This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.
The Catholic Church in the twelfth century did not allow women much opportunity for public ministry. The only role available to women in the church was as nuns in closed monastic communities. Although the abbesses that ran these monasteries could have a fair amount of political clout, their role as spiritual leaders was limited to their convent, and even then was exercised under the direction of a male priest. Although the secular world would become more and more open over the next centuries to women playing a role in public life, the Church did not follow suit.
The sole exception to the exclusion of women from leadership roles in the church was female mystics, women who received a direct experience of God that transcended reason. If authenticated by the Church, a mystic gained a great deal of influence since s/he had a kind of immediate relationship with God that went well beyond the experience of the church hierarchy. The middle ages saw many women mystics, most of whom had only a local following. The greatest mystic of the twelfth century, Hildegard von Bingen, was well known across Europe and had an influence far beyond any other woman in the church of her time.
Hildegard was the tenth child of a noble family. She started getting visions at about the age of 3, and realized what they were when she was 5. Perhaps because of the visions or perhaps as a way of improving their political position, her parents Hildebert and Mechthilde gave her to a monastery as an oblate at age 8.
Hildegard spent her first years in the monastery essentially as an apprentice to a nun named Jutta. Jutta was a visionary herself and attracted followers who visited her in the convent. When she died in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected magistra (“master,” or teacher) at the convent. At about the same time, the local abbot asked Hildegard to become prioress of the convent, which would have placed her under his authority. If she was going to run the convent, however, she wanted more independence, and so she went over the abbot’s head to the Archbishop, who granted her the right to start her own convent at Rupertsberg. She only made the move in 1150, fourteen years after Jutta’s death. She later founded another monastery at Eibingen.
In 1541, while she was fighting to get her own monastery, Hildegard received a vision in which God told her to “write down that which you see and hear.” Prior to this, she had only confided her visions to Jutta, who then told their confessor, a priest named Volmar, about them. Hildegard resisted following these instructions, but she got very sick as a result of her disobedience (as she interpreted it). She got better when she began to dictate the visions to Volmar, and over the next ten years she produced her first theological treatise, Scivias (“Know the Ways”). This was followed by two more, Liber vitae meritorum (“The book of life’s merits”) and Liber divinorum operum (“The book of divine work”), the last of which she completed at age 75. Each of these volumes consists of a description of her visions, then an interpretation of them drawn from Scripture. She also either painted or supervised the painting of some of these visions.
Hildegard’s writings were submitted to the bishop, who pronounced them as coming from God. They were then brought to the attention of Pope Eugenius III, who also approved them. As a result people began to write and visit Hildegard looking for help with physical healing and for spiritual advice.
Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because all of her life she had been weak and sickly, Hildegard developed expertise in medicine. She believed that Genesis taught that all things were made for the good of humanity, so she thought that herbs, water, animals, and precious stones all had healing properties. She wrote about these in another book, Causae et curae (“Cases and cures”), and produced a book on natural theology (essentially the same as natural science) entitled Physica.
As a recognized visionary, Hildegard earned the right to be heard in circles that otherwise would have paid no attention to an abbess of a small convent in the woods of Germany. She corresponded with four popes, one king, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa,(who invited her to meet with him personally), St. Bernard of Clairvaux, ten archbishops, nine bishops, forty-nine abbots (including the famous Abbot Suger from St. Denis outside of Paris, one of the most important clerics of his day), twenty-three abbesses, and many more members of the lower clergy. And that’s only in one manuscript of her writings; there are more letters in a second manuscript. Each of these either sought her advice or listened very carefully to her counsel when it came unsolicited. Altogether, nearly 400 of her letters survive.
In an era when very few priests preached, and women never did aside from abbesses and prioresses within their own convents, Hildegard was invited to do four separate preaching tours. She preached publicly, to both lay and clerical audiences, and focused on clerical abuses and church reform.
While doing all of this, she was also running her monastery and seeing to the spiritual life of her nuns. She wrote one of the earliest surviving morality plays, Ordo virtutum (“Play of the Virtues”) for them. Most famously, she produced an impressive body of liturgical music which is collected in a cycle entitled Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. Altogether, we have 69 of her songs (words and music), and the words for four more, making her one of the most prolific known composers of the period. These use soaring monophonic melodies (i.e. there is one line only, with no harmony) that break the mold of the liturgical music of the period. Among other things, the melodies are connected very closely to the emotions of the words, something which traditional chant did not do. Hildegard’s music is considered some of the finest produced in the Middle Ages.
After her death, Hildegard was one of the first people to go through the formal process of canonization by the Catholic Church, though perhaps because the process was so new it got bogged down and the process was not completed. Recently, the church hierarchy has restarted the procedure and is scheduled to declare her a saint and a Doctor of the Church (i.e. a teaching theologian) in October, 2012.
Even without canonization, however, Hildegard is a remarkable example of a woman who overcame tremendous physical challenges and the constraints placed upon her by her culture to accomplish great things and to influence her time for the Gospel. She took full advantage of all the gifts and opportunities God provided her, and had a tremendous impact in theology, politics, medicine, art, music, and church reform, as well as in the lives of the individuals she touched. That we can see the artwork and hear the music inspired by her visions today further extends her influence to our day and continues to bless people over eight centuries after her death.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.