Hildegard of Bingen (Unruly Mystic)



Tuesday was International Women’s Day and I am posting belatedly on that theme. A quick review of the revamped Old Rope shows a reasonably healthy number of posts about women. Of the six posts so far this year, OR has featured: an all women band, a film about one woman’s employment struggle, and a TV movie starring two women, based on a book by a female writer. Today I offer something a little different. 🙂

Hildegard of Bingen was an 11th century German Benedictine Abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary and polymath. She is also attributed to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. That’s a pretty groovy CV already but it gets better.

Born 1098 in Bermersheim vor der Höhe, Saint Hildegard, or Sybil of the Rhine, penned theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, along with letters, liturgical songs and poems. She described the usefulness of hops for beer production before the practice was widespread and she was the first to document the female orgasm. All in all a medieval Spice Girl.

From Scivias (Know the Ways) by Hildegard of Bingen from 1151. If that isn’t a vagina, I don’t know what is.

She could play the ten string psaltery instrument and wrote seventy-plus musical works including her most famous, Ordo Virtutum (Play of The Virtues), considered one of the earliest morality plays. Much of her music is labelled monophonic whilst pushing the boundaries of typical Gregorian chanting. I’m listening to some as I write and it’s hypnotic and captivating, great to relax to after a hard day slaving at the digital coalface.

Hildegard believed in musica mundana, the Music of The Spheres, a subject I also find fascinating. It seems the heavenly melodies were ‘revealed’ to her through visions. Near the end of her life (she died in 1179), high ranking clergy forbade her to hear mass or to sing daily prayers. This prompted her to write an embittered attack on the men who deprived her nuns of their divine right to music, warning that they would ‘lose their place among the chorus of angels.’


If the above weren’t enough, she also created her own secret language, with its own 23 character alphabet, dubbed Lingua Ignota (unknown language). It is one of the earliest known ‘constructed languages’ and now believed to have been invented to increase the solidarity between her nuns.

Hildegard was able to circumvent bans on female social participation and interpretation of the scripture, preaching publicly, denouncing corruption in the clergy and calling for reform of the church. She boldly declared, “woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman”.


She was far from perfect, often disparaging women generally and herself as one of the uneducated ‘weaker sex’. Worse still she is something of a fave amongst new-agers, on account of her hippie-ish notions of holistic healing. Despite her apparent sister-bashing, in modern times she has interested feminist scholars. Her self-deprecation ironically gave strength to her voice in a time of systemic female repression both in and out of the church, giving her claims and works greater credence. Early feminists even used her medicinal writings to argue for women’s rights to attend medical school.

She was only made a Doctor of The Church (akin to canonisation) in 2012. But more importantly to Old Rope, Hildegard of Bingen has both a plant genus and a planet named after her and, in 1979, a place setting at the first feminist epic artwork The Dinner Party, by artist Judy Chicago.

Accomplished despite her self-deprecation, radical for her era, and box ticking beer, female orgasms and the funky space rhythms of the celestial monochord, Hildegard truly was an unruly mystic worthy of remembrance eight hundred years after her amazing life.


Sample of a book about Hildegard

51YFW3JKNWL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_This is a Google books preview, not all the pages are visible but there are some interesting parts.


Hildegard’s music

Documentary Trailer



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