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Hildegard of Bingen: Medieval Visionary, Composer, Writer and Feminist Hildegard of Bingen: Medieval Visionary, Composer, Writer and Feminist
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-12-27 11:00:03
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On May 10, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI officially declared  Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Then on October 2012 he named her a  Doctor of the Church. She is the fourth woman in Church history to be so honored, after Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and Terese of Lisieux.

Before her canonization Hildegard of Bingen was known as a medieval mystic, prophet and visionary, a composer of music, writer of books on spirituality, apocalyptic vision, and prophecy, medicine, health and nutrition, and on nature. This was clearly a woman ahead of her times by at least four centuries. But more than a mystic she was a visionary prophetically revealing knowledge that she claimed she got from God. She was also a fierce critic of many secular and religious leaders of the times, most of them men. And that is what makes her so interesting. She has been identified as an early feminist because her thought and vision suggest a feminist perspective. One could envision such a woman in modern times, but astonishingly this one lived at the height of Medieval times and powerfully influenced them. It is enough to make us scratch our head in perplexity or perhaps reconsider our taken for granted assumptions on medieval times, the Catholic Church, Christianity in general, and, last but not least, feminism.

But before I presenting this extraordinary woman it is worth clarifying from the outset that while the interpretations and the comments are mine, the historical facts and documentation were researched and publicized by Jane Johnson and were not invented either by her or by me. Facts are facts. With that premise in mind, let us look at the historical facts: Hildegard was Born in Bemersheim (Böckelheim), West Franconia (now Germany), she was the tenth child of a well-to-do family. In 1106 her parents sent her to a 400-year-old Benedictine monastery which had only recently added a section for women. The Benedictines were the order of the Church which carried on a tradition of learning and education even in the darkest times of the Dark Ages (500 to 800 AD).

Jutta, the abbess, whom Hildegard later referred to later on as an "unlearned woman," taught Hildegard to read and to write. In that time, convents were often places of learning, a welcome home to women who had intellectual gifts. Universities had not sprung up yet with the possible exception of the University of Bologna. Hildegard, as was true of many other women in convents at the time, learned Latin, read the scriptures, and had access to many other books of religious and philosophical nature. Those who have traced the influences of ideas in her writings find that Hildegard must have read quite extensively and voraciously.

When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected unanimously as the new abbess. Later on she proceeded with what may be considered her first feminist act of defiance: rather than continue as part of a double house -- a monastery with units for men and for women -- Hildegard in 1148 decided to move the convent to Rupertsberg, where it was on its own, not directly under the supervision of a male house. This gave Hildegard considerable freedom as an administrator, and she traveled frequently in Germany and France. She claimed that she was following God's order in making this move, firmly opposing her abbot's opposition. Literally firmly: she assumed a rigid position, lying like a rock, until he gave his permission for the move. The move was completed in 1150.

The women who joined the convent were of wealthy backgrounds, and the convent did not discourage them from maintaining something of their lifestyle. Hildegard of Bingen withstood criticism of this practice, claiming that wearing jewelry to worship God was honoring God, not practicing selfishness. She spent the early years at Rupertsberg in illustrating ("illuminating") manuscripts. She lived at a time when, within the Benedictine movement, there was stress on the inner experience, personal meditation, an immediate relationship with God, and visions. It was also a time in Germany characterized by the striving between papal authority and the authority of the German (Holy Roman) emperor, and by a papal schism. Through her many letters she took to task both the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the archbishop of Main. She also wrote to such luminaries as King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

A final famous incident happened near the end of Hildegard's life, when she was in her eighties. She allowed a nobleman who had been excommunicated to be buried at the convent, seeing that he had last rites. She claimed she'd received word from God allowing the burial. But her ecclesiastical superiors intervened, and ordered the body exhumed. Hildegard defied the authorities by hiding the grave, and the authorities excommunicated the entire convent community. Most insultingly to Hildegard, the interdict prohibited the community from singing. She complied with the interdict, avoiding singing and communion, but did not comply with the command to exhume the corpse. Hildegard appealed the decision to yet higher church authorities, and finally had the interdict lifted.

The best-known writing of Hildegard of Bingen is a trilogy (1141–52) including Scivias, Liber Vitae Meritorum, (Book of the Life of Merits), and Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of the Divine Works). These include records of her visions -- many are apocalyptic -- and her explanations of scripture and salvation history. She also wrote plays, poetry, and music, and many of her hymns and song cycles are recorded today. She even wrote on medicine and nature -- and it's important to note that for Hildegard of Bingen, as for many in medieval times, theology, medicine, music, and similar topics were unitary, not separate spheres of knowledge. This unitary stance toward knowledge is later carried on into the Italian Renaissance which rediscovers Greco-Roman civilization and synthesizes it to Christianity.

At this point of our exploration the reader may ask: how does all this make Hildegard a feminist? Well, for one, she was a feminist not only because she was not afraid to challenge male-dominated authority but because she exercised considerably more authority than most women of her time, and she celebrated feminine community and beauty in her spiritual writings. She frequently used the metaphor of marriage to God, though this was not her invention nor a new metaphor and can be found in The Song of Songs of Solomon in the Old Testament. Her visions have female figures in them: Ecclesia, Caritas (heavenly love), Sapientia, and others. In her texts on medicine, she included topics which male writers usually did not, writing a whole text on what we'd today call gynecology. Clearly, she was a more prolific writer than most women of her era; more to the point, she was more prolific than most of the men of the time.

