Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

1.6: Hildegard of Bingen

  • Page ID
    72499
  • Now let’s learn about one of the truly fascinating figures from this period, Hildegard of Bingen. While most plainchant was composed anonymously, Hildegard was an exception. She also authored texts on various subjects ranging from medicine to spiritual revelations which were later approved by church authorities.  Hildegard is a fascinating historical figure so the bulk of the Wikipedia article on the medieval composer and abbess is presented below and a careful reading of the entire article is recommended.  That said, the most important sections for your study are Introduction and Music.

    Introduction

    Saint Hildegard of Bingen, OSB, (1098 – 17 September 1179) also known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath.

    Hildegard was elected magistra by her fellow nuns in 1136; she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165. One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play. She wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, and poems, while supervising miniature illuminations in the Rupertsberg manuscript of her first work, Scivias.

    Although the history of her formal consideration is complicated, she has been recognized as a saint by branches of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. On 7 October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Church.

    Biography

    Hildegard’s exact date of birth is uncertain. She was born around the year 1098 to Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, a family of the free lower nobility in the service of the Count Meginhard of Sponheim. Sickly from birth, Hildegard is traditionally considered their youngest and tenth child, although there are records of seven older siblings. In her Vita, Hildegard states that from a very young age she had experienced visions.

    Monastic Life

    Perhaps due to Hildegard’s visions, or as a method of political positioning, Hildegard’s parents offered her as an oblate to the church. The date of Hildegard’s enclosure in the church is the subject of a contentious debate. Her Vita says she was enclosed with an older nun, Jutta, at the age of eight. However, Jutta’s enclosure date is known to be in 1112, when Hildegard would have been fourteen. Some scholars speculate that Hildegard was placed in the care of Jutta, the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim, at the age of eight, and the two women were enclosed together six years later. The written record of the Life of Jutta indicates that Hildegard probably assisted her in reciting the Psalms, working in the garden, and tending to the sick.

    In any case, Hildegard and Jutta were enclosed at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forestin what is now Germany. Jutta was also a visionary and thus attracted many followers who came to visit her at the enclosure. Hildegard tells us that Jutta taught her to read and write, but that she was unlearned and therefore incapable of teaching Hildegard Biblical interpretation. Hildegard and Jutta most likely prayed, meditated, read scriptures such as the psalter, and did handwork during the hours of the Divine Office. This might have been a time when Hildegard learned how to play the ten-stringed psaltery. Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard simple psalm notation. The time she studied music could have been the beginning of the compositions she would later create.

    Upon Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected as “magistra” of the community by her fellow nuns. Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg asked Hildegard to bePrioress, which would be under his authority. Hildegard, however, wanted more independence for herself and her nuns, and asked Abbot Kuno to allow them to move to Rupertsberg. This was to be a move towards poverty, from a stone complex that was well established to a temporary dwelling place. When the abbot declined Hildegard’s proposition, Hildegard went over his head and received the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz. Abbot Kuno did not relent until Hildegard was stricken by an illness that kept her paralyzed and unable to move from her bed, an event that she attributed to God’s unhappiness at her not following his orders to move her nuns to Rupertsberg. It was only when the Abbot himself could not move Hildegard that he decided to grant the nuns their own monastery. Hildegard and about twenty nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150, where Volmar served as provost, as well as Hildegard’s confessor and scribe. In 1165 Hildegard founded a second monastery for her nuns at Eibingen.

    Visions

    Hildegard says that she first saw “The Shade of the Living Light” at the age of three, and by the age of five she began to understand that she was experiencing visions. She used the term visio to this feature of her experience, and recognized that it was a gift that she could not explain to others. Hildegard explained that she saw all things in the light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Hildegard was hesitant to share her visions, confiding only to Jutta, who in turn told Volmar, Hildegard’s tutor and, later, secretary. Throughout her life, she continued to have many visions, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard received a vision she believed to be an instruction from God, to “write down that which you see and hear.” Still hesitant to record her visions, Hildegard became physically ill. The illustrations recorded in the book of Scivias were visions that Hildegard experienced, causing her great suffering and tribulations. In her first theological text, Scivias (“Know the Ways”), Hildegard describes her struggle within:

    But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close—though just barely—in ten years. (. . .) And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, ‘Cry out therefore, and write thus!’

    It was between November 1147 and February 1148 at the synod in Trier that Pope Eugenus heard about Hildegard’s writings. It was from this that she received Papal approval to document her visions as revelations from the Holy Spirit giving her instant credence.

    On 17 September 1179, when Hildegard died, her sisters claimed they saw two streams of light appear in the skies and cross over the room where she was dying.

    Music

    Attention in recent decades to women of the medieval Church has led to a great deal of popular interest in Hildegard’s music. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, sixty-nine musical compositions, each with its own original poetic text, survive, and at least four other texts are known, though their musical notation has been lost. This is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers. Listen to O frondens virga from Ordo Virtutum.

    In addition to the Ordo Virtutum Hildegard composed many liturgical songs that were collected into a cycle called the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. The songs from the Symphonia are set to Hildegard’s own text and range from antiphons, hymns, and sequences, to responsories. Her music is described as monophonic, that is, consisting of exactly one melodic line. Its style is characterized by soaring melodies that can push the boundaries of the more staid ranges of traditional Gregorian chant. Though Hildegard’s music is often thought to stand outside the normal practices of monophonic monastic chant, current researchers are also exploring ways in which it may be viewed in comparison with her contemporaries, such as Hermannus Contractus. Another feature of Hildegard’s music is that it is highly melismatic, often with recurrent melodic units. Scholars also note the intimate relationship between music and text in Hildegard’s compositions, whose rhetorical features are often more distinct than is common in twelfth-century chant. As with all medieval chant notation, Hildegard’s music lacks any indication of tempo or rhythm; the surviving manuscripts employ late German style notation, which uses very ornamental neumes. The reverence for the Virgin Mary reflected in music shows how deeply influenced and inspired Hildegard of Bingen and her community were by the Virgin Mary and the saints. One of her better known works, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is a morality play. It is unsure when some of Hildegard’s compositions were composed, though the Ordo Virtutum is thought to have been composed as early as 1151. The morality play consists of monophonic melodies for the Anima (human soul) and 16 Virtues. There is also one speaking part for the Devil. Scholars assert that the role of the Devil would have been played by Volmar, while Hildegard’s nuns would have played the parts of Anima and the Virtues.

    The definition of viriditas or ‘greenness’ is an earthly expression of the heavenly in an integrity that overcomes dualisms. This ‘greenness’ or power of life appears frequently in Hildegard’s works.

    CC licensed content, Original
    CC licensed content, Shared previously
    • Was this article helpful?