Girl Power

She referred to herself as a feather on the breath of God, and ‘wretched, indeed more than wretched I my womanly condition’, but this belied her tremendous strength of will and purpose, her creative stamina, her charisma. Hildegard von Bingen is one of the few women whose names have survived history, and if she is not as well known now as she was in her peak years at the end of the twelfth century, it is only the fault of religion’s decline. She was a mystic and a prophet, a composer and a dramatist, a writer, a public speaker and a spiritual leader.

What appeals to me about her is the uniqueness of her vision. One of her favourite concepts was that of ‘greenness’, or viriditas, developed from the rich symbolic language of medieval times. Greenness meant the visible new life of plants, but it also meant the fierce power of life, vigour, energy, that lay beneath, the deeper greenness of the life force itself. Hildegard speaks of nature as the persistence of spirit, of ‘greenness’ being found in the moral life of human beings as they mature and grow, and in their emotional and physical strengthening. Greenness in her religious vision was what the word was steeped in, when it entered peoples lives and took root.

I recalled Hildegard and her idea of greenness walking to the bookshop yesterday, and having to step carefully around an eruption in the pavement, where the roots of a nearby tree had sought blindly for growth. Nature is so powerful, it surprises me how time and again we try to deflect and restrain it. Why do we think we will win? I often have trouble understanding the word ‘spirituality’, or making sense of it in my life. And it occurred to me, thinking of this greenness, that nature is the image of the spirit inside us. No matter what we do, the natural self persists. And just as spring must always follow winter, even if it is delayed or disappointing, so our spirits will always rise again, regardless of the damage they undergo. Our spirit returns because it cannot do otherwise, although we can choose to cultivate it, or let it run wild. Reading my student’s work to check her English, my favourite error/insight of the day: ‘I need to be blossomed in my work.’ Indeed, so do we all.

Hildegard actively sought her own blossoming. She was the tenth and final child born to a noble family in Germany, and was

The octopus legs are in fact holy flames communicating to Hildegard's head

given to the church at the age of eight. She became handmaid to Jutta of Sponheim, an anchoress who lived in a cell next to the monastery of the joyfully named St Disibod, who taught her Latin whilst attracting more noble women about her, eventually forming a Benedictine community. When Jutta died, Hildegard became abbess. Since childhood, Hildegard had had visions, and suddenly, aged forty-two and seven months, after a particularly prophetic vision, she wrote to Bernard of Clarivaux, one of the best connected of all the mystics and something of an evangelical touring performer. She had seen Bernard in her vision, she wrote ‘a man looking straight into the sun, bold and unafraid’ (such brilliant diplomatic flattery!) and she needed his advice, uneducated and lowly woman as she was, ‘about how much I should say of what I have seen and heard.’

For Hildeburg had embarked on one of her greatest theological achievements, a three-volume set of mystical writings, the Scivias, which Bernard took on her behalf to a gathering of bishops in the winter of 1147-8. There he read parts of the unfinished manuscript (it would take Hildegard until 1173 to complete the whole three books) and gained permission from the Pope for its publication. This made of Hildegard the only medieval woman permitted by the Pope to write books on theology. Hildegard’s fame grew and she became an advisor to popes and to royalty. Like all good authors, she went on a lecture tour. What we know of her life comes from biographers employed by her friends to put together a case for her canonisation. (The first biographer died while still engaged in writing her up, which must have been a bummer.) Her life stands as a warning and a reassurance to all those who seek recognition. Hildegard died in 1179, the canonical proceedings only began in 1227, and she was finally approved by the Vatican in 1940.  What’s a mere 750 years to a woman of Hildegard’s tenacity? Now she is the subject of any number of scholarly books.

One of the 35 illustrations in her text, she was the first multimedia religious artist

One of Hildegard’s modern day commentators is Oliver Sacks. Hildegard described her visions as being accompanied by a continuous display of bright lights, a kind of cinematic screen on which her visions unfurled. She insisted she was not dreaming, but experiencing ‘the shadow of the Living Light’ with her ‘eyes wide open’, not lost to a state of ecstasy. Charles Singer, an early 20th century historian of medicine was the first to suggest that Hildegard was suffering from migraines, a diagnosis with which Oliver Sacks agreed. This, for me, represents like nothing else the passage of time, and the essential differences between medieval and modern ages. What to Hildegard and her compatriots was a source of divine revelation, the origin of creativity and a supreme gift is reduced in our dull pragmatic age to a medical condition. Much as I am no medical person, I find it hard to agree with this viewpoint; if nothing else, Hildegard got a hell of a lot done for someone with a permanent bad headache.

The easiest way to get in touch with the essence of Hildegard von Bingen is to listen to some of her choral music. This is how I first heard about her, as I really like this kind of chilly expansive composition; early music of this kind feels like meditation that you can listen to, it puts you in a different place. Hildegard wrote music because she believed it was the most reliable route to spiritual experience, and that it put us in touch with a more ancient part of ourselves. I think it’s the music of mountaintops, made up of voices as cold and pure as ice. A world of whiteness, against which it is perhaps easier to spot the creeping greenness of our spirits.


