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Hildegard von Bingen, Boss Lady of the 12th Century

Our friend Hildegard was a force to be reckoned with in the 12th century, when women were still regarded as equal to 2 oxen and a trunk full of tablecloths. She purchased and renovated properties on behalf of the church, composed music that is still in the common sacred repertoire 900 years later, was a philosopher, and an all-around incredible woman who accomplished more in her lifetime than most men did during that time period. So, what’s the deal? Who was Hildegard of Bingen? And what is a Bingen?

portrait of Hildegard Von Bingen
Hildegard Von Bingen, via Wikimedia Commons

Hildegard was from Bingen, a town in Germany that is about 2 hours south of Cologne. She was born to parents of lower nobility and offered to the church as an oblate, or person offered to the church in service, either for political posturing or due to her sicknesses and “visions,” which could have been caused by a number of neurological conditions, including chronic migraines or epilepsy. Many followers of the Catholic church argue that her visions were miracles, and should prove her saintliness. Hildegard herself noticed a strong correlation with her visions and physical ailments, and she kept her thoughts to herself and only told her Mentor, an anchoress named Jutta. Anchoresses were different from nuns in that they lived a cloistered and mostly silent life, dedicated to the church teachings and good works. Hildegard was elected as the leader of the convent when she was 38 years old, and didn’t hesitate to start changing the church. She continued her studies in music, philosophy, literature, and doctrine, and encouraged the other women to follow suit. Followers and cynics alike spread the news of Hildegard von Bingen, and soon the stories of an abbess preaching and teaching reached Pope Eugenius III in 1148. He studied incomplete portions of her first composition, Scivias, and sent her his blessing, a confirmation that her music was divinely inspired. This affirmation from the church allowed Hildegard to compose more works without scrutiny, and she went on to write the Liber Vitae Meritorum and the Liber Devinorum Operum, which outlined the doctrine. All three of these works were inspired by her visions.

In 1151, she wrote the first liturgical play, which evolved into the oratorio in the 1700’s with the help of George Frederic Handel. This play, titled Ordo Virtutum, or Order of the Virtues in English, is about the struggle for a human soul, pitting the virtues against the devil. There are 82 different melodies, sung in plainchant as per the usual for the time period. The devil, however, does not sing, but rather growls and shouts, because Hildegard argued that evil cannot produce beauty.

While she was busy composing, she was also moving her nuns to a larger building, the Rupertsberg Convent, in 1150. She endured harsh scrutiny from the surrounding community which suggested that the convent was a drain on resources and unable to be self-sufficient. As a response, Hildegard loosened the restrictions on convent life, which attracted wealthier women to be nuns – which pulled the convent out of debt. She argued that wearing jewelry was not a selfish act, but rather a praise to God. She allowed these new recruits to continue certain aspects of their old life of privilege, which in turn led to more new nuns, and grew her convent to 50 women, which was very large for that time.

In her 80’s, Hildegard attracted negative attention from the church, when she allowed an excommunicated nobleman to be buried in the cemetery at the convent. The arch-bishop ordered the body to be exhumed, but she hid the grave, leading to the excommunication of her entire convent and a ban placed on singing. She continued to defy authorities, refusing to dig up the excommunicated man, and repeatedly appealed to higher-ups until the ban on singing was overturned, and the entirety of the Rupertsberg convent allowed back into the church.

Because of her run-ins with church authorities, she was not canonized as a saint until 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI finally recognized her as a saint, and months later named her as a Doctor of the Church, which means that her writings are now officially recognized as church doctrine. She is only the fourth woman to be given this honor, following Catherine of Siena (1970), Theresa of Avila (1970), and Terese of Liseux (1997). There are 31 male Doctors of the Church. It is worth noting that she was considered a saint by the community and by the Church of England since her death in 1179.

Many academics will decry Hildegard and argue against people recognizing her as a feminist due to some of her writings on the subject of women. On several occasions, she wrote that women are fragile and frail, and if God was sending women as messengers of the Word, then that proves the chaos of the times, not the rising role of the woman in society and the church. It is important to note that our very own Queen Elizabeth the First said something similar, when she stated that she had the “heart of a king” but the weak body of a woman. These strong, powerful women, had to say what was necessary to keep the status quo and not upset those who would be offended at such an upstart of a woman. These words should not be taken out of the context of society during those times – their actions are what prove their feminist principles, even if those principles are not what we might consider “feminist” today.

Hildegard of Bingen is arguably the first known composer – though it should be taken into consideration that her position in the church is what assured the survival of her writings, and that many women before her were likely musicians and composers, but their works were lost to time or disregarded as the compositions of a woman. Regardless, Hildegard made some stunning contributions to the sacred repertoire, and was also likely the first woman to be allowed to preach on a tour of towns. Her influence is not debatable, and truly remarkable for a woman in the 12th century.

Close up of Hildegard of Bingen's work "De Spiritu Sancto"
Example of Hildegard von Bingen’s work, image courtesy of Hildegard.org

***Note: this was originally posted on Musically Notable, where I write about old music, new music, and everything in between.

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