Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is one of the most fascinating figures in a century of fascinating figures.  Her contemporaries included

Mystic, medical practitioner, theologian -- Hildegard was a woman who defied popes, lectured to princes, and preached to prelates, and yet died in her sleep in 1179, at the age of eighty-one.

An exciting century
Hildegard's life spanned the so-called twelfth-century renaissance.  This was an exciting and innovative period for Europe. It began with the First Crusade.

First Crusade: a military expedition undertaken by European Christians to end Islamic control of  biblical lands
For centuries, the Middle East had been a locus of invention and creativity, and the victory of the West in the First Crusade introduced the Latin West to numerous inventions and discoveries  from the Arabic East. These inventions and discoveries included:
  • new machines for producing energy (windmills and watermills)
  • a computational device called the astrolabe
  • the still 

The still introduced the West to distilled alcohol, what was sometimes called later the "fifth essence" or element (Quintessence), a phrase that more properly refers to a celestial element whose natural place is beyond the sphere of fire.

Not only new machines but also innovative concepts flowed from Arabia to Europe during the twelfth century, such as the numerical concept of zero and the mathematics of algebra.  Ancient Greek culture, including the philosophical and scientific works of Aristotle and the ancient medicine of Galen had been translated into Arabic and so preserved in the East. 

The Arabic East also introduced new medicines to Europe, such as sugar. Although today we do not think of sugar as a medicine, in medieval Arabia and medieval Europe, sugar was considered the most completely balanced medicine. New to Europe in Hildegard’s lifetime were many hundreds of medicinally-active herbs and spices  including:

  • nutmeg
  • clove
  • ginger
  • coffee.

Though we no longer think of them as such, all of these are intense, powerful medicines.

During her lifetime Hildegard and many other great minds gradually became acquainted with and assimilated these new concepts and these new technologies.  All of this led to a particularly exciting and fruitful period for Europe, known as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.

Early Life in the Rhineland, Germany
Hildegard began her life in the rural Rhineland of Germany, then a backwater part of Europe. She was born in 1098 as the tenth and last child of her parents, Hildebert and Mecthilde. Her family was well-to-do and well-connected.  Her father was a ministeriale.

ministeriale: an unfree but noble servant of the king

Several of Hildegard's brothers and sisters also entered the Church.  Her elder brother, Hugo, became cantor of the cathedral in Mainz.  Another brother, Rorich, became a canon at the monastery of Talley. Two of her sisters eventually became nuns at Hildegard's own monastery.

magister: A master of arts licensed to teach at a university

As was the custom of the time, Hildegard was sent away at age eight to be educated not by her own immediate family but by a relation, Jutta of Sponheim.  Jutta was about twenty years old and ran a small school for girls.

Jutta was an interesting and powerful woman in her own right.  She was the sister of the Count of Sponheim.  She had vowed to go on pilgrimage after she recovered from a serious illness as a teenager.  Her family refused to let her go but compromised by letting her become a nun. Jutta's school had three other girls in addition to Hildegard. Eventually all five women joined the newly built Benedictine monastery of  Disibodenberg .

monastery: a community bound by a vow to observe a religious life

When Hildegard entered the monastery at Disibodenburg it was still being built. Perhaps it did not look too different from the way it does today - Disibodenberg was destroyed during the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century. The women formed a separate female monastery within the male monastery, another innovation of the twelfth century known as the double monastery. This proved to be very significant for Hildegard's education and training because it meant that she had access to the much greater resources of the male monastery.  These included an excellent library and many well-traveled visitors who brought news of the new concepts just beginning to spread from the Arabic East. At fifteen Hildegard decided to become a Benedictine nun.

Wars of Religion: conflicts in Europe between Catholics and the newly emerging Protestants

Life as a Bendictine
The life of a Benedictine nun or monk was quite well-balanced. Daily life was divided into three activities (not counting sleep):

  • prayer , which meant chanting the psalms in church several times a day
  • study, which meant the careful reading of books
  • work, which could be gardening or cooking or writing.

Hildegard's became  the pigmentarius for the women's side of the monastery. The pigmentarius was a mixed role.  It involved being a  medical practitioner, gardener, and herbalist.  The pigmentarius was responsible for not only for diagnosing and treating patients but also for providing the treatments.  Most treatments were herbs, plants, and spices.

Consequently, the pigmentarius learned how to practice medicine as well as how to gather, identify, and prepare wild plants.  She also learned how to plant and grow a medicinal herb garden. Hildegard's training as both gardener and doctor affected her understanding of medicine and science. She brought her knowledge and experience with gardening and plants to her analysis of illness and disease.

