I have freed my soul.
—BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX
IN THE FIRST DECADE OF THE twelfth century, a little girl from the Rhineland town of Bermersheim, near Mainz, was offered by her parents as a sacrifice to God. Her name was Hildegard; her parents were Hildebert and Mechthild, a pious knight and his pious, well-born wife. Hildegard was eight years old when she was left for life with an anchorite named Jutta von Sponheim, who lived alone in a cell attached to the abbey church of Saint Disibod. (Disibod was a whimsical Irish monk-bishop of the seventh century who, disappointed at the lack of response to his preaching by his own countrymen, traveled to the Rhineland, became a protégé of the English Saint Boniface, evangelist to the Germans, and founded Disibodenberg, where he seems to have been rather more successful than he’d been in his native land.) Not only does Hildegard’s story embody many of the cultural currents that reached their ebb in her time or soon after; this outwardly obedient daughter, her childhood cut so cruelly short, was destined to become one of the most important women of her age.
Using a living child as a religious oblation was no Christian invention. Greeks and Romans had ancient traditions of chaste priestesses and Vestal Virgins; and in the oldest records of both pagans and Jews we find evidence of “set-asides,” human offerings devoted to a divinity. In the earliest archeological records, these offerings are literal human sacrifices, such as the bog burials of Scandinavia. Jewish tradition yields such offerings in surprising numbers, starting with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son and continuing through Joshua’s command to his troops to “devote” the people of Canaan to God under “the curse of destruction”—that is, to execute them. In later times, prisoners of war were no longer slain outright, but firstborn males still had to be “consecrated to the Lord” and then “redeemed” by an animal sacrifice that was substituted for them, as happens to the newborn Jesus in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel. There is even a further echo of Jewish tradition in the offering of Hildebert and Mechthild, for Hildegard was their tenth child—and a tenth of one’s wealth, the tithe of the Hebrews, was consecrated to God.
But none of these grand historical precedents would have impressed an eight-year-old, who must have spent many a lonely, creepy night tucked away in Jutta’s sparsely appointed little hut. Anchorites are no longer an everyday occurrence—I have met only one in my life, and she was nutty as a fruitcake—but in the twelfth century they could be encountered in the neighborhood of many a monastery and even within the close of an urban cathedral. The word anchorite derives from a Greek verb meaning “to withdraw”; and we may best think of them as hermits who lived not in obscure caves but in association with a religious community. Your typical anchorite, though not necessarily a formal member of such a community, was nonetheless part and parcel of its sacred landscape, so much so that she (or he) would normally reside in a small room built into the wall of an abbey church or cathedral, a room with a view, so to speak—a slit or screened window that allowed the anchorite to attend church services but not so large as to make her visible to the merely curious.
The liturgy for the consecration of an anchorite was actually a funeral liturgy, for it was deemed that she was dying to the world and to herself. She was spoken of as already dead and with God in Heaven. Her cell was called frankly her “burial chamber,” and, dressed in her shroud, she was directed to sing a verse from Psalm 132: “This is my resting place forever, here shall I dwell for I have chosen it.” The ceremony, attended gregariously by family, friends, and monastic benefactors, must strike us as a ghoulish sort of celebration, often ending with the ritual interment of the anchorite in her cell, from which it was expected that she would never again emerge. Brick was cemented on brick till the doorway to the cell was blocked and only the slit was left, enough for food and other necessities to be passed to her. If the ceremony did not conclude with an immuring, it concluded with a permanently locked door. But because this period is characterized by such variation in custom from one locality to another, we cannot be certain what was done in Hildegard’s case, nor whether the growing girl was permanently locked away in the customary single room. We do possess one odd detail that may bespeak a certain mitigation: at least one servant was locked in along with the anchorites. Jutta and Hildegard were, after all, noblewomen and so could not be expected to manage even their much-reduced needs by themselves.
The idea was to serve God by permanent prayerful retreat from the world. However bizarre this may sound to modern ears, we probably all know a few people whose apartness (or even madness) might be better served if such a socially approved role were still available. Though often represented as a period of repression, heavy with superstition, the Middle Ages offered—at least in religious roles—more options than are now allowed. I doubt that a frail suppliant, plainly dressed and with a distracted air, approaching a bishop today to say that God had instructed her to build a cell into the wall of his cathedral and to carve in that wall a small window from which she could hear mass, as well as the canonical hours, would receive a warm response. But in the Middle Ages such social oddities were welcomed and assigned a place of honor. While the rest of us went about our worried lives, they prayed for us continually, speaking always to God on our behalf.
The masters of the Middle Ages had, of course, another, less public motive for honoring anchorites. The batlike monks of the Prologue who terrorized the citizens of Alexandria might have been politically useful to the patriarch, but as time went on such mobs, vociferous, usually illiterate, became a religious plague. They could not be appeased by compromise; they were rabble-rousing extremists, unswervingly certain of their rectitude. Their implacable attitudes gave bishops, as well as other public men in charge of social order, terrible headaches. How were they to be quieted? By being brought under the bishop’s control, by being made subject to his rules and approval.
Every monkish mob was incited by a leader, often a desert hermit cherished for his holy ability to live apart from society, eating locusts, whipping his body, gifted with extravagant visions. The word monk derives, in fact, from the Greek word monos, meaning “alone, lonely, solitary.” In the rudimentary beginnings of monastic life, all monks were hermits, and only gradually did they unite in loose association with one another. Bishops began to invite the most influential solitaries to take up more conventional habitats, closer to human society and more readily subject to episcopal pressure. Monks and nuns, monachi and monachae, were made to write constitutions by which their communities were to be governed. In time, such constitutions came to be submitted to a bishop for his approval.
In the West, Saint Benedict, Italian founder of the Benedictines, became in the early sixth century the great constitutionalist, his Rule the standard by which all subsequent monasticism was judged. The monk’s life was utterly subject to his dictum Ora et labora(Pray and work). No rabble-rousing, please. Let anarchy be not so much as mentioned among us. In time, obedience, tranquility, and constructive employment—building, farming, herbal medicine, relief for the poor, succor for the sick, hospitality to wayfarers, manuscript copying, and (in the case of a gifted few) original writing—not vision, came to rule the Christian West. The Benedictines, in addition to vows of obedience, chastity, and community of goods, took a vow of stability, which meant they could not leave the monastery grounds without their abbot’s permission. Even prayer was measured out at appointed hours. No moment of the monk’s day or night belonged exclusively to him. The bishops, who—thanks to the barbarians—had quite enough on their plates, required such a church, where everyone, even a visionary hermit, could be counted on to play an assigned role and to stay within prescribed limits.
No one had done so much to spread the fame of Saint Benedict as Gregory the Great, who was himself a Benedictine monk and had written Benedict’s Life. By Hildegard’s day, even an abbey like Disibodenberg, originally a foundation of Celtic spontaneity, had submitted to the Rule of Saint Benedict. In the abbey church, the monks sang the canonical hoursa—as did all Benedictines from Britain to Bohemia—and from a lancet opening in the choir wall a single female voice united with theirs in chant. One day, a pure child’s voice joined in, inflecting the Latin words precisely, ascending gloriously and certainly to the subtle rhythm of the music. In their choir stalls the monks shivered with emotion: it was the voice of the child anchorite, the noble Hildegard.
We know little of what went on in Jutta’s cell, but we know the results. Under the older woman’s tutelage, the child learned to read the Book of Psalms in Latin and to sing the psalms of the monastic hours, the church’s Divine Office, while accompanying herself on the expressive ten-string psaltery, a sort of dulcimer plucked by hand. Throughout her life Hildegard’s Latin remained odd, at moments an almost private language. But her grasp of the principles of musicology was remarkable, eventually impelling her to compose her own chants, unusual in sound and singular in subject matter.
