Beyond Little Golden is a play on the Little Gold Books series of Bible stories for children. Each post will focus on an important female spiritual figure who may have slipped under the mainstream radar. The goal is to bring the spiritual accomplishments of women into the forefront where they belong, and to help flesh out the history of women in faith. You can find other posts here.
Timeline: Hildegard von Bingen (b. 1098, Böckelheim, Germany; d. 1179, Ruperstberg, Germany)
- 1106 Placed under the care of Catholic anchoress Jutta in a community just outside of Bingen, Germany.
- 1136 Assumed role of Mother Superior (Abbess) of the convent
- 1141-52 Compiled Scivias, a collection of 26 prophetic and apocalyptic visions.
- 1147 Moved convent to Rupertsberg per one of her visions
- 1150 Wrote Physica, a book on the use of herbs in medicinal treatment
- 1151 Combined her musical compositions into a cycle called Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum, or The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations
- 9/17/1179 Hildegard dies
- 2012 Canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.
- 2012 Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church (a saint whose doctrinal writings have special authority. by Pope Benedict XVI, one of only four women ever given that title (the others of Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Therese of Lisieux).
Imagine it. You’re eight years old, tenth child in a noble family, and you are given in tithe to the Church. You’re brought to an anchoress named Jutta where you are kept in isolation and taught reading, writing, theology, music, and herbology. When you are fifteen years old, you make the decision to enter religious life permanently. Your family of birth throws you a funeral, marking the end of your secular life.
The year is circa 1121 AD, and your name is Hildegard.
Benedictine Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (or Hildegard von Bingen or the Sybil of the Rhine as she’s often known) was a medieval phenom – scholar, teacher, doctor, scientist, composer, mystic, and advisor to kings, popes, and noblemen. In an age where few people could even read or write, she was a well-respected authority on theology, science, medicine, and many other subjects. She founded two abbeys in Germany, wrote plays and sermons, corresponded with the great spiritual and political leaders of her time, composed beautiful music, and preached in a time when women did not do such things.
Unlike so many historical geniuses, Hildegard was recognized for these accomplishments in her own time. Half a millennium before the invention of the printing press, her writings on theology and natural sciences, as well as her musical compositions, were widely copied and read. She also traveled widely (for the time) and was a popular preacher and lecturer.
Her Politics and Theology
It may seem odd to our modern sensibilities, but Hildegard was considered a conservative at her time. During the Middle Ages, when so much power and wealth was concentrated in the Church, corruption was rampant. The land holdings of the Catholic Church attracted a lot of the wrong types of people, and the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices was definitely a “thing.” The Church was also engaged in a struggle with the Holy Roman Empire, which controlled much of Europe. Emperors would appoint anti-popes to further their political aims. And let’s not forget the Crusades, the first of which was declared only three years before Hildegard’s birth.
As a sought-after adviser, Hildegard was often caught in the middle of these political conflicts. Her letters advised leaders on both sides of the divide, and she was not afraid to admonish those in power. Theologically, she was the ultimate cheerleader for Benedictine monasticism, advocating for cleaning up abuses, reforming the Church, improvements in the monastic system, and reinforcing the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience within religious orders. Hildegard conducted four preaching tours through Germany to call for reform and denounce clerical corruption. She traveled widely, preaching to both clergy and laypeople.
With two Crusades in her lifetime, it’s easy to understand the apocalyptic tone of some her writings. Hildegard, like many of her contemporaries, believed she was witnessing the beginning of the End Times. (Perhaps another reason she resonates so clearly with modern audiences.
Hildegard and The New Age
Much to the chagrin of many conservative Catholics, it was the New Age and musical communities that resurrected interest in Hildegard. In 1981, soprano Emma Kirby recorded A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. When the Gregorian Chant craze of the 1990s hit, Hildegard’s lyrical and haunting melodies were there, inspiring musicians, feminist scholars, and music lovers alike.
As attention shifted from her music to her writings, it’s no surprise Hildegard appealed to followers of New Age philosophy. Spirituality, medicine, and science in Hildegard’s time were more holistic, stressing a connection between theology, natural science, and morality. Her teachings on the interconnectedness of soul and spirit with care and stewardship of the natural world resonated ecologically-minded New Agers. Her agency and influence during a time where most women were known only as “anonymous” also served as an inspiration to feminists.
But still…not a saint?
The Long Road to Canonization
By all accounts, Hildegard von Bingen was a rock star of spirituality. So why did 800 years pass before she was canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI?
When Hildegard died in 1179 at age of 83, the canonization process was still in its infancy. German Catholics began calling her a saint almost immediately after her death, and there were reports of miracles at her grave site and through her relics. But only the pope (Gregory IX, at the time of her death) could officially canonize her.
Proceedings for canonization were opened in 1233, but the process was fraught with problems. First of all, 54 years after her death, there were none of her contemporaries left alive who could verify claims as eyewitnesses. In addition, names, dates, and places were left out of accounts of Hildegard’s miracles, and the first attempt died without canonization. Two more attempts were made to canonize Hildegard in 1243 and 1317, but they went nowhere.
It seemed that this amazing woman was to languish in obscurity, known only by a few monks and scholars fascinated with her work.
800 years (ish) after she lived, Hildegard finally got the official Papal recognition she deserved. In 2012, German Pope Benedict XVI used a special procedure called “equivalent canonization” to waive the normal judicial requirements and named her Saint Hildegard. Only slightly later, he named her a Doctor of the Church, an honor bestowed on only 36 people (and only 4 women).
Hildegard’s legacy is more than just music and writing. Her actions and reforms helped pave the way for the Ecclesiastic glory of the next two centuries. The cornerstone for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was laid during her lifetime, and more Gothic cathedrals were to follow. The monastic education she received and gave laid the groundwork for the great universities of Europe.
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