One Tough Sister

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

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.

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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.

Writer Marina Warner turned Hildegard into a dress-code rebel because her nuns sometimes wore silk costumes instead of their habits to perform her works. And Sara Maitland and Wendy Mulford insist that Hildegard did not believe in sin, a healthy antidote, in their opinion, to "what excessive guilt has done to women."

In the most outrageous blow, Hildegard, who, like other medieval ascetics, practiced self-mortification (fasting and flagellation), has been turned into an honorary anorexic. In a metaphor-torturing article in "The New York Times Magazine" last May, writer Jennifer Egan theorized that in her self-denial and suffering, Hildegard, along with Catherine of Siena and other mystics, was an early avatar of the self-starving, self-mutilating Princess Diana.

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