Hildegard of Bingen

Stainedglass window of Hildegard of Bingen

A Woman of her Age

A question for Triva: Who composed  Ave Generosa, O Viridissima Virgo or what is often called the first opera Ordo Virtutuum?

The answer is Hildegard of Bingen.  We know her as a great composer. Yet in her lifetime, when she was one of the most famous woman Europe, music was just one part of her noted accomplishments.
Hildegard was born in 1098 in the village of Bermersheim, which is situated on the left bank of the river Nahe, a tributary of the Rhine. She was a strange child, who ‘saw’ things that others did not, that which might today be called psychic experiences. Her nurse advised her strongly to keep these revelations secret, lest people think she was possessed by the devil. 

The problem of how to deal with such a difficult child was to agree that she accompany another young woman, Jutta of Spanheim, as an anchoress attached to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. Jutta was noted for her piety and her desire to renounce marriage and devote her life to God. As an anchoress she was to be enclosed within a confined area, never to leave until she died. Her life was to be devoted to prayer and her contact with the outside world was limited to viewing the religious services in the monastery through a small window, and at times giving help and advice to those who sought it, knowing she was a good and holy woman. In this enclosed space she lived with Hildegard, also following the religious regime and a young servant.

Much has been made of the story of the eight year old Hildegard and the fifteen year old Junta entering their anchorage, while monks, candles in hand, chanted in procession behind them, the singing continuing until the final brick was knocked into position. Then silence.The truth is more likely to be that both Jutta and Hildegard were somewhat older, and that rather than being holed up in a confined space, they lived in an area set apart from the rest of the monastery. In a short time they were joined by other young women, wishing to devote their lives to God. 

In 1136  Jutta died and Hildegard became the head of this small group of nuns. Jutta had lived a life of strict penance, fasting and praying for hours at a time, standing barefoot on the cold stone floor. Hildegard had a different approach, believing that moderation in all things was closer to the way God wished people to live. 

In 1150 Hildegard moved with her nuns to Rupertsburg, near Bingen, on the banks of the Rhine. Initially the living there was very difficult. Only a deserted chapel and a few farm buildings remained in what was actually a monastic ruin. Her well-born sisters, more used to the comparative comfort of the monastery they had left, complained. The local people who had welcomed them had to deal with failing crops and famine, so could offer little help. Some of the sisters left for other abbeys, and Hildegard had a long fight with the Abbot of Disibodenberg to access the dowries of those nuns who had stayed with her. Hildegard, had made the move, prompted by a heavenly vision, but she had also shown careful forward planning, accepting financial help from her supporters, and making sure that the Bishop of Mainz was on her side.

Hildegard’s Abbey at Eibingen

The support that she had gained came not because of her music but because of her fame as a visionary. In 1141 she had a strong vision compelling her to begin writing, and her first theological work Scivias was begun. It took some years to complete and in this work she was helped by the monk Volmar, who tidied her Latin, and Richardis of Stade, a young nun. Once Hildegard had gained the approval of Pope Eugenius and, perhaps more importantly, Bernard of Clairvaux at the Synod of Trier, she was able to continue her writing, inspired by her visions, as they had been deemed to be inspired by God. A number of books followed, including Natural History, Causes and Cures and the Life of St Rupert, written between 1151-8. Apart from some other  lives of saints she completed a trilogy Book of Divine Works  (De Operations Dei) which was completed in 1178.

It is impossible to summarise what she covered in all these works. Matthew Fox in Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen p.12 wrote: Hildegard, mystic and prophet, wishes to be a practical helping mystic and prophet. She continually extols the virtue of ‘usefulness’ and in the final sentence of her major work De Operations Dei she tells us that the reason for her work has been ‘for the usefulness of believers’….She writes that God ‘destroys uselessness’.

Hildegard’s visions, at the time she lived, were believed to have come from God, and thus this gave her immense authority. Today sceptics suggest that she suffered from a form of epilepsy, in which case her writings were inspired by hallucinations, and what she set down was the result of her own thoughts and understanding.


Along with her writing she produced amazing illuminations, twenty five in all, which even today deserve examination for their underlying concepts. 

The Circle of the Seasons
Adam as Mankind

Hildegard wrote a book on medicine, and many of her suggested remedies and explanations are accepted today.

Along with her books Hildegard wrote many letters, offering advice or admonishment. She wrote as freely to Popes and Bishops as she did to young nuns who wanted to leave their abbeys and become hermits. She was invited to go on preaching tours, at a time when women did not speak from the pulpit. She came into serious conflict with the church authorities because she had buried a supposed excommunicate in the convent cemetery, and refused to remove the body because he had repented. For a time she and her nuns were refused permission to sing the divine office. Hildegard won that battle in 1179, the same year she died.

Was she a woman ahead of her time? Is she a feminist role model? In many ways she is, chartering her journey in life through many difficulties. Had she lived one hundred years later we may never have had her writings or her music. The hierarchy of the Church, horrified by the advent of powerful abbesses, and religious women, hurried to bring about rules which forbad them to compose music, to write or to leave their convent without the express permission of the bishop.

I had the chance to stay for a short time to the Abbey at Eibingen, which was founded by Hildegard in 1165, as her community grew. It is just across the river from Bingen, and she used to cross that river twice a week to visit. There is still a ferry one can take.

Garden at the Abbey

The room in the abbey was comfortable, with a window from which I could watch the sun rise over the Rhine each morning, through a bank of cloud. Sister Agnes, who looked after guests at the abbey was wonderfully helpful. It was time to harvest the grapes and one could see the nun in charge conferring with the workers in the vineyard. There was a building next to the abbey where nuns worked at restoring medieval manuscripts. 

The whole experience was like stepping back hundreds of years and living a life of monastic simplicity, even rising each morning at 5.00am to go to the chapel for divine office. For those nuns Hildegard was a strong presence, even as they lived in today’s world.

Some useful reading

Bobko, Jane, Vision The Life and Music of Hildegard Von Bingen, Penguin Studio Books,1995

Maddocks, Fiona, Hildegard of Bingen: the woman of her age, Doubleday 2001

Flanagan, Sabina, Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen, Shambhala 1996

Fox, Matthew Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, Bear & Company 1985,2002

Strehlow Wighard and Hertzka Gottfried, trans, Karin Anderson Strehlow, Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine, Bear & Company 1988

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