Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), also known as the Sybil of the Rhine, was a Benedictine abbess, composer, Christian mystic and the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. There are more surviving songs or “chants” by Hildegard than any other composer from the Middle Ages. She is also one of the few composers to write both the music and the lyrics.
The exact date of Hildegard’s birth is unknown but it has been estimated as during the year 1098. She is believed to have been the tenth and youngest child of Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, who worked for the Count Meinhard of Sponheim in the Holy Roman Empire.
From the age of three, Hildegard claimed to have experienced visions, which led her parents to offer her as an oblate to the Benedictine Disibodenberg Monastery in the Palatinate Forest, south Germany, where she took her vows in 1112. She described her visions as "the reflection of the living Light” and explained she experienced revelations in her soul through the five senses.
In 1136, Hildegard was elected Magistra (superior) by the other nuns. The Abbot of Disibodenberg wished to make her the Prioress, however, she refused and requested she and her fellow nuns to Rupertsberg, near the River Rhine. Her request was denied but after falling ill and believing it to be God’s doing, Hildegard was granted money to set up St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150. In 1165, she set up a second monastery in the nearby town of Eibingen.
Hildegard was initially hesitant to share her visions with the other nuns and ignored the voice that told her to "write down that which you see and hear." When she was 42 years old, she fell physically ill and, while she suffered, heard the voice say, “Cry out, therefore, and write thus!” So, she did as she was told and wrote down every vision she received thereafter. When Pope Eugene III (1080-1153) learnt of Hildegard’s writings, he granted her Papal approval, which meant her visions were accepted as truth by the Roman Catholic Church.
In total, Hildegard wrote three volumes of visionary theology: Scivias, Liber Vitae Meritorum and Liber Divinorum Operum. She also penned over 400 letters and a variety of musical compositions. Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is a morality play containing 82 songs that are believed to have been written by Hildegard. In addition to this, there are at least 69 musical compositions under her name. Most of her songs resemble a chant and lack tempo and rhythm, which may be why they were forgotten until rediscovered in recent decades. Although Hildegard’s songs are not sung today, they have inspired many contemporary composers and writers, such as David Lynch and Gordon Hamilton.
Within her works, Hildegard writes of life in the monasteries as well as her visions. Working in the herb garden and reading in the library led her to gain practical skills in diagnosis, treatment and “spiritual healing”. She maintained plants and stones were put on Earth for human use as recorded in the Book of Genesis, therefore, it was only right she learnt about their properties. These studies resulted in two volumes of work, Physica, in which Hildegard explained the medicinal properties of plants, stones, fish and animals, and Causae et Curae, which explored the human body and the causes and treatments of diseases. Although Hildegard was not a trained physician or scientist, her insight into the natural world made her one of, if not the first person to study scientific natural history in Germany.
Hildegard often wrote in code, using an alphabet she had invented, which goes to show the complexity of her thoughts and mental abilities. During her lifetime, she acted on her own authorisation as a theologian, travelling around Germany on preaching tours. Not only was she speaking and writing of ideas beyond many people’s comprehension at the time, but she was also conducting work above her station as a woman. Hildegard was an early feminist and wrote in one of her books, "woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman."
On 17th September 1179, Hildegard died. Allegedly, at the moment of her death, two streams of light appeared in the sky, intersecting above the room in which she lay. Hildegard was one of the first people whose name was put forward to be canonised, however, she was never officially made a saint. Nonetheless, people began referring to her as Saint Hildegard, including several popes and she was assigned 17th September, the date of her death, as her Saint Day. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Church, making her the fourth woman to receive the honour. The other three women are St Teresa of Ávila, St Catherine of Siena and St Thérèse of Lisieux.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon