A true (Pre) Renaissance Woman!
Hello everybody. Starting this year, I’m planning on posting at least once every week if not more. Make that a commitment. Anyway
This week I’m going to be discussing my 12th century favorite writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, nun, visionary, doctor, linguist, poet and illustrator of all time.
I also forgot to mention that she made a really good cookbook!
Of course, if you’ve heard of Hildegard Von Bingen before it is almost certainly for her musical compositions. So let’s just get this out of the way. First of all, you have to understand her role aas being an actual attributed medieval composer. That was a rarity back in the medieval era, with most songs not receiving any attribution at all.
The second thing you have to understand is that Hildegard was pushing the constraints of the music of her era, which if you know anything about it is essentially a lot of chants. For instance, take a look at this recording of Hermannus Contractus, a contemporary composer at the time.
The thing about Hildegard’s music is that the music just soars so much more. Nothing against Hermannus, an incredible figure in his own right but this is lovely to listen to.
We see a lot of surprisingly modern elements within Hildegard’s music. It pushes the boundary of the time period in a completely distinct fashion. Additionally, examine how melismatic the music is in comparison to Hermannus’s. It is really cool. Finally, the text is a lot more intimate than essentially all of our contemporaries at the time. It’s free verse, and highly original within the context of the period which she composed in.
Music was always an important element in Hildegard’s life. She believed it as being the highest form of prayer, a medium which divinely united heaven and earth and had a form of spiritual beauty unlike anything else. Hildegard near the end of her life was actually forbidden from singing due to an interdict (essentially mass excommunication) from the church when they refused to dig up the body of a man in their monastery. One of the punishments were the forbidding of singing absolutely anything.
As a result, Hildegard wrote an angry letter to the archbishop which basically threatened that the archbishop would go to hell unless he lifted the interdict. Which he did, just a few months before her death.
This will be brought up later but also Hildegard essentially wrote the first musical in Ordo Virtutum which is pretty freaking cool.
If you’re further interested in her music, A Feather on the Breath of God (Gothic Voices, 1985) is one of the best albums of her work.
All in all, this quote from her sums up
“There is the music of heaven in all things. But we have forgotten to hear it until we sing.”
Just an all out outstanding composer in the history of classical music.
This one is a personal favorite of mine, just because I think it is extremely cool. Alright, so do you guys know what a conlang is? It’s exactly what you think it is. It’s a language consciously deviced and created, think like Klingon. The most widely spoken conlang is Esperanto, with around 100,000 speakers worldwide. You can find out more about it here.
So yeah,. Hildegard was known to claim divine inspiration for her works, like her music for example. This also applies in the case of the conlang she created, which was a set of 23 letters. All that remains of the language is 1011 words and a few short manuscripts containing the language. There is very little other information about this language, with even her contemporaries noting that the knowledge of it would be lost after her death.
The only idea regarding grammar with Litterae Ignotae is that it seems like it has a similar grammar structure to Latin. Therefore in that case it looks like it may be a reflexation, which is taking one language’s vocabulary and substituting it into another’s grammar. But yeah, that is all there is to Litterae Ignotae. Fun fact, if you were to consider this to be a conlang this would absolutely be the first one by far. The consensus first conlangs don’t show up until the 16th century!
This one is also pretty neat! Health had appered a lot in Hildegard’s writings before, but in 1151 she wrote the book Physica. This work was a lot more down to earth than her spiritual writings, being a legitimately fairly comprehensive list of scientific and medical properties of various things. Everything from fish to animals to plants was carefully documented. It’s 16 chapters long and tells you about stuff like how to cure rabies or surprisingly preserve beer using hops.
However, Physica cannot even hope to compare to her next work. Hildegard’s Causae et curae is an immense work with over 300 chapters of information. Hildegard even bothered to discuss women’s health as well in sections on relevant issues such as menustral cramps. It is amazing what you can write when you don’t subscribe to Aristotlean assertations of sex, and actually treat men and women equally. Now, I won’t say that this advice is good or even safe. Hildegard describes that you should take “the amount that a thirsty person can swallow in one gulp” blood from somebody which is just very not good. But, there are some legitimately true pieces of advice in there. Hildegard calls for a good diet, rest and moderation in activity as well as material cures over spiritual ones. She didn’t think of disease as a natural thing, but rather as a failing of the body which is pretty obvious to us today but not before. Additionally she even advocated for diagnosis via checking the patient’s blood, pulse, urine, and stool.
I’m of course skipping over all the weird stuff here, such as eating a goat liver for male infertility or the power of nature to cure people but it is remarkable for what it is. There is a reason why she is one of only four women to hold the position of Doctor of the Church, when Pope Benedict XVI anointed her to that position in 2012. No matter the veracity of the information today, you have to deeply admire the commitment to create such wide spanning and diverse medical texts in an area of limited information. It clearly worked too, as according to accounts many sick and suffering people were brought to her monastery to be healed.
