Body and soul, balance and the Sibyl of the Rhine: the life and medicine of Saint Hildegard of Bingen

Mariel Tishma
Chicago, Illinois, United States

 

Illustration of Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision
Hildegard von Bingen receives divine inspiration and passes it on to her writer. Miniature from the Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias. Via Wikimedia

St. Hildegard of Bingen wrote two medical texts, three books of visions and prophecies, one of the first mystery plays, songs, musical compositions, and letters. She consulted on many matters during her lifetime, including medicine. One episode involved a woman who had “gone insane.” Hildegard recommended the woman find respite in religious life. The treatment was, essentially, stress reduction, a steady routine with a modified diet and regular exercise, and integration into a supportive community.1 This treatment sounds surprisingly similar to some modern-day recommendations. It also epitomizes the central theory of this remarkable woman—healing is found in balance.

Hildegard of Bingen was born in 1098, the tenth daughter of a noble family. Throughout her life, she saw visions of light, beginning perhaps as early as three years old.2 However, she kept these visions to herself until she was forty-two. Her visions would sometimes be accompanied by illness, leaving her bedridden.3

Hildegard’s parents sent her to a convent as a tithe. Some dispute surrounds the exact age she was enclosed at Disibodenberg monastery. She may have entered her cell as young as eight. Once there, she joined an older woman who was already a part of the community, Jutta of Sponheim. The monks entrusted Jutta with educating Hildegard in Latin, theology, and other necessities for monastic life.4

Jutta was the daughter of Count Stephen of Sponheim, and some saw her choice to pursue religious life as eccentric. Jutta was only six years older than Hildegard when they were both enclosed in 1112, and her devotion drew many followers and visitors.5 This following grew into a small community of nuns attached to Disibodenberg6 who would elect Hildegard as their leader upon Jutta’s death in 1136.7

Throughout this time, Hildegard continued to receive visions. She often felt called to share what she had seen, but “. . . because of doubt and low opinion and because of the diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time the call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by the scourge of God, I fell onto a bed of sickness.”8

The debilitating physical effects of Hildegard’s visions led to a theory she suffered from migraines. In 1917 historian Charles Singer diagnosed Hildegard with “scintillating scotoma,” which features hallucinations of light patterns.9 Hildegard described the central feature of her visions as “The Living Light,” and the illustrations in her prophetic texts, created from detailed descriptions of her visions, resembled what some migraine sufferers also see during attacks. Many, such as neurologist Oliver Sacks, have confirmed the diagnosis, which remains disputed and impossible to verify.

At the age of forty-two, Hildegard had a vision urging her to write.10 From 1141-1151, with the aid of Volmar, a monk who served as her assistant, Hildegard worked on Scivias, her first book of visions. She also began work on her collection of music and on her mystery play, Ordo virtutum.11

In 1147-1148 the church held a Synod at Trier.12,13 While there, Pope Eugene III examined a portion of Scivias. He approved and encouraged Hildegard to continue to share her visions. After Scivias was complete, “her rate of literary output increased dramatically,”14 possibly because of the confidence and encouragement she had received from Pope Eugene.

Illustration from one of Hildegard of Bingen's books
The Universal Man, from Liber Divinorum Operum of St. Hildegard of Bingen, 1165. Via Wikimedia

However, while she worked, her community of nuns at Disibodenberg had grown beyond its limits. She planned to move the convent to a new, independent location. Between 1147 and 1152, she coordinated the construction of the Rupertsberg convent near Bingen, a town on the shore of the Rhine. It was not until 1158 that Hildegard hashed out an agreement with the monks. Few of them supported her decision to move, but she eventually succeeded in creating a community that was beholden only to the Archbishop of Mainz.15,16

After the move to Rupertsberg, Hildegard began her medical books, Physica and Causae et curae.17 Health was a subject in all her writing, including her visionary works, and themes on reproduction and women’s health especially appear in Scivias.18 However, these two works focused exclusively on healing. Hildegard’s choice to pursue this work as she moved her convent to Rupertsberg makes sense. With the nuns on their own, the community would need a guide for medical treatment and theory. Hildegard was also a Benedictine nun, and the Rule of St. Benedict “listed care of the sick as one of the instruments of good words.”19

