The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a remarkable woman, a "first" in
fields. At a time when few women wrote, Hildegard, known as "Sybil of
Rhine", produced major works of theology and visionary writings. When
women were accorded respect, she was consulted by and advised bishops,
popes, and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for
and wrote treatises about natural history and medicinal uses of plants,
animals, trees and stones. She is the first composer whose biography is
known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were
Although not yet canonized, Hildegard has been beatified, and is
referred to as St. Hildegard. Revival of interest in this extraordinary
woman of the middle ages was initiated by musicologists and historians
of science and religion. Less fortunately, Hildegard's visions and
had been hijacked by the New Age movement, whose music bears some
to Hildegard's ethereal airs. Her story is important to all students of
medieval history and culture and an inspirational account of an
spirit and vibrant intellect overcoming social, physical, cultural,
barriers to achieve timeless transcendence.
The Early Years
Hildegard was born a "10"th child (a tithe) to a noble family. As was
with the tenth child, which the family could not count on feeding, she
was dedicated at birth to the church. The girl started to have visions
of luminous objects at the age of tree, but soon realized she was
in this ability and hid this gift for many years.
At age 8, the family sent this strange girl to an anchoress named
to receive a religious education. Jutta was born into a wealthy and
family, and by all accounts was a young woman of great beauty. She
all worldly temptations and decided to dedicate her life to god.
of entering a convent, Jutta followed a harsher route and became an
Anchors of both sexes, though from most accounts they seem to be
women, led an ascetic life, shut off from the world inside a small
usually built adjacent to a church so that they could follow the
with only a small window acting as their link to the rest of humanity.
Food would be passed through this window and refuse taken out. Most of
the time would be spent in prayer, contemplation, or solitary
activities, like stitching and embroidering. Because they would become
essentially dead to the world, anchors would receive their last rights
from the bishop before their confinement in the anchorage. This macabre
ceremony was a complete burial ceremony with the anchor laid out on a
Jutta's cell was such an anchorage, except that there was a door
which Hildegard entered, as well as about a dozen of girls from noble
who were attracted there by Jutta's fame in later years. What kind of
did Hildegard receive from Jutta? It was of the most rudimentary form,
and Hildegard could never escape the feelings of inadequacy and lack of
education. She learned to read Psalter in Latin. Though her grasp of
grammatical intricacies of the language was never complete - she always
had secretaries to help her write down her visions - she had a good
feel for the intricacies of the language itself, constructing
sentences fraught with meanings on many levels, that are still a
to students of her writings. The proximity of the anchorage to the
of the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg (it was attached
to the church) undoubtedly exposed young Hildegard to musical religious
services and were the basis for her own musical compositions. After
death, when Hildegard was 38 years of age, she was elected the head of
the budding convent living within cramped walls of the anchorage.
During all these years Hildegard confided of her visions only to Jutta
and another monk, named Volmar, who was to become her lifelong
However, in 1141, Hildegard had a vision that changed the course of her
life. A vision of god gave her instant understanding of the meaning of
the religious texts, and commanded her to write down everything she
observe in her visions.
And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months
that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional
flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and
like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of
meaning of expositions of the books...
Yet Hildegard was also overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and
But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt
and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I
for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of
until weighed down by a scourge of god, I fell onto a bed of sickness.
The 12th century was also the time of schisms and religious foment,
someone preaching any outlandish doctrine could instantly attract a
following. Hildegard was critical of schismatics, indeed her whole life
she preached against them, especially the Cathars. She wanted her
to be sanctioned, approved by the Catholic Church, though she herself
doubted the divine origins to her luminous visions. She wrote to St.
seeking his blessings. Though his answer to her was rather perfunctory,
he did bring it to the attention of Pope Eugenius (1145-53), a rather
individual who exhorted Hildegard to finish her writings. With papal
Hildegard was able to finish her first visionary work Scivias
the Ways of the Lord") and her fame began to spread through Germany and
Around 1150 Hildegard moved her growing convent from Disibodenberg,
the nuns lived alongside the monks, to Bingen about 30 km north, on the
banks of the Rhine. She later founded another convent, Eibingen, across
the river from Bingen. Her remaining years were very productive. She
music and texts to her songs, mostly liturgical plainchant
honoring saints and Virgin Mary for the holidays and feast days, and antiphons.
There is some evidence that her music and moral play Ordo Virtutum
("Play of Virtues") were performed in her own convent. In addition to Scivias
she wrote two other major works of visionary writing Liber vitae
(1150-63) (Book of Life's Merits) and Liber divinorum operum(1163)
("Book of Divine Works"), in which she further expounded on her
of microcosm and macrocosm-man being the peak of god's creation, man as
a mirror through which the splendor of the macrocosm was reflected.
also authored Physica and Causae et Curae (1150), both
on natural history and curative powers of various natural objects,
are together known as Liber subtilatum ("The book of subtleties
of the Diverse Nature of Things"). These works were uncharacteristic of
Hildegard's writings, including her correspondences, in that they were
not presented in a visionary form and don't contain any references to
source or revelation. However, like her religious writings they
her religious philosophy-that the man was the peak of god's creation
everything was put in the world for man to use.