Beyond the Book of Psalms, Hildegard’s adult writings—a substantial survival—show evidence of reading so wide as to rival and even surpass that of the most accomplished scholars of her time. She makes reference to the other books of the Bible, especially the Prophets, to the usual biblical commentaries, to liturgical texts, to the Benedictine Rule, and to the Western fathers—Jerome, Augustine, Gregory, and Bede. Her Plotinian Platonism probably came to her by way of the ninth-century Irish philosopher John Scotus Eriugena, whose sermons and ruminations were standard texts, and she seems to have read reforming contemporaries, such as Hugh of Saint Victor and Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as earlier Christian classics, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and Adso’sOn the Antichrist. Some have speculated that there are hints in her writings of such Carolingianb authors as Isidore of Seville, Rabanus Maurus, Paschasius Radbertus, and Notker of Saint Gall; and there are strong suggestions that she had access to Greek (and perhaps to Arabic) medical works and even to arcane rabbinical treatises. This, for an age in which books were scarce and precious, is an astounding catalogue, a library available to few men and to (so far as we can tell) no other woman. The library must have belonged not to Jutta, who could hardly have accommodated it in her hut, but to the liberally lending monks of Disibodenberg. What went on in Jutta’s cell was a lifetime reading program.
But what of the eight-year-old who was made to live in such unnatural confinement and who survived the rigorous reading program—and even flourished because of it? Does anything of her—anything personal, peculiar, intimate—remain in the historical record? To answer these questions we must step back a bit and consider more widely the currents of twelfth-century life, not nearly as open as ours to personal preference and psychological insight.
Life spans had not increased since the classical centuries; indeed, they had dipped dramatically during the terrifying uncertainties of the barbarian influx and were only now—in the new economic and cultural stability of twelfth-century Europe—beginning to approach the best Greco-Roman levels. An eight-year-old, even a child of privilege such as Hildegard, was not as young in the eyes of her parents as she would be in ours. At the same age, her lesser-born male contemporaries were preparing for apprenticeships in the homes of strangers—millers, bakers, chandlers, glaziers, fullers, coopers, wainwrights, and such—and many of her female contemporaries, already betrothed, were beginning to contemplate their coming roles as matrons of households. Hildegard was thought quite old enough to make a lifetime commitment.
But should we assume that Hildebert and Mechthild forced their daughter into an anchorite’s life? In Scivias, the book by which she is best known, Hildegard would counsel parents on the utter necessity of obtaining their child’s consent before offering him as anoblation. “If you offer a child to Me,” says the voice of Jesus,
and that offering is against his will because you have not sought his consent to it, you have not acted rightly; you have offered a ram. How? If someone offers a ram at My altar without binding its horns strongly with ropes, the ram will certainly run away. So also if a father or mother offer their child, who is the ram, to My service, but do not honor his will, which is his horns, by assiduous care or supplication or entreaty or diligent exhortation, which are the ropes that bind him, since by all these the child should be brought to consent in good will; not having been proved by these tests, he will certainly run away, physically or mentally, unless God guards him by miracle.
And if you, O human, confine that child with such great strictness of bodily discipline that he cannot free himself from the pressure of his will’s repugnance, he will come before Me [at the Last Judgment] arid and fruitless in body and soul because of the captivity unjustly inflicted on him without his consent. Then I will say to you, O human who has bound him:
I had a green field in My power. Did I give it to you, O human, that you might make it put forth whatever fruit you wished? And if you sow sand in it, can you make it grow into fruit? No. For you do not give the dew, or send forth the rain, or confer fresh moisture, or draw warmth out of the burning sun, all of which are necessary to produce good fruit. So too, you can sow a word in human ears, but into his heart, which is My field, you cannot pour the dew of compunction, or the rain of tears, or the moisture of devotion, or the warmth of the Holy Spirit, through all of which the fruit of holiness must grow.
And how did you dare so rashly to touch one dedicated and sanctified to Me in baptism, that without his will you handed him over to bear My yoke in strict captivity; so that he became neither dry nor green, not dying to the world or living in the world? Why have you so oppressed him that he can do neither? If I comfort him by miracle so that he may remain in the spiritual life, that is not for humans to look into; for I want his parents not to sin in his oblation, offering him to Me without his will.
This sometimes awkward-sounding translation (by Columba Hart) is no more awkward than the Latin original, preserving in English the taut, convoluted quirkiness of Hildegard’s characteristic voice. In this passage, as in all of Hildegard’s writings, one runs smack into the dense symbology of medieval imagination. Greek logical discourse has disappeared, replaced by pictures meant to convey the writer’s meaning. These pictures are, however, as highly allegorical as the most rarefied passages of Philo the Jew: the ram is the child, the ropes his parents’ express wishes for him, his horns his will. The mode of perception is an outgrowth of the “logic” of the Christian sacramental system—in which the cleansing waters of baptism clean both materially and spiritually and the bread of the Eucharist feeds both body and soul. Each earthly element embodies and gives voice to a heavenly reality.
But was Hildegard a willing oblation? Or was she one of those who required a special miracle in order to remain in the cloister without bitterness? (She certainly did not run away like the ram of her example.) Since the passage is as close as Hildegard ever comes to personal revelation, we cannot be sure.c What is extraordinary here, however, is Hildegard’s unrelenting insistence on respecting the preference of a child—in a time when few people even entertained such a trivial consideration. There is a vein of sadness or even regret running through this passage that alerts us to something particular to Hildegard. “I had a green field” may be Jesus talking but it is also Hildegard. The plangency suggests either that Hildegard was forced into this life or that she has enormous sympathy for those who were. Or it may be that she recalls allowing her eight-year-old self to be too easily caught in the familial ties that bound her, caving in prematurely to her parents’ announced wishes for her—for this strange daughter, sickly and full of fancies, for whom an appropriate marriage might prove exceedingly difficult to arrange. From other passages and from surviving anecdotal evidence we know that Hildegard gloried in her cloistered virginity. But here a note is sounded and sustained that lets us know that in her secret mind and heart she also lived other possibilities.
She tells us repeatedly that she had been a sickly child, and often in letters written throughout her adult life she complains of pain, but there is scant description of symptoms. (Like not a few chronically ill persons, she managed to live a long life, surviving to the age of eighty-one, a remarkable feat for her time.) The famous neurologist Oliver Sacks has made a case for Hildegard as a victim of migraines, her visionary experiences symptoms of her pathology; others have posited epilepsy. But no theory can be accepted as conclusive because our evidence is so slight.
What we do know about Hildegard, however, is considerable. Others who wished to dedicate their lives to God attached themselves to Jutta, forming in time a lively and famously successful community of nuns who, like their brothers the Disibodenberg monks, committed themselves to the Benedictine Rule. In later, more knowing eras, monks and nuns inhabiting the same property would provoke scandal or satire. But to twelfth-century eyes, the nuns were all consecrated virgins, the monks, if not virginal, chaste—and no one (at least no one on record) thought anything more about it.
In her teens, Hildegard made her formal profession, a ceremony parallel to the Christian marriage ceremony, in which the candidate publicly committed herself for life to her monastic vows. By this point, with perhaps a dozen women and girls taking up residence at Disibodenberg, the anchorite’s severe cell had become the abbess’s attractive office, and its door must often have swung open to allow Jutta’s spiritual daughters to receive instruction and encouragement. In particular, several child-oblates, left by parents in imitation of what Hildegard’s parents had done, must have required significant attention.
In 1136, the year Hildegard turned thirty-eight, the old abbess breathed her last. Her nuns, in strictly democratic ballot, elected Hildegard as the obvious choice to succeed the foundress. In her new position, which gave her immediate regional importance and would soon bring her pan-European fame, the young abbess began a correspondence so wide-ranging as to become one of the most important sources of our information on the twelfth century. The collection—nearly four hundred of Hildegard’s letters, along with many of the letters of her correspondents—is a unique medieval survival. Given her duties as abbess and the demands made on her as a result of her growing reputation, Hildegard could never have accomplished such a feat without the help of a devoted secretary. In the monk Volmar, who had served earlier as librarian and tutor to the child Hildegard, she was blessed with the perfect assistant, hardworking, detail-oriented, self-effacing, intelligent, discerning, loyal as a dog, someone who could anticipate her needs before she articulated them—what every abbess needs.d
Near the middle of the century, Hildegard was inspired to leave Disibodenberg with Volmar and her nuns to establish a new foundation. Though it was true that her increasing fame had attracted more female postulants than Disibodenberg could appropriately house, not everyone was pleased. Kuno, the abbot of Disibodenberg, knew she had no right to leave without his blessing, which he steadfastly refused to bestow. After all, Hildegard and her nuns had attracted a steady stream of pilgrims; her departure would surely entail a drop in revenues. Quite a few of the nuns fought Hildegard’s plan tooth and nail: they did not look forward to taking leave of Disibodenberg’s comfortable cloisters or hazarding the sometimes perilous crossing of a great river and the subsequent rigors of homesteading in the desolate wilds of Bingen, whither their untried abbess meant to convey them. But Hildegard saw clearly the necessity of separating her nuns—financially and spiritually but also, most important, juridically—from the monks. In their new convent the sisters would be independent of male rule, and their abbess would no longer report to anyone. (Well, maybe technically she would still be under obedience to Kuno, but he would be so very far away.)
