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1. The making of a writer

In 1146, an unknown and unpublished author, abbess of a small convent of nuns attached to the larger monastery of Disibodenberg in the Rhineland, sent a letter to the great churchman of her day, Bernard of Clairvaux. In her opening words, she emphasized Bernard’s fame and her own unworthiness, before moving to her reason for writing. Despite her lack of education, the writer of the letter claimed she was filled with sophisticated and far-reaching theological visions and interpretations of the Bible. At the same time she also revealed that she was composing elaborate songs and music for use in church, again without having had any specific training. But – worried about pride and presumption – she was plagued with afflictions and doubts. Should she, a mere nun and uneducated woman, continue in such potentially reckless and inappropriate activities? The concluding request of her letter is couched in language and rhetoric the like of which Bernard had almost certainly never seen or heard before. Hildegard appeals to him in a series of injunctions, some conventional, others highly original. She entreats him not only ‘by the brightness of the Father, by his wonderful Word’, a familiar idea, but also ‘by the sacred sound through which all creation resounds’, a more unusual concept; and perhaps even more startling, ‘by the Word from which all the world was created, by the height of the Father who through the sweet power of green vigour sent the Word to the Virgin’s womb where it took on flesh like the honey in the honeycomb’.

What does she mean by some of these unusual ideas? The ‘sacred sound’ implies an idea of music as the essential fabric of the cosmos. There is a whole world of ideas behind this one phrase. The expression ‘green vigour’, or viriditas in the Latin of the original text, is similarly rich in connotations. For Hildegard, ‘greenness’ means the force which gives life to the body and renewal in nature; in a religious sense it signifies both the power of the Spirit at work in the world and the moral force that gives life and fruitfulness to human actions.

With hindsight, we can see the significance of such metaphors and concepts; they are the first expressions in writing of a new religious thinker who already at the time of writing has her own theology. Behind the final phrases of the letter to Bernard we detect a musician with her own philosophy of music, and an artist who – though no classical stylist – was a maker of fresh and startling images and ideas. Moreover, all this was expressed in a rough, unpolished Latin which Hildegard had acquired without formal study while singing the psalms and prayers of the monastic services in the daily life of her convent. Bernard was evidently impressed, for his short reply was positive. Which is somewhat surprising, given that he was a churchman of the twelfth century, a period in which anything new and strange in religion was probed carefully for heresy. And Bernard was no liberal in such matters: he had secured the prohibition of the teachings of the great Paris philosopher Peter Abelard and his supporter Arnold of Brescia, and at the time of Hildegard’s letter he was also agitating (unsuccessfully in this case) for the condemnation of the doctrines of Gilbert of Poitiers, a theologian who had made some unorthodox statements on the unity of the godhead. But at the Synod of Trier in the winter of 1147–8, Hildegard’s work in progress (possibly some sections of part II of her Scivias) was read out with interest by Pope Eugenius III and others. Bernard spoke in her favour, and papal approval was given for its publication.

Within a few years, Hildegard of Bingen had become a religious, moral and political adviser to half of Europe, as her voluminous correspondence shows. Credited with prophetic insights, the ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’ was frequently consulted, and on the basis of her authority as a prophet, undertook what for a woman was almost unheard of: four preaching tours through the heartlands of the German Empire. She began her preaching in 1158, at the age of sixty, and the first tour took her along the Main, stopping at Mainz, Wertheim, Würzburg, Kitzingen, Ebrach and Bamberg, preaching in churches and cathedrals and visiting abbeys and monasteries. A further three tours followed. In 1160, she preached publicly in Trier, attacked the lax clergy for not ‘blowing the trumpet of God’s justice’, then proceeded along the River Mosel to Metz. Between 1161 and 1163 she followed the Rhine northwards to Werden on the Ruhr, stopping at Cologne, where she preached on the dangers of the Cathar movement (on which more below). Finally, from 1170 to 1171, she was in Swabia. Here, as a letter to Werner of Kirchheim reveals, she preached to a community of priests on the topic of the Church, which she saw as a mystical female figure towering to the heavens (like Lady Philosophy in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy) but whose white robe was torn and dishevelled.1 In true Gregorian reformist manner, she called for the clerics to end their neglect of the Church, to lead celibate lives and to stop chasing after preferments.

There are no descriptions of these journeys other than the letters in which Hildegard sent copies of her sermons to the communities she had visited, but the requests reveal how well she was received. Although her decision to undertake such tours was clearly justified by their reception, they were highly irregular. The enormity of the step she took is perhaps appreciated when it is recalled that Benedictine nuns could not leave their cloister without special permission, and only priests were allowed to preach. But Hildegard had the authority of her vocation and a strength of character which brooked almost no opposition.

Rooting her ideas in what she called her ‘vision’, a religious experience of the ‘living light’, she set herself the task of writing an encyclopedic survey of theological knowledge. Her basic method was to present a particular ‘vision’ with all its imagery and detail in a coherent picture, both as a text and, in some manuscripts, as an illustration. Shown in this way the picture would take on a life of its own, almost like a myth, but remain at the same time something mysterious, ‘a mystical vision’ as she called it, demanding a key to its meaning. This she would then set out to give, explaining the content of the picture she had created and making it relevant to her contemporary audience. The dozens of visions were subsequently arranged into a series of three interconnected books: Scivias, or Know the Ways (completed in 1151), The Book of Life’s Merits (1163), and The Book of Divine Works (1173). The trilogy became her life’s work: a body of writing based on ‘visions’ but covering a wide area of teaching: from knowledge about the cosmos, explanations of the meaning of the Trinity and other religious ideas to interpretations of passages in the Bible, ethical and social problems, and pastoral care and medicine.

Particularly in the first half of her career, Hildegard composed choral music for the liturgy, collecting the various pieces in her work the Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations (1158). It is these songs, which have survived as text with neums (medieval musical notation) and are now recorded in a number of versions, that have brought renewed fame to Hildegard in the present day.

Several additional works should be noted. Hildegard wrote ‘non-visionary’ prose, in particular two treatises on medicine and the natural world known as Causes and Cures and Physica, both completed by 1158. As with the songs, great attention has recently been given to these writings after a long neglect. In particular, her emphasis on wholeness, balance and diet has given them renewed currency among today’s readership. During the same period of activity, as the preface to her Book of Life’s Merits reveals, she also compiled her ‘replies and admonitions’, i.e. the first collected edition of her letters, as well as various minor writings: a commentary on the Gospels, an explanation of the Athanasian Creed and a commentary on the Benedictine Rule for Monasteries. There later followed the Life of St Disibod, the Life of St Rupert and the Solutions to Thirty-Eight Questions. Finally, mention should be made of two works (composed 1151–8) in which Hildegard revealed a fascination with language and the invention of private languages: The Unknown Language and The Unknown Alphabet. In the decade after her death in 1179, most of her large corpus of writings was gathered together and edited in one volume at the Rupertsberg, the monastery she herself had founded in about 1150; the result is the so-called ‘giant’ book or codex, usually referred to by its German title, the Riesenkodex.

2. Sketch of Hildegard’s life

Hildegard’s inner life was frequently turbulent, but outwardly the routine of the convent remained a highly ordered, regular round of singing the monastic ‘offices’, or services, at set times throughout the day as prescribed in the Benedictine Rule for Monasteries. It should be remembered that one of Hildegard’s main purposes in composing music was to supplement the daily round with short pieces – antiphons and responsories – which could be included at suitable points in the course of the liturgy of the offices. Given the regularity of her everyday life, the main external events of her biography can be quickly told.

