Women's History Month - Hildegard of Bingen
Today is the last day of Women’s History Month 2015… and its ending coincides with International Hug a Medievalist Day. So what better way to celebrate both than to present our favourite Medievalist - Michael Ivey’s chosen ‘Woman in History. He has certainly lived up to his profession and has picked an amazing Medieval marvel, Hildegard of Bingen;
“12th century writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath. Need I go on? Alright then… She wrote works on botany and medicine; was a confidant of Emperors and Popes; invented her own alphabet; was name as one of only 35 Doctors of the Church in 2012; and her plain chant (available now on Amazon) made her a chart topper in the 1980s. Beat that!”
Hildegard of Bingen certainly possessed a collection of talents which would make even the most accomplished amongst us recoil with jealousy. Writer, visionary, artist, herbalist, politician - these are titles most are happy to hold singularly. She was the tenth child of a noble family, born in the Rhineland in 1098. Her unusual abilities began to present themselves at an early age. She would experience ‘visions’ which presented people to her as something she described as "living sparks" of God's love. When she was eight years old, her parents gave her to the Church as a tithe - a religious contribution. She lived in the (only recently added) women’s section of a 400-year-old Benedictine monastery, under the care of a noblewoman called Jutta.
Hildegard flourished in the convent - learning to read and write, and developing an extensive interest in religion and philosophy. In 1136 Hildegard was unanimously voted in as the convent’s new abbess. When she reached middle age Hildegard experienced a vision which compelled her to record all of her visitations. This led to the production of a vast corpus of allegories, prophecies and cosmologies filled with intense apocalyptic imagery. Neurologists have stepped forward over the years to denounce Hildegard's visions and disregard them as mere symptoms of migraine. Does it matter? Wherever they came from, surely the most important thing is that she was able to channel them into great music, art and writing. Anyone who has ever suffered a migraine willow how hard it is concentrate on anything when they take effect. She would have to have been a woman of true strength to channel them in the way she did.
Hildegard is celebrated as a feminist today - but the marker really only applies to her in relation to her time. She accepted many unfair assumptions of female inferiority and felt that God choosing to send his message wasn’t a sign of female advancement but an indictment on the age she lived in. This is not to say she was subservient in any respect, she held much more authority than most women of her time, and experienced visions of Ecclesia, Caritas and Sapientia - strong female figures of the church. Her medical texts also included topics male writers still shy away from - menstruation - she offered a number of suggestions for dealing with the dreaded menstrual cramps.
She was mourned by many upon her passing, but somewhat surprisingly for the time was remembered reverently by the monks who biographised her life - a true Medieval marker of an incredible woman. Her legacy stretches to today. Pope Benedict XVI officially declared her a saint on the 10th May 2012. Just months later, the teachings contained within her extensive body of work were recognised as recommended doctrine - she became only the fourth female Doctor of the Church on 7th October 2012.