The Life and Visions of Hildegard of Bingen
Explore Hildegard's journey from pupil to spiritual leader, her bold defiance, and profound visions that shaped her enduring legacy.
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In 1141, Hildegard of Bingen, the abbess of the Benedictine cloister of Disibodenberg in Germany, experienced an intense religious vision. Though she received these visions since she was only five years old, this one contained direct commands from God. In her own words, a voice from Heaven resounded, saying:
O fragile human, ashes of ashes, and filth of filth! […] Speak and write these things […] as you see and hear them on high in the heavenly places in the wonders of God.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
This order was, for Hildegard, a clear sign that she should begin recording and elaborating on her spiritual experiences. Thus, at 43 years old, she penned the initial accounts of Scivias, the first of many groundbreaking works she would go on to produce.
Hildegard’s Scivias, and the works that followed, would go on to attract the attention of clergymen and nobles across medieval Europe, who would turn to her for predictions and counsel. Because of her fame, Hildegard’s publications were well-preserved, translated, and disseminated widely. As a result, we are left with a considerable volume of devotional and religious writing from Hildegard, and with other critical contributions she made to the fields of medicine, botany, and music. Aside from her significant religious influence, Hildegard also composed seventy-seven liturgical songs and lyric poems, as well as composing the only Medieval musical play known today.
Because of her prolific work and seeming defiance of the social position of twelfth-century women, Hildegard of Bingen is perhaps the single best-known female mystic of the Middle Ages. Though many historians and theologians have explored Hildegard’s biography, very rarely is the literal content of her visions deliberately analyzed for what it can tell us about the cultural context in which Hildegard lived, and what religious and political worries dominated Hildegard’s world.
In this article, we’ll examine four of the visions Hildegard recorded in Scivias and their insights into the twelfth century. Through this exploration, we not only gain a medieval perspective through Hildegard’s voice but also challenge the assumption that visions and mystic experiences are purely personal occurrences. Instead, we contend that even these profoundly transcendental experiences are firmly rooted in their cultural contexts.
Hildegard of Bingen was born in 1098 to a noble family from Bockelheim, West Franconia, Germany. In Hildegard’s own memoirs, she describes how, from the age of five, she was afflicted with chronic and debilitating headaches that resulted in dreamlike visions. Even when she wasn’t in pain, the world Hildegard experienced literally glowed with a strange and powerful “luminosity”.
As the high-born daughter of Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bemersheim, Hildegard’s immediate physical needs were catered to. Rather than being ostracized for the intensity of her visions, Hildegard’s family had the resources to allow her to voice them, and verify their spiritual origin.
At eight years old, Hildegard experienced a vision about the birth of a calf. When, a few days later, a calf was born matching the exact specifications Hildegard had given, her parents decided to place her on the path of spiritual training in a convent.
Hildegard was taken in and educated by Jutta, the well-regarded prioress at the Benedictine Cloister of Disibodenberg. Through Jutta, Hildegard was trained in the Benedictine tradition, which centered labor and prayer as the primary drivers of one’s service to God. At Disibodenberg, Hildegard spent time nursing the sick, learning Latin, reading scripture, and likely had access to a wealth of leading philosophical and theological texts as well. By age fifteen, Hildegard was already wearing the habit. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected the next prioress.
At age forty-three, Hildegard consulted her confessor about her visions, who sent word to the archbishop of Mainz for verification. When the archbishop confirmed the divine origin of Hildegard’s experiences, she began writing her Scivias, which would earn her the favorable attention of the twelfth-century clergy.
With her growing influence, Hildegard wished to separate herself and the other sisters from the Disibodenberg cloister. Hildegard wished to start a women-only convent nearby, where she would have considerably more administrative and theological authority as prioress. After a tense period of debate, Hildegard was given permission to form a new convent at Rupertsberg.
Hildegard’s time in Rupertsberg spearheaded a period of intense creative production, writing the entirety of her known works during these years. Her status as a reputable seeress preceded her, and she went on four separate prophetic tours to deliver speeches to largely male clerical audiences, a level of theological authority that was nearly unseen for women at the time.
Hildegard’s fame also gained the attention of several key political players of twelfth century Europe, including Eleanor of Aquitaine and Frederick Barbarossa, with whom she maintained a positive relationship despite repeatedly challenging his at times anti-papal stances.
Considering her trailblazing life, it is no surprise that one of the aspects of Hildegard’s life most scholars emphasize is her defiance of authority when she felt it was straying from the path of the divine. Shortly before her death, Hildegard famously allowed an excommunicated nobleman to be buried on Rupertsberg grounds, against the wishes of authorities. When she deliberately hid the grave to prevent the body’s exhumation, her entire convent was excommunicated and prevented from any liturgical singing or communion. Despite this, she remained steadfast in her beliefs until Rupertsberg’s punishment was eventually repealed.
