St Hildegard of Bingen

The 17th September marks the feast day of St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, Doctor of the Church, and founder of German scientific natural history, she was a remarkable woman.

Born to a family of the lesser nobility in what is now Germany, she was dedicated at birth to the Church and sent to a Benedictine monastery at the age of eight. She was placed into the care of an anchoress and given a rudimentary education. Taking vows at the age of fourteen, Hildegard was elected head of the community of nuns when she was thirty-eight and later moved her convent to Rupertsberg, near Bingen.

From early childhood Hildegard had seen visions, though she rarely spoke of them until, in 1141:

“It came to pass … when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming… and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books…”

After seeking and receiving the approval of the Pope for her writings, Hildegard wrote three major works of visionary theology, musical compositions for liturgical use (and a musical morality play), works on natural medicine, commentaries, hagiography, sermons, poems and an invented language, the Lingua ignota. She left behind one of the largest collections of letters to survive from the Middle Ages, giving advice to Popes, Emperors, bishops, nuns and nobility.

Hildegard’s writing brought science, art and religion together to examine the nature of God, our duty of care for creation, and to free the downtrodden. There is a continuing interest in her from eco-theologians and, as she was an unusually powerful woman for her time, from feminists.

Hildegard of Bingen died on the 17th September 1179 and was made a Doctor of the Church in 2012.