One Tough Sister
Counselor of popes and kings, Hildegard of Bingen has been posthumously politicized
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Excerpted fromThe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.