One Tough Sister

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

BY: Charlotte Allen


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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.

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.

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.

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