Hildegard wrote Physica between 1151 and 1158.20 She wrote Causae et curae concurrently or shortly after.21 These two pieces were unique, as “in contrast to all her other major works, there is nothing in the medical writings themselves that in any way lays claim to supernatural origin.”22 Hildegard does not provide a source for her medical information, though this was not uncommon at the time. It is likely a portion of it came from hands-on experience.23,24 She appeared to have a range of influences including Aristotle, Galen, Constantine the African, and writings from Salerno.25,26 These, along with other medical theories popular in her time, may have been accessible in the library at Disibodenberg and informed and shaped her thoughts.

Physica contains nine books. In them, Hildegard outlines the medical uses (or lack thereof) for herbs, foods, animal parts, and even gemstones, including ingredients like lily, oregano, hare bile, and swallow droppings—all found in her preferred treatment for rabies.27 Causae et curae is split into sixteen chapters and contains Hildegard’s theories on the body, medicine, diseases, sexuality, and nature as a whole.28

In these medical texts, Hildegard writes for a wide audience. She acknowledges that women are part of that audience through her Latin grammar.29 Additionally, while far from revolutionary for her time, Hildegard shared remarkable views on women and sexuality. She wrote on female pleasure and orgasm30 and expressed sympathy for women’s menstrual cramps rather than painting them only as divine punishment.31 Additionally, she disregarded the Aristotelian assertion that women were “defective males” and instead described men and women as equal and essential parts of creation.32

Hildegard’s medicine is based on balance, harmony, and holistic healing. She felt that the natural state of the body, when nurtured correctly, was wellness—that “disease [was] not a process, but an absence of process, a failing in the course of nature.”33 She advocated for moderation, a good diet, and rest, all components of preventive medicine today.34 She incorporated prayers and charms into her work, but unlike other religious medical writers, she focused on material cures.

The natural world and the human body were tightly intertwined in her theory. Nature influenced health, and health could influence nature in return.35 She believed that the natural world and human beings contained what she called viriditas, or “greenness,” which was the life essence of things given by God and which nature, through medicine, could restore. She saw nature and humanity working in concert: “the natural world as having the properties to heal, and humankind as having the skill to do so.”36

This is exemplified by this passage from Causae et curae pairing the human body to the outer world:

“. . . The firmament is like the head of man, the sun, moon, and stars are like his eyes, the air like his sense of hearing, the winds like his sense of smell, the dew like his sense of taste, the sides of the world like his arms and his sense of touch. And the other creatures, which are in the world, are like his belly, the earth moreover is like his heart.”37

Hildegard would sometimes refer to the humors, and her “understanding that disease is the result of an imbalance of the humors . . . comes from the classics.”38 However, she primarily discussed health in terms of temperature and moisture, such that certain conditions were hot, cold, wet, or dry and their cures were classified the same way. Treatment would either counter a condition’s temperature with an opposing one or use a similar temperature according to the theory that like calls to like.39

In this way, she tackled a long list of diseases. She wrote about leprosy; rabies; scrofula; scabies; “gicht,” which included gout, arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, and sciatica; insanity; infertility; and epilepsy.40 She recommended washing with barley water to improve the skin41 or, for male infertility, eating the liver of a mature goat treated with specific herbs.42

After completing her medical writing in 1158, she began her second book of visions, Liber Vitae Meritorum.43 By this time, her fame had grown. Letters from popes, emperors, kings, and common people asked for prayers and advice. She was happy to give it and to offer a firm hand when she felt it was necessary.44 She became known for her healing abilities, and her biography recorded that pieces of her hair or clothing would sometimes be enough to perform miraculous healing.45 She began a tour, preaching publicly, unusual for women at the time.46

After returning from the tour, she began her third visionary work, Liber divinorum operum simplicis hominis.47 This also contained medicine, as it explored the origin of human life, human nature, and physiology. Around this same time, she founded a new convent in Eibingen across the river from Rupertsberg. Following its completion in 1170, her health began to decline. She wrote that she found herself “lying for almost three years on a bed of illness.” In 1173, Volmar died and was replaced by two successive monks who Hildegard felt did too much to edit her work.48