Her scientific views were derived from the ancient Greek cosmology
the four elements-fire, air, water, and earth-with their complementary
qualities of heat, dryness, moisture, and cold, and the corresponding
humours in the body-choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm, and melancholy
(black bile). Human constitution was based on the preponderance of one
or two of the humors. Indeed, we still use words "choleric",
and "melancholy" to describe personalities.
upset the delicate balance of the humours, and only consuming the right
plant or animal which had that quality you were missing, could restore
the healthy balance to the body. That is why in giving descriptions of
plants, trees, birds, animals, stones, Hildegard is mostly concerned in
describing that object's quality and giving its medicinal use. Thus,
(tansy) is hot and a little damp and is good against all superfluous
humours and whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat
It will bind humors so that they do not overflow, and thus will
Hildegard's writings are also unique for their generally positive
of sexual relations and her description of pleasure from the point of
of a woman. They might also contain the first description of the female
When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in
her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste
of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the
seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat
from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the
sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up
the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can
hold something enclosed in his fist.
She also wrote that strength of semen determined the sex of the child,
while the amount of love and passion determine child's disposition. The
worst case, where the seed is weak and parents feel no love, leads to a
Music was extremely important to Hildegard. She describes it as the
of recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise. According to
before the Fall, Adam had a pure voice and joined angels in singing
to god. After the fall, music was invented and musical instruments made
in order to worship god appropriately. Perhaps this explains why her
most often sounds like what we imagine angels singing to be like.
Hildegard wrote hymns and sequences in honor of saints, virgins and
Mary. She wrote in the plainchant tradition of a single vocal melodic
a tradition common in liturgical singing of her time. Her music is
a revival and enjoying huge public success. One group, Sequentia,
is planning to record all of Hildegard's musical output in time for the
900th anniversary of her birth in 1998. Their latest recording Canticles
of Ecstasy is superb. Be sure to read the translations of the latin
text of the songs which provide a good example of Hildegard's
writing, and are imbued with vibrant descriptions of color and light,
also occurs in her visionary writings.
Most Distinguished Migraine Sufferer
It is now generally agreed that Hildegard suffered from migraine, and
her visions were a result of this condition. The way she describes her
visions, precursors to visions, as well as debilitating aftereffects,
to classic symptoms of migraine sufferers. Although a number of visual
hallucinations may occur, the more common ones described are the
which often follow perceptions of phosphenes in the visual field.
scotomata are also associated with areas of total blindness in the
field, something Hildegard might have been describing when she spoke of
points of intense light, and also the "extinguished stars." Migraine
are usually followed by sickness, paralysis, blindness-all reported by
Hildegard, and when they pass, by a period of rebound and feeling
than before, a euphoria also described by her. Also, writes Oliver
Among the strangest and most intense symptoms of migraine
and the most difficult of description and analysis, are the occurrences
of feelings of sudden familiarity and certitude... or its opposite.
states are experienced, momentarily and occasionally, by everyone;
occurrence in migraine auras is marked by their overwhelming intensity
and relatively long duration.
It is a tribute to the remarkable spirit and the intellectual powers of
this woman that she was able to turn a debilitating illness into the
of god, and create so much with it.
Bingen, as it exists today, a travel
contributed by Wolfgang Wanner. See also Tracks
of Hildegard in Today's Bingen(German), as well as travel
Jutta and Hildegard: The
Biographical Series, translated and introduced by Anna
Silvas (Penn State University Press, 1999).\
328 pages ISBN 0-271-01954-9 paper: $18.95
Dictionary of Women Artists, Ed. Delia Gaze (Fitzroy
Contains an article on Hildegard by Madeline H. Caviness.
Hildegard of Bingen, a Visionary Life, by Sabina Flanagan.
Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen, selected
from Latin by Sabina Flanagan. (Shambala Publications, Boston and
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales,
Oliver Sacks. (New York : Perennial Library, 1987).
Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the "Symphonia armoniae
trans. and commentary Barbara Newman (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press,
Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, The
of Western Spirituality (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1990).
Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, text by Hildegard of
with commentary by Matthew Fox. (Santa Fe, N.M. : Bear & Co., 1985).
Hildegard of Bingen : the Book of the rewards of life (Liber
translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. (New York : Garland Pub., 1994).
The letters of Hildegard of Bingen, translated by Joseph L.
Radd K. Ehrman. (New York : Oxford University Press, 1994).
Sister of wisdom : St. Hildegard's theology of the feminine,
Barbara Newman. (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1987).