For the first forty-two years of her life Hildegard led a sheltered existence, much of it within the walls of a monastery. Born at Bermersheim in 1098 into a well-established noble family, she was given to the monastic life as a young child; according to Guibert’s Life of Hildegard, her parents felt a need to offer their tenth and youngest child as a ‘tithe’, to be presented to the Church in dedication. In Hildegard’s case the dedication as ‘oblate’ took place with her full agreement, although, as we shall see, she objected strongly to the practice of dedicating oblates to monasteries without their consent. According to Theoderich’s Life of Hildegard, Hildegard was aged eight at the time, and she was put into the care of a pious noblewoman called Jutta of Spanheim, presumably at her household in nearby Spanheim itself. Rather than immediately entering an anchorage (as told in the now traditional account based on Theoderich’s Life) it now seems likely that she remained at Spanheim for a number of years while Jutta looked for a suitable convent. The Annals of Disibodenberg report that on 29 June 1108 the foundation stone of the newly rebuilt monastery of Disibodenberg was laid by its abbot, Burchard. For reasons not recorded, Jutta decided on this as the site of her retreat from the world. Accordingly, as details in the anonymous Life of Jutta indicate, Jutta became a recluse attached to the monastery in 1112, taking Hildegard and another young dedicatee with her. The anchorage soon became a convent at what was in effect a double monastery (with two separate houses on the same site for monks and nuns). Subsequently, at some point in the next four years, Hildegard spoke her vows and assumed the veil of a nun.

The following twenty years passed without notice, but when Jutta died in 1136, the nuns chose Hildegard as her successor. Having achieved a secure position, Hildegard felt able to tell selected friends about her visionary experiences and creative abilities. Encouraged by her friend the monk Volmar, schoolmaster of the monastery, she began in 1141 to put her ‘vision’ into writing. Work continued until the eventful synod of 1147–8, when, prompted by Kuno, the abbot of Disibodenberg, and supported by Heinrich, the archbishop in the local diocese of Mainz, she presented it for papal approval.

The result of this synod has already been told, and from this point on Hildegard’s life was transformed as she assumed the active role of author, preacher, counsellor and (to use a modern term) a form of therapist. More of the details of this new role will emerge as we consider her letters, her trilogy and other individual works. But apart from the preaching journeys, and the foundation of Eibingen in 1165, her active career is marked by drastic events only at its beginning and end.

Soon after the Synod of Trier, her outer circumstances changed. In about 1150, as she was completing Scivias, she abandoned the monks at Disibodenberg and set up her own foundation at Rupertsberg. At first, resources were limited for the abbess and her small band of twenty or so nuns, and the situation was exacerbated by active opposition to the move on the part of Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg. Meanwhile, in the face of the hardships, various nuns left the Rupertsberg for elsewhere. These included the nun Adelheid, who became abbess of Gandersheim, and Hildegard’s close friend Richardis of Stade, who moved to Bassum; in both cases there seem to have been family and political connections involved in the appointments. The departure of Richardis was a bitter disappointment for Hildegard, which is recorded graphically in one of her letters translated below. To solve the financial situation of the convent, Hildegard made a surprise visit to Kuno and secured an agreement for the support of the nuns (the money was owed to them as revenue from lands given to the monastery by their wealthy relatives). Before the deal was ratified, however, Kuno died in 1155, and the dispute was renewed under his successor, Abbot Helenger, who tried to secure the return to Disibodenberg of the invaluable Volmar, who was still supporting Hildegard in her writing work. Eventually, by appeals to the diocese, in particular to Arnold, Archbishop of Mainz, two charters were obtained in 1158 which secured the nuns’ property and arranged for pastoral and priestly visits from Disibodenberg to Rupertsberg.

At the end of her life, the daily routines of the convent and, what was worse, the very achievements of Hildegard’s career were threatened by wholly unexpected circumstances. A young nobleman, who had been excommunicated, died after reconciling himself with the Church and receiving the sacraments from a priest. He was buried in the convent cemetery. Though everything had proceeded correctly, this event had repercussions. Alleging that he had still been excommunicant at the time of his death, the prelates of the diocese of Mainz ordered his body to be removed. Hildegard refused to do this. The prelates accordingly placed an interdict over the Rupertsberg, forbidding the nuns to take part in communion or to sing the liturgy, and they were allowed to say their prayers and readings only in muffled tones. In a medieval Christian context, and particularly in the situation of a convent, where the mass, the psalms and the offices were the very lifeblood of their existence, the nuns were devastated, or, in their own words, ‘afflicted with much bitterness’ and ‘oppressed by a great sadness.’ Hildegard herself, who set so much store by music as ‘the sacred sound through which all creation resounds’, was beside herself. A letter written during this dispute is particularly interesting, for here Hildegard was compelled to put her views on music into writing in order to appeal for a lifting of the ban on the singing of the liturgy. After various visits and appeals, in which – as the letters and biography reveal – the local rivalries between the diocese of Mainz and that of Cologne also played a role, the interdict was finally lifted. For the last few months of her life Hildegard’s activities returned to the normal Benedictine routine of prayer and praise to which her vocation had called her.


1. The Cistercians

The period in which Hildegard lived was a time of great renewal, often referred to as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.2 One driving force was the new monastic order of the Cistercians, an offshoot of the Benedictine Order, who called for a return to the basics of the Benedictine Rule, including simplicity of worship (in contrast to the elaborate rituals of the established Cluniac monasteries), and manual labour; they also emphasized the role of meditation and reading.3 The most important personality of Cistercian monasticism was clearly Bernard of Clairvaux, who taught the future Pope Eugenius III. Bernard’s writings, mostly spiritual and contemplative, were extremely influential in the period, and his political influence was immense. Here, to give a brief example, is an admonition from his On Consideration, a series of reflections on government which he addressed to Pope Eugenius III:

See where your accursed occupations are bound to drag you if you carry on as you have begun, that is to say, giving yourself wholly to them and saving nothing of yourself for you. You are wasting time and, if I may play Jethro to your Moses, you, like him, are wearing yourself out in foolish labour over things which are nothing but an affliction of spirit, the dissipation of your mental energies and an expense of grace. And what does it yield you in the end but cobwebs?4

On a humorous note, Bernard could also write a satirical view of a wealthy Cluniac abbot travelling round the country in a grand style with all his rich household goods and ‘sixty or more horses in his train’.5 Another note is sounded in his advice in a letter to Oger, canon of Mont-Saint-Éloui:

Let us rest our brains from composition, our lips from speaking, our hands from writing and our messengers from scurrying back and forth, but let our minds never rest from meditating day and night on the law of the Lord, which is the law of love.6

Like Hildegard after him, Bernard was a great writer of letters to all and sundry; it is interesting to compare their styles and to note the freedom of expression which both felt, for very different reasons, when addressing the same correspondent, Pope Eugenius III himself.

Another key figure in the Cistercian order was Ælred of Rievaulx, author of the classic On Spiritual Friendship (1150–65). Though written for men, and probably not read by Hildegard, this book points to a warm, emotional side in monastic life:

Those who have none to share in their good fortune or their grief, none on whom they can unload their troubles, no one to whom they can communicate some sudden glorious illumination are like brute beasts. ‘Woe unto him who is alone, for when he falls he has none to lift him up!’ … But what happiness, security and joy to have another self to talk with!7

The ideas expressed here help to explain the strong bond of affection felt between the two friends Hildegard and Richardis, or between Hildegard the author and Volmar the scribe and adviser.8

2. Twelfth-century humanists

By the twelfth century the cathedral schools were gaining increasingly in importance, particularly in Paris. These placed considerable emphasis on the liberal arts and sciences of classical antiquity, particularly those of Rome; works of Greek origin also came to be known in Latin translation, including Plato’s Timœus in the version by Chalcidius, and works on physics by Aristotle and on astronomy by Ptolemy. New scientific and medical knowledge from the Arab world also made its way into Europe through the experience of the Crusades.

