St. Hildegard of Bingen:
"The Sibyl of the Rhine"
By Gabriel Blanchard
Today we discuss the life and times of a renaissance woman—albeit the rennaissance in question was not that of the fifteenth century, but of the twelfth.
Most of us do not immediately think of progress when we hear the words “the Middle Ages.” Cartoonish notions of history influence us more than we suppose. But in truth, many modern advances in human rights and liberties reverse not ancient restrictions, but restrictions that were cooked up as little as a few decades before, taken for granted by later generations because they felt familiar (after all, they grew up with them).* A good example is women’s rights: several cities hosted substantial guilds** that were primarily or even exclusively open to women, and women’s access to education was if anything freer in the Medieval period than it became in the Renaissance.
This last fact was mainly thanks to the work of various orders of nuns, who could be and sometimes were highly educated. Even nuns who spent little to no time teaching needed to be able to both read and speak Latin, as well as knowing at least the basics of singing and musical notation, in order to pray the Hours—the selection of psalms, prayers, hymns, and passages from Scripture that all monastics were required to say daily. Near the beginning of the twelfth century, a young girl of the Rhineland was committed by her family to the care of a convent of Benedictine sisters. Her name was Hildegard, and she eventually entered the order herself, ultimately becoming one of its most brilliant representatives in history, nicknamed “the Sibyl of the Rhine” by her contemporaries, and honored with the title Doctor of the Church by the Pope in 2012.
Hildegard’s spiritual “career” started even before her entry into the cloister: from early childhood, she experienced visions, a trait shared by a few other figures in history (such as St. Joan of Arc and William Blake). Hers were somewhat unusual, in that they seem to have been more like a vivid awareness of an idea than like a hallucination, dream, or trance; they rarely if ever involved religious ecstasy, the altered state of consciousness† that sometimes attends professedly supernatural experiences. She long kept her visions very private, mentioning them only to the abbess of her convent. Not until the age of forty-two, a few years after she had been elected abbess herself, did Hildegard receive what she believed to be a divine command to record her visions. In 1141, she began her first volume of mystical theology, interpreting her experiences; it was named Scivias, an abbreviation of the Latin imperative phrase sci vias Domini, “know the ways of the Lord.”
Scivias was followed by Liber Vitæ Meritorum (“The Book of the Rewards of Life”) and Liber Divinum Operum (“The Book of the Divine Works”). In all three, she interpreted her visions as allegories—sometimes of the nature or actions of God, sometimes of the virtues and vices in human life. This technique was in line with the standard Medieval method of interpreting Scripture, while the subject matter continued a theme she had expressed in dramatic form in her Ordo Virtutum, an allegorical play dealing with repentance and the virtues.
Besides its illustrious authoress, Ordo Virtutum technically holds a more surprising distinction: it is the first surviving work of musical theater! Music, dance, and song have been associated with plays for thousands of years—in fact, drama almost certainly grew out of music, and “the musical” as we know it is more of a reunion than an invention—but the plays preserved from before this point lack musical notation for the sung portions, use notation whose meaning has been lost, or are specifically extensions of some form of liturgy (as opposed to theater in their own right). Notwithstanding its pious subject matter, Ordo Virtutum was not an extension of any liturgy, and was composed using a system of notation that, while rarely used, still exists. The music was also composed by the abbess; quite unusually for a woman at the time, Hildegard was an accomplished musician and prolific composer, and one who signed her work rather than composing anonymously. This helped revive interest in her in the late twentieth century, and performances, adaptations, and homages continue to be made by musicians from around the world (such as the Iranian Azam Ali and the Venezuelan-American Devendra Banhart)—which leads to the existence of a Wikipedia page somewhat jarringly titled “Hildegard of Bingen discography”!
Her other works included Physica and Causæ et Curæ, extensive works on the theory and practice of Medieval medicine. This science was of course limited by universal but flawed assumptions like humoral theory; however, this held the mystic back less than one might suppose. Before becoming abbess, one of her duties had been tending the convent’s garden, and she knew a great deal about the care of plants and animals and their usefulness. Her writings even contain one of the first references to using hops as a preservative in brewing beer.
We have hardly covered half the accomplishments of this woman who gained paradoxical fame from inside a cloister. We can only hope that, with her and with all our author profiles, this small glimpse inspires you to pick up one of her books and start to read it for yourself.
*Of course, there are also institutions and ideas that seem old because they really are old. Human nature does cause patterns in history, but unfortunately there is no predictive algorithm we can use to replace the pesky work of finding out what the past was like.
**A guild was a legal association of artisans or merchants with the power to permit or forbid a given person to practice their craft or trade within their city; guilds often enjoyed further privileges, such as establishing rules about quality of work, wages and prices, etc. Many guilds were male-only, but, as noted, some were led by women.
†The phrase altered state of consciousness is sometimes thought to carry syncretic or skeptical implications. This is mistaken; the phrase in itself implies nothing about who altered the consciousness in question, nor how they did so.
Gabriel Blanchard has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, and works as a freelance writer and the editor at large for CLT; he is also a proud uncle of seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might like some of our other material on members of the Author Bank from the Middle Ages, like St. Bede and The Saga of Erik the Red—or for that matter from other periods, like Euclid and Hans Christian Andersen! If you’d like to learn more about CLT’s approach to reading, education, and the revitalization of American culture, take a look at this post from Dr. Angel Adams Parham, the president of our Board of Academic Advisors, or check out our podcast, Anchored. Thank you for reading the Journal, and have a lovely day.
Published on 20th March, 2023. Page image from the illuminations of St. Hildegard’s Scivias; author image for today from the same source, depicting a scribe recording her visions and her own head crowned with fire, symbolizing the Holy Ghost.