Posted on 8 August 2019
A leading light of medieval learning, Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179) was a German physician, philosopher, author, and mystic.
Hildegard was born into German nobility, and was the tenth child of Knight Hilderbert and his wife, Mechtild. It was decided upon her birth that her life would be devoted to religion, hence, upon reaching the age of eight, Hildegard was admitted into the Benedictine monastery in Mount St. Disibode to receive the education required for a nun.
She was brought up under the supervision of a reclusive nun, Jutta of Sponheim, who later became the Mother Superior. From infancy, Hildegard had mystical experiences that she would later name as ‘visio’, coming from the Latin ‘vision’. Her writings recall:
“I was only in my third year when I saw a heavenly light which made my soul tremble. But because I was just a child I could not speak out.”
Hildegard von Bingen
It wasn’t until aged 43, in 1141, that Hildegard began writing down her ‘visio’. These writings would form the basis for her first book Scivias (meaning Know the Ways), published 1152, in which she writes:
“And behold, in the forty-third year of my passing course, while I was intent upon a heavenly vision with great fear and tremulous effort, I saw a great splendor, in which a voice came from heaven saying to me: ‘O weak mortal, both ash of ash and rottenness of rottenness, say and write what you see and hear. But because you are fearful in speaking and simple in explaining and unlearned in writing these things, say and write them not according to human speech nor the understanding of human creativity.”
Hildegard von Bingen
Scivias records 26 of Hildegard’s visions and explains that she saw all things in the light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. It would be this visionary experience through the senses that led Hildegard in the footsteps of both the Natural Philosophers and the Mystics.
In contrast to her other writings which are presented in the form of visions, Hildegard’s scientific works are not written as prophecies. Between 1150 – 1158 she compiled and published Physica, a text on the natural sciences and the medical treatise Causae et Curae. In both texts, she describes the natural world and displays particular interest in the healing properties of plants, animals, and stones.
The Physica is a bulky nine-volume work which mainly deals with the medicinal uses of plants, the elements, trees, jewels and precious stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles, and metals. As an example, the entry on the plant Dornella is described as, “Cold, and that coldness is good and healthy and useful against fever that arises from bad food.”
The five volume Causae et Curae is also essentially a treatise on medicine, mixing Greek and Christian influences. Included is advice on how to keep your teeth healthy and firm, or the strengthening of diet for women who fail to menstruate – which at the time was often caused by malnutrition.
To the modern eye, Hildegard’s science appears rudimentary, but almost a millennium ago, her views were considered wise and she possessed a true curiosity to understand the natural world around her.
In addition, at a time when women were generally banned from social participation and interpreting scripture, she communicated with both popes and German emperors.
Although she was very much a product of her age and entertained some dim views on sex, she was well ahead of her time in her appreciation and recognition of the importance of sexual gratification for women. Despite presumably being a virgin herself, she may well be the first European to describe the female orgasm.
Hildegard was a strong advocate of reading, studying and discussing theology, taking warms baths, exercising regularly, singing and playing musical instruments.
In 1940, the Vatican acknowledged Hildegard’s devoutness and spirituality by making her a saint.
Image from www.planet-wissen.de/