Poet, Writer, Philosopher
I could spend a looong time discussing all of these individually, but that would probably delve into an overly lengthy discussion on theology and nobody wants to see that.
There are three primary theological writings to discuss when examining Hildegard’s visionary theology. We’ll first start by talking about Scivias
At this point, Hildegard was 42 and had been suffering from blinding visions since she was 5. Finally one day though she received a direct order from God to share her visions in writing and she did so. Surprisingly not without hesitation though, as indicated by a letter to St Bernard of Clavriux (who you might know about if you’ve read my research!)
In 1147 a delegation from Disibodenberg arrived at Hildegard’s convent and took a copy of the writings as they were at the time. Subsequently, Pope Eugene III not only approved of the writings but also authorized her to essentially write whatever she wanted with her visions.
By the way, in regards to the illustrations Hildegard almost certainly did not do them, but may have at least helped create an outline or dictate their content. This can be seen on the frontispiece
Tangent: Ordo Virtutum
So, Scivias has 26 visions described in details. The 26th one however is unique because it contains a play within it! After Hildegard describes her final vision and how she “saw the lucent sky, in which I heard different kinds of music (symphonia), marvelously embodying all the meanings I had heard before.”, we are treated to a set of 14 songs.
Afterwards, we get this really fascinating drama! It’s by far the earliest morality play, a play genre popular in 14th centuries. Baiscally all that happens in it is some angels, demons and personified concepts like “truth” try to convince a generic protagonist to their side. Unlike those morality plays, Hildegard’s is sung! It’s incredibly fortunate that both the text and the music have survived for so long, and it is quite cool to see how musical dramas even worked in an era of plainchant.
Shoutouts to the devil by the way, who can only yell or grunt in the play because singing is divine harmony.
Liber Vitae Meritorum
This one is pretty boring, so I’ll go fast. It espouses on the themes of Ordo Virtutum by continuing to place virtues against sins in these dramatic confrontations about life. It’s pretty cool!
Liber Divinorum Operum
Now this is more like it. Liber Divinorum Operum has some of the most dramatic and large scale visions Hildegard ever wrote about, worthy of “an extraordinary mystical vision”
It is very much difficult to describe the scope of Liber Divinorum Operum but I will try my best. Essentially it is this grand cosmic drama with the idea of divine love of God being at the middle. The first vision tells us everything from arc of salvation history, from the creation and fall of the angels, through the creation and fall of humans, to their redemption.
I saw as if the head of an eagle that had eyes of fire, in which
appeared the brilliance of the angels as in a mirror. But at the tip of the arc where the left wing
curves back there was as if a human face that shined like the brilliance of the stars.
In the remainder of the first part of the work, Hildegard goes on to discuss the place of humans within the vast universe. The next part looks at the beginning of Genesis through multiple intepretations. Finally, the third part uses this poetic and cosmological imagery to examine salvation history and the final judgement of God. Trust me, it’s a lot. I’ll leave a link here if you are interested in reading some insane stuff.
Yes, Hildegard Von Bingen was a brilliant creator but also a savvy political force. She exerted a tremendous amount of influence on Western Europe at the time, becoming friends with multiple Popes and Emperors. We have nearly 400 letters addressed to a variety of different political figures, which shed quite a bit of light upon her life. Hildegard traveled quite a bit as well which is astonishing given her gender, circumstances and the era. She even went places as far as Belgium, Switzerland and France!
The fact that she not only went on these tours but was widely accepted speaks to her power as an individual at the time. Keep in mind that she wasn’t just going to other monasteries to preach, Hildegard was preaching in front of large crowds publicly. It’s not like she was content to just give safe, bland sermons as well she actively denounced the church’s selling of offices and fervently called for reform. In an era where women’s voices were few and far between, hers rang out strikingly.
Frederick Barbarossa himself invited her to meet with him, and several years later praised her prophecy skills. All in all, she communicated with four popes, two Prussian emperors, King Henry II of England, and Phillip, Court of Flanders. Don’t forget the countless bishops, clergy and archbishops she talked with which are far too many to count. Finally, in regards to Saint Bernard and his relationship to Hildegard. Saint Bernard actually specifically sought out Hildegard to try and use her influence to spark interest in a Crusade which tells you a lot about how powerful she was. Seriously, Saint Bernard the guy who founded the Cistercian Order asking Hildegeard for help? Incredibly impressive.
All in all, there was so much more to talk about here. I could have discussed her poetry, minor theological works, lasting influence and so on. However I leave that to you the reader to do so. I think that Hildegard is legitimately on of the most fascinating figures in all of history. When we think of polymaths like Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Lebiniz and so on she should be right there in the pantheon. I hope that my post has taught you something new today and I look forward to seeing you next time.
What’s up next time? Well, my first foray in film criticism. See you then.