Frequently Asked Questions about Hildegard

- updated 27 June, 2008

In the last 10 years, our understanding of the medieval world has been revolutionized by two remarkable things: One (1), the new critical editions produced by Turnhout: Brepols Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaeualis (replacing PL 197 and Pitra); Two(2), digital technology which has facilitated our access to source manuscripts and enabled spontaneous dialogue with world scholars and enthusiasts. This explosion of intellectual interaction has placed us today in a better position to contextualize Hildegard's life and works among her contemporaries.

The FAQ sheet below is intended to highlight some of the contentious issues in Hildegard scholarship in the form of most Frequently Asked Questions about Hildegard. It also serves to contextualize her life and works within the scope of 12th century Rhineland, dispelling the popular myths that the Middle Ages were a period of ignorance and superstition.

The answers below are based upon the most recent primary source study and reflect the current trends, perspectives, and debates in Hildegard scholarship. As such, we can expect this FAQ sheet to be clarified and updated as more evidence comes to light. The spirit of this FAQ sheet is drawn from Friedrich Nietzsche's famous quote, "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." Being such, we are reminded that the role of the historian is not to simply recount facts and events for rote memorization in order to create an unshakeable foundation for belief, but rather to provide methods and perspectives on how to determine and use sources for exploration into a variety of perspectives: historical, generational, cultural, political etc.

[Updates and corrections to this FAQ should be directed to Christian McGuire, Webmaster. Please be sure to include a source footnote.]

Contents

Where and When did Hildegard von Bingen live?
Is Hildegard a Saint?
Was she an Abbess?
Who served as her Prepositi?
Why was she allowed to travel and preach?
Why wasn't she excommunicated for heresy?
Was Hildegard von Bingen a Lesbian?
Why does Hildegard seemingly use feminine and even sexual imagery when describing spiritual relationship with God?
Why does Hildegard's view of the Cosmos change from the egg-shape in Scivias to a wheel in Liber diuinorum operum?
Was Ordo uirtutem really an influence on the early development of Opera?
What is the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum?
What were Hildegard's musical influences?
Was Hildegard an Artist?
Describe Hildegard's correspondence

Where and When did Hildegard von Bingen live?
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Hildegard was born in 1098 is the small town of Bermersheim in the diocese of Mainz. She was the tenth child of Hildebert, a lesser noble in service to the count of Sponheim, and his wife, Mechtild. When Hildegard was 8 years old, she was enclosed with Jutta von Sponheim as an anchoress at the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. As magistra, Jutta taught Hildegard to read Latin and sing from the Psalter. Hildegard took her vows as a Benedictine nun sometime around 1112. In the next 25 years, more women joined their community. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected magistra.

In 1141, Hildegard began having her first serious visions which God commanded her to write down. This work is known as Scivias (Know the Ways). According to Hildegard's Uita, Pope Eugenius III endorsed her visions at the Synod of Trier 1147/48. In 1150, Hildegard founded her own convent at Rupertsberg followed by a second convent at Eibingen in 1163. It is during this time that Hildegard produced the majority of her works including her correspondence and preaching tours. Hildegard died on 17 of September 1179.

Is Hildegard a Saint? a Doctor of the Universal Church?
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In May of 2012 Pope Benedict XVI officially recognized Hildegard as a Saint. Up until then she was only venerated as a local Saint. Perhaps more imporantly on October 7th, 2012, the Pope proclaimed Hildegard a Doctor of the Universal Church citing that "Hildegard was a Benedictine nun in the heart of medieval Germany, an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of natural science and music." (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/angelus/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_reg_20120527_pentecoste_en.html) This will bring the total number of Church Doctors to 35 (4 of whom are women) and puts Hildegards writings on spiritual par with the likes of St. Augustine, St. Gregory I The Great, St. Isidore of Seville, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Her Feast Day is 17 of September.