Hildegard’s plan was ridiculed by the local nobility, without whose patronage no monastic foundation could expect to succeed. Her favorite young nun, the beautiful Richardis von Stade—for whom Hildegard confessed she “bore a deep love”—took herself off to another convent to serve as its abbess, an embarrassment and lasting suffering to Hildegard. But her iron will to have things her way—or, rather, as the voice within her wished—showed itself nakedly for the first (but hardly for the last) time. She lay on her sickbed and would not rise, claiming a “charismatic illness” sent from God, till the irritated abbot found himself trumped by womanly wiles and at last gave in. Leaving their most obdurate sisters behind to live as shadowy handmaids to the monks, the nuns crossed the river and set about establishing themselves on the hill of Rupertsberg in the ruins of a Carolingian monastery, from which Hildegard’s abbatial church of Saint Rupert rose in record time—thanks in part to Hildegard’s family connections—to be consecrated in 1152.
In little more than a decade, a surfeit of new followers would force Hildegard to found a satellite convent on the pleasant, vine-covered hill of Eibingen overlooking the bustling riverside settlement of Bingen-on-Rhine. It is this convent, today the Abbey of Saint Hildegard of Bingen, that has survived and prospered, now as a women’s retreat house and healing center, where superhealthy cuisine, prepared to Hildegardian recipes, is served to visitors at strictly specified hours.e Rupertsberg was razed in the seventeenth century during the religious hatreds of the Thirty Years’ War; and Disibodenberg was long ago reduced to just another Celtic ruin.
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In her falling out with Richardis, Hildegard appears at her least likable. She refused to accept the reality of Richardis’s election to the abbacy of Bassum, which lay many miles north in the neighborhood of Bremen. As Richardis set off Bassumward to take up her new duties, Hildegard wasted no time in imploring male ecclesiastical authority to declare the election invalid. Though bishops had, by the twelfth century, managed to trim back the loopier, more lawless aspects of monasticism, it could hardly be said that they had achieved firm control over the communities of monks and nuns established within their bounds. A bishop could of course find a particular community abuzz with heresy and shut it down, but his power hardly extended to the monastery’s internal discipline—which was by ancient custom the monastery’s, not the bishop’s, business.
Relentless Hildegard pushed her losing suit through local episcopal courts, working her way through various levels of ecclesiastical machinery till her case reached the pope, who routinely returned the petition to the archbishop of Mainz for judgment. The archbishop ruled in Richardis’s favor and received in consequence a scorching letter from Hildegard. What Hildegard planned to do next no one knows, but she had no intention of giving up and was stopped only by the untimely death of Richardis (though it is nearly anachronistic to term any medieval death “untimely”). In her last moments, Richardis wept to be reunited with Hildegard and her old community. That, even Hildegard had to concede, was that.
In 1141, more than ten years before the erection of the Rupertsberg abbey, Hildegard had received at Disibodenberg a call that would shape the rest of her life and the lives of countless others, a call to “cry out and write” what she saw. From earliest childhood, she tells us, she saw things that others did not see: human and animal forms, sometimes those of angels or demons, enclosed within symbolic landcapes or within elaborate, if schematic, architectonics. All these figures—and in fact the whole of Hildegard’s constant vision—were bathed in uncanny light, a luminosity that she came to call “the reflection of the living Light.” At the same time, she seems to have had no difficulty separating these visions, which superimposed themselves on everyday scenes, from the ordinary realities that everyone else could see. For her, the visions were of the deeper truths within and beyond everyday experience.
(Photo Credit 1.2)
In childhood she had not immediately grasped that others did not see what she saw. At five, for instance, as she and her nursemaid observed a cow, she could see the fetus inside the cow’s belly and predicted—accurately, to the nurse’s subsequent astonishment—the color of the calf-to-be. She soon learned to keep her visions to herself, confiding them only to Jutta, who confided them to Volmar. She felt no impulse to share them further till she was called to do so in her early forties, when she’d already been abbess for six years. The form her revelations took was characteristic of Hildegard—not the sloppy, spontaneous babblings of the typical illiterate seer but a lengthy convoluted text, Scivias, composed by Hildegard with excruciating exactitude over ten years and copyedited with bulldog tenacity by Volmar, whose Latin was better than hers. It’s not so surprising that the result resembles at times a tightly wound cord.
Scivias is a medieval elision of Scito vias, which is itself an abbreviation of Scito vias Domini (Know the Ways of the Lord). The idea of papal infallibility would not gain currency for many centuries, but in Hildegard we already have a presumption of personal infallibility: she cannot be mistaken; she knows, she sees the ways of the Lord, for he has shown them to her, and she will expound them to us. To treat her ideas fairly and with any hope of completeness would take volumes, for after completing Scivias,Hildegard went on to write at least eight more books, none of them brief, on subjects as diverse as theology and science, medicine and music, pharmacology and biblical commentary. Besides these, we own a large collection of her poems and liturgical songs, a series of more than thirty illuminations (which may not have been painted by her but were surely made at her bidding), and her musical play, Ordo Virtutum (literally The Order of Virtues, but more appositely The Hierarchy of Courage), which could qualify as the West’s first opera. Once she started, there was no stopping her. All that can be done here is to point out a few of her main themes, especially as they relate to her life and times.
The Abbess Hildegard, inspired by fire from above, as her amanuensis Volmar waits attentively in the wings. From an illuminated manuscript overseen (and perhaps illustrated) by Hildegard. (Photo Credit 1.4)
Hildegard’s method of writing is certainly unusual. She gives us word-pictures, a long succession of tableau-like images, described in taut, sometimes prickly phrases, often accompanied (in the original manuscripts) by illustrative illuminations. The images are static and could almost be intended for a series of elaborate stained-glass windows, but in their visual complexity and dense symbolism they cry out for an artist of the prowess of a Hieronymus Bosch to give them life and movement. Here is the First Vision ofScivias:
I saw a great mountain the color of iron, and enthroned on it One of such great glory that it blinded my sight. On each side of him there extended a soft shadow, like a wing of wondrous breadth and length. Before him, at the foot of the mountain, stood an image full of eyes on all sides, in which, because of those eyes, I could discern no human form. In front of this image stood another, a child wearing a tunic of subdued color but white shoes, upon whose head such glory descended from the One enthroned upon that mountain that I could not look at its face. But from the One who sat enthroned upon that mountain many living sparks sprang forth, which flew very sweetly around the images. Also, I perceived in this mountain many little windows, in which appeared human heads, some of subdued colors and some white.
It is obvious that “the One” is God, but the further meanings of this tableau (and of all her subsequent visions) would be forever obscure did Hildegard not unlock them for us. The mountain, she tells us, “symbolizes the strength and stability of the eternal Kingdom of God.” The shadow-wings show “that both in admonition and in punishment ineffable justice displays sweet and gentle protection and perseveres in true equity.” The image full of eyes is Fear of the Lord, which “stands in God’s presence with humility and gazes on the Kingdom of God.” The child represents the Poor in Spirit who are always to be found in proximity to Fear of the Lord. The tunic of subdued color may be taken to indicate the figure’s poverty, the white shoes its admirable spiritual direction. The scenes in the windows embody the idea that in “the most high and profound and perspicuous knowledge of God the aims of human acts cannot be concealed or hidden”—God’s own Rear Window. Those in subdued colors are lukewarm Christians, those in white are pure. Hildegard concludes the First Vision by quoting from the Book of Proverbs—by Solomon, she says—on human acts: “The slothful hand has brought about poverty, but the hand of the industrious man prepares riches.”
Despite the contemporary celebrity of Hildegard, it must be admitted that there is not so very much here of either theological or spiritual sustenance. The visions run on, chapter by chapter, book by book, seldom offering anything more arresting than stultifying orthodoxy and, as in the Solomon reference, something not far distant from pious drivel. Without the intensely colorful illustrations—the supposedly “mystical mandalas” that have lured so many in our day—I doubt that Hildegard would ever have become the toast of spiritual seekers. But we must do a little spadework to search out the secret of her celebrity even in her own day.
