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Prof Joyce Hill - Hildegard of Bingen - Ripon Cathedral

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Prof Joyce Hill – Hildegard of Bingen

Prof Joyce Hill writes about the remarkable German Benedictine nun Hildegard of Bingen

August 2, 2023

I imagine that most people will not know who Hildegard of Bingen was, or why her name is alongside the date of 17 September in the Common Worship Calendar. Yet this German Benedictine nun, born c. 1098, is important enough to be honoured not simply with a Commemoration, but with a Lesser Festival, on a par, for example, with Gregory the Great on 3 September, or the Birth of the Virgin Mary on 8 September. In brief, she was an extraordinary polymath –unusually for a woman at this date — and a significant spiritual visionary. Pope Eugenius, at the Synod of Trier in the late 1140s, approved her visions as being from the Holy Spirit and gave her permission to document them. Her visionary theology (for her visions were theologically rooted) was compiled in three great volumes. But as if that was not enough, she also produced a considerable body of musical works for use in the liturgy, a musical morality play, two volumes on natural medicine and cures, a gospel commentary and two works on saints’ lives. In addition, nearly four hundred of her letters survive, addressed to popes and emperors, abbots and abbesses. This correspondence, which includes many of the sermons she preached in the 1160s and 1170s, is one of the largest letter collections to survive from the Middle Ages. More surprisingly, perhaps, she also invented an alternative alphabet and an ‘unknown language’, a kind of secret code or intellectual brainteaser.  

So, who was this remarkable woman? Her parents were minor nobility, and she seems to have been the youngest of a large family. From her earliest years she had visions, and perhaps because of this her parents gave her as an oblate (someone not yet subject to monastic vows – in her case because she was too young) to the then newly formed Benedictine enclosed monastery at Disibodenberg where, probably around the age of 14, she was professed. At the time of her entry into the community, she was under the guidance of Jutta, the daughter of the local Count, who subsequently became the Mistress of this growing community of women, which was at that time attached to a monastery of monks. When Jutta died in 1136, the nuns unanimously elected Hildegard as Mistress. The Abbot of the monastery wanted the female community to remain under his jurisdiction, but Hildegard was having none of this. She wanted, rather, to move the women’s community to a new site so that they could become independent. When the Abbot refused, Hildegard appealed directly to the Archbishop of Mainz, who gave his approval. The Abbot still would not give way, but Hildegard eventually won through, and the move was made in 1150. She founded a second monastery for her nuns in 1165. She died in 1179 at the age of 81, a truly venerable age for those times. 

Hildegard was one of the first people to whom the formal process of papal canonization was applied — a practice that began in the twelfth century. But despite four attempts to complete the process, she did not graduate through all the stages, and remained at the level of beatification. Nonetheless, she was widely venerated as a saint, with her feast-day being 17 September, the date of her death. Pope Benedict formalised her saintly status in 2012, thus paving the way for her to be named, later that year, as a Doctor of the Church. It is a rare title, honouring a remarkable woman.  

Joyce Hill