23 thoughts on “Girl Power

  1. I was planning on writing about her as well as I have bought a few recent biographies. She has been an important part in my life since my teens. We have Hildegard shops here where you can buy her books and food and herbal remedies.
    I like her music a lot. I watched Vision not long ago, Margarethe von Trotta’s movie and it’s very, very well done. That’s a movie you should watch. She captures her spirit well and her relationship to Richardis was hearbbreaking.
    Here is the link. Unfortunately it’s in German.
    I read Oliver Sacks book on migraine and she is mentioned a lot. That was why I first felt an affinity. And of course because she didn’t stick to one thing but covered so many different things in her life.
    An amazing woman.

    • Caroline – how I wish my German were better! I should have known that my culturally educated readers would know about her already – I figured no one would! Instead you give me links I had no idea about… well, blogging is wonderful that way. And fancy being able to visit a Hildegard shop; there’s something splendid and sort of awfully 21st century about that.

      • I actually wanted to ask you whether there are shops like that In the UK? It seems not.
        People in German speaking countries come to her from so many different directions. I would say the music is far less known than her thoughts on healing and nutrition.
        I have one CD sung by Emma Kirkby. She has a lovely voice.

  2. I love the idea of greeness! I also like how you have connected it to the human spirit too. Declaring that Hildegard had migraines does take the wonder and mystery and beauty out of here visions doesn’t it? I much prefer the mystery. And can I just say how much I love your photo captions? 🙂

    • Stefanie – oh I’m so glad you do. The captions are some of my favourite bits to write! And so glad you love the idea of greenness – I have been very taken with it ever since I read about it.

    • Lilian – thank you for the link – that’s wonderful! You are also an Arvo Part fan like me, yes? I think the music is in a similar vein. As for Hildegard, I think she is such an interesting person.

  3. A migraine? Forget it. As someone who has suffered from migraines for years, I promise they are anything but enlightening. I hate the way modern science so much wants to explain away mystery rather than just embracing it and saying, “We don’t know what that is or why it happens. Maybe one day we will.” And, now, of course, you’ve made me want to read books about dear old Hildegard.

    • Emily – well I’m glad you think that too! I can’t quite believe that poor Hildegard suffered migraines all the time (which we would have to believe), even though occasionally she declared that her gift made her take to her bed. Life alone occasionally makes me take to mine. I would so much rather have a bit of mystery left, too.

  4. Girl power indeed. What achievements for a female during that time. Your article is informative and interesting, particularly the modern day de-mythicizing of anything that cannot be proven empirically. I’ve heard of Hildegard von Bingen when my son was studying music history when he was a young piano student. Now, I must go and listen to some of her works on YouTube.

    • Arti – isn’t she amazing? Such determination. How interesting, too, to think that her music features on university courses. Do go and listen to her – I find her work extremely soothing.

  5. I love her music and this post is just beautiful. We are so prosaic compared to the medievals, for better or worse. Isn’t Joan of Arc supposed now to have been schizophrenic?

    • Helen, oh thank you. As for Joan of Arc – lol! At the very least schizophrenic, I imagine! Don’t we just try to wring the fun out of anything with modern theories. Some I like, Beethoven and his deafness for instance, but this one did seem like it was trying too hard!

    • Never any need to take my word for it! Do have the octopus legs, dear Jenny, if you would like them. I agree that the octopus does not get its due in iconography. 🙂

  6. Litlove, you may be interested in _Religion and the Decline of Magic_, maybe by Keith Thomas? It has to do with some of the passing away of a world where old ways of thinking were replaced by religion. Science and the Decline of Folklore could be the title of a sequel, if anyone was to write it.

    Nice post. Raised a Catholic, I heard a lot about saints. Blaise Cendrars’ _Sky_ (english title), which came out in the 1990s, has things on them from an… idiosyncratic perspective.

    • Jeff, thank you for those interesting suggestions! After a long break away from it, I’ve been interested in reading up about all paranormal phenomena again, or at least the historical forms they take, like spiritualism, vision and hallucination, magic and so on. And Blaise Cendrars is another of those authors that I really must get around to reading.

  7. I too first heard of her through her music, which was playing in a museum in France dedicated to the building of medieval cathedrals. I don’t know enough about her, and I’d like to know more and to read her writings. That thing about the migraines is a perfect illustration of the sad way modern science pours cold water on anything that cannot be dissected under a microscope.

    • Harriet – oh it must have been wonderful to come across her music like that. She is such an atmospheric composer. And I do so agree – we lose out a great deal if we have to find scientific explanations for everything.

  8. Of all the many things I enjoyed about this excellent and insightful essay, the clarification about the “octopus legs” was far and away my favorite. 🙂 But your closing observation is stunning. Hildegard’s music is fascinating, and so is she. Thanks for this wonderful start to my morning.

  9. I had heard of Hildegard but never really knew anything about her. After 750 years of staying power it seems she deserves to be known! She was multi-talented wasn’t she? I like the idea of spirituality as greenness–for someone who doesn’t feel very spiritual it’s a nice idea and one I think I can understand and relate to!

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