By Nancy Bilyeau
Published Online (2012)
Pope Benedict XVI made it official last Thursday: An 11th century Benedictine nun named Hildegard Von Bingen—mystic, writer, musician, philosopher and naturalist—has been proclaimed a saint. She is also considered a feminist and once wrote, “Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.”
A few years ago I bought a CD of Hildegard’s music at The Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Listening to it often inspired me while I wrote my historical thriller, The Crown.
This was the life of a most unusual woman:
1.) Hildegard was given to the church at age 8. She was born at Bockelheim on the Nahe, the tenth child of a German count who historians believe was a military man in the service of Meginhard of Spanheim. Hildegard was sent to be instructed by Meginhard’s sister, Jutta, a nun who lived in an enclosed set of rooms, referred to as a vault, in a Benedictine monastery. Hildegard took vows herself at age 15.
2.) Sickly most of her life, she made it to age 81. As a child she was often too weak to walk and sometimes could not see. As an adult she could be in bed, paralyzed, for days. Historians now believe she suffered from severe migraine.
3.) Hildegard said she had visions of God her whole life. The first “shade of the living light” came at age 3 and the visitations never stopped. She described one as “Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame.” At age 43, she said God told her to “write down what you see and hear” and for the first time revealed her visions to the world.
4.) Hildegard obtained power and sometimes used it to defy church authority. When Jutta died, Hildegard was elected “magistra” of her community of nuns. Near the end of her life she was ordered to dig up the body of a young man buried at the monastery because he had been excommunicated, but she refused.
5.) Hildegard wrote nine books, seventy poems, seventy-two songs, and a play. Her books are in print and her music is widely performed today.
6.) The Pope authorized Hildegard to preach in public. It was extremely unusual for medieval nuns to leave their enclosed orders or to make public statements, but Pope Eugenius III was consumed with his battle against the Cathar heresies. He needed Hildegard’s help. She took her preaching very seriously, calling on the Holy Roman Emperor and church leaders to reform their faith and halt abuses.
7.) She was considered the “Dear Abbey” of the 12th century. Bishops, nobles, monks, mayors, they all wrote letters to Hildegard seeking advice. She wrote to one monk: “Just as a mirror, which reflects all things, is set in its own container, so too the rational soul is placed in the fragile container of the body. In this way, the body is governed in its earthly life by the soul, and the soul contemplates heavenly things through faith.”
8.) Hildegard wrote approvingly about sex. She described it as “a sensual delight” that “summons forth the emission of the man’s seed.”
9.) Hildegard was a botanist. She studied the natural sciences and used herbs, tinctures and “precious stones” as healing medicines. She wrote two treatises on medicine and natural history, known in English as Book of Simple Medicine and Book of Composed Medicine, between 1151 and 1161.
10.) Pope Benedict turns to Hildegard’s wisdom in times of crisis. Speaking of the sexual scandals of the Catholic Church in 2010, the German-born pope said, “In the vision of Hildegard, the face of the church is stained with dust…Her garment is torn by the sins of priests. The way she saw and expressed it is the way we have experienced it this year.”
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Crown.