In this period, Hildegard ran afoul of the archbishop. A young nobleman was buried at Rupertsberg, though he had been excommunicated. Hildegard felt he had reconciled with the church before his death, but authorities felt otherwise. The archbishop placed Rupertsberg under an interdict that kept them from playing music, among other things. It was finally lifted in 1179, just before Hildegard’s death in September of that year.49

Hildegard was recognized as a saint well before she was officially canonized. She was made a Doctor of the Church in 2012,50 one of only four women to hold that title.51 Hildegard was a bold, determined woman who lived a remarkable life. Her medical writings are a snapshot of healing from her time,52 as well as a transformation of traditional medieval medicine.53

Some have brought back her herbal treatments and theory for use in modern homeopathic practice.54 Even more relevant today is her belief that the earth, the body, and the spirit are united aspects of health. As the medical impacts of environmental disaster become clear, as new forms of treating the body continue to emerge, and as medicine moves towards treating the whole person, St. Hildegard of Bingen can serve as an anchor in the past and a signpost for the future.

 

End Notes

  1. Jacqueline Mahoney, ” The Mistress and the Handmaid: Physical and Spiritual Health in Hildegard of Bingen’s Causae et cura,” Thesis submitted for the degree of Master of Arts by Research at Monash University, 2017, 56, https://www.academia.edu/35130132/The_Mistress_and_the_Handmaid_Physical_and_Spiritual_Health_in_Hildegard_of_Bingens_Causae_et_curae.
  2. A History of Women Philosophers: Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Women Philosophers A.D. 500–1600, ed. M.E. Waithe, (Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989), 27.
  3. Barbara Newman, “Hildegard of Bingen: Visions and Validation,” Church History vol. 54 no. 2 (June 1985): 164, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3167233?seq=1.
  4. A History of Women Philosophers, 27-28.
  5. Fiona Maddocks, Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age, (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 19.
  6. Emily Sutherland, “Hildegard of Bingen: Entry into Disibodenberg,” Parergon vol. 27 no. 1 (2010): 59, DOI: 10.1353/pgn.0.0188.
  7. A History of Women Philosophers, 29.
  8. Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, 2nd ed., (New York: Routledge, 1998), 4.
  9. Barbara Newman, “Hildegard of Bingen: Visions and Validation,” 167.
  10. Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, 4.
  11. Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, trans. Priscilla Throop, (Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1989), 3.
  12. Jacqueline Mahoney, ” The Mistress and the Handmaid” 9.
  13. A History of Women Philosophers, 29.
  14. Marcia Kathleen Chamberlain, “Hildegard of Bingen’s Causes and Cures: A Radical Feminist Response to the Doctor-Cook Binary” in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney, (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc, 1998), xix.
  15. A History of Women Philosophers, 29.
  16. Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, (Rochester: Bear & Company, 19851).
  17. A History of Women Philosophers, 30.
  18. Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columbia Hart and Jane Bishop, (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1990), 81.
  19. Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica, 3.
  20. Ibid. 2.
  21. Jacqueline Mahoney, ” The Mistress and the Handmaid,” 9.
  22. Monica H. Green, “In Search of an «Authentic» Women’s Medicine: The Strange Fates of Trota of Salerno and Hildegard of Bingen,” Dynamis: Acta Hispanica ad Medicinae Scientiarumque Historiam Illustrandam vol. 19 (1999): 62, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/33734.