Hildegard of Bingen clearly challenges our preconceived notions of medieval mystic women, who often sought individualistic union with the divine more than they sought to influence collective theological canon. For Hildegard, her visions came with an explicit and unshakeable duty to engage with the society around her, prescribing and helping her contemporaries maintain proper devotions. Hildegard’s visions are therefore an incredibly rich source of twelfth century political and religious insight.
Historian Caroline Walker-Bynum argues that Hildegard herself was well aware of the political context she lived in, and situated her visionary work within it. Hildegard’s declaration at the beginning of Scivias puts this explicitly, stating:
These visions took place, and these words were written in the days of Henry, Archbishop of Mainz, and of Conrad, King of the Romans, and of Cuno, Abbot of Disibodenberg, under Pope Eugenius.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
Clearly, Hildegard herself understood that her prescriptions and visions were meant to guide the Church as it was in the twelfth century, and thus the content of her visions would speak to this context as well.
God Enthroned Shows Himself to Hildegard is the first vision recorded in Scivias and presents a clear critique of the state of the twelfth century clergy. In Hildegard’s own words:
I saw a great mountain the color of rust, and enthroned on it One of such great glory that it blinded my sight. […] and behold, he who was enthroned upon that mountain cried out […] ‘O human, who are fragile dust of the earth and ashes of ashes! Cry out and speak of the origin of pure salvation until those people are instructed, who, though they see the inmost content of the Scriptures, do not wish to tell them, or preach them, because they are lukewarm and sluggish in serving God’s justice.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
Through an intense vision of God sitting atop a mountain, Hildegard directly targets the learned clergy who would have had the skills and training in Latin and literacy to closely read Scripture. Her vision therefore speaks to a historical context in which most of the world’s population was barred from directly reading Scripture for themselves and relied on the preaching of clergymen for their contact with God.
Hildegard’s vision takes aim against the clergy, calling them “lukewarm and sluggish” in their unwillingness to uphold their duty of spreading the deepest messages of the Scripture to the wider public.
As stated by historian Barbara J. Newman, Hildegard was writing at a time of renewed debate and conflict on religious matters across Western Europe after the Great Schism of 1054. We can wonder, then, whether perhaps Hildegard was infusing her own personal opinions into the content of her visions to lend them more authority during a time when women’s theological voice held very little weight. However, this is only speculation, and what remains is a vision which clearly reflects a level of dissent with the contemporary church.
Following her critical initial stance on the twelfth century clergy, Hildegard’s visions in Scivias make considerable contributions to several of the key issues theologians were debating during her time. Vision 5 of Book 2, Three Orders in the Church, describes the personified embodiment of the Church itself:
And in this brightness appeared the most beautiful image of a maiden, with bare head and black hair, wearing a red tunic, which flowed down at her feet. […] Around the maiden I saw a great crowd of people. And among these people were some who had miters on their heads and pallia of the episcopal office on their shoulders.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
As Newman states, Hildegard’s vision suggests a clear division of the Church between laypeople and the clergy, a hierarchy which Hildegard staunchly supported. In her vision, Hildegard expresses strong opinions on the maintenance of chastity in the clergy:
Therefore, let those appointed by consecration to offer to God the sacred sacrifice approach His altar in the sweetness of chastity. For if they themselves are the authors of corruption, how can they offer to others wounded by corruption the hand of salutary healing?Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
In Hildegard’s vision, strict vows of chastity should be upheld and serve as a key differentiator between clergy and lay populations.
As noted by Newman, Hildegard’s vision is decidedly hierarchy-oriented, and this continues toward the end of her account, in which we observe a critique of Church schisms:
Those institutions that in haughty pride seek to ascend and do not wish to be subject to those higher than they were not planted by God. […] Many of these, in the greatness of their pride […] forsake the established ordinances and […] make schisms in their various institutions. And they wish in their wanderings to become fruitful trees, but they cannot even be called empty reeds.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
Through Hildegard’s vision, we can clearly see an ongoing conversation between the divine and the contemporary concerns of the twelfth century church, indicating to us just how politically embedded these visions truly were.