Illustration of Hildegard’s First Vision in Scivias. (Photo Credit 1.5)
There is a clue at the very outset of her commentary on her First Vision:
And behold, He Who was enthroned upon that mountain cried out in a strong, loud voice saying, “O human, who are fragile dust of the earth and ashes of ashes! Cry out and speak of the origin of pure salvation until those people are instructed, who, though they see the inmost contents of the Scriptures, do not wish to tell them or preach them, because they are lukewarm and sluggish in serving God’s justice. Unlock for them the enclosure of mysteries that they, timid as they are, conceal in a hidden and fruitless field. Burst forth into a fountain of abundance and overflow with mystical knowledge, until they who now think you contemptible because of Eve’s transgression are stirred up by the flood of your irrigation.
It is only in passages like this, where Hildegard evidences her—or, rather, God’s—withering contempt for lukewarm and timid churchmen, however learned, and exalts her own female fecundity, that the reader is zapped into full wakefulness.
Between the time of Gregory the Great and that of Hildegard, the church had gone from apocalyptic terror to settled prosperity. The barbarians had morphed into knights and their ladies, monks and nuns, artisans and burghers. Europe had become Christian, its bishops no longer endangered but in charge. The temptation—at least among clergy—was not to despair, as might have been the case in Gregory’s day, but to laxity, self-indulgence, aggrandizement. The twelfth-century renaissance in thought and the arts was built on the new prosperity—and prosperity always brings new temptations in its wake. In the very first page of Scivias, Hildegard demonstrates that she is both numbingly orthodox and on the side of the reformers who want to toughen up their slack, temptation-prone church. She is also happy to admit the weakness of her sex (always a plus with self-adoring males who lack self-knowledge), even to glory in it; and at the same time she folds a frisson of suggestiveness into her rhetoric—all that abundance, overflow, and irrigation.
Man at the center of the cosmos with Hildegard as observer (in the lower left corner): a Hildegardian mandala. Leonardo da Vinci’s later nude figure, the so-called Vitruvian Man, his arms extended within a circle, is in the same tradition, but Hildegard’s figure, lacking visible genitals, is the nonsexist homo of her writings. (Photo Credit 1.6)
Throughout Hildegard’s writings, the good people are always bursting with viriditas—greenness or greening or springtime (“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”)—the bad people cracked and desertlike in their aridity. There can be no question that from childhood viriditas had poured from the forested ridges and clear waterways of the wild Rhineland, impressing itself on the sensorium of a lonely child. Her scientific works are replete with what can only be personal observations of local animals, fish, and plants. For the local rivers—the Glan, the Nahe, and the Rhine—she catalogues thirty-seven species of fish, giving us evidence that, if she didn’t do a lot of fishing herself, this nominally cloistered nun must have talked at length to an awful lot of fishermen.Viriditas, a Latin feminine noun, is in Hildegard’s fertile imagination especially associated with women, in particular with her virgin sisters. “The enclosure of mysteries” is Christian revelation, but it is also the cloister with its healing herb gardens and nourishing orchards, tended by flowering virgins, each of whom is in human form what the cloister is in architectural terms, an enclosed garden. “She is a garden enclosed, my sister, my promised bride; a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain,” sings the author of the Song of Songs, one of Hildegard’s favorite books of the Bible (also believed in her day to have been written by Solomon). Dryness, brittleness, inability to reproduce—these are qualities associated in Hildegard’s works with sinners in general but especially with the lax, unreformed churchmen of her day.
There is no reason to doubt Hildegard’s sincerity, her belief in her visions. But no human motives are unmixed, and it is not difficult to identify the many passages in which she so sides with the reform party as to call out for their recognition of her as a prominent ally. And recognition is what she got.
In 1147, prior to her move across the river, she sent her incomplete Scivias to Bernard of Clairvaux, a Frenchmanf of the Cistercians, a monastic order of strictly observant Benedictines who were spearheading ecclesiastical reform. He was the most famous religious figure of his day, and Hildegard was looking for confirmation. In her covering letter she abases herself in the approved manner (“Wretched, and indeed more than wretched in my womanly condition”) and hallows Bernard (“Steadfast and gentle father”); she even recounts her vision of Bernard as “a man looking into the sun, bold and unafraid.” Bernard was, in fact, one of the most aggressive players of his time, always on the hunt for heretics, allowing no quarter to anyone who disagreed with him, preacher of the disastrous Second Crusade. No admirer of women, he was famous for his bons mots: “It is more difficult to live with a woman without [moral] danger than to raise the dead to life.”
Bernard was also mentor to the current pope, Eugene III, who (as luck would have it) was himself in receipt of a copy of the incomplete Scivias. Kuno, abbot of Disibodenberg, had sent this copy to his own archbishop, Heinrich of Mainz, humbly begging Heinrich to judge its orthodoxy. Heinrich handed the work to Eugene, who was just then presiding over a synod at nearby Trier, the old Romano-Germanic hub, still graced with impressive Roman stoneworks as well as elegant new medieval buildings, bankrolled by the synod’s hosts, the increasingly prosperous merchants of Trier.
Eugene read out passages from the lionized local abbess’s work to the assembled bishops. (Theirs was an age for reading aloud to others, not alone in silence.) One can only imagine the supercilious expressions on the well-fed faces of the costumed hierophants—till a gaunt, starkly robed monk, Bernard, attending the synod as papal theologian, stepped forward meekly to one-up them all, explaining that he had already been sent his copy, had read it diligently, and approved of every word the woman wrote. Hildegard, approaching fifty, became instantly famous, receiving papal approbation as a genuinely orthodox but prophetic seer. Suddenly, no one could praise her highly enough, one attendee, Abbot Bertolf, writing her a breathless fan letter: “Indeed, you have far exceeded your sex by having surpassed with manly spirit that which we were afraid even to approach!”
Viriditas, or the abundance of nature, both cultivated and wild: a Hildegardian mandala. (Photo Credit 1.7)
Town houses of wealthy merchants in the main square of medieval Trier. (Photo Credit 1.8)
Hildegard was launched on a new career as preacher to the people of her time, the only woman allowed to break the supposedly absolute New Testament proscription, contained in the First Letter to Timothy, that “no woman [is] to teach or to have authority over a man.”g The exception made for Hildegard is evidence not only of her universal celebrity but of the quirky singularities of medieval life. It is seldom possible to say of the medievals that they always did one thing and never another; they were marvelously inconsistent. Not only does a woman preach; a cloistered nun, once offered to God as a solitary, travels from town to town—by boat, by horse, on foot, probably by litter—talking to everyone.
Fifteenth-century depiction of Bernard of Clairvaux with the Devil at his heels. By the Belgian artist Dirk Bouts. (Photo Credit 1.9)
In the last two decades of her life, she made sensational preaching tours of the Rhineland and beyond, wherever she went attracting overflow crowds to the unique spectacle of herself. Though the reports of her sermons are in Latin, we may guess that she spoke German to Germans, saving her halting Latin for Lorraine and similar French-speaking districts. She is full of scorn for heretics such as the Cathars, a Manichean sect that had gained purchase amid the newly literate populations of eastern France, western Germany, and northern Italy. The Cathars, like their successors the Albigensians, were purists who hated human bodies, the Christian sacramental system, and the entire material world. They were the twelfth-century manifestation of an antiphysical bias that resurfaces continually through Christian history. They would have made common cause with the Encratites; had they known of him, Plato would have been to their taste; and they would have adored Plotinus. They disapproved of marriage and normal sexualintercourse—though they were rumored to approve the anal variety, like their predecessors the Bogomils, who had hailed from Bulgaria (and thus were also called Bulgars or Buggers). For the apocalyptic, survivalist Cathars, both church and state were absolute evils to be shunned. In 1163, not long after Hildegard preached at Cologne, the local authorities rounded up their Cathar neighbors and burned them at the stake.
