Who Is Hildegard?
The Most Influential Woman of the Middle Ages

Of course women played critical roles in medieval society, but individual women rarely had influence as public figures or the leaders of visible institutions. Those who did were usually noblewomen who had political significance because of family connections or the alliances their marriages could create.

Hildegard was unique because her influence came from her professional accomplishments, already recognized in her day. There were, of course, other women who ran convents of nuns, but Hildegard's writing, composition, and public speaking gave her visibility and earned her recognition far beyond other women of her era. Nearly five hundred years before Gutenberg's press revolutionized book publishing, Hildegard's prolific writing on theology and natural science, as well as her musical compositions, were widely copied and read. She was also a popular and widely traveled (for her time) public speaker on a variety of topics.

Hildegard's influence also came from her professional relationships and written correspondence with male leaders, including Bernard of Clairvaux, various bishops, and the pope himself. During her era, it was almost unheard of for a woman to exchange views and advice with such powerful figures.

One of the best indicators of Hildegard's contemporary significance was the effort to canonize her (declare her an official saint of the Roman Catholic Church) soon after her death. The process has several stages, and while she didn't reach the final stage of full canonization for almost nine hundred years, she was one of the first people for whom the relatively new procedures of canonization were initiated.

The political landscape and communications technology of the twelfth century limited Hildegard's influence during her lifetime to parts of what are now Germany and France. Over the centuries, as her works were more widely published, more of the world has come to recognize the significance of her accomplishments.

Watch the interview with Bruce Hozeski, PhD.
Founder of the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies

 

A Prolific Author and Scientist

Hildegard was a polymath, a person who is learned and accomplished in a wide range of subjects. Polymaths, such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Jefferson, are hard to professionally categorize, since they produce so much work in so many fields. She was, at once, a theologian, mystic, allegorist, musical composer, natural scientist, developer of medicines, religious administrator and reformer, and public speaker - as well as operating as an influential advisor to powerful leaders in the international Church.

The volume of Hildegard's written work is especially impressive considering that she didn't begin the bulk of her writing until she was in her forties. She had kept her mystical visions private until God told her to begin writing them down when she was forty-two years old. They quickly gained recognition, and when she was fifty, Pope Eugenius endorsed her visions as authentic and authorized her to document what God was revealing to her.

All told, she produced three large volumes of visionary theology, a range of musical compositions for liturgy and worship, a musical play, two volumes on natural medicines, a partial commentary on the Bible, two biographies of saints, many recorded sermons, and nearly four hundred letters she exchanged with some of the most powerful religious and political leaders of her century.

Watch the interview with Beverly Mayne Kienzle
Hildegard and the Bible, Part 1
Watch the interview with Beverly Mayne Kienzle
Hildegard and the Bible, Part 2

 

A Unique Composer

Medieval people loved music. It was sung and played throughout daily life: in the tavern, the field, the workshop, the banquet hall, at war. But the most structured and developed musical traditions were composed for worship within the Church. The congregation of lay people did not sing during the mass, as in modern Christian worship. Rather, monks and nuns sang "the liturgical hours," prayer services held at regular intervals throughout the day and night.

During Hildegard's life, the dominant musical tradition for liturgical music was Gregorian chant. Hildegard composed within this tradition, but introduced structural and tonal innovations. And while many liturgical chants were sung versions of the Old Testament psalms (the monks were required to recite, or sing, the psalms), Hildegard also composed a wide range of pieces, including antiphons, hymns, and sequences of responses for the monks or nuns in collective worship. In all, close to seventy-five of her liturgical compositions survive in musical notation with accompanying lyrics and poetic text.

Perhaps her most innovative musical work was a musical play, theĀ Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues). It tells the story of a human soul's conversation with sixteen moral virtues. The devil also has a speaking role, tempting and harassing the protagonist as she engages with the voices of the virtues. The play would have been performed in the monastery or convent, with the vocal parts performed by monks and nuns.

Watch the interview with Susan Hellauer
Hildegard and Her Music

 

A Saint and Doctor of the Church

In the Roman Catholic Church, a saint is someone formally recognized as having practiced heroic virtue, living an exceptionally holy life in faithful devotion to God and his grace. After their deaths, saints are especially close to Christ in heaven and thus able to more effectively pray to God for affairs on earth. Thus, the Church looks to the saints as models for faith and intercessors in times of need. The saints offer fresh hope and vitality to the life of the Church during dark times. St. Hildegard is a good example of this sort of renewal.
Download the Saints and Doctors study guide

Watch the interview with Msgr. Michael Hull
St. Hildegard's Canonization

 

A Visionary, Mystic, and Prophet

Medieval Christian theology had a number of distinct traditions. While the most familiar might be the rational tradition that reached its apex in the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, the mystic tradition was just as important to the development of the Church throughout the Middle Ages.

It is easy for modern people to misunderstand medieval Christian mysticism. It never desired to be or saw itself in opposition to orthodox theology or the Bible. Instead, it saw rational truth and scripture as portals that opened the soul to a deep and intimate relationship with God. For the medieval mystic, because we know who God is through scripture and tradition, we are free to experience and enjoy him with our emotions and imagination. It is important to note that the Christian mystic never sought to imagine God on their own initiative and authority, but that the Holy Spirit granted understanding through visions prompted by scripture and the sacraments, liturgy, and prayer.

Hildegard never saw herself as creating a new way of seeing God, but as a receiver of visions from him. God came to her, as a faithful believer and orthodox practitioner of the Roman Catholic faith, and revealed through visions a deeper experiential understanding of the soul's relationship with Christ. It is precisely because her visions and prophecies affirmed rather than contradicted the Church's teaching that Pope Eugenius authorized her visions in 1148, and Pope Benedict XVI canonized her as a saint and Doctor of the Church in 2012.

Watch the interview with Carmen Acevedo Butcher
Hildegard's Authentic Word for Today