The "Ordo virtutum" of Hildegard of Bingen : critical studies edited
by Audrey Ekdahl Davidson. (Kalamazoo, Mich. : Medieval Institute
Western Michigan University, 1992).
Hildegard von Bingen : Mystikerin, Heilerin, Gefahrtin der Engel,
by Ingeborg Ulrich. (Munchen : Kosel, 1990).
German mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein
literary and intellectual history, by Andrew Weeks. (Albany : State
University of New York Press, 1993).
Hildegard von Bingen, by Heinrich Shipperges. (Muenchen:
Gottfried and Theodoric's Life of Hildegard of Bingen, by
is available from Peregrina.
The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen, by Barbara Lachman.
1993, pbk. 1995).
Hildegard, The Last Year, by Barbara Lachman. (Shambhala,
Luminus Spirit, by Hesperus
"takes an authentic approach to the music of Hildegard." October 1998.
Lux Vivens:the music of Hildegard von Bingen PGD Mammoth
August 1998, Jocelyn
Montgomery (vocalist) David Lynch (producer)
Hildegard von Bingen und Birgitta von Schweden RAUMKLANG RK
April 1998 Ensemble Les Flamboyants (Schola Cantorum
Hildegard von Bingen, Heavenly Revelations: Hymns, Sequences,
Responds -- by the Oxford Camerata under Jeremy Summerly.
Hidegard von Bingen, O Nobilissima Viriditas -- main soloist
Shroeder, Champeaux CSM 006. "Their particular way of vocalizing early
medieval music - set apart from scholarly research as a basis for the
- is remarkable: harmonic intonation, crisp and fluent phrasing,
use of various vocal ornaments like I haven't heard anybody else
of. " -M. Spaink (personal communication)
Hildegard von Bingen, Sequences and Antiphons (Monk and Abbess)
on BMG Catalyst (09026-68329-2) -- performed by Judith
Bison Tales has recently
released two recordings of Hildegard's music and spoken word by Ellen
Ellen Oak has been studying and performing the life and work of
for more than a decade.
Harmony of Heaven
Sounding the Living Light
Hildegard of Bingen Canticles of Ecstasy DEUTSCHE HARMONIA
12/94 Sequentia - excellent
DES77051 Hildegard of Bingen Ordo Virturum Vol 1 DEUTSCHE
MUNDI 4/90 1:29 DDD Sequentia - a bit weird, not for the faint of heart.
DES77020 Hildegard of Bingen Symphoniae Spiritual DEUTSCHE
MUNDI 10/89 Sequentia - pleasant and beautiful.
05472-77353-2 Hildegard of Bingen O Jerusalem DEUTSCHE
MUNDI 5/97 Sequentia
CHW41 Hildegard Antiphons and Songs CHRYSALIS 11/93
CHW74584 Hildegard Hildegard & Her Time CHRYSALIS 3/93
HYP66039 Hildegard of Bingen Feather on the Breathe of God
2/88 Emma Kirkby/Page/Gothic Voices
DES05472-77346-2 Hildegard Voice of the Blood DEUTSCHE HARMONIA
11,000 Virgins, Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula HARMONIA
USA 1997 Anonymous4
Voices of Angels 1997 Voices of Ascension.
Plain.chant or plain.song
\'plaÅn-,chant\ n or \'plaÅn-,soÇn\ n (1513)
1: GREGORIAN CHANT
2: a liturgical chant of any of various Christian rites
\'kaÈl-e-rik, ke-'ler-ik\ adj (1583)
1: easily moved to often unreasonable or excessive anger:
2: ANGRY, IRATE
\'ant-e-fen, -,faÈn\ n
[LL antiphona Ð more at ANTHEM] (1500)
1: a psalm, anthem, or verse sung responsively
2: a verse usu. from Scripture said or sung before and after
a canticle, psalm, or psalm verse as part of the liturgy
adj [ME sanguin, fr. MF, fr. L sanguineus, fr. sanguin-, sanguis] (14c)
2a: consisting of or relating to blood
b: SANGUINARY 1
c: of the complexion: RUDDY
3: having blood as the predominating bodily humor; also:
the bodily conformation and temperament held characteristic of such
and marked by sturdiness, high color, and cheerfulness
4: CONFIDENT, OPTIMISTIC
\fleg-'mat-ik\ adj (14c)
1: resembling, consisting of, or producing the humor phlegm
2: having or showing a slow and stolid temperament
\'mel-en-,kaÈl-eÅ\ [ME malencolie, fr. MF melancolie, fr.
LL melancholia, fr. Gk, fr. melan- + choleÅ bile Ð more at
1a: an abnormal state attributed to an excess of black bile
characterized by irascibility or depression
b: BLACK BILE
2a: depression of spirits: DEJECTION
b: a pensive mood
Last modified: 10/17/98
Kristina Lerman, [email protected]