The Middle Ages’ Renaissance Woman

First published October 2, 2651
by Dr. Matilda Warwick, University of Melbourne
Temporal Anthropologist studying the Middle Ages

Most of the great female artists and scholars of the Middle Ages found their way into the convents where they became anonymous and forgotten. One name that survived into the modern world was not only one of the great women of that time, but one who can stand toe to toe with any great man of any period--St. Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard with her secretary Volmar
Hildegard was a brilliant composer, writer, philosopher, mystic, healer, public speaker and social reformer. Her written work include not only theology but hagiography (saints; biographies), natural history, medicine, cosmology and poetry as well as music. She even invented her own language with a corresponding alphabet. (One wonders if this did not inspire a certain medieval literature scholar named J.R.R. Tolkien to invent “Elvish.”)

Hildegard's alphabet for her invented language
One must remember women of the time were denied any real formal education. Her teacher was Countess Jutta von Sponheim, an anchoress (hermit) who had walled herself into a hut next to the monastery on Disibodenberg. Jutta then proceeded to whip, starve and torment herself for God. It was decided the 14-year-old needed a companion to distract her from this self-mutilation, so they gave her the 8-year-old Hildegard. Jutta taught her to read and write and play the ten string psaltery. When Jutta had taught Hildegard all she knew, Volmar the monk, taught her Latin. Other nobility heard reports of how brilliant Hildegard was. They decided Jutta must be a remarkable teacher and sent their daughters to be taught by her, too. The girls grew up to become Jutta’s nuns. When Jutta passed away, the other nuns unanimously elected Hildegard as their new abbess.

Although the one room hut had been expanded, the twenty ladies soon found the place too crowded. There was no more room on monastery property for a larger convent. After much cajoling and going over his head, Hildegard finally got Abbot Kuno’s permission to move. And when I say she went over his head, I mean she went to the Top. She fell sick with paralysis, insisting God sent this as a punishment for her not moving the convent as he had commanded. Kuno dare not argue with God.

Hildegard's vision of God and the Angels
(God is the white light in the middle)
I visited Hildegard in the year 1152 at her new convent at Rupertsberg. Abbess Hildegard moved here with her nuns just two years ago. Hildegard has overseen the building of the convent after convincing Dean Hermann of Mainz and Count Bernhard of Hildesheim to donate the land along with money for the construction.

The convent church has been finished and Archbishop Henry of Mainz came here to consecrate it. For the ceremony Hildegard has composed the Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues), a piece containing 82 songs. The plot is the struggle between the virtues and the devil for a human soul. All parts are sung, except the devil’s. Hildegard explained the devil is incapable of harmony and must grunt or yell his replies. The contrast is brilliant and makes the devil seem even more repulsive. The Ordo Virtutum is the earliest known morality play and the only medieval musical drama to survive intact. In fact Hildegard has one of the largest repertoires of all medieval composers.

The Ordo Virtutum is based on a collection of songs at the end of her first great work, the Scivia (Know the Ways.) The Scivia was finished just last year and has already received accolades from Pope Eugene III himself. This ten year project is based upon the visions Hildegard has received since the age of three. Helping her was her secretary and former tutor, Volmar. He is also the one that talked her into writing her visions down. Volmar also played the part of the devil into the play. A great editor, but a terrible singer, Volmar knows his strengths.

Hildegard having a vision
(and a migraine headache)
The Scivia is also decorated with illuminations of Hildegard’s mystic visions. While she did not create the drawings, she did supervise them. These visions are often accompanied by bright lights, severe pain and even paralysis. From her descriptions, modern physicians recognize it as severe migraine headaches! What most would consider a debilitating illness, Hildegard has turned into divine inspiration.

This is just Hildegard’s first book. She will also write hundreds of letters to religious leaders and rulers, many of which will be carefully preserved. She will even write a letter to Henry II of England and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Her advise is already being sought out by both the high and the lowly. In an age when women are considered inferior to men, they listen to Hildegard. Indeed they will come for miles to hear her preach when she begins giving public speaking tours in eight years time. Hildegard insists that being just a stupid woman, her insights can only come from God, a clever argument no medieval man can dispute. So when she later calls for social reform against church corruption, they will be afraid to condemn this prophet of God. One wonders what a gifted brain like that could have achieved in another age with a better education.

another of Hildegard's visions
(That is her in the bottom left corner)
Perhaps the strangest thing about St. Hildegard is that while she was declared a saint after death, she had not been officially made one. It was just that everyone assumed she had been canonized. It wasn’t until centuries later that someone actually checked the records. She had been beatified but somehow got lost in medieval paperwork and had never been officially made a saint. Not that that stopped everyone from calling her Saint Hildegard. Pope Benedict XVI rectified the problem in 2012 by not only having his fellow German canonized but declaring her a Doctor of the Church, a title only given to saints of particular importance for their contribution to theology or doctrine. No one could argue with his including such a brilliant mind in this exclusive club. I am sure if one could bring those Doctors of the Church together with a time machine, they would all sit in awe of Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard’s “musical” Ordo Virtutum 

Revd. Prof. June Boyce-Tillman lets Hildegard “tell” her own story

Hildegard's music updated with a few instruments she wished she had

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