Hildegard was launched on a new career as preacher to the people of her time, the only woman allowed to break the supposedly absolute New Testament proscription, contained in the First Letter to Timothy that "no woman is to teach or to have authority over a man." The exception made for Hildegard is evidence not only of her universal celebrity but of the quirky singularities of medieval life, It is seldom possible to say of the medievals that they always did one thing and never another; they were marvelously inconsistent. Not only does a woman preach; a cloistered nun, once offered to God as a solitary, travels from town to town—by boat, by horse, on foot, probably by litter— talking to everyone.

Despite her continuing publicity, Hildegard remained in important ways a very private person—and an artist of markedly individual spirit in a time when individuality was just beginning to show its face again in society after centuries of banishment. Her music is chant, largely unaccompanied, as was most church music of her tune, but quite possibly polyphonic (despite the fact that the manuscripts give us only the line of melody), since polyphony appearing as early as the ninth century had become the musical dessert of Hildegard's day. But no one else was singing songs that sounded like what the nuns of Bingen were singing. The melody lines of Hildegard's compositions alternate between moments of rigid control and those of floridly swooping excess, as the melody threatens to abandon pattern altogether and jump the tracks. The rhythms are as far from ti-dum, ti-dum as can be imagined, full of wild irregularity yet coming together in an intelligible whole. The words, also by Hildegard, are one with her music, obedient to no known rules, loosely metrical but unbound, the Western world's first free verse. As one follows her kaleidoscopic patterns, melting into chaos, melting into new patterns, one cannot but think of the abandoned sensuality of jazz.

In the twelfth century virginity had its pleasures. So did noble birth. Without both these ancient social institutions, we would never have heard of Hildegard. Thank God her parents didn't marry her off and keep her mute for the ages.