Was she an Abbess?
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Today, Hildegard is commonly referred to as an abbess, but in the eyes of the Church, she was not. Hildegard was a magistra (i.e. a spiritual teacher). Her convents remained under the jurisdiction of the abbot of Disibodenberg (Abbott Kuno (-1155) and Abbott Helengerus (1155-1179) and correspondence between them show that the issue of jurisdiction was unsettled during her lifetime.

Apparently the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was the only official to refer to her as abbess. Frederick awarded a charter of imperial protection on 18 April 1163. (MGH, DDF.I 2/10:274-275) Ironically, Hildegard did not agree with Frederick's appointment of his own anti-Popes and Archbishops at Mainz (Conrad and Christian von Buch). Hildegard sided with Pope Alexander III. The issue between Frederick and the Papal See was resolved at the Peace of Venice in 1177.

Who served as her Prepositi
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The temporal jurisdiction of the Abbot of Disibodenberg over Rupertsberg and Eibingen was held by his prepositus. The prepositus oversaw the day to day affairs at the convent, served as the confessor, and in Hildegard's case also served to write down her works. Volmar served apparently from the very start of her literary career until his death in 1173. After this Hildegard and Helengerus battled in an intense letter writing campaign over who had the authority to choose Volmar's successor. In the interim Hildegard's brother, Hugo served followed by Gottfried. Gottfried, who also began writing Hildegard's Uita died in 1176. He was replaced by Guibert of Gembloux (1177-1181)

Why was she allowed to travel and Preach?
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In his overview of late medieval mysticism, Bernard McGinn relates a quote dated around 1290 from the Parisian master Henry of Ghent regarding the authority of women as teachers of theology. While women were not allowed to teach by ecclesiastical approbation, they were allowed to teach from grace. Henry states, "…speaking about teaching from divine favor and the fervor of [caritas], it is well allowed for a woman to teach just like anyone else, if she possesses sound doctrine." (Bernard McGinn, "The Changing Shape of Late Medieval Mysticism," Church History, Vol. 65, No.2 (Jun 1996), 209.)

Hildegard's writings speak with an authority not from schooled men of reason and learning, but by the gift of divine revelation bestowed upon her by the Holy Spirit. Like John the Evangelist, one of her favored Saints, this was a reward for her perpetual virginity. Her virginity, combined with her virtue of humility and paupercula feminea forma, bestowed upon Hildegard wisdom, the understanding through divine revelation. Her writings, though filled with natural metaphors, remain wholly orthodox and therefore express revealed exegesis. Upon her then is bestowed an authority near, if not at, the same level granted John the Evangelist.

Nonetheless, Hans Lieberschutz and Peter Dronke have been instrumental in uncovering Hildegard's "literary debts" and creating critical apparatus for her works. Dronke notes, "The problems of ascertaining the extent of Hildegard's reading and the sources of her language and style have remained for the most part unresolved; their resolution still confronts us with formidable difficulties. This is largely because, writing as a prophet and not as a litterata, Hildegard never cites any learned texts explicitly - only the Bible." ["Hildegardis Bingensis, Liber diuinorum operum," ed. A. Derolez and P. Dronke, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaeualis, 92. (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996) Introduction, xiii]

Why wasn't she excommunicated for Heresy?
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The simple answer is that she never wrote or said anything which was considered heretical.

Was Hildegard von Bingen a Lesbian?
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Probably not. If Hildegard engaged in sexual relations with anyone, it would have meant an end to her authority of divine revelation. Hildegard's writings are also very explicit about the penalties of temporal love. Of course it is difficulty to infer sexuality on any historical figure, the LGBTQA argument seems to have had its origins in the letters regarding Richardis von Stade, a nun and apparently close confidant of Hildegard. Richardis had been selected as abbess of Bassum, (under the influence of Richardis' powerful mother.) Hildegard in no uncertain terms expressed to the temporal authorities that this was a bad idea. Hildegard's request was denied but sadly Richardis died in 1152.

