Hildegard von Bingen: 10 (little) things you (may) not know about the 12th-century female composer

Composer, abbess, healer, visionary, poetess, and prophet, Hildegard von Bingen is an important figure from the 12th century whose writings and compositions have survived to this day.

Hildegard von Bingen: 10 (little) things you (may) not know about the 12th-century female composer
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), © Getty / Heritage Images

In 2012, Hildegard von Bingen was canonised by the pope Benoit XVI and named in the same year Doctor of the Universal Church (becoming one of only four women to possess such a title). Why did the abbess, almost nine centuries after her death, receive such renewed attention? The answer lies in her history, her works and her music... 

A source of wisdom, knowledge, and forward-thinking, Hildegard von Bingen is an endless inspiration and the perfect subject for hagiographies (biographies of saints), historians and also musicologists. Amongst all that has already been said or written about the composer, here are 10 (small) things that you (may) not know about this important figure of the 12th century.  

She had visions

From a very young age (approximately 3 years old), Hildegard von Bingen had visions. She would hear voices, often lose control of her speech and her body for brief moments and see a powerful light, before eventually returning to reality. 

As a child, when Hildegard mentioned her visions, nobody cared to listen; it was only at the age of 40 that she was finally taken seriously. The abbess then received a divine order: "Make known the wonders you live, put them in writing, and speak". Profoundly moved by these celestial words, she detailed her visions in a written work, Scivias, which she later put to music (Ordo Virtutum).

A naturopath ahead of her time

The fragile health of Hildegard the abbess forced her to constantly find new remedies. These she would find in the nature that surrounded her: plants, fruits, animals, stones… She later catalogued all of her findings in the publication Book of Divine Works. Each element was categorised as either cold or warm, its virtues then carefully detailed. 

Let us take the onion as an example. Here is what the healer tells us:

Onion does not have proper heat. It has sharp moisture and liveliness from the dew which is present at daybreak, when the powers of dew dissipate. Raw, they are as harmful and poisonous to eat as the juice of injurious herbs; cooked, they are healthful to eat [since fire diminishes their noxious properties]. It is good for those who have ague, fever, or gicht when it is cooked. Raw or cooked, it creates pain for those who are sick and have a weak stomach, because it is moist.

The work, studied by 20th-century scientists and specialists, is lacking in various details, notably the quantities required for certain recipes. However, several benefits listed by the healer have since been confirmed. It is now up to you to try them... 

There are a number of Hildegardian institutes

When the writings and the history of Hildegard von Bingen first came out in the 1980s after centuries of silence, a great attention was brought to her music and her forward-thinking naturopathy. The translated recipes were shared across the world, garnering countless followers and "Hildegardian" institutes were even established.  

These institutes allowed followers to live according to the principles of the 12th-century abbess, for healing and caring. This was done with both music and plants, but also training courses about nutrition, in France and elsewhere. The price, however, to partake in Hildegard von Bingen's way of life is often a steep one. 

A politician

If the teachings of Hildegard von Bingen have survived for so long, it is because her name was already widely celebrated during her lifetime, in the 12th century. She held a strong influence at the heart of ecclesiastical leadership and obtained, shortly after the publication of Scivias, the permission to create her own convent. 

Numerous letters (over 300) attest to the relations between the abbess and the Church leadership: monks, priests, bishops, and even popes... More than a simple correspondence, she was often their advisor. She never hesitated to express her anger towards various papal decisions or to share her thoughts regarding current affairs. 

The abbess also corresponded with the aristocracy of her time, even exchanging words with Henry II of England, his wife Aliénor of Aquitaine and even the Emperor Frédéric Barberousse.

Hildegard von Bingen dictant ses visions en présence de son secrétaire, le moine Volmar.
Hildegard von Bingen dictant ses visions en présence de son secrétaire, le moine Volmar. , © Getty / Heritage Images

Luxury, calm, and sensuousness

In her convent, Hildegard von Bingen imposed various unusual rules, including one concerning the attire during specific holidays... One superior in particular complained of such luxurious and inappropriate behaviour:

The nuns sing psalms standing in the choir, their hair down and untied, and adorned with bright white silk veils whose edges touch the ground. They wear on their heads a golden crown in which crosses are carefully incrusted on the sides and on the back, and an image of the Lamb on the front. It is also said that the sisters wear gold rings.

