Hildegard of Bingen

Minji Lee



1098:  Hildegard of Bingen was born at Bermersheim, 45 km south of Mainz, Germany.

1106 (?):  At the age of eight, Hildegard was put in the care of Jutta of Sponheim, a pious noblewoman.

1112 (November 1):  With Jutta, Hildegard entered an enclosure belonging to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg, 60 km southwest of Mainz, Germany. At an unknown date, Hildegard took formal vows to become a nun.

1136:  Jutta died, and Hildegard was appointed leader of the women’s convent at Disibodenberg. The convent was part of a double monastery, housing both men and women in separate quarters, under the direction of Abbot Burchard.

1141:  Having undergone a major mystical experience, and encouraged by the monastery schoolmaster Volmar, Hildegard began writing her first book, Scivias, in which she revealed the visions she had received since childhood.

1147–1148:  At the Synod of Trier, Hildegard presented Scivias for papal approval with support from the Disibodenberg Abbot Kuno.

1150:  Hildegard established a women’s monastery at Rupertsberg in Bingen, 29 km west of Mainz, Germany. She and eighteen nuns moved to the new location. Abbot Kuno refused to transfer the nuns’ dowries from the convent at Disibodenberg to the new convent at Rupertsberg .

1152:  The archbishop of Mainz consecrated the main altar of the church at the Rupertsberg convent.

1155:  Kuno, Abbot of Disibodenberg, died after agreeing to provide the nuns at Rupertsberg what was owed them, in a deal brokered by Hildegard. His successor, however, repudiated the agreement.

1158:  Arnold, Archbishop of Mainz, granted a charter to secure the nuns’ property from Disibodenberg, and arranged for pastoral and priestly visits to the community of women in the Rupertsberg convent.

1165:  Due to the growth of the Rupertsberg convent, Hildegard founded another monastery for women in Eibingen, near Bingen, and became the abbess of two women’s monasteries.

1179 (September 17):  Hildegard died at Rupertsberg.

1226:  Petition for her canonization was begun by Hildegard’s followers.

1227 (January 27):  Pope Gregory IX began the official canonization process for Hildegard.

2012 (May 10):  Pope Benedict XVI canonized Hildegard of Bingen, and declared her to be a “Doctor of the Church,” one of only four Catholic women so designated.


Hildegard of Bingen was born in the diocese of Mainz in the Rhineland of Germany. The oldest record, from Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim, gives Böckelheim as her birthplace, while scholars tend to prefer Bermersheim (Esser 2015). The youngest of seven children, Hildegard began having mystical experiences at an early age. Her wealthy and noble parents, Hildebert and Mechtilde, were faithful Christians, and supported her piety. They sent their devout young daughter, aged eight, to live under the care of a female hermit named Jutta of Disibodenberg (1092–1136), the daughter of Count Stephan of Sponheim. Only six years older than Hildegard, Jutta was an anchoress who lived in an enclosure next to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. Here, Hildegard had a chance to study religion, receiving basic knowledge about Christianity. Under Jutta’s guidance, she learned how to read and write in Latin and how to interpret Scripture, especially the Psalms (on Hildegard’s literacy, see Bynum 1990:5). Although her prose required corrections and elaborations, she was one of the few medieval women who could write (Newman 1987:22–25). As her fame grew, Hildegard of Bingen increasingly came into contact with scholars who could teach her, as she reported in her books and letters, although she frequently called herself “uneducated” in her writings, claiming that her knowledge came from God. “Thus the things I write are those that I see and hear in my vision, with no words of my own added. And these are expressed in unpolished Latin, for that is the way I hear them in my vision, since I am not taught in the vision to write the way philosophers do” (Letter to the Monk Guibert 103r, in Hildegard 1998:23).

Alongside her formal education, Hildegard stated that she was continuously having visions and receiving messages from God. She claimed to have started experiencing visions at the age of five, and even maintained that God had given her a vision before she was born, while she was in her mother’s womb. Sometime between 1112 and 1115 the teenager made formal vows to pursue the virginal life in accordance with the Rule of Saint Benedict. Nevertheless, Hildegard kept her visions secret until she went through a major mystical experience in 1141, which led to her conviction that she was God’s messenger as she claimed in the “Declaration” of the Scivias (Hildegard 1990:59–61). She described the vision:

Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch. And immediately I knew the meaning of the exposition of the Scriptures, namely the Psalter, the Gospel and the other catholic volumes of both the Old and the New Testaments, though I did not have the interpretation of the words of their texts or the division of the syllables or the knowledge of cases or tences (“Declaration” in Scivias, 1990:59).