Why does Hildegard seemingly use feminine and even sexual imagery when describing spiritual relationship with God?
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While it is more than noteworthy that as a female writer in a male dominated world, the depth of Hildegard's writings (and the fact that they were preserved) provide us with an important perspective in Rhineland spiritual life in the 12th century, it is essential that modern readers understand that Hildegard was building upon an already established tradition. The influence of Honorius Augustodunensis' (1070-1139) Commentaries on the Feast of the Assumption loomed large over the 12th century. This first Marian interpretation of the Song of Solomon kindled the flame of Marian devotion which spread throughout Western Europe. Further, the rediscovery of commentaries on the Songs by the patristic father Origen provided Bernard of Clairvaux with the inspiration for his most famous Sermons on the same subject. These works describe the soul (anima) or Church (ecclesia) as the ideal "Bride of Christ." Speaking of virtues in the feminine was also natural among these writers as in Latin; their grammatical gender is feminine.

Why does Hildegard's view of the Cosmos change from the egg-shape in Scivias to a wheel in Liber diuinorum operum?
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In Scivias (1141-1151) Hildegard describes the cosmos as egg shaped. In the Liber diuinorum operum (1163-1173) she describes it as a wheel. Hildegard explains that "…the shape of the world exists everlastingly in the knowledge of [true Caritas] which is God…" The discrepancy exists because neither egg nor wheel provide a satisfactory analogy. The egg was used in Scivias to reveal the distinct elements which make up the world. The wheel is better suited for describing both the circumference and right measurement of those same elements. Hildegard then concludes that a ball is yet a better analogy.(LDO, 1.2.3, 66.)
Sabina Flanigan, in noting these clarifications points out that Hildegard compared her works prior to the LDO to those of the Old Testament Prophets. Their works were but shadows of true meaning that were not fully revealed until after the Incarnation.
But reason gives utterance and the sound is like thought and the work like a deed. And from this shadow the book Scivias came forth by means of a woman who was herself a shadow of health and strength, lacking such forces. (LDO 2.8. quoted in Sabina Flanigan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life. (London: Routledge, 1989; reprint, New York: Routledge, 1993), 154-153)

Was Ordo uirtutem really an influence on the early development of Opera?
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Probably not. Hildegard's Ordo uirtutem (ca. 1150) is regarded as the first known morality play set to music by an identifiable composer. It has been suggested by Peter Dronke et al. that it was intended as part of the celebratory dedication of Rupertsberg. As far as its possible influence in the invention of opera: While the Florentine Camerata (late 16th century) might have been aware of her works, the influence of Hildegard seems unlikely. The Florentine Camerata were primarily concerned with representations of Ancient Greek music & drama, namely how to combine music with words to move the passions of the performer and audience.

What is the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum?
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The Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations), is a collection of 77 chants with melody and rubrication indicating liturgical use (Jeffries notes that it is unclear if these rubrics are even accurate leading modern scholars to speculate if all of the chants were intended for use in the Divine Office or Mass, or as Newman has suggested as part of Hildegard's sermons.)

The most complete 12th century collections of these chants exist in the Dendermonde Codex Ms. 9 (ca. 1174/75), and the Riesencodex Hs.2 (ca. 1180). Hildegard mentions the Symphonia specifically in the introduction to her Liber vitae meritorum. According to this account, she wrote the Symphonia between the years 1151-1158, after she had moved to Rupertsberg. As more evidence is uncovered, it is now widely accepted that what exists in the aforementioned manuscripts include compositions written before her move to Rupertsberg and quite possibly after 1158. It remains unclear if what appears in the manuscripts is the complete Symphonia at all.

Barbara Newman has provided the critical edition on the Symphonia texts, most recently appearing in Hildegard's Opera Minora (Brepols: Turnhout 2007). Newman has provided a general table indicating when when the texts may have been written.

What were Hildegard's musical influences
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Another debatable issue surrounds the originality of Hildegard compositions in the context of the various liturgical practices (Hirsau Reform, Augustine, Cisertcian Reform to name a few). Today's popular misconceptions of her music are based upon the limited knowledge of the competing and developing liturgical practices and theoritical writings circulating in the 12th century. These misconceptions have been perpetuated in both undergraduate music history text books which present only a general view of medieval music theory from a 16th century perspective, and 19th century generalizations adopted when creating the Liber Usualis et al.

