One Tough Sister

Counselor of popes and kings, Hildegard of Bingen has been posthumously politicized

BY: Charlotte Allen


Excerpted from

The Women's Quarterly

It's time for us to take back Hildegard of Bingen. For too long, the medieval German abbess, composer, and mystical poet has been dragooned into the role of cult figure for every half-baked notion of our time.

Hildegard was justly famous all over Europe during her own time, the 12 th century, as a prodigious writer, an advisor of kings and prelates, and a healer of physical and mental ills. Her meditations and musical compositions are currently enjoying a huge revival, and while this rediscovery of her spiritual depth and artistic brilliance was long overdue, the resurgence in her fame has been a mixed blessing, for Hildegard is being re-invented as a posthumous spokeswoman for feminist causes and an icon of rebellion against the church.

A prime example of this revisionism involves Hildegard's best-known religious work, "Scivias." The manuscript elaborates on the abbess's many visions of Divine Wisdom. Because Wisdom is personified as a woman in the Book of Proverbs and elsewhere in scripture, Hildegard's latter-day literary admirers have cast her as a worshipper of the Goddess Sophia, just like so many feminist theologians.

Elsewhere, Hildegard has been turned into a holistic-health nut because she wrote a medical treatise. Indeed, "Holistic Healing," an alternative medicine anthology casts her as the veritable Hippocrates of the alternative health movement. Because she had an especially beloved friend among her nuns, she has also been appropriated by lesbians, presiding with her 12th-century contemporary, St. Aelred of Rievaulx, over the Saint Aelred and Saint Hildegard Society--the gay ministry at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, California.

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