Hildegard of Bingen was an amazing woman! In a male-dominated medieval world, she made her voice heard and stood resolutely for those things she believed in - yet still managed to keep the support of those in authority who she needed on her side. Overcoming many odds, resisting any temptation to self-pity or bitterness, she worked determinedly to grow, develop and lead a fulfilling life within her very restrictive setting.
Hildegard was born in 1098 and grew up the tenth child of a wealthy family. Sometimes, the wealthy families of that time would ‘tithe’ their tenth child to the church, and that is exactly what happened to Hildegard! There is some uncertainty about the age at which she was, in her own words, ‘offered for a spiritual way of life’. What can be stated is that, either at age eight or fourteen, she was given over to a life of monastic seclusion with the wealthy and clever Jutta, her senior by only six years, within the walls of the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg in what is now Germany.
The two remained in seclusion but were joined through the years by other daughters of wealthy nobility, until 1136, when the strongly ascetic Jutta died in Hildegard’s 39th year. Hildegard was immediately chosen by the sisters to be the head of their community – a fact which seems to imply that she had already shown leadership and organisational skills whilst Jutta was alive.
It is from this time that Hildegard's life began to blossom as she developed her writing and musical composition skills. Later, she became a noted and public figure - giving the medieval equivalent of speaking tours - and writing letters, sometimes quite critically, to leading political and religious figures alike. Around 1147, she moved her community to their own site at Rupertsberg, near Bingen.
Hildegard never appears to have held the same extreme ascetic views as Jutta. Her interest in human physiology (including sexuality), which are shown in her medical writings, appear to stem from a balanced and harmonious view of the world, human life and the body. In fact her view of humankind as part of a whole, integrated cosmology echoes much in 21st century thought.
”For man has the heavens and earth and other created things within him. He is one, and all things are hidden within him”
Hildegard in 'Causae and Curae'
Hildegard had a series of vibrant visions - documented mainly in her book 'Scivias'. She clearly viewed herself as having a prophetic ministry – shown in her use of phrases such as ‘I heard a voice from Heaven, saying to me…’. This ministry was accepted by those in authority in the church. In 1147 Pope Eugene III sanctioned her work on 'Scivias' after reading some of the completed parts, and her known letters show her growing confidence in challenging some of the leading figures in both secular and religious life at that time.
Hildegard’s ‘rediscovery’ in recent times has allowed us to learn how this remarkable woman lived a full and unusual life even in medieval days. Removed from her family at a young age, placed in a restrictive and narrow environment, given the close example of an obsessional woman, Hildegard still managed, despite all this, to become what we would consider a ‘self-actualised’ and fulfilled person.
She managed to come to terms sufficiently with her environment to grow and develop effectively, and yet resisted it in those areas where such resistance would prove effective. In doing so, she must have been a powerful role model for the sisters who shared her community life and can be an equally powerful role model for 21st century women.
Well done, Hildegard!