Finally, Hildegard disclosed her holy communications with God to Jutta. After hearing that her protégé was receiving visions, Jutta introduced Hildegard to a monk, Volmar of Disibodenberg (d. 1173), who became her teacher, spiritual guide, and scribe until his death in 1173. [Image at right]

After Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegard succeeded her as a magistra (spiritual teacher) and as the abbess of the convent at Disibodenberg. At that time double monasteries existed, which maintained separate quarters for men and women under the same roof. Disbodenberg was one such religious house. As the abbess overseeing her female charges, Hildegard moved the convent to Rupertsberg in 1150, seeking more independence from the male community in her administration and spiritual leadership. When the abbot of Disibodenberg opposed Hildegard’s plans for a separate convent, she pursued the request anyway, saying that it was God’s command. She then fell ill, and insisted that her sickness had religious significance since it was caused by “male priests’ and leaders’” disobedience to God’s will (Newman 1987:27–29). Eventually the abbot had to withdraw his objection and accept Hildegard’s decision.

After the convent was successfully relocated to Rupertsberg, Hildegard established the rules and secured financial resources. She adapted the architectural space and liturgical elements to benefit her leadership and her nuns’ autonomy in religious life. This granted more independence than sharing the same place with male monks, which resulted in being ruled by male authorities. In this new monastery, Hildegard successfully ran the women’s religious community by establishing monastic disciplines as well as financial security with her teaching, preaching, and writing on God’s words. Therefore, her relocation of the women’s monastery was “for the sake of the salvation of our souls and our concern for the strict observance of the Rule” (Letter to the Congregation of Nuns 195r, in Hildegard 1994:170).

Furthermore, Hildegard wished to find a place where her nuns could practice devotion with proper rules and liturgies. She wanted the nuns to have their independence in a new monastery so they could better observe the Benedictine Rule (Petty 2014:140). Hildegard composed songs for liturgies and developed dramas, probably as a way of inviting, and even encouraging, the nuns to share her transcendent experiences by acting in her mystical plays (Newman 1990:13).

This was just one of the many ways in which Hildegard was able to use her spiritual experiences of pain and her visions from God. Other instances in which she utilized mystical insights were when she raised her voice against church authorities (including the pope, secular leaders, and the German emperor) when she felt that their claims went against God’s wishes (Flanagan 1998:6). She believed that her frequent sickness had given her a “propensity for visions,” and so took her pain for a blessing (Newman 1990:11–12).

Despite her illnesses, Hildegard enjoyed a long and active life until she died at the age of eighty-one. When she was about sixty years-old, she even undertook a preaching tour near the Main River, the largest tributary into the Rhine. Hildegard of Bingen died on September 17, 1179, and she was first buried in the graveyard of the Disbodenberg convent. In 1642, her remains were moved and buried in the Eibingen parish church. Despite her popularity and authority, she was not canonized until 2012, although she had already begun to be treated like a saint in her own lifetime.


Hildegard of Bingen believed she received direct interpretations and hidden knowledge of scripture from God. Her major trilogy of religious knowledge, which she believed originated from God, included: the Scivias (Knowing the Ways of God, 1141–1151) and the Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits, 1158–1163). In the Liber vitae meritorum, Hildegard introduced thirty-five pairs of the virtues and vices of human beings, ending with a chapter on purgatory and hell. People were to be judged by how they behaved. The last volume of the trilogy was the Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works, 1163–1173/74). [Image at right] In this work, Hildegard presented herself as a prophet, offering ten visions in three parts. This final volume contains her understanding of cosmology, rooted in her treatment of the close relationships between the worldly elements, human bodies, human souls, and God’s intentions. In analyzing them, Hildegard argued that everything was created by God’s will with proper reason. Even when people make mistakes and commit sins, their nature knows what is right and wrong, and God’s will has the power to bring people back to goodness. These books all present Hildegard’s optimistic views on the world and human beings.

