Hildegard of Bingen: another in the line of cool medieval women mystics

Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen

In my quest to turn my library completely digital and get rid of all my paper books, I’m finally catching up on some of the books that have been on my shelf for years, and one of those “finally” books is Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age by Fiona Maddocks.

There’s a theme in this blog of late – Julian of Norwich, Hildegard – I’m clearly getting into female Christian mystics of the middle ages.  Maybe I should call this The Female Middle Ages Christian Mystic Blog.  That’s a bit narrowing, though, I suppose.

Anyway, like most college students who were into women’s studies and classical music, I became aware of Hildegard in the mid-90’s when I went through my Lilith Fair phase and, in addition to not shaving my legs for a year out of protest to the patriarchy, I also became fascinated by all things female, historical, and musical.  And so Hildegard and I began our on-again-off-again friendship.  Several years later I missed a flight out of Hahn (though it was on Ryanair, and so they called it Frankfurt, even though it’s nearly a 2 hour drive – same as how they call a flight into Stansted a flight to London).  Bingen is nearby Hahn, and so with my extra day waiting for the next flight, I made a little pilgrimage to see Bingen – there’s not much left from Hildegard’s time, nearly 1000 years ago – but it was a moving experience to be near the river that she would have looked out on.

Anyway, Hildegard was a nun who became famous as a mystic for her visions, and for her music.  She was one of the earliest female composers to have written her music down, and it is still performed today around the world.  When I first discovered her music, I wasn’t a fan.  I remember being disappointed in the Naxos cd, because I really didn’t “get” it.  It didn’t seem to have melodies in the way that I could recognize them.  There was no point or counterpoint.  No familiar rhythms.  No toe-tapping.  It seemed to not make sense or go together.

Hildegard depicted receiving a vision, while her monk secretary wrote it down.

Hildegard depicted receiving a vision, while her monk secretary wrote it down.

But that’s what medieval music – especially church music that nuns would have sang in services – was.  It was to help focus on God, on the Saints, on the Afterlife.  On your soul’s journey to the afterlife.  It wasn’t for tapping your toes.  Nowdays I find it wonderful music for meditation.  There are all these new-age albums designed to stimulate alpha or beta brainwaves (just search for them on youtube – they’re everywhere) but as much as I like them sometimes, I find that some good old fashioned Hildegard is just as focusing for me when I’m working or concentrating (or concentrating on not concentrating, which is an oxymoron of the first degree).

So Hildegard was a nun.  She was born around 1100, and started out in life, at about 8 years old, by going into a monastery with a teenaged girl, Jutta, who was becoming an anchoress.  These women would be confined to the monastery, and were dedicating their lives to prayer and study, and preparing for the next world with God.  In many ways they were dead to the actual physical world; many of the dedication ceremonies for an anchoress were also similar to a funeral service, where the spirit was being commended to Christ.

Hildegard’s family had dedicated her to the monastery, and she joined Jutta for instruction.  After nearly 30 years, Jutta died, and Hildegard finally came into her own, finally embracing everything that made her special and stepping into her own light at a time when most women, not expected to live much past 40, were preparing for death.  Hildegard had experienced visions her entire life, and she finally admitted the visions to a monk in the monastery, who supported her and wrote the visions down.  The Pope sanctioned her visions, and she was free to write them down and continue to embrace them.  Modern scholars tend to think that her visions were migraines, but it doesn’t really matter – to Hildegard, and her fellow monks and nuns, she was having visions.

Her monastery became famous with people from the surrounding areas coming to her for advice.  She was a church celebrity.  Noble families all around were sending their daughters to her for instruction and spiritual guidance.  She wound up founding her own monastery in Bingen.  Some of her fellow nuns were jealous – there’s a letter from one, Tenxwind von Andernach, head of a rival monastery, which is dripping with sarcasm, about how Hildegard is so holy, but yet she still lets her nuns wear clothing unbefitting to her understanding of what nuns should wear, and can she please explain to her, since she is not so educated as Hildegard, how she came to understand that nuns could dress in such a fancy way?

You can’t please everyone.

Anyway, Hildegard built up her new monastery and spent the rest of her long life (living until she was 81) writing, composing, and giving spiritual leadership.  I take a lot of comfort in the idea that this woman didn’t fully start to realize her potential until she was old by medieval standards, and yet the most prolific part of her life came in its second half.

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