Hildegard von Bingen


Hildegard von Bingen (1098 - 1179) was a composer, writer, herbalist, healer, abbess, and mystic. One of the earliest known female composers, Hildegard's musical and literary output is immense. Her music is monophonic, in the style of Gregorian chant. Her melodic contours are consistently original; being based on mystical visions, they usually are described as having an ecstatic quality.

Known as "Sybil of the Rhine", she wrote not only music, but also major works of theology, at a time when few women wrote. She was consulted by bishops, popes, and kings, during an age where few women were accorded respect. She wrote treatises about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees, and stones. In addition to writing three books and composing music, she was a skilled healer and herbalist, administered the buildings and land of her prosperous Benedictine abbey, guided the spiritual growth of her nuns, traveled and gave sermons to men (unheard of for women in her time), and corresponded with popes, emperors, and many others who sought her advice.

Hildegard lived in the 12th century, in the high middle ages, when pope and emperor stood in opposition, the monk Bernhard von Clairveaux beckoned to the crusades, and Ptolomy's world view began to be known in Europe. The first universities were established, and scholars traveled from school to school. The Minnesaenger flooded Europe with their song. At that time, people were born into a class in which they normally stayed their entire life. Only nobility and freemen, who made the political and economic decisions, were allowed the privilege of education. The far greater number of farmers and citizens -- more than 90 percent of the population lived from farming -- had no possibility of such participation in society. The church controlled education and policially important positions.

Hildegard is the first composer whose biography is known. Her earliest biographers were her contemporaries, the monks Gottfried (Hildegard's scribe at Rupertsberg) and Theoderich. Later Wibert von Gembloux (Guilbert of Gembloux), Hildegard's last secretary and scribe, wrote a second biography, around 1179, the year of her death. These earliest biographies fail to mention her birthplace, and until 1905 she was believed to have been born in Schloss Boeckelheim im Nahegau, the child of Burggraf von Boeckelheim. Now it is known that Hildegard was indeed born into a noble family. She was the tenth child of Freiherr Hiltebert von Bermersheim (Edelfreier Hildebert von Bennersheim) and Mechthild (Mechthild von Merxheim). Bermersheim is a village near Alzey, about seventy miles south of Koeln. As was not uncommon with a tenth child (a "tithe"), which a family could not count on being able to feed, Hildegard was dedicated at birth to the church. Both Gottfried and Wibert describe the wealth and piety of her background and indicate that Hildegard came from a respected, distinguished family.

Hildegard started to have visions of luminous objects at the age of three, but soon realized that others did not share this ability and began to hide her gift. Whether due to shyness or humility, it was many years until she confided her visions to others.

In 1106, Hildegard entered religious life in a women's community attached to the male Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg, located at the confluence of the Nahe and Glan, near Bad Kreuznach. Kristina Lerman describes Hildegard's education there: "At age 8, the family sent this strange girl to an anchoress named Jutta to receive a religious education. Jutta [von Spanheim] 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." Hildegard received the most rudimentary form of education from Jutta. Lerman writes further, "Hildegard could never escape the feelings of inadequacy and lack of education.... 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 intricacies 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 (1136), when Hildegard was 38 years of age, she was elected the head of the budding convent living within cramped walls of the anchorage."

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 act.

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.

Around 1150 Hildegard moved her growing convent from Disibodenberg, where the nuns lived alongside the monks, to Bingen about 20 miles north, on the banks of the Rhein. 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.

Hildegard 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), 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. In addition to Scivias, written in 1141 with the help of the nun Richardis and monk Volmar, she wrote two other major works of visionary writing, Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life's Merits, 1150-63) and Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works, 1163), in which she further expounded on her theology. 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 divine source or revelation. However, like her religious writings they reflected her religious philosophy--that mankind was the peak of God's creation and everything was put in the world for us to use.

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 Sacks

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 is often described as what people imagine angels' singing to be like.

Hildegard wrote hymns and sequences in the plainchant tradition of a single vocal melodic line, a tradition common in liturgical singing of her time. Her music is currently undergoing a revival and enjoying huge public success.

The 900th anniversary of the birth of Hildegard is being celebrated in 1998, with major performances scheduled in cities as diverse as Mainz, New York City, and Adelaide (Australia). Music stores today have available more than a dozen recent compact discs dedicated to her music, performed by Sequentia, Anonymous Four, and others.

Though never formally canonized, Hildegard has been beatified, and is frequently referred to as St. Hildegard. She has her own feast day, September 17, especially recognized in Germany.

For most of the time since her death in 1179 Hildegard of Bingen was known only in her native Germany, but recently she has emerged from undeserved obscurity into a world hungry for her music and her mystical wisdom. Revival of interest in this extraordinary woman of the middle ages was initiated by musicologists and historians of science and religion. "Unfortunately," one musicologist remarked, "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 an inspirational account of an irresisible spirit and vibrant intellect overcoming social, physical, cultural, gender barriers to achieve timeless transcendence.

This brief biography, compiled by Carol Traxler from several internet sources, appeared in the November 1997 issue of Quarter Notes, the newsletter of the Washington Saengerbund, Walter Mueller, editor.