Typical classical humanists of the period are John of Salisbury, who studied under Bernard of Chartres, and Gerald of Wales, who studied in Paris from 1165 to 1174. Both authors are entirely at home in the liberal arts of the trivium (the syllabus of grammar, logic and rhetoric which was the staple diet of the medieval schools). Frequently they surprise the modern reader with their free and easy acquaintance with classical poets such as Virgil, Ovid and Horace, whose themes they adopt and whose works they ceaselessly quote and allude to. Another lesser figure of the same type is Guibert of Gembloux, Hildegard’s secretarial assistant in her later years, who appears to have taken more pains to smooth and polish Hildegard’s Latin than did Volmar (who presumably just tidied up the grammatical endings). Such writers, mostly men educated in elitist systems, are a contrast to Hildegard, a nun and Benedictine, who rarely cites anything recognizable as a direct classical allusion.9

For much of his career, John of Salisbury acted as secretary to Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II, King of England, and had contacts with Pope Eugenius III. A letter of 1167, written around the time when the imperial army under Frederick Barbarossa had invaded Italy and taken Rome, is interesting for its mention of Hildegard and her remarkable prophetic writings. John has heard of a book, probably the Scivias, which he would like to consult; but this is an age of manuscripts, when books were published by the slow process of sending them to scribes to be carefully copied. So he asks his correspondent, Master Gerard Pucelle, to look through the book while he is abroad to see what he can find:

If you do not come on anything else not available to our folk, at least the visions and prophecies of the blessed and most famous Hildegard are available to you. I hold her in commendation and reverence since Pope Eugenius cherished her with an intimate bond of affection. Look carefully too and let me know whether anything was revealed to her at the end of this schism.10

Humanist and classicist as he was, John was willing to credit Hildegard with another kind of writing than that of his own.

John of Salisbury’s teacher Bernard of Chartres once famously remarked that his contemporaries were like ‘dwarfs, standing on the shoulders of the giants’ of the classical past. The remark expresses well the interest many of these scholars had in recovering more of the lost science and knowledge of Greek and Roman antiquity, and with the twelfth-century Renaissance came a renewed interest in classical science. Notable achievements here are the writings on logic of the famous and flamboyant Parisian scholar Peter Abelard, who was vehemently opposed by Bernard of Clairvaux. Other twelfth-century humanists interested in science include William of Conches, who among his more original writings also commented on the works of the late antique philosopher Boethius. Boethius’s cosmology was studied with a renewed fervour in this period, along with the allegorical methods of Macrobius in his commentary on the Dream of Scipio. Pursuing such studies, Bernard Silvester and Alan of Lille gave new forms to cosmology in long, allegorical poems. Their use of allegory to devise innovative ways of looking at the works of nature and the cosmos is clearly of relevance to Hildegard’s trilogy, although we must be wary of identifying any direct influences other than the general trends of the time. As has been noted, within a year of each other (1147–8) both Bernard Silvester’s allegorical poem Cosmographia and Hildegard’s Scivias were approved by Pope Eugenius III.

3. Mystical practices

A key figure in the Latin literature and theology of the period was a master at Paris in the early part of the century. The name he is known by is Hugh of St Victor, and he came from a community of canons regular living under a rule at St Victor in Paris. Founded in 1113, the Victorine house had links with St Bernard, who helped to formulate its ‘customs’. Many famous scholars, mystics and poets originated there, including Hugh, who was probably best known as author of the textbook Didascalicon. A useful and all-embracing survey of the arts, Hugh’s work was widely used in the schools, but it also had a further significance. The book gave a philosophical underpinning to monastic ideas and practices, and in so doing, emphasized the value of reading (lectio divina) and meditation (meditatio), two types of activity encouraged by the Benedictines and the Cistercians. Hugh certainly did not originate such already traditional practices, but his definitions give us insights into the way many men and women lived the life of study and prayer in this period.

According to his approach, meditation was the practice of reading aloud and pondering with the whole person – not only with memory, will and attention, but also with body, mind and spirit – on the meaning of the text. In effect, the meditator had to learn the text by heart and so put its theory into practice. By contrast, reading, so defined, was a more careful and guided study of the text, using scholarly aids and commentaries. Meditation could precede reading, but reading aided further, advanced levels of memory and meditation, which allowed the mind to soar, as it were, to heights of devotion and understanding.

Such practices are immediately relevant to writers whom we know to come from a monastic background. Hildegard is no exception, and we are fortunate in this respect to have the letter she wrote in reply to the questions of Guibert of Gembloux, the scholar who eventually became her secretary in the 1170s after the death of Volmar. One passage is particularly relevant in the light of Hugh’s analysis of meditation. Hildegard is in the process of explaining the nature of her visions, and how they come to her in her soul while she is in a waking state, and not in some kind of trance (as in the case of her fellow visionary Elisabeth):

The light which I see is not confined to one place, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud which carries the sun; nor can I gauge its height or length or breadth, and it is known to me by the name of the ‘reflection of the living light’. And just as the sun, the moon and the stars appear in the waters, so the Scriptures, sermons and virtues and certain works that humans have wrought, shine on me brightly in this light.11

Following this mystical explanation, Hildegard continues to describe how her memory and understanding work on the vision:

Whatever I see or learn in this vision, I hold in my memory for a long time; so that I can recall whatever I have seen or heard; and I simultaneously see and hear and understand and, as it were, learn in this moment, what I understand. But what I do not see, I do not understand, because I am unlearned. And the words which I write I have seen and heard in the vision; nor do I put down words other than those I hear in the vision, and I present them in Latin, unpolished, just as I hear them in the vision. For I am not taught in this vision to write as the philosophers write; and the words in this vision are not like those which sound from the mouth of man, but like a trembling flame, or like a cloud stirred by the clear air.12

If, as seems likely, Hildegard practised meditative reading on a wide variety of texts, seeing them, reading them and hearing them in her mind, then we are close to knowing, at least in part, how she acquired the breadth and depth of knowledge which we frequently encounter, behind the prophetic persona, in most of her works.

4. Theological writers

In the theology of the twelfth century, a new tendency was to produce encyclopedic works covering all aspects of Christian doctrine. In this tradition the great figure of Peter Lombard stands out from all the others, his celebrated Sentences (c. 1155–8) becoming the principal textbook of theology in succeeding centuries and setting a standard which was hard to surpass. Nevertheless, there were other writings of this sort from earlier in the century, one notable example being Hugh of St Victor’s On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (c. 1134) with many similarities of content to Hildegard’s own Scivias.

Honorius ‘of Autun’ – who was possibly a German writer – also produced large works of popular theology, sometimes sensational and even grotesque by the standards of today, in which he aimed to present basic principles of theology for the instruction of priests. His Elucidarium, for instance, has a superficial similarity to Hildegard’s Scivias in its three-part survey of theology, Christian anthropology and eschatology, though it is presented in the form of a dialogue between master and pupil rather than the visionary form of Hildegard’s work.

