Adventures in Feministory: Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess, magistra, composer, healer and author, one of the first female composers whose works are still intact. In an era where few women were allowed or able to read and write, Hildegard wrote songs, poems, theological texts and medicinal guides and even invented her own alphabet.

Hildegard was born the tenth child of a family of nobles in 1098; her parents, Hildebert and Mechthilde (put that in your baby name book and smoke it), offered her to the church as a tithe when she was a child. Her exact age at the time is uncertain, but even from a very young age, Hildegard experienced visions of what she called "the living light", in which she claimed to experience the light of God with all five senses. Hildegard was enclosed with the anchoress and fellow visionary Jutta in Disibondenberg (in what is now Germany) and stayed there for about thirty years, during which time there is no written record of her activities. However, this period is probably when she learned to write, notate music, play the psaltery and devise herbal healing methods.

It's likely that Hildegard would have been forgotten if she hadn't left such an extensive written record of her thoughts and studies. Nearly 80 of her compositions have survived, along with over a hundred letters to statesmen, emperors, saints and popes. Without her extensive writings, we would know almost nothing about her life, but she didn't even begin writing until a vision she received at the age of 42 instructed her to "write down that which you see and hear."

And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books... But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of god, I fell onto a bed of sickness.

Eventually, Hildegard began to write down her visions, which were collected into three books: Scivias ("Know the Way"), Liber vitae meritorum ("Book of Life's Merits") and De operatione Dei ("Of God's Activities"). Along with the books of her visions, she also wrote scientific texts on the causes and cures of various illnesses.

One of her best-known musical works is "Ordo Virtutum" (Play of the Virtues), a morality play in which the human soul, the Devil and sixteen Virtues interact. Hildegard also composed many liturgical songs based off her own religious writings that were collected into a cycle (the "Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum"). Most of her music is monophonic and highly melismatic, often with high melodies that were unusual for chants of the time. Hildegard considered music one of the purest forms of worship, and many of her songs praise the Virgin Mary, the saints and earthly expressions of the divine.

Even though Hildegard gave advice to other abbots and abbesses, gained positive recognition for her many works and even went on a number of preaching tours in an era when women, especially within the clergy, were banned from nearly every kind of social participation, she still called herself uneducated and insisted that everything she created came solely from visions of God. Crediting all her work to God did ensure that she was taken seriously by the church hierarchy, and she used this credibility to make her opinion heard on other church matters, like corruption and simony.

While many of her actions are feminist, Hildegard's religious writings often reinforce patriarchal ideas of the time in accordance with church beliefs: condemning masturbation and same-sex relations, referring to women as "weak", positing virginity as the highest level of spirituality. But she also expresses some ideas that are unique for the time: her views of heterosexual relations, for example are largely positive and emphasize female pleasure. For a nun, Hildegard sure knew a lot about sex; the following description could be a description of female orgasm, and an implication that female pleasure is an important part of conception:

When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man's seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman's sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.

She also posits that both men and women are made in God's image, a truly progressive notion for the time.

For humanity is God's complete work.... Man and woman are in this way so involved with each other that one of them is the work of the other. Without woman, man could not be called man; without man, woman could not be named woman. Thus woman is the work of man, while man is a sight full of consolation for woman. Neither of them could henceforth live without the other.

Hildegard's visions have been diagnosed by modern physicians as migraine. It's a testament to her intelligence and creativity that she was able to overcome what could have been a debilitating condition and instead became a musical and medieval icon. She has been beatified as a saint but not canonized; her saint's day is September 17, the day that she died in 1179.

by Sara Reihani
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6 Comments Have Been Posted

Historical Feminists

Thank you for this post! I've been doing a bunch of reading on feminism lately, and I've been pleasantly surprised to learn that feinism didn't begin with the Sufragettes in the U.S., contrary to what I've been taught all my life. It's amazing how long women have known and understood that they were getting the short end of the stick, and how long I've gone without ever knowing how many women have come before me.

Hildegard is one of many

Hildegard is one of many early Christian female mystics who used divine visions for a variety of reasons from engaging more closely with God to imbibing their ideas with veracity and authority, which would not have been possible as Christian women at the time. Hildegard corresponded with Popes and emperors and was able to form her own monastery. Catherine of Siena is another figure who achieved quite a lot by using the divine vision as a form of expression. She ended up being significant politically and, though she was illiterate, the work she dictated survives today.


Thanks for this post! It's nice to see her recognized someplace other than in my old music history books or courses. Her musical history was always fascinating to me, but it's nice that you've highlighted how she left her proactive mark as a woman, intellectual, healer and author as well.


Great post! An acquaintance told me about this musician a while ago, and for the life of me I couldn't remember her name...there can only be one medieval German composer-nun out there right? :) What beautiful music. Inspiring.

Nice to see

There's been a lot of new scholarship about the medieval period in the past few years. One of the most striking findings is that women in medieval times weren't as badly marginalised as previously assumed.

Upper-class women in the middle ages were always educated, they had inheritance rights, were allowed to own land, form trade associations/guilds (seamstresses and herbalists being the most common), and from contemporary illustrations were even allowed to study in universities (though they would never have been allowed to stay in students' accommodation). It seems most of the loss of those rights, especially around property, happened in Puritan times, when the reformers pushed for a more Old Testament attitude towards women. Female missionaries and writers were not uncommon in medieval times, Catherine of Siena and Hildegard simply being the most famous.

Finally, medieval attitudes towards sexuality were a lot more varied than we give credit for. It was assumed that non-virginal women actually needed intercourse, to balance the humours (an ancient Roman concept), and the idea of men and women both being made in God's image goes right back to St Paul ('in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, woman not man'). While there was a lot of speculation by philosophers, and a lot of misinformation later during the Renaissance, it was never doubted that women were fully human. More importantly, they saw sex and reproduction as two parts of the same thing, without the schizophrenic separation we see today.


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