Leadership and Writings
Hildegard's must have been a reasonably measured, quiet and peaceful life. But then, in 1136, Jutta, Hildegard's friend, teacher, and mentor died of a fever and Hildegard was elected magistra of the women’s side of Disibodenberg. She handed over her duties as pigmentarius to another nun, along with her first written work, Causes and Cures, a summary of her medical and herbal knowledge.

magistra: in this context, the leader

Six years later in 1142, Hildegard recorded a call from God to "write down what you see and hear" at the beginning of her first book of theology, Scivias (That you may know). The Scivias described the complex and remarkable spiritual visions she had experienced since she was a young girl.  It also contained her own unusual, though sophisticated, theological commentary on them. Her text was interspersed with the extraordinary illuminations that today make up the bulk of our visual inheritance from Hildegard.

illuminations: brightly colored decorations, particularly in gold and silver, often miniature pictures

The illustration from the first page of Scivias shows Hildegard sitting under the protection of the Church, writing her text on the black wax tablets. Peeking through the window is her dear friend and secretary, the monk Volmar.  Volmar copied  the draft onto the final version. Volmar broached the subject of Hildegard's unusual book with their abbot. The abbot then obtained permission from the Archbishop for Hildegard to continue her work. She finished Scivias in 1147, and the Pope himself read parts of it to the crusaders departing on the (not very successful) Second Crusade.

black wax tablets: these functioned in the Middle Ages as reusable writing surfaces

Indeed, Scivias created quite a stir. Hildegard became famous in Europe as a mystic, visionary, and writer. Visitors began to flock to Disibodenberg.  Numerous women joined the monastery as nuns.

Hildegard recorded that she received a new message from Jesus Christ. She informed her abbot that she had been commanded to leave Disibodenberg, and to take all of its nuns with her, along with their possessions and lands. She was to build a new, all-female monastery at a place called Rupertsberg, which was just across from the ancient Roman town of Bingen on the Rhine.

Disibodenberg's abbot was not happy at this turn of events. There followed several rocky months during which Hildegard took to her bed with some kind of illness.  She was unable to move, to write, or to see visitors. The abbot finally relented and gave Hildegard his permission for her very unusual departure, and she was miraculously cured.

A Productive, Innovative Life at Bingen
In 1150, Hildegard, and most (though not all!) of Disibodenberg's nuns left the monastery. Accompanied by friends and family, they made the two-day journey by horseback down the Nahe River to the Rhine.

When the party arrived at Rupertsberg, they found what Hildegard later described as a desolate and abandoned spot, occupied by only a single family. But villagers from Bingen pitched in and within only a few years, Hildegard had created a completely new, thriving monastery on the banks of the Rhine and Nahe Rivers.

In this photo you can just see the river Nahe where it meets the Rhine.  Hildegard's monastery was on the right, while up the river is the Roman bridge Drusus.  It still connects Rupertsberg to Bingen on the left bank.

Not only did Hildegard manage to build her monastery in record time, but during the decade 1150-1160, she also put it on firm financial footing. She solicited donations and inheritances from other monasteries, from her own family, and from the families of the other nuns. She received a tax exemption from the Holy Roman Emperor.

Hildegard created a unique culture for her nuns.  She designed controversial habits for her them—long white gowns with golden crowns!  She composed original and unusual music. For the dedication of her monastery's church she composed an entire "musical drama."  It was the Ordo Virtutem, which could be considered the first opera of the West. Several of the nuns sang the parts of the Virtues and the Vices, while Volmar sang the only male part - the devil.

Hildegard created some kind of private language for her monastery.  It was known as the Lingua Ignota. In reality it was more a glossary than a language.  What Hildegard used it for is unknown even to this day. There are about a thousand words, almost all nouns, for most of the concepts of Hildegard's world. They include words for:

  • God
  • pope
  • priest
  • book
  • quill
  • candle
  • all of the 200 medicinal plants Hildegard used in her medical books.

Hildegard expanded her first draft of Causes and Cures and composed a second natural-scientific text, the Physica.  It documented her wide and varied knowledge of plants, gems, fish and fowl. Taken together, these two natural-scientific and medicinal texts provide a unique source for understanding the practical scientific and medical knowledge not only of Hildegard but also of her time.

Declining Years and Controversy
From 1160-1175, Hildegard was even more productive. She wrote two other visionary texts with accompanying illuminations and commentary: the Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of Life's Merits) and the Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works). The latter, the product of the last years of her life, provided her overarching vision of a cosmos where God is both outside of Nature and inside and acting through Nature.