Another large-scale work aimed at a popular audience was compiled by Herrad of Landsberg. Herrad, in charge of a house of canonesses at Hohenbourg near Strasbourg, supervised the compilation of her Garden of Delights between 1160 and 1170. This work was a systematic textbook of word, image and music containing hymns, liturgy, Bible commentary, history, Church law and popular doctrine drawn verbatim from a variety of sources, including Honorius of Autun and Peter Lombard. A whole series of didactic illustrations occurred in the book, and its Latin text was accompanied by numerous German glosses to assist in teaching to a vernacular audience.

5. The role of women

As a female author, Herrad seems to have been an exceptional case. Many women who composed works of literature in the period were not in fact ‘writers’ in the strict sense of the word, since they employed secretaries and scribes to write down their compositions from dictation. A classic example is Hildegard’s younger contemporary and correspondent, Elisabeth of Schönau. Apparently illiterate (at least in the sense of being unable to write Latin), she experienced her visions in a state of trance (in contrast to Hildegard’s waking experience of ‘vision’) and dictated her experiences to her brother Eckbert, a priest in Cologne. Less learned than Hildegard, Elisabeth nevertheless has a similar sense of her prophetic vocation, and she compares herself to Old Testament figures such as Huldah,13 Deborah, Judith and Jahel, for ‘while the men were given over to sluggishness, holy women were filled with the spirit of God, that they might prophesy, govern God’s people forcefully, and indeed triumph over the foes of Israel’.14 In general, there was probably little choice: women were constrained either to adopt prophetic roles or not to write at all. However, a notable contrast to both Hildegard and Elisabeth is the case of Marie de France, a French speaker living in England, who wrote her courtly Lais about romantic liaisons and other worldly adventures. It should also be remembered that women were not the only writers to embrace the prophetic genre. The most famous prophetic persona of the period, apart from Hildegard, is her younger contemporary Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135–1202), the biblical exegete and mystic who divided the history of the world into the ‘Three Ages’ of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Joachim was unwillingly elected abbot of Corazzo in 1177 and retired to the Sila Mountains in 1196.

6. Vernacular literature

The mention of Marie de France recalls a whole literary world only intermittently visible in the surviving records of the first half of the twelfth century. This is the world of court performance and vernacular literature: the epic, lyric and romance enjoyed by the class of knights and their ladies, an aristocratic world from which Hildegard and many of her nuns came. That she was not unacquainted with such literature is indicated by a reference to the story of the maiden and the unicorn in one of her late letters, to Ludwig of Trier:15

Meanwhile you have embarked on an adventure of the unicorn – unknown to you in your youth – and this indeed was my writing, which often carries echoes of the mortal dress of the son of God, who, loving a maidenly nature, resting in it like the unicorn in the maiden’s lap, gathered the whole Church to himself with the sweetest sound of fair believing.

This story derives from Isidore and antiquity, but it was used frequently in the Latin and vernacular bestiaries that flourished in the Middle Ages. Of literature extant in the German language from the period of Hildegard’s life, some is based on classical models, for instance the Alexander by Lamprecht (1140s) or the Eneit of Heinrich von Veldeke (1170s). Other vernacular literature, however, had its origins in the contemporary aristocratic world. Above all the poetry of ‘courtly love’ (German Minnesang) was beginning to find expression, for instance in the ‘falcon song’ of a lady for her knight written by an Austrian poet known as Der von Kürenberc, datable to the 1160s:

I raised me a falcon for more than a year.

When I had tamed him as I would have him be

and I had dressed his feathers with richly golden bands,

aloft he soared, on high, and flew to other lands.16

Here new ideals of courtly behaviour, new expressions of secular love, and a new sensibility are expressed for the first time in the German language.

7. Popular religious movements

Yet another sensibility, this time of an extreme religious kind, was also making itself strongly felt by the time Hildegard began her writing career. In the 1140s the Cathar movement, originating in France, became popular in Germany, particularly in the Cologne area.17 It was regarded as a threat to the stability of the Church, and leading figures of the region, such as Eckbert of Schönau, preached and wrote treatises against Cathar beliefs, which probably originated in the earlier religious group known as the ‘Manichaean heresy.’ In brief, the Cathari (‘the pure ones’) believed that everything to do with the body and the material world was evil, while only the soul was good. The consequences were twofold: on the one hand an extreme ascetism, particularly on the part of the so-called ‘perfect’ Cathar clergy who had renounced the material world; on the other hand, a laissez-faire attitude, especially on the part of the Cathar laity, who allegedly lived as they pleased until they too made their renunciation at the end of their lives. Hildegard’s positive view of material creation was naturally at odds with such dualist beliefs, and she preached a rousing sermon against them on her third preaching tour along the Rhine from 1161 to 1163.

8. Political background

The preaching tours are an example of where Hildegard the Benedictine nun came into direct personal contact with the outside world. Another instance is in 1163, when she secured from the Emperor an assurance that his troops would protect the Rupertsberg and leave it undamaged. Her need for such a safeguard takes us into the heart of a bitter dispute between German emperor and Roman pope that plagued the political life of the twelfth century.

Since the time of Charlemagne, the kings of Germany had claimed the additional title of King of the Romans, as though they had somehow acquired access, through their illustrious predecessor Charlemagne, to the glorious heritage of the Roman Empire. In addition, they had also exerted considerable influence in the administration of the Church in their own lands. In 1073, however, the zealous reformer Hildebrand was elected to the papal throne. One of the first actions of Pope Gregory VII, as he was now called, was to attack what he regarded as abuses in the Church or limitations on his papal authority. The two main abuses were clerical marriage, a perennial issue, and simony, which literally meant the sale of ‘holy things’, but in this context meant the sale and purchase of bishoprics, abbacies and other ecclesiastical offices. In attacking the latter abuse in particular, Gregory was following a policy set by his predecessors. His major new move, however, was to assert his power over and against the German king, Henry IV, particularly over the question of the right to appoint bishops. This dispute, with setbacks for Henry at Canossa and for Gregory in exile at the end of his life, set patterns for the twelfth century.

By Hildegard’s time these had changed very little, and from 1160 Frederick Barbarossa (King and now also Emperor of Germany) and Pope Alexander III became embroiled in a seventeen-year schism with little compromise on either side. Frederick three times appointed his own rival candidates to the papal throne, the so-called ‘antipopes’, and the imperial-papal wars dragged on. Hildegard, who supported the Pope, nevertheless aimed to preserve good relations with the Emperor, hence her concern to protect her abbey from attack by imperial troops. A number of oblique references to the current political situation survive in the correspondence, and some knowledge of events is necessary to detect them, particularly when they are couched in the apocalyptic imagery and other metaphors which Hildegard so loved to use. Her letters to Frederick, in particular, show an increasingly aggressive tone on her part as she sought to influence him towards reconciliation and an ending of the schism.


1. A repertoire of images

In Hildegard’s first securely datable piece of writing, the letter to Bernard of 1146, we have a case of a writer seeking reassurance for unpublished literary work that was already highly developed. It is a curious mixture of doubt and insecurity blended with a confident style. A similar effect is given in another early letter, her first to Pope Eugenius III, probably written shortly after the Synod of Trier. To explain her complex feelings, Hildegard made use of an image of a feather lifted up on the wind:

A strong king sat in his hall, high pillars before him covered in gold bands and adorned with pearls and precious stones. And the king chose to touch a tiny feather, so that it soared up marvellously, and a strong wind bore it up so that it did not fall.