Hildegard is mindful that Heaven is the final goal of everyman and presses ordinary people to live a life that will make them welcome there. But above all she attacks the clergy for their enervated presentations of Christian truth and the scandal of their compromised lives. The sermon she delivered at Trier on Pentecost 1160 is typical. She begins by denigrating herself as “a poor little female figure”—“paupercula feminea forma” in the Latin report—lacking health, strength, courage, and learning. And yet she is the bearer of God’s words to the bishops and their clergy. Because these men have failed to “sound the trumpet of justice,” the four corners of the earth have grown dark and cold. We see no longer in the east the dawn of good works; in the south the warmth of virtue grows chill; in the west the twilight of mercy has given way to the blackness of midnight; and from the north Satan blows his noisy wind of pride, faithlessness, and indifference to God. In her day, the courage of “poor little” Hildegard’s attack would have been thrilling enough to make the hairs on a listener’s neck stand up.h
The bishops, she says, are sleeping, “while justice is abandoned. Thus did I hear this Voice from heaven saying: O Daughter of Sion [that is, the church], the crown will fall from your head, the far-flung mantle of your riches will be collapsed to a narrow confine, and you will be banished from place to place. Many cities and monasteries will be scattered by the powerful. And princes will say: Let us deprive them of the iniquity that turns the whole world upside down.”
What nerve this woman had. No wonder that in later times these sermons will be read as prophecies of the Reformation. But Hildegard is thinking of the twelfth, not the sixteenth, century; and we need go no further than her own time to find confirmation of her majestic references. As early as 1153, she had fired her first verbal missile at a pope, Anastasius IV, an octogenarian who lasted but a year and a half: “You, O Man, who are too tired … to rein in the pomposity of arrogance among those placed in your bosom … why do you put up with depraved people who are blinded by foolishness and who delight in harmful things, like a hen that cackles in the night and terrifies herself? Such people are completely useless.”
Her advice and her prayers were sought by the kings and queens of her day—the list of her correspondents in the last decades of her life reads like a roll of the royal houses of Europe—and to all she gave what succor she could, as well as frank counsel. No one, in the end, was beyond the reach of her criticism, not even the emperor himself. Early in his imperial reign, the young, vigorous, widely admired Frederick Barbarossa (or Redbeard) had sought an alliance with the nun, confirming her status and asking her sweetly what prophecies God might have for him. When he held court at Ingelheim, she came into his presence by his invitation, promising him privately that certain gifts from Heaven were to come his way—which, he wrote her subsequently, they had:
Frederick, by the grace of God Emperor of the Romans and always august, sends his grace and every good to the Lady Hildegard of Bingen.
We inform you, holy lady, that we have now in hand those things you predicted to us.…We will continue to strive with all our efforts for the honor of this our kingdom. Therefore, beloved lady, we sincerely beseech you, and the sisters entrusted to your care, to pour out your prayers to almighty God for us so that He may turn us to Himself as we labor on our earthly business and so that we may merit to obtain His grace.
Please be assured that with regard to that matter you directed to our attention we will be swayed by neither the friendship nor the hatred of any person, but we intend to judge with perfect equity.
We cannot guess what the secret “matter” may have been, but Hildegard was always one to seize an opening that might further her own pet projects. Her replies, in any case, were no less sweet, no less courtly than his, till Frederick interfered repeatedly in church elections, even backing antipopes (irregularly designated candidates who he knew would prove more malleable than the validly elected popes). At the appointment of a second antipope, Hildegard was moved to a withering reappraisal. “You juvenile fool,” she scolded the emperor. In 1168 Frederick, now well into his campaign to reunite Germany and lift his reduced Western Roman Empire to the kind of greatness it had achieved under Charlemagne, appointed a third antipope upon the death of the second. Hildegard’s (probably final) communication to the emperor was terse: “He-Who-Is says: ‘I destroy disobedience and the rebellion of those who scorn me. Woe, woe to the malice of evil men who turn from me! Hear this, O king, if you wish to live; otherwise, my sword shall run you through.’ ” The emperor, who could easily have silenced, even executed, the little nun for such impudence, wisely left her in peace.
Like other medieval monarchs, he would learn that interference with the church was not a strategy for long-term success. By 1176, he was defeated at the Battle of Legnano—the first time in history that infantry defeated cavalry, presaging an age in which plodding bourgeoisie would loom larger than swashbuckling nobility—and had to admit that he would never be able to reclaim the Lombard dominions of Charlemagne. The next year, two years before Hildegard’s death, he knelt and begged the valid pope’s forgiveness for his intrusions into papal politics—at a public ceremony in Venice.i Pope Alexander III graciously forgave. In 1190, a dozen years after Hildegard’s death, Frederick Barbarossa, long a romantic figure to his German subjects but now in his late sixties, drowned while crossing the River Saleph (in modern-day Turkey) as he led his knights to Jerusalem on the expiatory adventure of the Third Crusade.
Twelfth-century late Romanesque dom (or cathedral) of Trier, its foundations laid by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Hildegard preached here to capacity crowds. Next door (on the right) is a graceful early Gothic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. (Photo Credit 1.10)
Despite her continuing publicity, Hildegard remained in important ways a very private person—and an artist of markedly individual spirit in a time when individuality was just beginning to show its face again in society after centuries of banishment. Her music is chant, largely unaccompanied, as was most church music of her time, but quite possibly polyphonic (despite the fact that the manuscripts give us only the line of melody), since polyphony, appearing as early as the ninth century, had become the musical dessert of Hildegard’s day. But no one else was singing songs that sounded like what the nuns of Bingen were singing. The melody lines of Hildegard’s compositions alternate between moments of rigid control and those of floridly swooping excess, as the melody threatens to abandon pattern altogether and jump the tracks. The rhythms are as far from ti-dum, ti-dum as can be imagined, full of wild irregularity, yet coming together in an intelligible whole. The words, also by Hildegard, are one with her music, obedient to no known rules, loosely metrical but unbound, the Western world’s first free verse. As one follows her kaleidoscopic patterns, melting into chaos, melting into new patterns, one cannot but think of the abandoned sensuality of jazz. Her songs would have made sense to Bessie Smith. This was one loose sister; and nothing is more arresting than the bald passion of her subject matter:
O dulcissime amator, o dulcissime amplexator:
adiuva nos custodire virginitatem nostram.
Nos sumus orti in pulvere—
heu, heu, et in crimine Adam;
valde durum est contradicere
quod habet gustus Pomi;
tu erige nos, salvator Christe.
Nos desideramus ardenter te sequi.
O quam grave nobis miseris est
te immaculatum et innocentem
regem angelorum imitari.
Tamen confidimus in te—
quod desideres gemmam requirere in putredine.
Nunc advocamus te, sponsum et consolatorem,
qui nos redemisti in cruce.
In tuo sanguine copulate sumus tibi
cum desponsatione, repudiantes virum
et eligentes te, Filium Dei.
O pulcherrima forma,
o suavissimus odor residerabilium deliciarum,
semper suspiramus post te in lacrimabili exilio.
Quando te videamus
et tecum maneamus?
Nos sumus in mundo
et tu in mente nostra,
et amplectimur te in corde
quasi habeamus te presentem.
Tu fortissimus leo rupisti celum
descendens in aulam Virginis,
et destruxisti mortem
edificans vitam in aurea civitate.
Da nobis societatem cum illa
et permanere in te,
o dulcissime sponse,
qui abstraxisti nos de faucibus diaboli
primum parentem nostrum seducentis.
O sweetest lover, sweetest hugger,
help us keep our virginity.
We rise from dust—
alas, alas, from Adam’s guilt.
How very hard to hold out against
whatever tastes of the Apple;
thou, savior Christ, set us aright.
Ardently we long to follow thee.
O what a struggle it is for us, the wretched ones,
to imitate the king of angels,
Still, we trust in thee—
that thou wouldst find again the jewel in the filth.
Now do we call upon thee, spouse and comforter,
who redeemed us on the cross.
In thy blood we couple with thee
in betrothal, refusing a husband
and choosing thee, Son of God.
O most beautiful figure,
O sweetest smell of longed-for delights,
always do we sigh for thee in tearful exile.
When shall we see thee
and stay with thee?
We are in the world,
and thou in our mind,
and we hug thee to our heart
as thou wert here with us.
Thou, mightiest lion, tore open the sky,
descending to the Virgin’s vestibule,
and destroyed death,
building life in the Golden City.
Give us fellowship in that city
and rest with thee,
O sweetest spouse,
who dragged us from the jaws of the devil,
our ancient ancestor’s debaucher.
