Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath of the High Middle Ages. She is one of the best-known composers of sacred monophony, as well as the most-recorded in modern history. She has been considered by many in Europe to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Here are 5 things you must know about Hildegard.
- Throughout Hildegard’s life, starting at age 3 and up until her death, she described having visions. She claimed to experience all things in the light of God with all of her senses. She eventually, in her early 40s, had a vision that she interpreted as a message from God to write down all her visions. She kept her visions secret, only confiding in one person. Eventually Pope Eugenius found out about Hildegard’s writings and was so impressed that he gave her Papal approval to document her visions as revelations from the Holy Spirit.
- Hildegard wrote three works on her visionary theology. Scivias (“Know the Ways”), Liber Vitae Meritorum (“Book of the Rewards of Life”); and Liber Divinorum Operum (“On God’s Activity”). In these volumes, the last of which was completed when she was well into her seventies, Hildegard first describes each vision, whose details are often strange and enigmatic, and then interprets their theological contents in the words of the “voice of the Living Light.” In Scivias, she describes the order of creation and claims that the universe is in the shape of an egg. In Liber Vitae Meritorum, she describes vices as ugly and disguting but are capable of appearing seductive and beautiful. Hildegard assures her readers that the virtues stand by our sides in defense against the deceptive vices. In Liber Divinorum Operum she describes a vision of experiencing what it was like when John the Evangelist wrote, “In the beginning was the Word.” She wrote that this vision actually caused her to lose consciousness.
- Even though Hildegard wrote about her visions being a necessary part of her theology and its explication, when it came to her expertise in the field of medicine and science, she never discussed her visions but simply her experience. Most of her medicinal and scientific understanding came from working in the herbal garden, working in the infirmary, and reading in the monastery’s library.
- Some of Hildegard’s visions caused her great suffering. She describes a vision in which she was reticent to write her visions but fell ill with many sicknesses. Eventually the sicknesses compelled her to begin writing and as she began writing she felt a great profundity of scriptural understanding and inspiration. She felt a voice from heaven telling her to cry out and write.
- Hildegard frequently belittled herself publicly, describing herself as an unlearned woman with no capability of understanding Biblical exegesis. This is false but claiming that she didn’t understand Biblical texts made her visions seem far more believable. Belittling herself actually allowed her to speak with authority when few women during her time were given a voice.