The image derives partly from the courtly world of the German aristocracy to which Hildegard belonged and partly from the Bible and the monastic liturgy with which she had been familiar all her life. The same fable or parable occurs in the letter to Odo of Soissons, here with an exegesis of its symbolic meaning:

Listen now: a king sat on his throne, high pillars before him splendidly adorned and set on pediments of ivory. They showed the king’s vestments in great honour everywhere. Then the king chose to lift a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly just as the king himself wished. But a feather does not fly of its own accord; it is borne up by the air. So too I am not imbued with human doctrine or strong powers. Nor do I desire good bodily health. Rather, I depend entirely on God’s help.

Hildegard herself is the feather and she derives her support from the air that bears her up; in short, the air is the divine strength on which she draws and the breath of inspiration which she needs for all her ventures into the world of writing and teaching.

As the early writings and letters show, Hildegard had a repertoire of such images which she developed while writing Scivias and continued to employ to good effect in much of her correspondence. In the Scivias the feudal and courtly images of king and retainer, lord and servant, are particularly striking, often blended with material from biblical parables, as in this stern parable about the magic arts from Scivias I, 3, 23:

A lord, who had many servants under him, issued each of the servants with weapons and said, ‘Prove yourselves worthy and useful. Cast away from you all slackness and indolence.’ But when they were travelling with him on a journey, the servants saw a magician – a false illusionist – at the side of the road.

Deceived, some of them said, ‘Let us learn this man’s tricks!’ And they threw away the weapons they had with them and ran to him.

The others said to them, ‘What are you doing, following this illusionist and provoking our lord’s anger?’

And they replied, ‘How does it harm our lord?’

But their lord said to them, ‘You wicked servants! Why did you throw away the weapons I gave you? And why do you prefer to love vanity rather than serving me your lord, whose servants you are? Follow this magician if you will, since you do not want to work in my service, and see what good your folly will do you!’ And he rejected them.

The model provided by biblical parables is strongly influential in the following story, from Scivias I, 2, 32, in which Hildegard develops her motif of the ‘pearl’ as a symbol for humanity:

The same lord who lost his sheep but so gloriously restored it to its life, also owned a costly pearl. The same happened again: the pearl was lost, and it fell into the ugly dirt. But he did not leave it lying in the dirt. He lifted it out carefully, and he cleaned it of the mud into which it had fallen, like gold purified in the furnace. He restored it to its former beauty till it gleamed even brighter than before.

The probable sources of this story reveal something of Hildegard’s methods as a maker of new narratives. The basic message is the same as that of the parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12–14), but she draws on other New Testament passages such as the parable of the Costly Pearl for which a merchant sold everything he had (Matthew 13:45–6). There is perhaps also an echo of the command not to ‘cast your pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6), since if they lie in the mud they are useless. Taken together these echoes of Hildegard’s biblical reading blend into a new motif which she can add to the storehouse of her memory and bring out for use when appropriate.18

Images of animals also feature in the repertoire. In the letter to Bernard, Hildegard can picture her correspondent as strong, like an eagle staring at the sun, an idea taken ultimately from the medieval bestiary tradition. In another letter, to Pope Eugenius III, the emperor is a bear stooping to grasp a precious stone (i.e. the Church) in his paw, but frustrated at the last minute by the papal eagle that swoops down and snatches the stone away (6 in the present selection). In another mixed fable, in Scivias I, 3, 29, the foolhardy young goat that attacks the stag becomes linked with the sheep of various biblical stories:19

[The word of the Lord:] In your foolishness you want to grasp me with threats such as this: ‘If God wants me to be just and good, why does he not make me that way?’ You want to catch me like the presumptuous young goat that attacks the stag. He is caught and pinned down by the mighty antlers. If you try your foolhardy strength against me, you will be brought down in the court of justice by the precepts of my law like the horns of the stag. The horns are trumpets ringing in your ears, yet you do not heed them, but run after the wolf, thinking you have tamed him so that he will not hurt you. But the wolf swallows you up, saying: ‘This sheep has wandered from the path; it refused to follow its shepherd and ran after me. So I will keep it, because it chose me and deserted its shepherd.’ Human being! God is just, and therefore he has ordained all he has made, in heaven and earth, with justice and order.

Another chain of associated imagery develops the notion of ‘greenness’ into one of gardens, vineyards, fields and pastures. The origin of this idea is the greenness of paradise, which in Hildegard’s view (in Scivias I, 2, 38) is a vital force still connected to the earth, just as the soul is connected to the body:

Paradise is a pleasant place, flourishing in the fresh greenness of flowers and herbs and the delights of all spices, filled with exquisite perfumes, adorned for the joys of the blessed. It provides the dry earth with fortifying moisture and gives its vital force to the earth, just as the soul provides the body with its vital forces, for paradise is not darkened by any shadow of sinners.

An opposition is set up here in which moisture and greenness are associated with paradise, and dryness with the earth. Elsewhere, the same opposition is carried over from theological themes to ethical issues. An example is Scivias II, 5, 46 (16), where the theme of the green garden is further adapted. First, in a style reminiscent of the early medieval sermon in the tradition of Caesarius of Arles, the reader or listener is challenged to consider what makes a cultivated field fruitful. A man can sow a field, Hildegard writes, but it is divine power that sends ‘the moisture of fresh greenness and the warmth of sunlight’ which cause the crop to bear fruit. In the same way, she continues, a person can ‘sow a word’ in another’s ear, but only God can send irrigation and ‘bring forth the fruit of holiness’. Using this image then, and drawing ultimately on Gregory the Great’s notion in his Pastoral Care of teaching as ‘sowing words’ in the heart of the learner, Hildegard goes on to attack the frequent twelfth-century practice of dedicating young children to the monastic life against their will:

And how could you move the child consecrated in baptism and without his consent deliver him up by the worst of deceptions, forcing him to bear my yoke? And so he could be neither green nor dry, since he had not died to the world and did not live for the world either. Why did you push him so far that he could do neither one nor the other?

By all accounts, Hildegard undertook such a life willingly; her life was ‘green’ rather than ‘dry’. But she must have known of less successful cases, and she is concerned to advise parents carefully on their responsibilities in such matters.

On other issues, and in particular instances also, Hildegard reuses the imagery of greenness. Thus in a letter to the Bishop of Bamberg she will plead the cause of the nun Gertrud of Stahleck, comparing her to a vineyard which needs to be given the opportunity to flourish (18). Such concrete images, often expanded into short narratives or parables, can express so much more than bald statements of the facts. In adopting this style, often, as she says, under divine inspiration, Hildegard can involve her reader, engage the will and emotions, even provoke changes of action or lifestyle.

2. The visionary method

We cannot know for certain which part of the Scivias was read by Eugenius III at the Synod of Trier in 1147–8. Nevertheless, some indication is given by a letter of 1148–50 to a Paris master, Odo of Soissons, which shares a number of themes with the first and second visions of part two of the Scivias. These themes were discussed at the Synod of Paris in 1148, when Gilbert of Poitiers risked condemnation by Bernard of Clairvaux and others for his views on the nature of God. But whether or not Scivias II, 1 was read at Trier, its content makes interesting reading (3). With its sophisticated ideas and often startling imagery, the vision is characteristic of Hildegard’s working practices. Already by 1150, she was approaching her mature style and method.