  23. Jacqueline Mahoney, ” The Mistress and the Handmaid,” 16.
  24. Mariano Bizzarri, “Lessons from the past. Hildegard of Bingen,” Organisms. Journal of Biological Sciences vol. 2 no. 1 (July 2018): 114, DOI: 10.13133/2532-5876_3.17.
  25. Philip R. Liebson, “Philosophy of science and medicine series – VII: Roman and medieval symbolism,” Hektoen International, Fall 2016, Science, https://hekint.org/2017/01/22/philosophy-of-science-and-medicine-series-vii-roman-and-medieval-symbolism/.
  26. Florence Eliza Glaze, “Medical Writer: ‘Behold the Human Creature’” in Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, ed. Barbara Newman, (Berkley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1998), 131.
  27. J. Romaní, M. Romaní, “Causes and Cures of Skin Diseases in the Work of Hildegard of Bingen,” Actas Dermo-Sifiliográficas (English Edition) vol. 108 no. 6 (2017): 3, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adengl.2017.05.015.
  28. Jacqueline Mahoney, ” The Mistress and the Handmaid,” 11.
  29. Ibid. 21.
  30. Kristina Lerman, “The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179),” Internet History Sourcebooks Project, Fordham University, Last modified: May 24, 1995, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/med/hildegarde.asp.
  31. Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, 83.
  32. Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen.
  33. Mariano Bizzarri, “Lessons from the past. Hildegard of Bingen,” 115.
  34. Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica, 6.
  35. Philip R. Liebson, “Philosophy of science and medicine series.”
  36. Jacqueline Mahoney, ” The Mistress and the Handmaid,” 10.
  37. Florence Eliza Glaze, “Medical Writer: ‘Behold the Human Creature’” 134.
  38. Frances M. Malpezzi, “Evergreen: The Enduring Voice of a Nine-Hundred-Year-Old Healer” in Healing Logics: Culture and Medicine in Modern Health Belief Systems, ed. Erika Brady, (University Press of Colorado; Utah State University Press, 2001), 169, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nwrq.11.
  39. Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica, 5.
  40. Ibid, 6,11.
  41. Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard’s Healing Plants: From Her Medieval Classic Physica, trans. Bruce W. Hozeski, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 8.
  42. Jacqueline Mahoney, ” The Mistress and the Handmaid,” 49-50.
  43. A History of Women Philosophers, 29.
  44. Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica, 2.
  45. Jacqueline Mahoney, ” The Mistress and the Handmaid,”, 32.
  46. Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica, 3.
  47. A History of Women Philosophers, 30.
  48. Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, 9.
  49. Maud Burnett McInerney, “Introduction: Hildegard of Bingen, Prophet and Polymath” in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney, (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc, 1998), xx.
  50. Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, 12.
  51. Katherine Foxhall “Making Modern Migraine Medieval: Men of Science, Hildegard of Bingen and the Life of a Retrospective Diagnosis,” Medical History vol 58, no. 3 (2014): 359, doi:10.1017/mdh.2014.28.
  52. Philip R. Liebson, “Philosophy of science and medicine series – VII: Roman and medieval symbolism.”
  53. Jerry Stannard, “Medieval Herbalism and Post-Medieval Folk Medicine,” Pharmacy in History vol. 55 no. 2/3 (2013): 49, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24631898.
  54. Marcia Kathleen Chamberlain, “Hildegard of Bingen’s Causes and Cures: A Radical Feminist Response to the Doctor-Cook Binary” in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney, (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc, 1998), 53.