In the light of all this, perhaps we ought to reconsider once again our taken for granted premise that feminism is a purely modern phenomenon and what comes at the end is always better than what preceded it, a culminating triumphant rebellion, so to speak of women against a male-dominated view of the world. But if we, enlighten modern people, can find one such feminist in so-called “obscurantist” medieval times, perhaps the movement is not so novel as we’d like to believe and it may be worth to reconsider that view at the risk of reinventing the wheel.

I would suggest four urgent reconsideration: 1) perhaps the medieval Church was not so retrograde and obscurantist as the conventional wisdom and the current politically correct position would suggest. She may be in fact the one that actually saved ancient learning from barbarian destruction as I have previously argued in Ovi. 2) Perhaps a Church which honors and venerates a woman such as Mary and elevates her to the position of “mother of God,” and then elevates four women not only to sainthood but to the title of “doctors of the Church” cannot be so completely anti-feminist as she is often unfairly portrayed. 3) Perhaps a Church that promotes the relationship to God as a sort of marriage on an interpersonal level, (see the Song of Songs), cannot be considered so anti-sex and Puritanical as it is usually asserted. 4) Perhaps it is time for the enlightenment to enlighten itself?  


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The Ovi Team2012-12-27 16:14:47
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Beautiful article about an amazing woman. I am not sure if I can agree with the point that we should re examine our view of the church of the time. The example of those 4 women sounds more of an exception (opposed to how many men really?). What about the countless women that were tortured and burned or drowned as witches? The convent sounds more like a sanctuary of the grim reality of times and though I'm glad that a place like this existed, it sounds a bit of an island in dark times (probably recognized as such, is it a coincidence that mostly wealthy and educated women flocked to it? They were freed from social constraints of the time because even if wealthy they had no say in the choice of husband and were not entitled to inherit money or estate).

Emanuel Paparella2012-12-27 17:00:56

Frankly, I cannot say that the above comment comes as a surprise, in fact it was expected.

I will in the near future offer a more thorough response and point some of the “politically correct” misunderstanding on the Catholic Church still making their rounds in the "enlightened" 21st century.

Meanwhile, may I humbly suggest that readers of a similar frame of mind read an article I contributed to Ovi almost five years ago (March 2008) by the title “The Medieval Monks as Preservers of Western Civilization.” [open link above].

Emanuel Paparella2012-12-28 07:04:33
http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/2585 Cristopher Dawson and the Making of Europe (Jan. 28, 2008)

http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/4476 Anti-Catholicism: the Last Acceptable Bias? (5 June 2009)

M.M., focusing on the more positive aspect of your response, it is encouraging to know that you, and perhaps others, have found St. Hildegard an amazing woman. Indeed, all saints are amazing, and there are thousands of them in the Church. That is the other side of the coin of corruption and may explain the miracle of its persistence two thousand years late despite all predictions of its immediate demise.

When it comes to the proclamation of 4 women as doctors of the Church, I acknowledge your point that four women may be the exception, but 12% of a total of 33 doctors of the Church is certainly respectable and surely better than 0% and while it may be the exception that proves the rule of male chauvinism and prejudice against women in the Church, it may also be that it proves that the Church admits in principle that women as well as men can become saints and even doctors of the Church.

Jefferson who was no friend of clericals said that “the reason that Christianity is the best friend of the Government is because Christianity is the only religion that changes the heart.” Moreover, John Adams admitted that “I have attended public worship in all countries and with all sects and believe them all much better than no religion.” Food for thought in those two statements.

I readely acknowledge that the Inquisitorial trials and burning of witches both in Catholicism and Protestantism is a reprehensible practice merely on a humanitarian level, never mind the religious level, no matter the repugnant rationalizations accompanying them: that a body has to be burned to save a soul. There are of course other blemishes on an institution that is not yet the heavenly Church triumphant, but the pilgrim Church on earth on an arduous journey throughout history made up of imperfect human beings.

Religion can certainly be abused and it has when it is converted in some kind of fanatical ideology, but that sad fact does not take away its use, as that other doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas wrote and it certainly does not justify its being branded as a crime against humanity of which to be ashamed, as it was mindlessly proclaimed by another commentator not too long ago. The danger is that we end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater and that we merely engage in the unproductive practice of grinding an ax.

As you may or may not know, I have written at length on this issue of corruption in the Church and the abuses of religion. Please see the links above on two articles contributed in Ovi for more detail on the subject, if interested that is. What those articles delve with is the peculiar knee-jerk reaction on the part of modern “enlightened” man, beginning with Voltaire, to both Medieval times and the Church as being retrograde and obscurantist, when in fact the opposite can be argued: that it was the Church’s preservation of the ancient Greco-Roman manuscripts that saved Western civilization without having to reinvent the wheel, and allowed the Renaissance (the rebirth) to occur.

One last thought, if I may. We don’t really know how many witches were burned in medieval and Renaissance times. One would have been too many. Let us stipulate that there were thousands. Now, compare that with the reprehensible enormities of which a modern ideology of the 20th century such as Nazism was willing and capable of carrying out and did in fact carry out: the extermination of some eleven million innocent civilians including children, not to speak of some of the other ideologies. Perhaps pondering on that will lead you to consider this simple suggestion: that the so called modern “enlightenment” still needs to enlighten itself when it comes to its politically correct prejudice against religion in general and Christianity in particular.

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