She’s a virgin but no prude, and she makes no attempt to mask or excuse the sex and violence that inhabit her. (“If I go to church on Sunday / Then just shimmy down on Monday / ’Taint nobody’s business if I do,” sings Bessie Smith in a not entirely dissimilar vein, big Bessie of the assertive, unafraid voice, who was orphaned early, mentored by the bisexual Ma Rainey, and worked so hard to achieve her fleeting fame.) Virginity is Hildegard’s torment, as she salivates over the lingering taste of the Apple that tempted Adam and Eve—which was seen by medievals as a sexual temptation. Like a debased creature from The Story of O, she is a jewel defiled by rottenness. Her only defense is the presence of Christ in her heart, a sensation she heightens by reminding herself of his arms around her and the very smell of him, as they couple in his blood. She sees her mighty lion-lover rending the sky itself to come “in aulam virginis” (to the Virgin’s vestibule), her empty entry space. This is the moment of Incarnation: just as the Word of God entered the Virgin Mary, he may enter Hildegard.
Her medical writing, as useless to us as the rest of medieval medicine, is notable for its uncompromising descriptions of human sexual organs and activities. Hildegard was a woman who made the best of the situation in which she found herself, a believer but a realist. She never doubted the reality of Christ, nor did she disguise the fierce strength of her own temptations. This is, after all, an age of unabashed public confession, not of shamed defensiveness, for the judgmental repressions of Calvinism will not infect Europe for many centuries.
As I see her, she is a small woman, wrinkled in old age—“Schrumpilgard” (Wrinklepus), she was called derisively by a demon who possessed a young woman named Sigewize. Only Schrumpilgard, screeched the demon, could bring the possession to an end, which she did. But she is a know-it-all, always right about everything. Her sisters could find her unendurable because of her “insufferable hammering way” and they would glower at her and, in her words, “tear me to pieces behind my back.”
The lonely child became a lonely grown-up, one still full of fantasies. She dressed her sisters like princesses for special feast days. As they processed into the abbey church, singing one of Hildegard’s remarkably personal compositions, they presented a sight seen nowhere else. Unlike other nuns, who sheared their hair and covered what was left, Hildegard’s virgins wore their hair long and unbound, scarcely concealed by the flowing silk veils, pure white—Hildegard’s favorite color—that trailed in their wake, attached to their heads by elaborate crowns as golden as the many rings that adorned their fingers and the bangles that clinked down their arms. When the superior of another congregation, one Tengswich, wrote to Hildegard, inquiring how she justified such practices—in a letter as full of catty innuendo as the dialogue from an episode of Desperate Housewives—Hildegard’s response was serene:
A woman, once married, ought not to indulge herself in prideful adornment of hair or person, nor ought she to lift herself up to vanity, wearing a crown and other golden ornaments, except at her husband’s pleasure, and even then with moderation. But these strictures do not apply to a virgin, for she stands in the unsullied purity of paradise, lovely and unwithering, and she always remains in the full vitality of the budding rod.
Take that, bitch. And as for Mistress Tengswich’s other objection to Hildegard’s m.o.—“that you admit into your community only those women from noble, well-established families”—the great abbess gave this unblushing reply:
God keeps a watchful eye on every person, so that a lower order will not gain ascendency over a higher one, as Satan and the first man did, who wanted to fly higher than they had been placed. And who would gather all his livestock into one barn—the cattle, the asses, the sheep, the kids? Thus it is clear that differentiation must be maintained in these matters, lest people of varying status, herded all together, be dispersed through the pride of their elevation, on the one hand, or the disgrace of their decline, on the other, and especially lest the nobility of their character be torn asunder when they slaughter one another out of hatred. Such destruction naturally results when the higher order falls upon the lower, and the lower rises above the higher. For God establishes ranks on earth, just as in heaven with angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, cherubim, and seraphim. And they are all loved by God, although they are not equal in rank.
In the twelfth century, virginity had its pleasures. So did noble birth. Without both these ancient social institutions, we would never have heard of Hildegard. Thank God her parents didn’t marry her off and keep her mute for the ages.
In our Age of the Common Man, nobility has fled the field, which makes it difficult for us to come to terms with the temper of an age in which class structures were taken for granted and everyone was duly expected to fulfill his or her divinely assigned role, an age in which shoemakers remained forever shoemakers, and duchesses duchesses and fishwives fishwives, and no one entertained even a whisper of hope for an improvement in status. The disadvantages of such a society are so evident to us that its contentments may remain hidden from view. We fail to acknowledge, on the one hand, how full of anxiety our own society is, how its lack of assigned roles leaves so many individuals woefully isolated, permanently nervous about the random fluctuations of their fortunes. If, on the other hand, one could say, “I am the shoemaker of Trier, as was my father before me, as will be my son after me; I am an integral part of my community, even necessary to it; my neighbors respect me and depend on my skill,” one could own an abiding peace that eludes all but a very few children of the twenty-first century.
Even more confounding to us Sex and the City devotees is the honor awarded virginity within the medieval world. Why did they privilege a life without sex? What on earth were they thinking? What were they feeling?
Each society makes assumptions that it regards as effectively axiomatic—as so obvious that no explanatory defense is needed. In the world in which I came to adulthood, the value of unending progress was just such an unassailable assumption. Each generation was an improvement on the one before, each new invention a leap forward in the betterment of human life; and sinking backwards was unthinkable. It is possible that the vast majority still hold similar assumptions, even though the limitations of the globe itself—a round, finite sphere with strictly finite resources—are becoming all too obvious; nor will struggles between haves and have-nots be put off forever.
In the medieval world, the value of virginity was an unassailable assumption; or, more precisely, the unassailable assumption was the centrality of Jesus Christ who, because he took flesh in the womb of a virgin and remained himself virginal through the course of his brief life, had sanctified virginity, exalting it above all ancient precedents, and had given virgins a role that rendered them integral and necessary to society. The sacrificial virginity of exceptional religious figures, which made them more Christ-like than the rest of us, was offered to God on our behalf. Their renunciation of ordinary pleasures and expectable satisfactions gave them an aura of perfection: they were, in a sense, already living in the world beyond the veil, companions of angels and saints, standing, as Hildegard boldly put it, “in the unsullied purity of paradise, lovely and unwithering.” Such extraordinary connection to Heaven turned them into mediating intercessors on our behalf, human like us but not so distracted by earthly concerns, living consciously in the presence of God. The medieval cult of virginity may have been wrapped in the severe shadows of Platonic antimaterialism, but there was also something quite new about it.
The ancient Greek-speaking world had been, for one thing, a world of argument and abstraction; the medieval Latin-speaking world became a world of image and imagination. As early as the late second century, images of the Virgin Mother with the Divine Child on her lap appeared in the Roman catacombs on rough arches high above the tombs of early Christians. In these quickly daubed, fading frescoes Mary may still be discerned, surrounded by other biblical figures, some in shallow relief:
She turned up first in Rome,
impressed upon a catacomb,
a hieroglyph relief
conceived by a martyred primitif.
Madonna and Child of the late second century from the Roman Catacomb of Santa Priscilla. The figure to the left is a prophet, either Balaam or Isaiah, each of whom was thought to have prophesied that Christ would appear as a star or light. Above the Madonna’s head is a star to which the prophet is pointing. Despite the poor state of preservation, we can discern that the Madonna is seated, wears a short-sleeved tunic, and is tenderly bent toward the baby, offering her breast. (Photo Credit 1.11)
Apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The mosaic of Christ and the Virgin, enthroned beneath the hand of God and flanked by saints, was made about 1140. The mosaics lower down between the windows illustrate the life of the Virgin Mary. They were made in the late thirteenth century by the extraordinary medieval artist Pietro Cavallini. (Photo Credit 1.12)
For all we know, these are not the first Christian images of Mother and Child, only the first to survive. It is even possible that the worship of the Virgin Mary is as old as apostolic times. In any case, here, close to the very beginning of her Roman cult, the Virgin is shown as the Virgin of Christmas—as Mother, affectionate and nurturing. Her connection to the divine is a connection so ordinary, so quotidian, so human as to be almost bathetic. Like all mothers, she comforted the child in her arms, offered her breasts to his sucking lips, and wiped his little bum—actions repeated so often that they constituted the most visible and unremarkable work performed in the ancient world (or in ours, for that matter).