The opening page of Scivias II, 1 is immediately striking for the colourful and mysterious images in the illustration accompanying the text in the Rupertsberg manuscript. The viewer of the picture sees a variety of forms; up above are concentric circles of blue, red and gold; in the middle, sun, stars and planets, birds, beasts and fish; to the right and below, figures human and divine. For the reader of the text, too, the opening words are equally mysterious. The author speaks of how she saw ‘a shining fire, unfathomable, inextinguishable, fully alive and existing full of life; with a flame the colour of the air, brightly burning in the gentle breeze’. This flame full of life is also active and eventful, for in the next instant the speaker sees the shining flame glow white. Evidently a moment of great expectancy and significance has arrived. The speaker then declares: ‘And suddenly a dark sphere of air appeared, huge in size, upon which the shining flame struck many blows, and at each blow a spark flew up so that soon the circle of air was brought to completion, and heaven and earth shone forth in the fullness of perfection.’ So the passage continues, in the style of a great and half-familiar myth. The reader feels there is a story to be understood with a depth and significance that only time and further study will reveal.

Here, then, is the essence of Hildegard’s ‘mystic vision’. This is a method: it is not simply a way of writing, but also a way of seeing. In origin, the story told above is the familiar account of the creation of ‘the heavens and the earth’, but its form and imagery are new in the twelfth century. It is akin to the idea that all the Sons of God danced for joy at the fashioning of the great artifice of the universe, and there are passages and paintings in Blake that are perhaps similar. From her own day of course we have the great allegorists such as Bernard Silvester with whom Hildegard might be compared. But Hildegard’s way of seeing is less learned and less literary than Bernard’s, her rough prose style more spontaneous than his polished and sophisticated Latin verse. Like Blake, she gives the impression that what appeared in her imagination is what she really saw.

This is the explicit claim she makes. As her opening words say, she is a human being with the ‘fragility’ of a woman, and ‘neither ablaze with the strength of strong lions nor learned in their exhalations’. In other words she has neither the energy nor the learning of the male scholar; she writes as she sees, and as her inspiration, ‘the voice from the living flame’, directs her:

Nevertheless you are touched by my light, which touches your inner being with fire like the burning sun. Shout and tell! And write down these my mysteries which you see and hear in the mystical vision! Do not be afraid, but tell the mysteries as you understand them in the spirit, as I speak them through you. May they be ashamed who should be showing righteousness to my people!

Hildegard is a prophet in the Old Testament tradition, touched by ‘fire like the burning sun’, rather like Ezekiel, or like Job and Hosea whom she quotes in the course of her vision. As a prophet, she has a social message for her contemporaries, which she spells out more fully in later sections of the Scivias, in her letters and sermons, and in her later writings. The message is urgent and demands to be told: it is the ‘way of justice’.

Despite the sense of a calling and the apparently unstudied prophetic style, there is in the subsequent passages a strong undercurrent of intellectual thought and meditated reading. As Hildegard goes on to reveal in the next few sections of the vision, her writing has a very definite philosophy of God, and a distinct anthropology which places this author firmly at the centre of a major contemporary debate. Her first concern is to explain to her audience the concept of divine omnipotence; here, in her own way, Hildegard is speaking as a philosopher and contributing to the debate begun by Gilbert of Poitiers on the nature of God’s unity, a debate in which she had taken an active part when requested by Odo of Soissons (for the correspondence, see 4 and 32). In Scivias she states that God ‘remains “unfathomable”, because he cannot be divided by any divisions, and he is without beginning or end, not to be comprehended by any glimmer of creaturely knowledge.’

In addition, and this should not be overlooked, Hildegard’s vision is not merely a philosophical view of the created world, it is also a theological statement; the rest of Scivias II, 1 goes on to explain the details of the initial vision in terms of the religious understanding of the day. Following a teaching tradition that goes back to St Augustine’s idea of the ‘catechism of the unlearned’, Hildegard in the one short piece covers creation, fall, the patriarchs and prophets, the defeat of the devil, redemption, Christ’s resurrection and appearances to his followers, and finally the adornments of the Church as the bride of Christ; in brief, she gives a survey of salvation history, all based on a step-by-step explication of the details of her vision. If this was the material that the Synod of Trier heard at their deliberations on Hildegard, it is little wonder that Eugenius and Bernard gave their approval for her to continue with her work.

3. Picturing the moral life

Written in 1158–63, the second volume of Hildegard’s great trilogy is The Book of Life’s Merits, which takes the visionary method of Scivias further, the emphasis falling now on the ethical and moral position of the human race within the divinely ordered universe. The book is divided into six parts (or chapters) describing six visions, each based on the symbolic figure of a divine Man standing on the earth and in the cosmos and looking in turn towards six different points of the compass. Each vision follows a set pattern: the Man is described, the events are narrated, then the vision as a whole is analysed into its components and explicated, first on a moral and then on an eschatological level.

In five of the six visions Hildegard deals with the struggle of the vices and virtues, as she does also in her Play of the Virtues. This theme goes back ultimately to the Late Roman Christian poet Prudentius, who wrote his ‘Struggle for the Soul’ or Psychomachia in about AD410. During the intervening centuries his depiction of seven virtues in single combat with seven vices received full and ample treatment in the works of many poets, artists and sculptors and became a rich field for further creative elaboration and embellishment. A similar psychomachia tradition – with eight opposing pairs of vices and virtues – goes back to the work of the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon writer Alcuin of York, who became the chief scholar and teacher at the school attached to the court of the emperor Charlemagne. Another treatise of this type, which certainly influenced Hildegard, is the Conflict of Vices and Virtues by Ambrosius Autpertus.20 The attraction of the personification allegory, as many commentators have shown, is that it provided a ready means for symbolizing – and at the same time showing – specific aspects of the mental, emotional and ethical life. Its popularity is seen in the later medieval Morality plays as well as its occasional use in other genres.21 Personification is still used to an extent in today’s psychotherapy, for instance in speaking of the Ego and the Id as separate entities within the human mind.

In Hildegard’s Book of Life’s Merits, the scheme begun by Prudentius is developed considerably, and turned into five sets of seven dramatic individual encounters between vices and virtues, each set being treated in a separate chapter of the book. Whereas in the traditional illustrations of the Psychomachia the allegorical personifications are shown as women, with little differentiation between the appearance of the vices and that of the virtues, in The Book of Life’s Meritsthe vices are depicted in graphic – and grotesque – visual terms (reminiscent of the work of the much later artist Hieronymus Bosch), while the corresponding virtues remain invisible, usually as a voice of strength and power (‘power’ being another translation of the word ‘virtus’). Perhaps because of this contrast between visual vice and invisible virtue, there are, in contrast to the first and second volumes of the trilogy, no illustrations to accompany the text itself. Hildegard takes care to point out that the monstrous features of the vices are their symbolic rather than actual appearance, and she emphasizes various moral lessons to be drawn from them, sometimes taking biblical passages to illustrate her points.

4. The voice of Love

The culmination of the trilogy, begun in 1163 ‘when the apostolic throne was still being oppressed by the Roman Emperor, Frederick’ and completed in a period of over ten years, is The Book of Divine Works (1173). In ten visions arranged in three parts, and centring on the statement ‘In the beginning was the Word’ from John’s Gospel, Hildegard explores once again the themes of trinity, creation, microcosm and macrocosm, time and history. Many long sections could be selected to illustrate the remarkable range of this book, which uses the visionary method of the Scivias often in an almost schematized allegorical mode, but then blends vision and explanation much more neatly into a unified whole. Thus the first vision begins with a picture of a composite winged figure, certainly human in form, and perhaps female:

And I saw as amid the airs of the South in the mystery of God a beautiful and marvellous image of a human figure; her face was of such beauty and brightness that I could more easily have stared at the sun. On her head she had a broad band of gold. And in that golden band above her head there appeared a second face, like an old man, whose chin and beard touched the top of the first head. Wings protruded from behind the neck of the figure on either side, and rising up clear of the golden band their tips met and joined overhead. On the right, above the sweep of the wing, was an image of an eagle’s head, and I saw it had eyes of fire in which there appeared the brilliance of angels as in a mirror. On the left, above the sweep of the wing, was the image of a human face, which shone like the brightness of the stars. These faces were turned towards the East.

