Hildegard of Bingen

Christian abbess, scholar and mystic (1098–1179 C.E.)

In an age when few women enjoyed an education or a voice in either secular or ecclesiastical affairs, Hildegard of Bingen, founder and abbess of two convents near Bingen, Germany, was recognized in her lifetime as a gifted and publicly active individual who exercised considerable influence over kings and popes. Hildegard authored such works as Scivias (May you know, or Know the way) and the first morality play, Ordo Virtutatum (The composition of virtue). Acknowledged as a mystic and reputed as a visionary, Hildegard’s other talents included those of poet, illuminator, scientist, healer, philosopher, composer, respected and prolific letter writer, and inventor of her own secret language, her lingua ignota, as well.

The tenth and last child born to a lesser noble family in 1098, at the age of seven or eight Hildegard’s parents presented her to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg, dedicating her to a religious life. There is some dispute among scholars as to whether she immediately joined the recluse Jutta of Sponheim in an anchorite’s cell attached to the monastery. However, she did spend some years of isolation with Jutta as her mentor. Some sources suggest that another young woman lived with them in the cell.

Jutta and the monk Volmar, who later became Hildegard’s first secretary and lifelong friend, acted as her teachers, but to what extent she was educated is debated. She says of herself that she had little education, but it is likely that she refers to a formal classical education. There is no doubt that she had some education and that she could write in Latin. By the time Jutta died (c. 1137) and Hildegard was called upon to become abbess of the growing community, she was prepared for the administrative responsibilities of what had by then become a small convent joined with the Benedictine monks, forming a rare double monastery.

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard on a wall painting in St Hildegard monastery

In addition to her administrative duties, within a few years of becoming abbess Hildegard felt compelled to write about her visions, which she says she first experienced as a very young child. She writes in the preface of Scivias that in 1141 she received a vision of new understanding along with a command to tell and write about what was revealed to her. At first reluctant to do so, she became ill, an experience common to mystics and visionaries. But with the help of the monk Volmar and permission from the abbot of Disibodenberg, she began to write, and in doing so, she recovered her health.

It took Hildegard ten years to complete Scivias, but during this time she gained acceptance and validation. Eventually, her work came to the attention of Pope Eugenius III, who publicly recognized her work as valid at the synod of Trier in 1147–1148. With his approval, encouragement, and authority, Hildegard finished Scivias. During this time, obeying another command from God, she moved her nuns to Rupertsberg (c. 1151), founding a new convent there. Within the first decade at Rupertsberg, Hildegard composed hymns and the music to accompany them, the scientific work Physica (Natural history),Causae et curae (Causes and cures) on medicine, and Liber vitae meritorum (Book of life’s merits), her second major work. These accomplishments brought Hildegard much attention, and besides her writing, she traveled to tell about her visions and prophecies. The opportunity for a woman to preach in public was rare, but Hildegard is credited with having done so. She is known as well for her correspondence, and some 300 letters purported to have been written by Hildegard survive. Among the powerful and influential with whom she exchanged letters were King Conrad (r. 1138–1152) and Frederick Barbarossa (r. 1152–1190) of Germany and Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, king and queen of England. Laity and religious alike wrote asking for her prayers and advice.

Hildegard founded a second convent at Eibigen in 1165 and finished her third and final book of visions, Liber divinorum operum (Book of divine works) in 1174.Most of the last year of her life was spent at odds with the clergy at Mainz, who ordered the body of a man they considered an excommunicate removed from the cemetery at Rupertsberg. Hildegard refused the order. She died in 1179, shortly after the clergy withdrew their demand. Despite the claims of miracles credited to Hildegard by her earliest biographers, both during her life and after her death, there is no record of a formal canonization. Nevertheless, by the fourteenth century her name and feast day appeared in various martyrologies. She was also included in the Roman Martyrology of the sixteenth century. She is honored as a saint, and her feast day is celebrated on September 17.
(R. Diane Anderson in “Holy People of the World”)