for ‘unknown language’).
St Hildegard of Bingen and Beer
Brewers around the world give thanks to Hildegard, and consider her responsible for the beer we enjoy today. (Check out the gift shop at Kloster Andechs… books and pictures of her take up a whole section).
She is regarded as being the first to scientifically describe hops, writing, “hops stops purification when put in beer, and it may be added so that it lasts longer”. (Hildegard also points out that hops will increase melancholy… but anyone who has hung out in a bar after midnight knows this). Additionally, the ingestion of barley (in beer form, presumably) is beneficial to the stomach and intestines.
Some say that her daily ration of Hoppy Beer allowed her to live such a long life… and she did live to age 81… which is NUTS when you consider the average lifespan of the time was 35.
Feisty to the End
Nearing the end of her life, Hildegard got into a bit of trouble when she allowed a wealthy noble, who had been excommunicated (kicked out of the church) to be buried in the Rupertsberg cemetery. The Church ORDERED that the body be exhumed. But Hildegard insisted that God allowed the burial, and had the grave hidden. Church authorities responded by putting her community under interdict, meaning they couldn’t participate in many church rites, including (and most frustrating for Hildegard) singing. She appealed, and won.
Hildegard von Bingen. Line engraving by W. Marshall.
Hildegard von Bingen, “The Sibyl Of The Rhine” died in 1179 at the age of 81, and was buried under the alter of her convent at Rupertsberg. In 1632, during the Thirty Years War, the Swedish (Protestant) army destroyed Rupertsberg, and the nuns escaped to Eibingen carrying the shrine with Hildegard’s remains. Today you can still visit Hildegard’s coffin at the working Abbey at Eibingen.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI officially declared St Hildegard von Bingen “perennially relevant” and made her a Saint through the process of “equivalent canonization,” which is a papal proclamation of canonization based on a standing tradition of popular veneration (my understanding is that this means they made her a saint because everyone already thought she was). A few months later, he bestowed her with the title Doctor of the Church (to clarify- a Doctor of the Church is not a medical doctor… in this case doctor means teacher.) The writings of any Doctor of the Church are considered recommended Doctrine that is true, timeless, and of importance to the Church, To date, only 36 Saints have been given this title, and Hildegard of Bingen is one of only 4 women to receive the honor.
St Hildegard of Bingen crammed a lot of Living into her 81 years, she did it all enjoying her hoppy beer every day…
Want to Learn MORE?
There are seemingly hundreds of books about every aspect of St Hildegard of Bingen’s life and works. There’s even a CD, so you can enjoy her music, and a Cookbook to prepare foods she may have enjoyed. Her art, her visions, her correspondence… there’s even a children’s book about this amazing woman.
Hildegard von Bingen: A Journey into the ImagesHildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and HealingIlluminations of Hildegard of BingenThe Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen (Letters of Hildegard of Bingen)HILDEGARD OF BINGEN: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st CenturyHildegard of Bingen: Scientist, Composer, Healer, and SaintFrom Saint Hildegard’s Kitchen: Foods of Health, Foods of JoyHildegard of BingenHildegard von Bingen: A Feather on the Breath of God
For more on Hildegard, her influence, and ongoing projects, the International Society for Hildegard von Bingen Studies was founded in 1983
I have also read that she was an avid herbalist and fasted to stay healthy. Thanks for this post, I found it quite interesting!
Do we know if Albertus Magnus read her writings ?