Here, strangely fragmentary images and themes are juxtaposed: the figure of the human being, the head of the man, the wings, the form of the eagle and the bright human face. This is clearly an allegory in which the individual parts have significances separate from those of their role in the composition of the picture itself; in fact, all these individual parts are fully explained later in the exposition. Other features here are familiar from earlier parts of the trilogy: the geographically significant notion of the ‘airs of the South’, the theme of beauty and brightness, the motif of staring at the sun. The static features of this image take on life only when the female form actually begins to speak; only then do we realize the strength that lies behind Hildegard’s writing at this late stage in her career, for at once we hear the words of a dynamic, caring, personal figure:

The figure spoke: I am the supreme fire and energy. I have kindled all the sparks of the living, and I have breathed out no mortal things, for I judge them as they are. I have properly ordained the cosmos, flying about the circling circle with my wings, that is with my wisdom.

This is Love, the power that Boethius and after him Dante saw as holding, informing and quickening the whole of the cosmos. The figure is central to Hildegard’s thought and feeling, a peculiarly nurturing figure, with distinctly feminine features, the subject of one of Hildegard’s justly famous songs, O virtus sapientie:

Power of Wisdom,

circling all things,

comprehending all things,

on one path, which has life.

Three wings:

one soars in the height,

one exudes from the earth,

one soars everywhere.

Praise to you, as befits you, Wisdom.

In contrast to the song, the figure of Love speaks here in a voice which evokes all the forces of creation through which she moves:

I am the fiery life of divine substance, I blaze above the beauty of the fields, I shine in the waters, I burn in sun, moon, and stars. And I awaken all to life with every wind of the air, as with invisible life that sustains everything. For the air lives in greenness and fecundity. The waters flow as though they are alive. The sun also lives in its own light, and when the moon has waned it is rekindled by the light of the sun and thus lives again; and the stars shine out in their own light as though they are alive.

As the voice continues, the mystery of the divine power which Hildegard had treated twenty years before in Scivias takes on a renewed freshness and strength:

Thus I am concealed in things as fiery energy. They are ablaze through me, like the breath that ceaselessly enlivens the human being, or like the wind-tossed flame in a fire. All these things live in their essence, and there is no death in them, for I am life. I also am rationality, who holds the breath of the resonant word by which the whole of creation was created; and I have breathed life into everything, so that nothing by its nature may be mortal, for I am life.

Here is a Neoplatonic vision of the Godhead as a living energy and a resonant word, a logos, as in medieval interpretations of the Gospel of John, that is directed and nourished by the root of reason:

And I am life: not the life struck from stone, or blossoming from branches, or rooted in a man’s fertility, but life in its fullness, for all living things have their roots in me. Reason is the root, through which the resonant word flourishes.

5. Hildegard’s music

As early as 1148, in Odo of Soisson’s letter, we learn of Hildegard’s activities as a composer. Odo writes: ‘They say that you are taken up in the heavenly places and see many things which you bring out in your writing; also, that you bring forth the melodies of a new song although you have not studied any of these things.’ As with her literary work, so with her musical, it is stated quite clearly here by an acquaintance of Hildegard that she was accomplished as a musician although she had not studied music. The same claim is made in the autobiographical section of the Life of Hildegard: ‘also I composed and sang songs with melodies in praise of God and the saints, again without any human instruction, although I had never learnt neums or singing.’ Hildegard had not studied musical notation – the neums which indicate changes of pitch in medieval manuscripts – but it seems unlikely that a nun who took part every day in the offices of the liturgy had not learnt any kind of singing; presumably she means that she had not undertaken formal musical study.

The content of her music seems to confirm this. Hildegard’s musical technique departs so radically from the norms of Gregorian plainchant that it suggests her claim is true: that she really had not undergone any study of the traditional forms. Instead, under the guidance of her inspiration, she was striking out on her own. As Odo says, this is truly ‘a new song’; her melody often ranges over two octaves, frequently leaping suddenly from a low note to a high, varying its short phrases and motifs, and lingering on one syllable as it ascends and descends. Rooted as they are in the patterns of liturgical practices, her musical compositions nevertheless contain a surprising spontaneity and exuberance. Almost without exception, she chooses an appropriate scale or mode (E- and D-modes are favourites), appropriate, that is, to the theme of the text, and the uses of melisma on certain words can also underline the meaning, for instance on the word ‘sonante’ (‘sounding forth’) at the end of the song Cum processit:22

O laudabilis Maria,

celo rutilante

et in laudibus sonante.

The significance of the word and its relevance to the theme of the song is best seen in the context of the whole piece:

When creation came forth from the finger of God

fashioned in God’s image

created of mixed blood

along the exile-path of Adam’s fall:

then the elements received

the joys of life.

O Mary, worthy of praise.

As heavens shine red

they sound forth your praise.

In this antiphon, or song composed to be sung by two choirs during the alternate chanting of verses of the psalms in the liturgy, a number of the characteristic themes of Hildegard’s religious thought arise and blend. First there is the creation in the image of God, then the fall and exile of Adam, but at the same time the notion that the four elements out of which all matter is made somehow participate in the joys of life and the praise of the Virigin Mary. The final word of the Latin text, ‘sonante’, rhyming as it does with ‘rutilante’ (‘reddening’), seems to summarize these ideas. Accordingly, in performances of this antiphon, the word is drawn out in the melody for a relatively long period of time, particularly on the last syllable. In this way, the idea of ‘the sacred sound through which all creation resounds’ (of which Hildegard wrote to St Bernard) is embodied here in the external form of both the text and the music itself.

Altogether Hildegard wrote 77 songs, of which there are 43 antiphons, 18 responsories (i.e. songs which ‘respond’ to the readings in the church service), six sequences (longer pieces inserted into the liturgy of the mass), four hymns, three hymn-like songs, one kyrie, one alleluia, and one opera. The latter piece, known by its title Ordo virtutum (‘Play of the Virtues’), is unique for its time in being a kind of sung Morality play on the theme of the Soul as she is aided by the Virtues to return to the Church – despite the machinations of the devil, a character who cannot sing, but only make noise. The songs were collected together in 1158 in her work the Symphonia harmoniae caelestium revelationum(‘Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations’), a title which is programmatic, and characteristic of Hildegard’s views on music.

The first version of The Play of the Virtues was complete by 1151 and included as part of the final vision of the book Scivias. Here Hildegard summarized its theme (Scivias III, 13):

Then I saw a bright layer of air in which I heard wonderfully diverse types of music within the aforementioned symbols: songs of praise for the joys of the citizens of heaven who persevere steadfastly on the way of truth, songs of lament for those who had to be called back to the praise of such joys, and songs of exhortation for the Virtues who urge each other to secure the salvation of the people struggling against the wiles of the devil. But the Virtues compel the faithful people finally to pass from their sins through penance to the heavenly heights.

