One Tough Sister

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

BY: Charlotte Allen


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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.

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.

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