This early exaltation of Mother and Child already demonstrates the innovative Christian sense of grace, no longer something reserved for the fortunate few—the emperors and their retinues—but broadcast everywhere, bestowed on everyone, “heaped up, pressed down, and overflowing,” even on one as lowly and negligible as a nursing mother. In the words of a famous Latin hymn, “God … is born from the guts of a girl.”j For even the most ordinary people in their most ordinary actions can serve as vessels of God’s grace. Though awarding them equal political status with society’s leaders would have been unthinkable, their value as persons was newly absolute, for, as even haughty Hildegard understands, “they are all loved by God.”
The worship of this Virgin of Virgins culminates in Rome in the magnificent Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, the earliest church dedicated exclusively to Mary (soon after Christianity’s legalization in the fourth century), on the site of a remembered miracle, the sudden eruption of a healing fountain of oil at the very moment—or so legend had it—that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The shimmering twelfth-century mosaic apse of Santa Maria, ornamented with prophets, apostles, saints, and symbolic sheep, gives us at its very center the Throne of Mercy, on which are seated Christ and Mary, welcomed into Heaven after her death by her son, who had preceded her.
Up to this moment, Western art had imitated all the staid solemnities of the Greeks, and it is often impossible for a layman to tell a Roman image from an Eastern ikon. Mary of Trastevere is adorned as a Byzantine empress, elaborately crowned, decked out in golden, bejeweled garments. The gravity of her expression is tempered somewhat by the rounded oval of her face, shown to us not starkly straight-on but in a three-quarters view, turning toward her son. But Jesus is patently Italian, not Greek. The set of his figure, though dignified, is easy, informal, radiating affection. His broad, naked feet are planted solidly on the floor in clear contrast to his mother’s dainty slippers. His happy face is close to cartoonish, contented, playful, amused, capriccioso, almost mouthing “Mamma”; and since this is a moment of sublime felicity, his right arm is extended across his mother’s back, his right hand tenderly cupping her shoulder.
This tremendous movement—the Son of God hugging his earthly mother!—had never been seen before. Hildegard had dreamed of such a thing, calling Christ her “sweetest hugger,” but now a visual artist, we don’t know who, shows it spectacularly above a pontifical altar. Anatomically, kinetically, instinctively, this is an entirely novel moment in the history of sacred art and the beginning of a characteristically Italian contribution. By this single gesture, Western art is freed from its Eastern enchantment. The long tradition of representing spirit by superserious faces and two-dimensional, stick-figure human bodies, starved, denatured, aloof, and devoid of movement, is about to give way, as Western Europeans discover a new embodiment, a new earthiness, a new bounce—a new kind of Heaven.
And if saints can hug, so can we.
(Photo Credit 1.13)
Europe, a smallish place (at least when compared to the earth’s other great landmasses) and hardly a continent at all (attached to great Asia and all but touching sun-baked Africa), has been washed by successive waves of migrants—Celts, Germans, Slavs,Vikings, Arabs, Turks, north Africans—each fresh migration contributing to its intricately interlocking puzzle pieces of small countries and peculiar customs. In the early tenth century, a band of Norwegian Vikings, led by a Dane called Hrolf the Ganger (“Rollo” in subsequent French literature), settled around Rouen in the lower Seine valley. In short order they carved out for themselves a sizable province, henceforth called Normandy—home of the Northmen, or Normans. These tall, straw-haired, cold-eyed, calculating warriors, more adept at battle than any of their neighbors, would soon extend their reach far beyond Normandy.
The Normans would also do something few conquerors had done before them: wholeheartedly adopt the language and customs of their conquered territories. In France they became quintessentially French, in England English (though changing the language of the court from Anglo-Saxon to French and thus lending modern English its rich Franco-Latin vocabulary), in Ireland “more Irish than the Irish themselves.” Even before they’d firmly established their dominance over Atlantic Europe—under their talented champion Duke William the Bastard, known after the Norman invasion of England in 1066 as King William I the Conqueror—some Normans were turning their attention eastward. Robert Guiscard (the Crafty) gradually conquered much of Italy and based himself in Sicily, where he adopted the style of a Byzantine emperor. His son Bohemund, a leader of the First Crusade, subdued Antioch in 1098 and there their descendant, Roger II of Sicily, was crowned king in 1130. The Norman genius for organization forged unions from the most unlikely expressions of ethnic diversity—Anglo-Norman, Sicilo-Norman, Normano-Syrian—and everywhere, from the Holy Land to the British Isles, the turreted stone castles of the Normans still stand as their lasting memorials and the lofty towers of their petitioning cathedrals still reach toward the sky.k
If their castles were functional fortresses, in their cathedrals they permitted their imaginations to run riot, for these great churches, the seats of their bishops, were wild experiments in balance, very nearly the art of juggling reconceived as architecture. No buildings before or since have ever defied gravity so bravely and so lastingly. Before the twelfth century, European ecclesiastical architecture was Romanesque, squat and solid, dark and gloomy. Despite its many discrete and innocent charms (such as the apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere), the Romanesque does not tend to lift one’s spirits on a rainy day. The new Norman building, however, partly inspired by the rediscovery of the amazing texts of Euclid, embodied aspiration—pointed arches and soaring spires, caught in the act of leaping to Heaven, their movement complemented by immense windows stretching upward, admitting dazzling pools of colored light that drifted through the church as the sun moved across the sky. Structural details, such as the ribbed vaulting, conveyed an inner delicacy or, in the case of the flying buttresses, an inner balletic exuberance, almost an interior merriment. The sculptural details were orchestral, with elongated saints and angels grouped like massed choristers and instrumentalists on ascending platforms. From various high crooks and corners, half-hidden demons, hilariously indecent, sniffed the air like beasts or drooled downward toward their human prey. It was a total rethinking of human-inhabited space, which was now to be shared with supernatural reality. In contrast to the multiple cosmic dimensions that flew above them, the worshipers at ground level (and even the hierophants who occupied the immense raised chancel) were barely three-dimensional.
One day this astonishing architecture will be called “Gothic” (that is, barbaric)—a name that still sticks to it—by neoclassicists who in their exclusive love of Palladian building will look down on everything medieval. It will then take the medievalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to restore the reputation of the Norman cathedrals. Of the many scholars, architects, and amateurs who set about this task, none was more eloquent or influential than Henry Adams, grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams, one of the founders of the American Republic. Henry, who taught at Harvard and can still lay claim to being our most distinguished practitioner of American history, found himself late in life drawn as by a mysterious force to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, especially to the Norman churches of France and most especially to Notre-Dame de Chartres, the most extraordinarily beautiful of dozens of beautiful French cathedrals of this period dedicated to Jesus’s mother. “Most persons of a deeply religious nature,” insisted Adams, “would tell you emphatically that nine churches out of ten actually were dead-born, after the thirteenth century.”
Cathedral of Notre-Dame, rising above the town of Chartres and called by the art historian Emile Male “the mind of the Middle Ages manifest.” The nearer spire, in late Romanesque style, is a restored survival from an earlier cathedral begun in the early eleventh century, whereas the taller spire, in Flamboyant Gothic style, dates to the beginning of the sixteenth century. But the body of the cathedral was built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries and contains the Virgin’s Veil, a celebrated relic. (Photo Credit 1.14)
For Adams, the force behind the art was the Virgin Mary herself—
the highest energy ever known to man, the creator of four-fifths of his noblest art, exercising vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of … All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.…Symbol or energy, the Virgin had acted as the greatest force the Western world ever felt, and had drawn man’s activities to herself more strongly than any other power, natural or supernatural, had ever done; the historian’s business was to follow the track of the energy.…
Which is what we propose to do in this book. In following “the track of the energy,” we shall bear in mind at least some of Adams’s exclusions: that, for instance, “this energy [is] unknown to the American mind” and that the Virgin “was popularly supposed to have no very marked fancy for priests as such; she was a queen, a woman, and a mother, functions, all, which priests could not perform. Accordingly, she seems to have had little taste for mysteries of any sort, and even the symbols that seem most mysterious [those emblematic of Mary’s femininity and motherhood] were clear to every old peasant-woman in her church.” A mystery accessible to the humblest.
