You Are What You Eat: Hildegard of Bingen’s Viriditas
By Allison Jaines Elledge
Conference paper given at the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association meeting (2010)
Introduction: Hildegard of Bingen was a twelfth-century visionary and theologian who spent much of her life in a Benedictine abbey writing about God’s love and wisdom, the unsteady relationship between Church and State, and the natural world. She is also arguably the first female foodwriter. Hildegard maintains a place in popular culture in America and abroad. A film of her lifehas just been released, her music collection is widely available, several books have been writtenabout how to meditate and pray with Hildegard’s visions. Most interesting and largely a work of fiction, is a book titled From Saint Hildegard’s Kitchen: Foods of Health, Foods of Joy , in which the author has created recipes loosely based on Hildegard’s writings about nature.
The first of her books on the natural world, Physica, lists various natural objects and their applications for certain ailments. Her other work, Causes and Cures, is much broader, describing the cosmos, human nature and the body, and causes and cures for bodily functions and illnesses.The Physica is divided into nine categories: plants, elements, trees, stones, fish, birds,animals, reptiles, and minerals. Within these categories, Hildegard described the natural properties of hundreds of substances.
Her descriptions are based on humoral theory, which claimed that four major fluids dominate the body (yellow bile, black bile, blood,and phlegm), and that elements of those fluids are hot, cold, dry, and moist. When these are in balance, a person is considered healthy. If not, balance can be restored by consuming certainfoods. Hildegard is unique among her contemporaries, however, in that she seems to add a fifthelement to humoral theory: viriditas, which she characterized as a thing’s very essence or energy.Viriditas is in everything, including humans. I will explain the nature of viriditas shortly.