One Tough Sister

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

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The real Hildegard would have scoffed at the insipid victimology she inspires among contemporary writers and scholars. This nun was one tough sister.

Born to a noble family in Bermersheim in southwestern Germany in 1098, she was a sickly child, so her parents parked her in the Benedictine convent at Disbodenberg at the age of eight. The abbess, Jutta, another mystic later beatified by the church, took Hildegard under her wing and raised her like a daughter, teaching her to read Latin, the language of learning.

When Jutta died in 1136, the nuns of Disbodenberg elected Hildegard to succeed her as prioress. Disbodenberg was lavishly endowed by the local gentry and enormously wealthy, permitting the nuns to lead lives that were rather more comfortable than the Rule of St. Benedict strictly allowed. In around 1150, Hildegard along with twenty of her nuns left to found a Spartan new convent near Bingen. She later established a second convent across the Rhine.

In such actions and in her writings, she established a reputation as a foe of the churchly worldliness that marked the 12th century, a time when bishops and abbots often bought their way into office and lived like secular princes. Her "Scivias," written in a prophetic and apocalyptic style, was filled with denunciations of wickedness and vivid allegorical predictions of divine wrath to come. Contrary to what latter-day feminist scholars have written of her, Hildegard's book contained detailed descriptions of sin--fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, simony, heresy, and the like--not to mention a harrowing vision of hell.

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Her book caught caught the attention of another 12th-century monastic reformer, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a founder of the rigorous Cistercian order. They became fervent correspondents, and Bernard secured Pope Eugenius III's approval of Hildegard's theology. Soon she was traveling all over Germany (a most unusual venture for a medieval abbess), rebuking them for their carnal transgressions and fondness for luxury and relating the contents of her visions to monks, clergymen, and secular officials.

Her medical treatise, "Causes and Cures," based on close observation of diseases, won her a largely female following that that sought her counsel on physical ailments, marriage, and family troubles and constituting an audience for her "oracles," as she called them." But far from presaging today's holistic-health movement, her medical theories were actually in the classical mode, heavily influenced by the boilerplate diagnoses of the second-century Greek physician Galen.

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