Hildegard continued to compose original and remarkable music, which amounts today to more than seventy Gregorian chants. She wrote two Saint's Lives: one of St. Rupert and one of St. Disibod.  She wrote a commentary on the Benedictine Rule, which is notable for its intelligent, gentle, and humane monasticism. She also continued an amazing correspondence of which more than 350 letters are extant today. Her respondents included most of the crowned heads of Europe—Henry II , Eleanor of Aquitaine , Frederick Barbarossa , and Louis VII , as well as popes and archbishops, bishops and priests, abbots and abbesses.

Hildegard received so many requests for admission to her monastery that she founded and built the second monastery you see here, at Eibingen, across the Rhine from Bingen. Although destroyed and its nuns disbanded in the nineteenth century, it was refounded and rebuilt in the twentieth. 

Today Hildegard's nuns continue to follow the Benedictine Rule, as well as to feed interest in Hildegard's religious thought. It was only through these nuns that we have a record of the original Scivias -  in the late 1920s the nuns hand-copied the original manuscript, which disappeared during World War II.

In her seventies, Hildegard was invited to preach to many monasteries, as well as to towns up and down the Rhine.  She did so on four separate trips. In fact she preached to crowds in some of the largest cathedrals of Germany. We have records of some of her sermons: she emphasized in particular that the clergy's concerns were too-secular, and said so in no uncertain terms!

Her last years, however, were difficult. Although she had become famous she had also aged.  Her friends and supporters had begun to die off. Disibodenberg began to baulk at sending her the priest she needed to perform many of the crucial functions of her two monasteries.  There were financial disagreements with Disibodenberg as well.

In 1179 she ordered the body of a friend buried in Rupertsberg's cemetery.  It was a man who had been excommunicated but who, she said, had repented before his death. The Pope refused to accept her version of events, and insisted she disinter the body.  As an excommunicate, the man had no right to be buried in holy ground.

Hildegard refused. In fact, she walked down to the cemetery with her baculus, stamped it on his grave, and then had the grave's identifying marks removed, so that the body could not be found.

baculus: a staff that served as the symbol of ecclesiastical power and authority as abbess

In response, the Pope put Rupertsberg under interdict.  That is to say, he effectively shut it down. This was a humiliating punishment, since it meant that all of the religious activities of the monastery were stopped. The candles on the altar were blown out, no services could be held, there was no daily chanting of the Psalms, and the monastery fell silent.

Though she was almost eighty, Hildegard began an intense political campaign to have the Pope lift the interdict without having to disinter her friend. She relentlessly wrote to every one she knew and eventually the Pope did relent. The interdict was rescinded and Hildegard died peacefully in her sleep, on September 17, 1179, at the age of eighty-one.

Death and Remembrance
After Hildegard's death, her friends and the nuns of her monastery made efforts to have her declared a saint. The Pope sent a group of interviewers to Rupertsberg to collect testimony about any miraculous interventions that could be documented. Their report of 1233 still exists in the Vatican, and it is one reason why we have so much near-contemporary evidence about her, albeit somewhat skewed. The Vatican never made a firm decision to make Hildegard a saint, although she has been honored as a popular saint since her death.

In the next several centuries, her memory and its estimation went through many changes. In the 1200s excerpts were compiled from her theological texts and presented as a book of prophecies. Hildegard was understood as a soothsayer and visionary.

popular saint: someone considered to be a saint by many people but not officially in the canon of saints of the Roman Catholic Church

In the 1800s Hildegard's medicine was rediscovered and she was seen as a nationalist German heroine. In the late twentieth century her music was recorded for the first time.  Her medicine acquired something of a cult status among alternative practitioners. But only in the last two decades have scholars devoted themselves to studying in depth the immense variety of Hildegard's work—her theology, her spirituality, her science, her music, and her medicine. Indeed, it can be said that today Hildegard is, after eight hundred years, only now being rediscovered, as a fascinating, brilliant, quintessentially medieval woman, who was, in a word—irrepressible.

Dronke, Peter. “Hildegard of Bingen.” In Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (+203) to Marguerite Porete (+1310), 144- 201, notes 306-15, edition of autobiographical section, 231-241. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1998.

Hildegard of Bingen. Holistic Healing. Translated by Pawlik, Manfred, translator of Latin text, Patrick Madigan, translator of German text, John Kulas, translator of Forward. Edited by Mary Palmquist and John Kulas. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996.

Sweet, Victoria. Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky: Hildegard of Bingen and Premodern Medicine. New York, London: Routledge, 2006.

--. “Hildegard of Bingen and the Greening of Medieval Medicine.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 73 (1999): 381-403.