To this Hildegard von Bingen replied that, much like the bride presented to her husband, the sister must prepare herself before showing herself to the Lord. 

Scandals at the convent

Another scandal that brought attention to Hildegard von Bingen's convent: the abbess only accepted young girls from aristocratic families. An exclusion towards less-fortunate families deemed uncharitable by some religious authorities...  

The abbess was also criticised for her systematic use of singing and music during the religious services. The use of musical instruments during worship was specifically forbidden at this time by Catholic authorities. It is also worth noting that this musical accompaniment was provided by nuns, despite the fact that women in the Middle Ages were not allowed to sing in the churches. These rules did not apply to the nuns, but only in certain monasteries and convents. 

In response to these accusations, Hildegard von Bingen was unequivocal: "God must be praised with all the musical instruments that the gifted and ingenious men have invented".

Ordo virtutum

At the time, musical notation was succinct and sparse: no indications of tempo, intention, or even dynamics. The few manuscript scores that remain by Hildegard von Bingen may therefore be interpreted in an infinitely different manner. Despite the lacking details, the composer's works are no less virtuosic, powerful, and intelligent. One can only assume that amongst the many sisters in the convent of Hildegard von Bingen were several gifted singers, capable of singing the technically demanding passages, and in particular the ambitus expected by the abbess.

In addition to the more than 70 works destined for religious services, Hildegard von Bingen also drew inspiration from her Scivias to put to music both her visions but also a religious triptych of the human soul, the virtues and the devil. This particularly unique work, innovative and akin to a liturgical drama, was entitled the Ordo Virtutum.

Erotic poetess

Inspired by the arts, the composer not only engaged in musical composition but also poetry. However, yet again the abbess was not content with bland poetry praising the glory of God, choosing instead to insert in her texts an extensive and highly erotic vocabulary. 

This was the first time Western poetry used words taken from a more courtly love (a manner of seduction in the Middle Ages), as seen for example in the following poem for the Virgin Mary: 

How he reveled
in your charms! how your beauty
warmed to his caresses
till you gave your breast to his child.

And your womb held joy when heaven’s
harmonies rang from you,
a maiden with child by God,
for in God your chastity blazed.

A closer look at the female body

Further proof of modernity in the writings of Hildegard von Bingen: her work and thoughts on the human body, on human psychology and sexuality. To explain fertility, a somewhat contentious and debated subject at the time due to the fact that it was unknown which of the male or female organs was responsible for the conception of the future child, the abbess mentions the "male seed" and the "female foam" in her work Causae et Curae, a book of medicine.

Schéma de l'Univers par Hildegard von Bingen
Schéma de l'Univers par Hildegard von Bingen, © Getty / Universal History Archive

Even more interesting is Hildegard von Bingen's study of the female body and its suffering during childbirth, menstruation and the cycle... To help with these natural pains, the abbess published various recipes. As can be seen in her writings, this was a very serious subject: 

During the monthly menses they lose much blood, and they are infertile because they have a weak, fragile womb. For that reason, they can neither receive, retain, nor warm the male seed. For that reason they are more healthy, more powerful, and happier without a mate than with one because they become sick from relations with a husband. However, men avoid them because they do not speak in a friendly manner to men and because men love them only a little.

The above text is taken from a classification by Hildegard von Bingen regarding men and women according to their personality and their sexuality. The woman is here described as "melancholic" whilst the male counterpart is "bitter, doubtful, and dissolute in his passions, and as uncontrolled as a donkey in his interactions with women."

Final asset: astrology

Though Hildegard von Bingen was interested in nature, medicine and the human body, she also took a strong interest in another element full of mystery, questions and even answers: the sky. In one of her astrological treatises, she revealed a methodology to determine the character of a new-born child in relation to the day of its conception. 

Much like a horoscope, but with one particular difference: Hildegard von Bingen's study looks not at the date of birth but rather the date of conception, allowing for personalities to be outlined according to 30 lunar days.