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hildegard von bingen

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"I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows."

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), also known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, herbalist and overall polymath, who ruled her own monastery of Rupertsberg, high on a hill in rural Germany.







As was customary at the time, as the tenth child (tithe) of a noble family, Hildegard was dedicated to the church at birth, where her religious education was given to her by the charismatic teenage anchoress Jutta.
As an anchoress, or 'one who had retired from the world', Jutta would live inside the one-room stone shelter of the monastery, closed from the outside except for one small window, where she would educate the daughter's of noble families. In Hildegard's later years, upon Jutta's death (1136), she would take up the role as the unofficial abbess of Disibodenberg, where in 1141, Hildegard would begin to articulate the visions that had accompanied her from a very young age.


“Despite being a respected woman of obvious intellect, some scholars question how Hildegard was able to gain the admiration and attention that she did, considering the general attitude the Church held towards women in the twelfth century.”





Despite the structural inequalities of the medieval period that rendered it almost impossible for women (or anyone outside of the church) to have their voices heard within society, the religious institutions of the middle ages were somewhat of a defining period for women, who without learning the scribal craft, and in some cases re-writing religious texts with predominantly male-inflected language, would have been totally isolated from the religion.
In Anglo-Saxon England, for example, religious women had an inclusive place in the world of writing and were often educated alongside men in “double-houses,” or co-ed, monasteries and schools. This is not to say that these educational institutions didn't have a very real propensity to exclude women from the more progressive social roles of the time, (as with the Roman Church who's less liberal views restricted the voices of women and even prohibited singing in private chambers because of its association with prostitution), but if we broaden our definition of what “writing” means, to include the entire process of book-making, we find women further pushing against the social norms in order to share their skills and experiences within the philosophical pursuits of the church.




For many years, Hildegard was reluctant to share her visions, writing "I did not make that known to any person except to a certain few...I sank down beneath a quiet silence...although I did see and hear this, nevertheless because of doubt and a bad opinion and the diversity of men’s words refused to write for a long time — not out of obstinacy but as an office of humility."
Referring to her visions as 'Reflections of the Living Light' or the 'Scivias', Hildegard's writings received a blessing from Pope Eugene III, leading to a number of women and girls travelling to meet Hildegard and the subsequent creation of a new all female monastery in Rupertsberg.






Despite being a respected woman of obvious intellect, some scholars question how Hildegard was able to gain the admiration and attention that she did, considering the general attitude the Church held towards women in the twelfth century. It has been argued that Hildegard's use of language to describe her visions (accompanied by the onset of illness brought about by the power of such divine revelations) enabled her to manoeuvre the institutionalised, patriarchal views that saw females as poorly formed men, unfit to articulate the word of God.

"Although she records her first vision as having occurred at age three, Hildegard does not begin to publicize her visions and seek approval until forty-two years later. The combination of illness and visionary experience presents another interesting aspect to her status as a female religious leader in the Middle Ages. Christian tradition venerates those who suffer patiently. The connection between illness and feminine piety is quite clear: "if sickness is offered as a gift, then pain can be transmuted into the complex pleasure of generosity"." (Talley)



“In addition, it is also considered that Hildegard was the author of the first artificial language system - the Lingua Ignota.”


As a method of validating her position as an influential religious figure, Hildegard thus had to embody her silent suffering, to become self-effacing so as not to affect the apparent authenticity of her experience. This was accomplished in two ways:

The first was by using the Vox Dei (voice of God) as a technique by which a disassociation could take place, essentially making her insights seem less anecdotal and more revelatory. Something that was nurtured through having a broad knowledge of the scriptures, where subtle intonations were made to biblical references to make the accounts not only seem more credible in the eyes of the church (ibid) but to also discreetly criticise the corruption of the church.
The second was to truly embody her creative endeavours, embodying and promoting the medieval perspective that the universe was recapitulated in miniature inside the human body. Not only did she gain recognition for her intellectual and spiritual insights, but she also supplanted her power as a 'political prophetess' by cultivating the nurturing, social principles of science, art and music, creating numerous books on natural science, and at least sixty nine musical compositions relating to 'Viriditas' (Latin for greenness, lushness, freshness, growth, vitality).

In addition, it is also considered that she was the author of the first artificial language system Lingua Ignota (Unheard Voice), presumably intended as a universal language containing nouns and adjectives relating to body-parts, illnesses, birds, insects, religious and hierarchical terms, ranks of nobility, craftsmen, days, months, clothing, household instruments and phenomenological observations of many growing processes.







Nowadays, Hildegard is more commonly known for her musical compositions (only acknowledged by contemporary audiences some eight hundred years after her death). With no formal training other than the education she received from Jutta, and growing up hearing the chants of the Roman mass, she set her own vibrant, colourful verses to music.

Little is known about her compositional process, only that her non-academic grasp of latin gave her music a complex, multi-varied meaning, more akin in style to a fluid stream-of-consiouness.

As a rallying call to live both the contemplative life, and to express personal visions in times of inequality and repression, the opening to her manuscript Scivias (Know The Ways) reads, "And holding one another fast, they strive together in all these things with the eagerness from above so that My hidden wonders may be revealed. And that same person does not rely upon himself but turns with many sighs toward the one that he found in the approach to humility and the intention of good will. You therefore, o mortal, who receive this, not in the disquiet of deceit but in the purity of simplicity, having been directed toward the revealing of hidden things -- write what you see and hear."







Mark