Three of the most recent 21st century perspectives regarding Hildegard's liturgical practice include: Margot Fassler et al. have been working on the influence of the Hirsau reform at Disibodenberg on Hildegard's musical practice, which indeed is a logical assumption as Hildegard spent nearly 40 years of her daily life listening to the Benedictine monks. It is only natural then that those chants would have provided her first substantial influence prior to her Move to Rupertsberg (ca. 1150)

Barbara Stuhlmeyer has provided an in depth account in her book, Die Gesange der Hildegard von Bingen: eine musikologische, theologische und kulturhistorische Untersuchung (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2003). Honey Meconi's Early Music review of Stuhlmeyer's work states, "Dispelling the notion that there is nothing with which to compare Hildegard’s compositions, Stuhlmeyer draws mostly on her own discoveries to discuss three offices (the Liudger Office from the Benedictine Monastery of Essen-Werden, the Willehad Office from Bremen Cathedral, and the Ursula Office from the Civitatense Antiphoner) as well as works by Hildegard’s close contemporary, Peter Abelard. She concludes that Hildegard’s style, though individualistic, is compatible in many respects with 12th-century compositional practice and melodic structure."

Christian McGuire also notes that only 9 Hildegard melodies really stand out for their wide ambitus, 7 of which correspond to the 14 texts Newman states were written prior to Hildegard's move to Rupertsberg. Building upon Richard Witts hypothesis about a Cistercian Hildegard, he asserts that though Hildegard may not have been Cistercian, there are numerous indicators to suggest a Cistercian influenced liturgy: 1) Hildegard's poor relationship with Disibodenberg, 2)her good relationship with Cistercian officials, 3) she sent Dendermonde Ms. 9 to a Cistercian monastery, 4) Hildegard was composing amidst the Cistercian liturgical reform (demonstrating that a number of Hildegard's melodies share remarkable compositional features to those composed under the RII Cistercian reform) 5) some of her compositions and feast subjects suggest that Dendermonde Ms. 9 was intended as a "supplemental antiphoner" for a deficient RI liturgy, probably handed down to women's communities as male communities revised their liturgical books.-- (Symphonia Caritatis: The Cistercian Chants of Hildegard von Bingen, University of Minnesota 2007)

Was Hildegard an Artist?
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This is a rather difficult question to ascertain. A natural starting point is to determine if the manuscript containing illuminations was created during Hildegard's lifetime. Madeline Caviness reminds us that the only illuminations that can be directly linked to Hildegard are contained in the Rupertsberg Scivias, which disappeared from Dresden during World War II, leaving only black and white microfilm copy.

One contentious manuscript is Lucca, Biblioteca Statale, MS 1942, which contains the famous illuminations from the Liber diuinorum operum. Peter Dronke describes this as a large parchment codex created by some Rhineland abbey in the first half of the 13th century. This would place the illuminations at least 20 or so years after Hildegard's death. Caviness makes a counter argument asserting that even though this may have been created after Hildegard's death, "...some of the core images is based on lost designs that Hildegard devised as she composed the text."

Describe Hildegard's correspondence
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Much has been mentioned regarding Hildegard's correspondence with Popes, Kings, Emperors etc, but Hildegard's impact as theological exegete and confidant found their greatest audience in abbots, abbesses, magistrae, monks, nuns, and bishops from other diocese. Lay people and pilgirms regarded her as an inspired visionary and spread her fame throughout Christendom. Nevertheless she was often contradicted by her local authorities who treated her "…from afar and with a wary respect, never as someone enjoying a papal sanction." [John van Engen, "Letters and the Public Persona of Hildegard of Bingen," in Hildegard von Bingen in Ihrem historischen Umfeld, ed. Alfred Havercamp (Mainz, 2000)].