Monday, 17 September 2012

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard's name is one to be reckoned with. Although today we usually use the term "Renaissance Man" to indicate one with a wide range of learning to his credit, perhaps we should also recognize in a similar way some extraordinary medieval women -such as Hildegard, and others who entered convents and applied themselves with distinction to learning over many fields.

Even in some distinguished company, Hildegard stands out. Her music is highly regarded, as are her literary output and her mystical writings - which of course is what makes her particularly honoured inside the church. To round out her skills, she was also recognized as a notable poet, artist, healer and scientist.  What makes her of particular interest at this site, is that she also had an intense attachment to a fellow nun, Richardis, who may have inspired some of her finest writing.

I have known a little (very little) about Hildegard for some time, and have come across suggestions of her possible lesbianism, but have not had enough knowledge to write about her myself. I was delighted then to find that my colleague Kittredge Cherry has done some digging, and produced a wonderful extended post on this great woman. As one of Kitt's readers put it in a comment,

This is my favorite post of the year!! Imagine trying to get the help of a Pope to prevent a lesbian split up LOL.
What an inspiration, and her music is incredible too. We need to build a lesbian chapel in her honor somewhere, and fill it with paintings!
A truly great woman, indeed.
This are some extracts from Kitt's post:

St. Hildegard of Bingen was a brilliant medieval German mystic, poet, artist, composer, healer and scientist who wrote with passion about the Virgin Mary. Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women, especially her personal assistant Richardis von Stade. Her feast day is today (Sept. 17).
She had visions throughout her life, starting at age 3 when she says that she first saw “the Shade of the Living Light.” She hesitated to tell others about her visions, sharing them only with her teacher Jutta.
When she was 42, Hildegard had a vision in which God instructed her to record her spiritual experiences. Still hesitant, she became physically ill before she was persuaded to begin her first visionary work, the Scivias (Know the Ways of God).
In 1151, Hildegard completed the Scivias and trouble arose between her and her beloved Richardis. An archbishop, the brother of Richardis, arranged for his sister to become abbess of a distant convent. Hildegard urged Richardis to stay, and even asked the Pope to stop the move. But Richardis left anyway, over Hildegard’s objections.
Richardis died suddenly in October 1151, when she was only about 28 years old. On her deathbed, she tearfully expressed her longing for Hildegard and her intention to return.
Hildegard’s grief apparently fueled further artistic creation. Many believe that Richardis was the inspiration for Ordo Virtutum (“Play of Virtues”}, a musical morality play about a soul who is tempted away by the devil and then repents. According toWikipedia, “It is the earliest morality play by more than a century, and the only Medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both the text and the music.”

In an era when few women wrote, Hildegard went on to create two more major visionary works, a collection of songs, and several scientific treatises. She was especially interested in women’s health. Her medical writings even include what may be the first description of a female orgasm.
Impressed? Now go across and read Kitt's full, thoroughly researched post at Jesus in Love Blog, in her series on LGBT saints. (Hildegard's feast day was yesterday, September 17th.)


  1. (((Thanks))) for this wonderful write-up based on my Hildegard post. Even the people commenting at my blog get quoted!

    Doing the research on Hildegard was enthralling. I’ve also been uplifted by listening to Hildegard’s “Canticles of Ecstasy” again in the last few days.

    We’ve been getting a lot of news here in Los Angeles about the Pope’s visit to England. The Pope and the Queen were in a photo together on the front page of the LA Times. I’ve been thinking of you, wondering if you were among those cheering, among the protestors, or quietly on sidelines.

  2. As much as I would like to think that the relationship between Hildegard and Richardis was sexual, there is absolutely no evidence of it. Moreover, to assume a sexual connotation to this "particular friendship" is to show a lack of understanding of the medieval church - where even special relationships bewteen nuns and monks were very public and sometimes formally sanctioned, but were likely not sexual in nature, but terribly intense nontheless. It is interesting that although these friendships were accepted in the Middle Ages, they would not be accepted in the modern monastery. It is necessarily, in order to realistically understand these friendships, to get inside the medieval mind and understand the concept of "Christian love" between members of religious orders.

  3. Did I suggest anywhere that the relationship was sexual?

    I agree that the medieval church sanctioned and publicly approved many particular friendships between monks, and between nuns. These were not necessarily sexual. Although some undoubtedly were, others equally certainly were fulyy celibate. Indeed, there is much of value to reflect on in this connection, of relevance to modern gay men and lesbians.

    Kittredge Cherry, in the extract quoted, has stated that "Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women". Sexuality, and its expression as emotional or sexual attachments, are two distinct issues. In modern terms, it is perfectly possible to be both gay and celibate (as a notable proportion of Catholic priests are), just as it is possible to be heterosexual in orientation, but celibate.

    The problem here is in the use of the word "lesbian", a word, like "gay", perhaps has inappropriate connotations when applied to earlier historical periods. However, what Kittredge has drawn attention to, and that I see as important, is the undeniable evidence of a powerful emotional (not sexual) attachment to women - and to one in particular,