Considered one of the most important figures of in the Middle Ages, Hildegard von Bingen accomplished many firsts for women by overcoming social restraints and prejudices that confined women of her time. At a time when few women wrote, she contributed a number of theological and visionary writings, and numerous secular and clerical leaders consulted her for advice, a respect few medieval women received. With her many written contributions and influence, she was an incredible woman even by today’s standards.
Hildegard was born in 1098 in the village of Bockelheim. As the tenth child of a noble family, she was dedicated at birth to the church. She began having visions at the age of three but hid them from her family for many years.
At the age of eight, her family sent her to Disibodenberg where Jutta, an anchoress, began teaching her. Like Hildegard, Jutta was born into a prominent family, and as a young woman dedicated her life to God. She became an anchoress, who led an ascetic life shut inside a small room usually built adjacent to a church, and only a small window linked her to the rest of the world. Most of her time was spent in prayer and contemplation. Jutta’s cell was an anchorage, but it included a door through which Hildegard entered and later other girls.
By the time Hildegard was 15, Jutta gained several followers and established a convent that followed the Rule of St. Benedict. Jutta provided Hildegard’s education, which was fairly elementary. She often felt inadequate in her education and always had secretaries help her write down her visions. Despite her limitations, she had a good understanding of language’s complexities and constructed intricate sentences with meanings on many levels. At 38, after Jutta’s death, she was elected head of the budding convent within the confines of the anchorage in Disibodenberg.
Up until this time, Hildegard was ashamed of her visions and only shared them with Jutta and a monk named Volmar, who became her secretary. She had a vision in 1141 giving her understanding of the meaning of religious writings and a commanded to write down the content of her visions. She, at first, hesitated to write because she felt inadequate about her ability, and she was convinced that she was punished for this after becoming ill for thirty days. After her illness, she began her writings and asked for the pope’s blessing to complete them. Following his approval, she finished Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord) which brought her fame in Germany as well as elsewhere.
In 1147, Hildegard left Disibodenberg, and, with 18 of her nuns, founded a new convent in Rupertsberg near Bingen. In early years, this new convent struggled, and the initial poverty caused some of the nuns to leave. The convent continued to struggle until when 1158 she reached an agreement with the Archbishop who agreed to regulate spiritual relations between Rupertsberg and Disibodenberg. She traveled extensively throughout Germany and Switzerland, as far as Paris. During her career, both clerical and lay people consulted her for advice. This led to correspondences with the likes of popes, emperors, kings, queens, counts and dukes.
During the last year of her life, Hildegard confronted one last major obstacle. She provided a Christian burial for a man who was excommunicated in the cemetery of St. Ruperts. She was ordered to remove it but refused. Her convent was placed under interdict, and no worship was allowed. She defended her actions, saying that the young man repented and received his sacraments, and the interdict was eventually revoked. She died September 17, 1179 in Rupertsberg and was buried before the altar of the church. Though called “saint” and had many miracles attributed to her, she was never canonized.
Along with Scivias, Hildegard had two other major works: Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits) and De Operatione Dei (Book of Divine Works). Hildegard wrote 72 songs, which were recorded in notations that one can read today. She also wrote a play set to music called Ordo Virtutum. Altogether, she completed nine books and seventy poems. Included in these works were scientific writings including works of plant and animal classification and studies of the human body. She gained a great deal of popularity in the late twentieth century with her visions drawing a great deal of attention as well the music she wrote which is now available on compact disc. It is generally agreed that she suffered from migraines, and her visions were most likely the result of this condition. The descriptions of her visions, including the precursors and the debilitating aftereffects, are clearly symptoms of migraine sufferers.
Hildegard von Bingen’s story is important not only for those interested in Medieval history but also those wanting to know women’s history. Not only did she gain more influence than most women of her time, she is also the first composer whose biography is known. Her accomplishments are impressive by many people’s standards and should serve as an inspiration to anyone who is looking to reach beyond his/her limitations and accomplish something great.