One Tough Sister
Counselor of popes and kings, Hildegard of Bingen has been posthumously politicized
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Despite her intellectual range, it was her striking poetry and music--more than seventy compositions--that marked her as one of the most creative minds of the Middle Ages. They consist mostly of liturgical songs, but her musical play, Ordo Virtutum, was one of the first full-scale medieval dramas and the product of 20 years of labor. Its cast included 16 different virtues, all depicted as women, battling the devil for possession of the human soul.
Sadly for academic revisionists, Hildegard's theology was distressingly retrograde. Although she regularly portrayed divine wisdom ("Scientia Dei")as a gorgeously dressed female, it was always in a context that specifically paid homage to God. Hildegard believed that women's strength rested on two old-fashioned pillars: virginity and maternity. If you took them away, all that was left was fluttery, self-absorbed feminine frailty, which was why Hildegard referred to her own lax time as an "effeminate age."
The current fascination with this towering woman who could separate the genuinely feminine from the merely effeminate has not produced all junk. There are some fine new works of scholarship about Hildegard. I recommend "Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life," by Sabina Flanagan, and Barbara Newman's "Sister of Wisdom: Saint Hildegard of Bingen's Theology of the Feminine."
But my favorite words about Hildegard were written in 1924 by F. G. Holweck, domestic prelate to Pope Pius XI: "She denounced the vices of society, of kings, nobles, bishops and priests in unmeasured terms, but the Emperor, bishops, abbots and laymen came to ask for her advice." Hildegard was never officially canonized (she declined to perform the required post-mortem miracles), but she inspired fear and admiration in the men who made saints. She was even hipper than the revisionists who try to recruit her into the ranks can imagine.