The Herbal Cures of Hildegard von Bingen – was she right?

Among the many attributes of the Hildegard von Bingen – theologian, composer, abbess and mystic – was that she was a medical writer. Two of her works detail health problems and offers various treatments. A scientific study suggests that her herbal remedies were far more correct than what could be explained by mere chance.

A 12th century depiction of Hildegard of Bingen
A 12th century depiction of Hildegard of Bingen

In their article, “Are the Correct Herbal Claims by Hildegard von Bingen Only Lucky Strikes? A New Statistical Approach” a team of German and Swiss scientists examined the writings of the twelfth-century German Benedictine abbess – in particular Physica and Causae et Curae. In those works she offers 437 claims of health benefits from 175 different plants. For example, Hildegard explains that cloves are a good remedy against gout, swollen intestines, stuffiness in the head, and hiccups. These remedies could be when consumed on their own, or in other cases mixed with other ingredients.

The scientists wanted to know the likelihood the abbess was correct in her claims, and was this level of accuracy just purely from chance? Here is how they explained their analysis:

Our statistical approach is based on the model of the game Battleship where a two-dimensional grid (similar to an Excel spreadsheet) is formed by all the claims known to the author on one axis and the herbs (those still used today) on the other axis. Modern herbal indications (medical uses) are represented as ‘ships’ which the medieval author tries to hit by randomly tossing a ‘missile’ into the grid. The hypergeometric distribution gives the probability that x ‘correct’ indications (‘hits’) could be drawn from the set of N herb/claim combinations with n ‘shots’, and the number of ‘ships’ (today’s herb/claim attributions) is M.

They focused their study on 85 plants that are being used today for medical purposes. It found that there were 212 health claims by Hildegard from this group, and 30 of them would be correct according to contemporary standards. If she had been making the claims up randomly, only between 6 and 7 of her cures would have accurate.

The study finds the probability of this happening just by chance is 1 in 10,000,000. They conclude:

The hypothesis that Hildegard could have achieved her ‘correct’ claims by chance is to be clearly rejected on the basis of the highly significant level of our new statistical procedure. The finding from this approach that medieval medical claims are significantly correlated with modern herbal indications supports the importance of traditional medicinal systems as an empirical source.

They add that European researchers should also be more open to the possibility that herbs might be responsible for a larger variety of remedies – typically these plants are now only associated with one or a small number of medical treatments.

You can read the article “Are the Correct Herbal Claims by Hildegard von Bingen Only Lucky Strikes? A New Statistical Approach,” by Bernhard Uehleke, Werner Hopfenmueller, Rainer Stange and Reinhard Saller, appears in Forschende Komplementärmedizin, Vol.19 (2012) pp.187-190.

An excerpt from Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of her Classic Work on Health and Healing, by Priscilla Throop (1998):

Rose is cold, and this coldness contains moderation which is useful. In the morning, or at daybreak, pluck a rose petal and place it on your eyes. It draws out the humor and makes them clear. One with small ulcers on his body should place rose petals over them. This pulls the mucus from them. One who is inclined to wrath should take rose and less sage and pulverize them. The sage lessens the wrath, and the rose makes him happy. Rose, and half as much sage, may be cooked with fresh, melted lard, in water, and an ointment made from this. The place where a person is troubled by a cramp or paralysis should be rubbed with it, and he will be better. Rose is also good to add to potions, unguents, and all medications. If even a little rose is added, they are so much better, because of the good virtues of the rose.

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