Nor shall we be unmindful of the vivid descriptions of the construction of Chartres Cathedral as related in a contemporary document, a letter of Archbishop Hugo of Rouen quoted by Adams. “The faithful of our diocese,” wrote Hugo, have joined with others much farther afield to transport all necessary materials to the plain of Chartres, where the cathedral will be built. Before participating, each person must have
been to confession, renounced enmities and revenges, and reconciled himself with his enemies … Powerful princes of the world, men brought up in honor and in wealth, nobles, men and women, have bent their proud and haughty necks to the harness of carts, and, like beasts of burden, they have dragged to the abode of Christ these wagons, loaded with wines, grains, oil, stone, wood, and all that is necessary for the wants of life or for the construction of the church.
All this they—“often a thousand persons and more”—accomplish “in such silence that not a murmur is heard, and truly if one did not see the thing with one’s eyes, one might believe that among such a multitude there was hardly a person present.” This prayerful, anonymous work—for we lack the name of a single artist or architect who contributed to the enterprise—went on for years, for generations, and involved, as Hugo tells us, “old people, young people, little children,” all of whom thought themselves well rewarded by the grand edifice rising in their midst.
We shall especially bear in mind Adams’s instruction that Chartres was built as “a child’s fancy; a toy-house to please the Queen of Heaven,—to please her so much that she would be happy in it,—to charm her till she smiled.” Nor shall we fail to notice that here at Chartres Hildegard’s “garden enclosed,” her exclusive retreat for virgins, has become—in its aisles and arches, its chapels and crannies, its floating islands of color and pastry-like sculptures, its scores of separate (but connected) spaces of theatrical encounter—the playground not only of the popular Virgin Queen of Heaven but of all humanity, nobles and commons, “men and women … old people, young people, little children,” a secret yet universal garden. “Regina coeli laetare, alleluia!” goes the ancient Easter hymn, now given new life in the numberless Norman cathedrals—Notre-Dame de Chartres, Notre-Dame de Paris, Notre-Dame de Laon, Notre-Dame de Noyon, Notre-Dame de Rheims, Notre-Dame d’Amiens, Notre-Dame de Rouen, Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Notre-Dame de Coutances … presque sans fin—set aside just for her. “Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia!” In fact, whoop it up like a child set free—through your chancels, choirs, transepts, and naves.
Gently elongated prophetic figures—from the left, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Simeon, John the Baptist, and Simon Peter—from the north portal of Chartres Cathedral. The first four are shown as prophets of the Incarnation. Peter, as the first priest of the new order, is dressed as a medieval pope. (Photo Credit 1.15)
God, affectionately and with great care, fashioning Adam from clay. A twelfth-century sculpture from the north portal of Notre-Dame de Chartres. (Photo Credit 1.16)
Triptych of stained-glass lancet windows from the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral. The window on the right shows the ancestors of Jesus, sprung from the root of Jesse. The middle window is a celebration of the Incarnation, showing scenes associated with Jesus’s conception, birth, and early life. The window on the left depicts the Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Needless to say, the visual stress is on the Incarnation; and once again Mary is centrally honored. (Photo Credit 1.17)
Noah’s Ark, symbol of the church surviving through time despite calamities and guided by the dove (or Spirit of God). Scenes below the Ark are of people lost in the Flood, meant to remind the viewer of the consequences of the Last Judgment. Chartres Cathedral. (Photo Credit 1.18)
Twelfth-century masterpiece, Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière (Our Lady of the Beautiful Stained Glass), Chartres Cathedral. (Photo Credit 1.19)
Chartres is replete with images of Mary in sculpture and stained glass, in hidden nooks and wide bays. One in particular has held the attention of millions of pilgrims down the centuries, Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière (Our Lady of the Beautiful Stained Glass), a late-twelfth-century window in the choir next to the south transept. “A strange and uncanny feeling seems to haunt this window,” wrote Adams. The lines of the face have little in common with the residual severities of the Virgin in the apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Instead of light glistening on mosaic tiles, here light shines through colored glass. The self-dramatizing Greco-Italian faces of Trastevere have been replaced by the faces of a sweetly sensible Frenchwoman and her placidly solemn child. But there is continuity in the merriment. Like the Christ of Trastevere, the Virgin Mary smiles, if more broadly. As he was happy to be reunited with his mother, she, a royal but very earthly woman, is even happier to be the mother of her son.
And that is how the vision of a few became the devotion of the many.
(Photo Credit 1.20)
a The canonical hours—or Divine Office(s), as they are collectively called—are a series of public prayers, sung by monks in common at appointed hours, every third hour or so during the day and once or twice in the course of the night. The number and sequence of these “hours” (more like half hours) have changed over history and cultures but are according to traditional Benedictine usage Matins and Lauds (during the night), Prime (on rising at 6 A.M.), Terce (at 9 A.M.), Sext (at noon), None (at 3 P.M.), Vespers (at 6 P.M.), Compline (before retiring). The backbone of each office is a recitation of Old Testament psalms and New Testament canticles that can be sung verse by verse antiphonally—i.e., by half the choir, answered in the next verse by the other half. The idea is to make prayer so much a part of one’s day as to fulfill the injunction of Saint Paul to “pray always.”
b Carolingian refers to the reign and times of the Frankish dynasty established by Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus in Latin) in the mid-eighth century and which continued to rule in Germany through the first decade of the tenth century and in France till 987. Charlemagne’s reign encouraged a cultural flowering, the first among the barbarian kingdoms, a small-scale renaissance such as would not be experienced again in Western Europe till Hildegard’s century.
c Though the writers of the Middle Ages had before them the unique example of Augustine’s Confessions, no one would again attempt such personal autobiography till the Renaissance. Margery Kempe, writing in English in the early fifteenth century, was a partial exception, but her memoir lay undiscovered and unpublished till 1934.
d A biography of Jutta, likely written by Volmar at Hildegard’s request, turned up in 1991, casting doubt on some of our previous assumptions about Hildegard. It would seem that Jutta was only six or so years older than Hildegard and that the two may have lived together in seclusion on the estate of Jutta’s father at Sponheim before taking up residence in the anchorite’s cell at Disibodenberg. But since it will take scholars some time to weigh the authenticity of the sometimes conflicting narratives—Hildegard’s autobiography, previously available, and the newly discovered Vita of Jutta—I have stuck to the information available from Hildegard’s own narrative.
e Contemporary pilgrims for whom spelt and lettuce do not make much of a meal will find mouthwatering dishes and superb local wines at the gracious restaurant in Bingen Castle on the opposite hill.
f “Frenchman” is proleptic; Bernard was Champenois. France would not acquire the region of Champagne for more than a century after Bernard’s time.
g The full text is “Let a woman learn in silence and in full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must keep silent” (1 Timothy 2:11–12). The medievals, lacking a science of textual history, had no way of knowing that this letter was written not by Paul but by someone taking his name—and with a highly selective agenda—decades after his death. See Desire of the Everlasting Hills, pp. 155ff.
h In the ancient world, women never addressed large crowds, not only because their opinions were unsought but because there were no public address systems, and the unaided casting of the voice to a large crowd, especially in the open air, presented insurmountable difficulties to most women. Even men who were to assume public roles had to be specially trained to project their voices. The late Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, because they were echoing sound boxes, gave women their first opportunity to address large meetings. Such a happening would not have been possible much before Hildegard’s time. She gave her sermon in Trier Cathedral, a lofty late Romanesque structure. Right next door is the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of the Virgin), one of Germany’s first (and most exquisite) Gothic churches. Together, these two constitute a textbook account of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic, as well as of spatial sensibility, in the age of Hildegard.
i In 1077, exactly one hundred years before Barbarossa’s submission, his predecessor Henry IV had knelt in the snow of Canossa, begging the pope to lift his excommunication, incurred by his interference in church affairs. In 1172, just five years before the Peace of Venice, Henry II of England had endured scourging for his inadvertent role in the murder of Thomas Becket, his archbishop of Canterbury. Each of these monarchs learned in his turn that the church was not to be trifled with.
j The hymn is “Adeste Fideles,” composed in the eighteenth century (in a very medieval spirit) by John F. Wade. The full text of the cited quotation is “Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine / Gestant puellae viscera” (The God of God, the Light of Light / Is born from the guts of a girl). The second line was unfortunately translated in the nineteenth century by Frederick Oakley as “Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb.”
k In truth, the Norman style never quite caught on in Italy, which went from Romanesque to Palladian almost without the intervening “Gothic” connection. Famous exceptions, however, include Florence’s gemlike Santa Croce and the splendidly extravagant Duomo of Milan.