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Please Don’t Talk about Hildegard and Feminism in the Same Breath!

Please Don’t Talk about Hildegard and Feminism in the Same Breath!

By Lorna Collingridge

Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol. 34 (2002)

Introduction: Recently, an eminent scholar in the field of Hildegard studies suggested to me that in giving my up-coming paper on one of Hildegard of Bingen’s songs, I should refrain from associating the twelfth century Magistro with feminism. I was surprised to hear the study of the music of a long-forgotten female composer uncoupled from feminist endeavour, given that the twentieth-century recovery of Hildegard’s body of works coincided with the rise of feminist interest in female achievements. I had mistakenly believed that scholars of Hildegard’s works must pay some allegiance to feminism. It appears that many scholars of Hildegard’s twelfth-century life and works regard the linking of feminism with the study of her accomplishments to be anachronistic. While I am, in part, sympathetic to this critique, I would also suggest that without the rise of second wave feminism, Hildegard’s music may never have been brought to the attention of contemporary scholars.

There are other fears less overtly expressed by scholars who wish to disassociate themselves from feminist work, even though they have benefited thereby. These concerns include fear that a feminist perspective would suggest:

  • that Hildegard was oppressed by patriarchy and that she was a proto-feminist who struggled consciously against this oppression;
  • that she was a lesbian (the oft-presumed outcome of being a feminist, and doubly dangerous in Hildegard’s case with her very public declaration of love for Richardis): and
  • that Hildegard’s basic agenda was to fight for the equality of the sexes.

In this paper I address these concerns and suggest an approach which both recognizes the contribution feminism has made to Hildegardian studies, and acknowledges the anachronism of attributing a feminist agenda to Hildegard’s work as leader of her twelfth-century monastic community. In the field of musicology at least, feminist studies have indeed contributed to the recognition of the embodied nature of musical practices.

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