Hildegard von Bingen

Biography

Hildegard von Bingen was an anchoress in the town of Bingen, in southern Germany. An "anchor" or "anchoress" was someone who had given up the world in order to live with a small group of religious individuals who had dedicated their lives to serving God. Her dictated writings, which covered topics from natural philosophy, medicine, spiritual life and divine visions, were influential in the Catholic church for centuries to come.

The Benedictine Order, to which Hildegard belonged, was founded in the 6th century (after the Fall of Rome, the same time as Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy) when Germanic tribes conquered northern Italy. Saint Benedict left Italy, traveling north with a group of disciples or students. Along the way they founded monasteries throughout Germany, France, and England.

Women who joined an anchorage did so for social and political reasons. The life of a woman in the middle ages was divided into two paths: marriage or perpetual virginity. Marriage was the socially acceptable option: it brought money to the family and children to support one in old age. Common women usually worked in the field or supported husband in their guild or trade. If young girls were not “marriageable,” their only option was to become a “holy woman.”

A holy woman became so for two possible reasons: one was socially acceptable, usually as a choice by the family who had too many children. Hildegard's family offered her to an anchorage because they could not afford another child. Young girls were sent away because of lack of food or resources to care for them. They lived with other women associated with a church, becoming nuns.

Socially unacceptable reasons for joining an anchorage occurred through physical ailments, barrenness (infertility), or promiscuity (which often led to pregnancy out of marriage). Sending a young girl to an anchorage for one of these reason was a way for the family to remain within the fabric of society without the disgrace of an unacceptable child.

from Divine Works, where Hildegard receives her vision and dictates it to a scribe.

Benedictine churches, and the anchorages connected to them, were known for their scriptoria, bodily discipline, and self-sustaining life style. Scriptoria were groups of scribes who would translate and copy ancient texts into Latin for students and nobility. Though she may have known a little Latin, Hildegard would have had access to these texts through oral recitations.

In relation to bodily discipline, or asceticism, inhabitants of the monastery were required to live a life of silence (prayer and meditation), work (writing, gardening, repair, crafts), singing, and reading. Hildegard had very little contact with the outside world: she lived in a “cell”, prayed, meditated, and listened to readings from the Bible and music of the church. Holy men and women would tend vegetable, herb, medicinal gardens and raise their own animals. For those living in one, the monastery was the world. From a young age, Hildegard had visions that, through the authority and sanction of the Church, she dictated to scribes who wrote them down. Her popularity allowed her to become anchoress and found her own Anchorage at Bingen. She used letters to communicate with powerful men in the church, who in turn gave support to her own writings.

Practical Writings

Hildegard wrote on medicine, the balance of nature, and sympathy of all objects. Outside the monastery of Bingen, Hildegard created one of the largest herb Gardens for treatment of ailments. You can see modern examples of herb gardens used for "natural medicine". These medical treatments were not sanctioned by academic medicine but by her divine (supernatural) authority. Hildegard emphasized music and harmony of nature, which relied on the analogy of the microcosm and macrocosm. There was a ratio between all things in the universe and the human body and soul. These proportions created harmony, which could be represented in music. She lived at a time where polyphonic music was introduced into monasteries, and often used music to accompany her stories or dream visions. Here is a story of the English princess St. Ursula, for which Hildegard wrote the music and and adapted the narration. The song itself was thought to have healing properties.

Dream Visions

Hildegard began seeing and hearing visions at a young age. She believed them to be divinely inspired and created her own language with which to speak and write these visions. The subject of these visions causes much historical debate today: do we read them with modern medical understanding (hallucinations, mental illness, or migraine headaches) or do we try to understand how they were presented and understood in the twelfth century?

What we do know about dream visions is that they often followed a particular pattern, specifically in how they are related to a listener or reader. From the ancient world to the middle ages, the conventions of a dream vision had been established enough to define them as a genre with the following characteristics:

  1. Frame: the dream is introduced through a frame tale where the persona is in nature, reading a book, or meditating in isolation.

  2. The dream comes to persona through no personal choice of their own: it is a divine message with hidden or secret moral or religious meanings.

  3. The dream space is populated with symbolic images: Strange or weird objects often possess many layers meaning. These images are used as memory devices as the persona metaphorically “walks” through the space of dream.

  4. The persona offers an interpretation of the symbolic images through allegorical, tropological, or anagogic meanings.

  5. The frame returns, whereby the persona wakes up from the dream and admonishes the reader to “learn” from this experience.

Dream of the microcosm, from Divine Works, where Hildegard writes down her vision.
The fountain of life, from Hidegard von Bingen's Divine Works.

Memory Theaters

We are reading a section of Hildegard von Bingen's Liber Divinorum Operum (Divine Works) which occurs as a dream vision while she is meditating on the Gospel of John (one of the first four books of the Christian New Testament. In addition to its dream vision characteristics, this short section can also be considered a memory theater for Hildegard and her readers to memorize sections of the Bible. Here is some background on memory culture in the middle ages. The symbolic figures, colors, and fountain structure become a means for her to memorize the following passage from the Book of John:

John 1; 1-10.

1 In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 He was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.

4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.