Hildegard of Bingen
Doctor of the Church
1098 - 17 sep 1179
Feastday: September 17
Saint Hildegard of Bingen, O.S.B. (German: Hildegard von Bingen; Latin:
Hildegardis Bingensis) (1098 – 17 September 1179), also known as Saint Hildegard,
and Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian
mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath. Elected a magistra by her
fellow nuns in 1136, she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and
Eibingen in 1165. One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early
example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play.
She wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, as well as letters,
liturgical songs, and poems, while supervising miniature illuminations in the
Rupertsberg manuscript of her first work, Scivias.
Although the history of her formal
recognition as a saint is complicated, she has been recognized as a saint by
parts of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. On 7 October 2012, Pope
Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Church.
exact date of birth is uncertain. She was born around the year 1098 to Mechtild
of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, a family of the free lower
nobility in the service of the Count Meginhard of Sponheim. Sickly from birth,
Hildegard is traditionally considered their youngest and tenth child, although
there are records of seven older siblings. In her Vita, Hildegard states that
from a very young age she had experienced visions.
Perhaps due to Hildegard's visions,
or as a method of political positioning, Hildegard's parents offered her as an
oblate to the church. The date of Hildegard's enclosure in the church is the
subject of a contentious debate. Her Vita says she was enclosed with an older
nun, Jutta, at the age of eight. However, Jutta's enclosure date is known to be
in 1112, when Hildegard would have been fourteen. Some scholars speculate that
Hildegard was placed in the care of Jutta, the daughter of Count Stephan II of
Sponheim, at the age of eight, and the two women were enclosed together six
years later. The written record of the Life of Jutta indicates that Hildegard
probably assisted her in reciting the Psalms, working in the garden, and tending
to the sick.
In any case, Hildegard and Jutta were
enclosed at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest in what is now Germany. Jutta
was also a visionary and thus attracted many followers who came to visit her at
the enclosure. Hildegard tells us that Jutta taught her to read and write, but
that she was unlearned and therefore incapable of teaching Hildegard Biblical
interpretation. Hildegard and Jutta most likely prayed, meditated, read
scriptures such as the psalter, and did handwork during the hours of the Divine
Office. This might have been a time when Hildegard learned how to play the
ten-stringed psaltery. Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard
simple psalm notation. The time she studied music could have been the beginning
of the compositions she would later create.
Jutta's death in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected as "magistra" of the
community by her fellow nuns. Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg asked Hildegard to be
Prioress, which would be under his authority. Hildegard, however, wanted more
independence for herself and her nuns, and asked Abbot Kuno to allow them to
move to Rupertsberg. This was to be a move towards poverty, from a stone complex
that was well established to a temporary dwelling place. When the abbot declined
Hildegard's proposition, Hildegard went over his head and received the approval
of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz. Abbot Kuno did not relent until Hildegard was
stricken by an illness that kept her paralyzed and unable to move from her bed,
an event that she attributed to God's unhappiness at her not following his
orders to move her nuns to Rupertsberg. It was only when the Abbot himself could
not move Hildegard that he decided to grant the nuns their own monastery.
Hildegard and about twenty nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in
1150, where Volmar served as provost, as well as Hildegard's confessor and
scribe. In 1165 Hildegard founded a second monastery for her nuns at Eibingen.
Hildegard says that she first saw
"The Shade of the Living Light" at the age of three, and by the age of five she
began to understand that she was experiencing visions. She used the term 'visio'
to this feature of her experience, and recognized that it was a gift that she
could not explain to others. Hildegard explained that she saw all things in the
light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
Hildegard was hesitant to share her visions, confiding only to Jutta, who in
turn told Volmar, Hildegard's tutor and, later, secretary. Throughout her life,
she continued to have many visions, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard
received a vision she believed to be an instruction from God, to "write down
that which you see and hear." Still hesitant to record her visions, Hildegard
became physically ill. The illustrations recorded in the book of Scivias were
visions that Hildegard experienced, causing her great suffering and tribulations.
In her first theological text, Scivias ("Know the Ways"), Hildegard describes
her struggle within:
I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through
doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness
but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell
upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the
witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade]
and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set
my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before,
the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness
by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close – though just barely
– in ten years. (...) And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of
my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I
heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from
Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out therefore, and write thus!'
It was between November 1147 and February
1148 at the synod in Trier that Pope Eugenus heard about Hildegard’s writings.
It was from this that she received Papal approval to document her visions as
revelations from the Holy Spirit giving her instant credence.
Before Hildegard’s death, a problem arose
with the clergy of Mainz. A man buried in Rupertsburg had died after
excommunication from the Church. Therefore, the clergy wanted to remove his body
from the sacred ground. Hildegard did not accept this idea, replying that it was
a sin and that the man had been reconciled to the church at the time of his
On 17 September 1179, when Hildegard died,
her sisters claimed they saw two streams of light appear in the skies and cross
over the room where she was dying.
Vita Sanctae Hildegardis
Hildegard's hagiography, Vita
Sanctae Hildegardis was compiled by the monk Theoderic of Echternach after
Hildegard's death. He included the hagiographical work Libellus or "Little Book"
begun by Godfrey of Disibodenberg. Godfrey had died before he was able to
complete his work. Guibert of Gembloux was invited to finish the work; however,
he had to return to his monastery with the project unfinished. Theoderic
utilized sources Guibert had left behind to complete the Vita.
I.6: The Choirs of Angels. From the Rupertsberg manuscript, fol. 38r.
Hildegard's works include three great volumes of visionary theology; a variety
of musical compositions for use in liturgy, as well as the musical morality play
Ordo Virtutum; one of the largest bodies of letters (nearly 400) to survive from
the Middle Ages, addressed to correspondents ranging from Popes to Emperors to
abbots and abbesses, and including records of many of the sermons she preached
in the 1160s and 1170s; two volumes of material on natural medicine and cures;
an invented language called the Lingua ignota ("unknown language"); and various
minor works, including a gospel commentary and two works of hagiography.
Several manuscripts of her works were produced during her lifetime, including
the illustrated Rupertsberg manuscript of her first major work, Scivias (lost
since 1945); the Dendermonde manuscript, which contains one version of her
musical works; and the Ghent manuscript, which was the first fair-copy made for
editing of her final theological work, the Liber Divinorum Operum. At the end of
her life, and probably under her initial guidance, all of her works were edited
and gathered into the single Riesenkodex manuscript.
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