Several of Hildegard’s visions display clear roots in popular religious and iconographic traditions of her age. Perhaps none is a better example of this than Christ’s Sacrifice and the Church, Vision 6 of Book 2 of Scivias, in which Hildegard’s account of the crucifixion plays into contemporary symbolic imagery. Once more, Hildegard sees the personified embodiment of the Church. This time, her vision is decidedly more intense:
The aforementioned […] woman coming forth like a bright radiance from an ancient counsel. By divine power she was led to Him, and raised herself upward so that she was sprinkled by the blood from His side, and thus, by the will of the Heavenly Father, she was joined with him in happy betrothal and nobly dowered with His body and blood.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
Hildegard’s vision coincides with popular contemporary depictions of the Church as the “bride of Christ.” Hildegard’s visions are therefore clearly steeped in twelfth century understandings of the relationship between the Church and divinity.
Aside from the imagery Hildegard describes, this vision also contributes to ongoing bitter debates about the nature of the Eucharist. Through her vision, Hildegard contends that when communion is delivered correctly, the Eucharist literally becomes the flesh of Christ:
When a priest clad in sacred vestments approaches the altar to celebrate the divine mysteries, you see that a great calm light is brought to it from Heaven by the angels. […] and thus, the offering is made of true flesh and true blood, although in human sight it looks like bread and wine.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
With the relevance of her visions to popular twelfth century theological debates, we begin to see how the content of visions and other mystical experiences can begin to open unexplored doorways into understanding Medieval society and culture. For Hildegard, it was in and through her visions that she formed arguments and prescriptions that helped direct the Church’s future.
The final vision that we will explore in this article, The Last Days and the Fall of the Antichrist, is perhaps one of Hildegard’s most famous accounts, as it seems to foreshadow some of the turmoil the Church would encounter in the centuries following Hildegard’s death and the eventual Protestant Reformation.
As Hildegard herself describes:
The Church will be harshly reproached for many vices, fornication, murder and rapine. […] The Church suffers most terrible persecutions and the blood of those who despise the Destroyer will be most cruelly shed.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
This vision is the eleventh entry of Book Three in Scivias, and marks one of the last visions Hildegard describes before she concludes her work. Through it, Hildegard explores the downfall of the Church, arrival of the Antichrist, and the Church’s eventual redemption. Hildegard sees:
Five ferocious epochs of temporal rule, brought about by the desires of the flesh from which the taint of sin is never absent, and they savagely rage against each other.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
Newman argues that in this vision, Hildegard was drawing on apocalyptic scenarios suggested by tenth-century monk Adso, showing once more that Hildegard’s visions were clearly in conversation with her wider historical and literary context.
Aside from prophesizing about the future and eventual salvation of Humanity, this vision is also the logical endpoint of Hildegard’s ongoing critique of the clergy, which we have seen her state repeatedly through her visions. Hildegard makes this point herself toward the end of the vision:
But now the Catholic faith wavers among the nations and the Gospel limps among the people; and the mighty books in which the excelling doctors had summed up knowledge with great care go unread.Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
Through this statement, Hildegard echoes the point she made in her first vision, which is that ultimately, the state of the twelfth century clergy as “lukewarm and sluggish” would only lead to the Church’s perdition. Thus, even in her apocalyptic scenarios, Hildegard’s fears are clearly rooted in feelings and concerns about the Church as it was in her day, which can tell scholars a lot about how people in religious offices themselves felt about the theological status quo they operated in.
Hildegard of Bingen, regarded in her day as the “Sibyl of the Rhine”, died in 1179 at Rupertsberg, the convent she fought bitterly to found. Rupertsberg’s sister abbey at Eibingen, also founded by Hildegard in 1165, is still up and running today.
Despite Hildegard’s extraordinary contributions to theology, music, and devotional practice, it would take the Catholic Church nearly nine hundred years after her death to recognize her achievements. In 2012, Hildegard was canonized, and the feast day of St. Hildegard set as September 17th. Later that year, Hildegard was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, one of only four women to ever be honored in this way.
With the advancement of feminist histories over the 20th and 21st centuries, scholars developed an interest in Hildegard beyond her status as a mystic and have rightly emphasized her incredibly prolific and inter-disciplinary work to shed light on the still-underexplored field of women’s contributions to theology. However, turning attention back onto mystic experiences themselves can also shed light on thoughts, lives, and cultural landscapes of medieval women.
Hildegard of Bingen was an extraordinary writer, theologist, composer, and philosopher whose contributions and spiritual accounts have endured for almost a millenia. However, like all of us, she was also embedded in her time, and her experiences offer us a new opportunity to look at the twelfth century. By exploring the content of religious visions and other seemingly individual phenomena experienced by mystics in their time, Hildegard and her contemporaries allow us rare glimpses into their culturally rooted ideas, images, and concerns.
Note: All of Hildegard of Bingen’s quotes in this article are taken from Bingen’s Scivias, translated from Latin by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop for the English Language publication of Scivias in 1990 by Paulist Press.