Contextualizing Hildegard of Bingen’s Violent and Apocalyptic Imagery

220px-HildegardContextualizing Hildegard of Bingen’s Violent and Apocalyptic Imagery

By Allison Jaines Elledge

Published Online (2010)

The political setting in both the secular and religious worlds was the background and a catalyst for Hildegard of Bingen’s (1098-1179) use of apocalyptic and often violent imagery in her writings. She attacked secular and ecclesiastical authorities equally, the former for weakening the church by intruding into ecclesiastical affairs, and the latter for abuses such as simony and violation of clerical celibacy. What most offended Hildegard were the groups of heretics whose numbers were increasing and whose leaders she felt were more pious than local clergymen. Hildegard charged the latter group with neglecting their flocks, allowing them to be led astray by heretics who capitalized on the all-too-evident need for clerical reform.

This essay focuses on the graphic and violent language of Hildegard’s visions. I argue that Hildegard drew upon the political and ecclesiastical context in which she lived for her visionary experiences, rather than a fully developed form of salvation history. This is not to suggest that Hildegard did not have a developed theology of history, but that her language, visions, and calls for reform was tied up in her context rather than a vague notion of the future and the end of time. Hildegard took ten years to complete Scivias. During that time, her apocalyptic imagery grew more developed as she saw repeated abuses against the Church. Hildegard may have borrowed from common medieval tropes concerning salvation history, but she left no direct evidence of her sources, other than Scripture. As a reformer who believed that the glory of the Church would once again be realized, Hildegard’s point of view was an eschatological rather than urgently apocalyptic one: the end of time is near but not imminent. She used violent language to push her reform agenda, to preach against heresy, and to describe the coming of the Antichrist and the Last Judgment. Hildegard saw the institutional Church as growing increasingly corrupt. In one of her most disturbing visions, the Church is personified as a woman giving birth to a monstrous Anti-christ. Secular rule was equally nefarious. Emperors and local lords too often interfered with spiritual matters, interfering with the return back to the ideals of the early church. Despite this context, Hildegard maintained a positive vision of the future, in which good will triumph over evil.

The language in Hildegard’s visionary literature covers a spectrum of violence. She describes battles, use of weapons against the Devil, physical beatings to exorcize evil spirits from a woman, sinners who will die by choking and burning, and the rape of the Church. Others are not aggressively violent, but may be considered repulsive, gruesome, or frightening, such ascertain ferocious beasts with fiery eyes and ferocious iron teeth. The most common themes draw from literal warfare between persons with weapons and spiritual warfare between good and evil, or Christ and the Antichrist. Some expressions of violence are based on her understanding of the seven ages of the world and the end of time. Her apocalyptic imagery is especially vivid and active, with beasts, weapons, battles, and blood. Victory and Fortitude, the personified Virtues, are warriors of God, dressed as armored knights bearing weapons and shields. The armor represents God’s invincible strength, allowing these two warriors to slay the Devil and all injustice.

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