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Hildegard of Bingen

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Magistra of St. Rupert's

Born the tenth child of a noble couple (Hildebert and Mechtild) from Bermersheim in the Rhineland, Hildegard was destined for the religious life from chldhood. She was enclosed with a religious noblewoman, Jutta of Sponheim, a recluse, perhaps when she was eight, and she took vows in the monastery of St. Disibod with Jutta in 1112, when she was 14, along with other girls attached to Jutta. Jutta presumably taught Hildegard to read the psalter. Hildegard never had a formal Latin education, and relied on her various secretaries to edit her grammar, but she seems to have read widely through her life. Hildegard was best known in her time for her prophetic visions, which she seems to have had from early on, which she did not reveal except to Jutta and later to the monk who would be her secretary as well as her friend, Volmar, when God commanded her to write her visions. With the help and support of Volmar and one of her nuns, Richardis of Stade, to whom Hildegard was deeply attached, and with the permission of the abbot of St. Disibod, Kuno, Hildegard began to commit her visions to writing in her forties. She began with the Scivias, brilliantly illustrated under her direction. Before she published it, however, it was approved by a papal commission named by pope Eugene III, at the instigation of her archbishop, Henry of Mainz, and with the apparent support of Bernard of Clairvaux whom she had met and to whom she had writtenfor advice. As Hildegard’s reputation grew and the number of pilgrims to St. Disibod increased, Hildegard felt more constrained and in 1148 she had a vision that commanded her to move with her nuns (and their dowries) to a new location. Despite abbot Kuno’s resistance --Hildegard’s presence gave his monastery much pretige -- and wariness on the part of the nuns and their families, Hildegard, with the help of a serendipitous illness, had her way, and established a new house at Rupertsberg. At Rupertsberg, Hildegard cared for the sick, studied their illnesses and wrote two medical works, one theoretical, known as the Causes and Cures, the other more practical, the Physica, which suggests remedies. She also composed religious poems and music, a play, the Ordo virtutum, two other volumes of visions, the Liber vitae meritorum (the Book of Life’s Merits) and the Liber diivinorum operum, (the Book of Divine Works), and a life of St. Rupert. She had a series of secretaries and helpers, beginning with the nun Richardis of Stade and the monk Volmar, then Ludwig abbot of St. Eucharius, her nephew Wescelin, Godfrey of Disibodenberg, Volmar’s successor as provost of Rupertsberg, her brother Hugo of Tholey, and finally Guibert of Gembloux. Godfrey (with Theodoric of Echternach) and Guibert (in a long letter wrote lives of Hildegard. The main function of the secretaries was to edit Hildegard’s Latin, since she had not been formally trained in the language, but she was adamant that they were not to change her words, since those came from God. Indeed, at the end of the Book of Divine Works, she warns that no man should be so bold as to add to or delete anything without sinning against the Holy Spirit, which will not be forgiven here nor in the next world. Only at the end of her life did she seem to grant Guibert a little more leeway in editing her life of St. Martin. Hildegard also carried on an extensive correspondence with foreign dignitaries, religious and lay, and local people, religious and lay. The new edition of her letters numbers 390 (close to if not exactly the extant total). It is based on collections made during her lifetime and apparently with her approval. Her correspondents included popes, bishops and archbishops, abbots and abbesses, nuns and monks and priests, kings and queens, an emperor, noblewomen and noblemen, laywomen and laymen. People wrote asking not only her advice but her prophecies of the future, which were widely respected: Frederick Barbarossa said that what she had predicted in his presence “we now have in hand,” ep.314; John of Salisbury wrote a friend saying that pope Eugene III wanted to consult Hildegard’s prophecies because what she had so far predicted about his reign had been right (The Letters of John of Salisbury, ed. Millor, Butler, and Brooke), ep.185. In her letters Hildegard plays many roles: as the voice of God, the instrument by which God addressed and admonished mankind and the church, admonishing popes and bishops to fight injustice and corruption; as a mediator with the divine, carrying God’s message to humankind and individuals’ prayers back to God; as a mediator among humans, particularly in the monastic world, between abbesses and their nuns or abbots and their monks, telling those who want to give up their responsibilities to carry the burden they took on, but at the same time urging their flocks to behave better; as a source of knowledge and wisdom, theological, prophetic,moral, and practical, both legal and medical; as a crusader for what she believed in (and/or believed God wanted), like her assertion of her right to bury a previously excommunicated but repentant nobleman in the monastery grounds; and as a woman who inspired both awe and affection in the women and men who knew and worked with her. She deals sternly with those in power and sympathetically with those in distress. She preaches mercy as well as justice, love rather than fear, compassion rather than anger, moderation rather than fanaticism, and always a strong sense of responsibility. Her advice is often practical, though her style is usually rich with parables and striking imagery. On occasion she used letters to powerful people to try to get her way, as in her unsuccessful attempt to keep Richardis with her, through letters to a pope (Eugene III), two archbishops and a marchioness, and her successful insistence on the right of her convent to a provost of their choice from Disibodenberg, who would also serve as her secretary, which she again took to the pope (Alexander III).1 She is perhaps the most important medieval woman correspondent in terms of the extent and range of her correspondence, but since her letters have recently been published and translated, most of them are not included here.2 The translations can be found online through Oxford Scholarship Online.

Biographical notes: 

1 For a study of the many facets of Hildegard, see Voice of the Living Light, Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, ed. Barbara Newman (University of California, 1998); in the biography, I have drawn on my own study of her correspondence in this collection. Barbara Newman has also written a study of Hildegard’s theology of the feminine, Sister of Wisdom (University of California, 1987), and translated Hildegard’s poems, Symphonia, A Critical Edition of the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Cornell, 1988).

2 Hildegardis Bingensis, Epistolarium, ed. Lieven Van Acker and Monika Klaes-Hachmoller, CCCM, 91, 91a, 91b (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991, 1993, 2001). The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford University, 1994, 1998, 2004).