Hildegard of Bingen, breaking the bounds
Guest post by Juliet Marillier
Your name is Hildegard. You’re in Germany, it’s the year 1106, and your parents – aristocratic, well-off, devout – have decided that you’ll be a nun. You say goodbye to your nine older siblings and are passed into the care of an anchoress, Jutta, who lives enclosed in a cell within a Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. Anchorite cells are often built within the walls of churches, and their inhabitants never leave them. One small window allows supplies to be passed in, and another lets you hear the Holy Office. You are eight years old.
Jutta teaches you to read, write and pray. You also learn music and various practical skills. Ten years pass, and at eighteen you become a nun. Twenty more years pass. There’s now a small community of women at the monastery – fortunately Jutta’s cell is a spacious one, with several rooms.
Then Jutta dies. She’s been your teacher, companion and substitute mother for almost your whole life, so this is a turning point for you. You’ve been thirty years shut away from the outside world. What kind of woman have you become? Obedient, scholarly, shy? Devout, conservative, a follower? Maybe you’re difficult, eccentric, even unhinged.
Jutta’s death marks the beginning of the second half of your life, and a pretty extraordinary life it proves to be. You are chosen by unanimous vote as the new leader of the female community at Disibodenberg. You take control capably. And you have another new focus. Since early childhood, before you entered the monastery, you have experienced intense and powerful spiritual visions. You start to record these in writing, with the help of a young monk who acts as secretary. Illuminated pictures to accompany the text are created under your instruction. In time you will write nine books, ranging over theology, physiology, botany, biology, religious commentary and more. Your writings are given papal approval.
As well as your books, you write many letters. You urge senior clerics to do more about corruption in the church; you even tell the pope to work harder on church reform.
More women join your community and the quarters get impossibly cramped. You make a decision to move your sisters to a new establishment near Bingen, standing firm against the objections of the Abbot and monks at Disibodenberg. Once you move, your convent is not attached to a monastery, but stands alone. You become Abbess. When numbers continue to increase, you establish a second convent.
You compose a body of remarkable religious music, using a free-wheeling, often ecstatic style that is radical for your time.
You continue to experience powerful visions. Your descriptions of these, in both words and images, are vivid and sometimes stretch the boundaries of orthodox theology. In your later years you undertake various preaching tours, during which you speak out publicly against corruption in the church.
When you are 80, you anger your archbishop by allowing an excommunicated man to be buried in your cemetery. You are told to disinter the body and you refuse. Since the dead man confessed and took communion before he died, you reason, the archbishop is in error. You head out to the cemetery and remove every trace of the burial, so nobody else can find the body and dig it up. This is the act of a woman with a strong sense of social justice, a sound knowledge of religious law and a fearless preparedness to take on the authorities. The archbishop slaps an interdict on your convent, meaning the divine office cannot be sung there. You write to him, letting him know that the interdict has silenced the most wonderful music on the Rhine, and that those who silence music will, after death, go to a place where they cannot hear the angelic chorus. Subtle, no. Effective, yes. The interdict is lifted.
You die the following year. In the centuries that follow you are often called a saint, but it is not until 2012 that you are officially canonised.
Hildegard of Bingen, your life and works were indeed remarkable. At the turning point, when your mentor died, you could have become just one nun among many. Instead you stepped forward, all fierce intelligence, and used the rest of your life to magnificent creative purpose. You were a leader. Your influence is still felt all these years later. Your work has been studied and respected by figures as different as the ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI and the controversial Episcopalian writer and teacher Matthew Fox. Your music is appreciated by musicologists and New Age meditators alike.
Despite your extensive body of writing, you remain curiously elusive. Even in your letters, you always presented yourself as an unworthy, inadequately educated mouthpiece for the divine wisdom of the visions (which effectively placed you above criticism by the church authorities.) We get a sense of Hildegard the scholar, Hildegard the devout Christian, Hildegard the practical leader, Hildegard the passionate advocate for justice. But Hildegard the woman remains a mystery.
I imagine you were sometimes difficult. Saints do tend to be stirrers. You were most likely a little eccentric, as highly intelligent people often are. You were also creative, imaginative, brave, clever and wise. You must have been a formidable presence. I bet you made the bishops shake in their clerical shoes. You surely made people sit up and listen.
Odd, isn’t it, how that decision your parents made when you were eight years old, a decision that on the surface seems heartless, gave you the best opportunity your time and culture could allow for using your remarkable abilities. The religious life allowed you to exercise your intellect and your formidable energy to the full. Perhaps your parents saw the spark of greatness in you from the first.