 

References

  • A History of Women Philosophers: Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Women Philosophers A.D. 500–1600. Edited by M.E. Waithe. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.
  • Bizzarri, Mariano. “Lessons from the past. Hildegard of Bingen.” Organisms. Journal of Biological Sciences vol. 2 no. 1 (July 2018): 113-116. DOI: 10.13133/2532-5876_3.17.
  • Cadden, Joan. “It Takes All Kinds: Sexuality and Gender Differences in Hildegard of Bingen’s ‘Book of Compound Medicine’.” Traditio vol. 40 (1984): 149-174. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27831151.
  • Chamberlain, Marcia Kathleen. “Hildegard of Bingen’s Causes and Cures: A Radical Feminist Response to the Doctor-Cook Binary” in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays. Edited by Maud Burnett McInerney. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc, 1998.
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  • Fox, Matthew. Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Rochester: Bear & Company, 1985.
  • Foxhall, Katherine. “Making Modern Migraine Medieval: Men of Science, Hildegard of Bingen and the Life of a Retrospective Diagnosis.” Medical History vol 58, no. 3 (2014): 354-74. doi:10.1017/mdh.2014.28.
  • Glaze, Florence Eliza. “Medical Writer: ‘Behold the Human Creature’” in Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Edited by Barbara Newman. Berkley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Green, Monica H. “Books as a source of medical education for women in the middle ages.” Dynamis: Acta Hispanica ad Medicinae Scientiarumque Historiam Illustrandam [English Edition] vol. 20 (2000): 331-69. https://www.raco.cat/index.php/Dynamis/article/view/86637.
  • Green, Monica H. “In Search of an «Authentic» Women’s Medicine: The Strange Fates of Trota of Salerno and Hildegard of Bingen.” Dynamis: Acta Hispanica ad Medicinae Scientiarumque Historiam Illustrandam vol. 19 (1999): 25-54. https://ddd.uab.cat/record/33734.
  • Hommel, Gisela. “Hildegard von Bingen.” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe vol. 21 no. 1 (Summer 87): 24-28. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41442935.
  • Kurdziałek, Marian, Hugh McDonald. “Mediaeval Doctrines on Man as Image of the World.” Annals of Philosophy vol. 62 no. 4 (2014): 205-246. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43410543.
  • Lerman, Kristina. “The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).” Internet History Sourcebooks Project, Fordham University. Last modified: May 24, 1995. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/med/hildegarde.asp.
  • Liebson, Philip R. “Philosophy of science and medicine series – VII: Roman and medieval symbolism.” Hektoen International. Fall 2016, Science. https://hekint.org/2017/01/22/philosophy-of-science-and-medicine-series-vii-roman-and-medieval-symbolism/.
  • Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
  • Mahoney, Jacqueline. “The Mistress and the Handmaid: Physical and Spiritual Health in Hildegard of Bingen’s Causae et curae.” Thesis submitted for the degree of Master of Arts by Research at Monash University. 2017. https://www.academia.edu/35130132/The_Mistress_and_the_Handmaid_Physical_and_Spiritual_Health_in_Hildegard_of_Bingens_Causae_et_curae.
  • Malpezzi, Frances M. “Evergreen: The Enduring Voice of a Nine-Hundred-Year-Old Healer” in Healing Logics: Culture and Medicine in Modern Health Belief Systems. Edited by Erika Brady. University Press of Colorado; Utah State University Press, 2001. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nwrq.11.
  • McInerney, Maud Burnett. “Introduction: Hildegard of Bingen, Prophet and Polymath” in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays. Edited by Maud Burnett McInerney. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc, 1998.
  • Newman, Barbara. “Hildegard of Bingen: Visions and Validation.” Church History vol. 54 no. 2 (June 1985): 163-175. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3167233?seq=1.
  • Romaní, J., M. Romaní. “Causes and Cures of Skin Diseases in the Work of Hildegard of Bingen.” Actas Dermo-Sifiliográficas (English Edition) vol. 108 no. 6 (2017): 538-543. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adengl.2017.05.015.
  • Stannard, Jerry. “Medieval Herbalism and Post-Medieval Folk Medicine.” Pharmacy in History vol. 55 no. 2/3 (2013): 47-54. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24631898.
  • Storey, Ann. “A Theophany of the Feminine: Hildegard of Bingen, Elisabeth of Schönau, and Herrad of Landsberg.” Woman’s Art Journal vol. 19 no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 16-20. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1358649.
  • Sutherland, Emily. “Hildegard of Bingen: Entry into Disibodenberg.” Parergon vol. 27 no. 1 (2010): 53-66. DOI: 10.1353/pgn.0.0188.
  • von Bingen, Hildegard. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Translated by Priscilla Throop. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1989.
  • von Bingen, Hildegard. Hildegard’s Healing Plants: From Her Medieval Classic Physica. Translaated by Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
  • von Bingen, Hildegard. Scivias. Translated by Mother Columbia Hart and Jane Bishop. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1990.
  • von Bingen, Hildegard. The Book of Divine Works. Translated by Nathaniel M. Campbell. The Catholic University of America Press, 2018.

 


 

MARIEL TISHMA is Assistant Editor at Hektoen International. She has been published in Hektoen International, Bloodbond, Argot Magazine, Syntax and Salt, The Artifice, and Fickle Muses. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BA in creative writing and a minor in biology. Learn more at marieltishma.com.

 

 

Winter 2021 |  Sections  |  History Essays