The criticism in the letter written in 1148–50 by Tengswich, abbess and teacher of a community of canons at Andernach, that Hildegard’s nuns wore costumes, including a kind of crown or tiara, is a possible allusion to a performance of the play. The descriptions of the garments of the blessed souls in The Book of Life’s Merits may also have influenced Hildegard’s conception of the play, along with her belief that consecrated nuns were in some way closer to the paradisal state, and therefore entitled to celebrate this in their style of dress. An additional possibility is that Hildegard intended her liturgical drama to be sung for the first time at the founding of the separate abbey at the Rupertsberg in 1150 or 1151. Finally, given its theme of the female soul recovering her place in the community of the Virtues, the play may also have served as an initiation ceremony for new nuns.

The notion of ‘wonderfully diverse types of music’ in the quotation above illustrates very well Hildegard’s aims and purposes in making music to supplement the liturgy. As we saw in the sketch of her life, any disruption to that process could hardly even be contemplated. During the row over the interdict in 1179, it is Hildegard’s correspondence with the Mainz prelates that provides further clues to her wide-ranging thought on the issue of music. For Hildegard, the human soul is ‘symphonic’; music is part of the profound nature of the spirit, by which a human being can recall the heavenly harmony and ‘divine sweetness and praise by which with the angels, Adam was made jubilant in God before he fell’. And just as David called for every man and woman to praise the Lord in the Psalms (the basis of the liturgy, it should be remembered), so also the prophets of the Old Testament composed different types of songs and made different kinds of musical instruments. The forms and qualities of the instruments themselves, Hildegard asserts, can nurture the listeners as much as the meanings of the words. One remarkable passage in this letter reads like a meditation on the opening ideas of the song Cum processit (with which it should be compared – see above):

Eager and wise men imitated the holy prophets, inventing human kinds of harmonized melody by their art, so that they could sing in the delight of their soul; and they adapted their singing to [the notation indicated by] the bending of the finger-joints, as it were recalling that Adam was formed by the finger of God, which is the Holy Spirit, and that in Adam’s voice before he fell there was the sound of every harmony and the sweetness of the whole art of music. And if Adam had remained in that condition in which he was formed, human frailty could never endure the power and resonance of that voice.23

6. The critical reception and history of Hildegard’s writings

Although the theological trilogy and the Symphonia are now generally considered to be the crowning achievements of Hildegard’s career, the history of the reception of Hildegard’s works tells a different story. Gradually, throughout the thirteenth century, Hildegard became known as a prophetic writer, and other aspects of her writing came to be neglected. The beginnings of this process can be seen in her own lifetime in the requests for prophetic advice she received, many of which survive among the extant correspondence. The quotation from John of Salisbury given above is another indicator of the awe felt at the time, even by a humanist intellectual, for a man or woman with such a reputation. The text of the canonization protocol of 1233, which reports on interviews with witnesses who had known Hildegard in her lifetime, also suggests a strong general interest in prophecy, but it is the wide dissemination of another text which promoted such an interest. In about 1220, Gebeno of Eberbach completed his Five Ages, or Mirror of Future Times (often referred to by the title Pentachronon), in which he excerpted numerous long passages from Hildegard, his main criterion for selection being their prophetic nature. An example is Hildegard’s consolatory letter to King Conrad, in which all trace of the recipient’s name and rank, and the purpose of the letter, are excised. In general, Gebeno chose apocalyptic passages from the trilogy, or dire warnings from Hildegard’s sermons and letters; suitably adapted, these extracts became the staple Hildegardian material for readers in the next two centuries. Thereafter, Hildegard remained little read until the late nineteenth century, although she was honoured in various churches as a saint, particularly in the Rhineland.

To indicate the popularity of Gebeno’s work, it should be pointed out that while ten manuscripts survive for the Scivias, and four for The Book of Divine Works (this figure indicating that Scivias was by far the most widely known of Hildegard’s theological works in her own lifetime), in the case of the Pentachronon, over a hundred manuscripts exist. As recent research has shown, it was in this form that Hildegard’s writings reached the late medieval world, perhaps used for instance by William Langland, author of the Middle English poem Piers Plowman,24 which challenged the clerical and political abuses of its day. Today tastes have changed, and Gebeno is unknown; there is still no printed version of the Pentachronon, which awaits a critical edition.25

A minor revival of interest in twelfth-century spirituality came with the new humanism of the fifteenth century,26 a key figure in Germany being Johannes Trithemius (1462–1516), the Abbot of Sponheim (the home town of Jutta, Hildegard’s guardian and abbess). With a strong local historical interest and a desire for monastic reform, Trithemius mentions Hildegard in his Chronicle of Hirsau and Chronicle of Sponheim,27 but he was also a student of arcane knowledge and magic,28 and this perhaps explains his interest. In France, a similar humanist with an interest in mysticism was the Frenchman Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples, author of On Natural Magic (1493) and the first to publish a printed edition of Hildegard’s Scivias in 1513.

7. The appeal of Hildegard

In the course of time, the ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’ became a prophet, then a local saint of the Rhineland, and eventually a figure known elsewhere only in the recondite works of medievalists and cultural historians. But all this has changed. In the present day, she is well known primarily in two areas: firstly as a composer of music, of songs which as we have seen stand out from the regular Gregorian plainchant of the twelfth century; secondly, above all in present-day Germany, she has become an inspirational figurehead for proponents of herbal medicine and alternative therapies. These two areas of interest are very different: in the former Hildegard now belongs to the canon of musical history (though she has gained a wide and by no means exclusively musicological audience); in the latter area she remains a popular, as opposed to an academic, figure.

To a lesser extent also, Hildegard is known and admired today for her life story, for the biography of a woman who in an apparently misogynist period was able to assert herself as an influential and popular author. In Hildegard’s biography, in her letters and prefaces, a colourful personality is seen and heard writing, teaching and even preaching to her contemporaries. Undoubtedly she is a warm character, despite her forbidding prophetic persona; she is at once convinced and convincing, self-effacing and yet a powerful voice for reform.

It is this voice that is also heard in her writings. Here Hildegard emerges as a dynamic force with a prophetic message to proclaim which was admired and listened to by her contemporaries and immediate successors, as we have seen. In this respect, the Abbess of Rupertsberg is clearly a typical figure of her day who is gifted with the ability to express all the fears and the concerns, not to mention the pathologies, of the turbulent twelfth century. She does, however, have other voices, and it is these which seem to strike a chord with present-day readers.

As a religious thinker Hildegard is increasingly gaining in prestige. Orthodox in her beliefs, she offers a freshness in her theology and an expression of a spirituality which many today find attractive. Part of this attraction must lie in a distinctly feminine aspect to her thinking, an anthropology which places both man and woman as mutually dependent, and both equally reflecting the image of God. Her ideas too are linked to an ecology in which the human being is a part of nature, a microcosm of the wider workings of the universe. Part of her appeal must lie in her narrative gift, her ability to illustrate the concepts of religion, the mind and society with stories and mini-narratives that are still able to move or affect the present-day reader. When Love speaks with words such as ‘I am the fiery life of divine substance, I blaze above the beauty of the fields, I shine in the waters, I burn in sun, moon, and stars’, these have power to excite the interest of today’s readers and sustain their interest. No doubt postmodern readers could find equally striking ideas in the work of Hildegard’s contemporaries, such as Bernard Silvester, or even in the very different writings of a man like Hugh of St Victor. But Hugh remains known only to historians and philosophers, while Hildegard the woman, Hildegard the musician and Hildegard the the image-maker – all aspects of this one author – have captured our attention.

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