The Scivias is considered Hildegard’s most important book, which shows her theology and visions. In it she revealed her conviction that she was God’s messenger: “The person [Hildegard] whom I [God] have chosen and whom I have miraculously stricken as I willed, I have placed among great wonders, beyond the measure of the ancient people who say in Me many secrets” (Hildegard 1990:59–61). Although she claimed that she had been receiving visions and having mystical experiences from before her birth, it was in 1141 that she had a life-changing mystical event. In this vision, God called Hildegard his messenger and ordered her to write down the holy secrets he revealed to her. It took ten years for her to finish this book with the help of Volmar, the school master at Disibodenberg, and later her friend and companion Richardis von Stade (d. 1152). Volmar and the Cistercian mystic Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) helped Hildegard to obtain an approval and blessing from Pope Eugenius III (p. 1145–1153) to continue her writing. Scivias is the product of her transformative vision that made Hildegard identify herself as a speaker of God.

The Scivias consists of a sequence of Hildegard’s visions and their interpretations, which are often voiced as if God were speaking. Addressed to a clerical and monastic audience, the Scivias consists of three books in which Hildegard’s visionary witness is accompanied by God’s explanatory voice. Each chapter is arranged to begin with a description of what Hildegard saw in her vision, followed by the exegetical explanation of it that she reported she had received directly from God. The first book discusses God’s creation of the world; the second book the redemption of the world through Christ with sacraments such as baptism and the Eucharist; and the third the “sanctification” of the world, by which she meant how God’s dispensation will be fulfilled through history and morality. Together, these three books can be seen as representing the past, present, and future of God’s works, and the role of the church in them, reminding readers of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Each book contains between six and thirteen visions, and each vision starts with Hildegard’s description of what she saw or heard from heaven. First, Hildegard described each part of her vision in detail. Then, speaking in God’s voice, she drew out the details of the vision with frequent references to Scripture, morality, the priesthood, humanity, and various other topics. She often alternated between her own voice and that of God, which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish whether Hildegard or God is speaking at any given moment.

An analysis of Hildegard’s exegesis, visions, letters, and other writing reveals a pro-female (though not proto-feminist) anthropology, ecclesiology, and biology. An optimistic and even up-beat theology emerges in her thought. For example, when Hildegard analyzed the fall of Adam and Eve in her medical book Causae et curae (Causes and Cures, an abbreviation of Liber compositae medicinae aegritudinum causis, signis atque curis, 1150s?), she maintained that human beings did not lose God’s power and knowledge (Causae et curae Lib. II, in Hildegard 2008). Human beings retained this sacred knowing, which eventually will enable women and men to return to a pristine state to be saved by God. Hildegard agreed with many other medieval theologians that the body of the first human beings, Eve and Adam, became degraded and began to require reproduction as a result of original sin and losing eternal life (Causae et curae Lib. II, Hildegard 2008). However, Hildegard saw that God’s power, which created Adam, still remains in the bodies of women and is at work when they give birth to babies. In this way, even after human beings sinned against God, they still could benefit from God’s creative power present in women’s bodies (she does not mention men’s bodies). At the same time, human beings have simply forgotten that they have God’s knowing in them; it will flourish again when they have salvation through the Savior.

And thus Man, having been delivered, shines in God, and God in Man; Man, having community in God, has in Heaven more radiant brightness than he had before. This would not have been so if the Son of God had not put on flesh, for if Man had remained in Paradise, the Son of God would not have suffered on the cross. But when Man was deceived by the wily serpent, God was touched by true mercy and ordained that His Only-Begotten would become incarnate in the most pure Virgin. And thus after Man’s ruin many shining virtues were lifted up in Heaven, like humility, the queen of virtues, which flowered in the virgin birth, and other virtues, which lead God’s elect to the heavenly places (Scivias 1.2.31, in Hildegard 1990:87–88).

Human beings will then be reestablished as they once were in paradise. Nothing is ever lost in people. Salvation is not something alien or extremely difficult to achieve. Even when people sin, they can come back to Ecclesia (that is, the church) to do penance, thereby cleansing sin from their bodies and souls.

In Vision Three in Book Two of the Scivias, Hildegard mystically saw Ecclesia as a woman wearing white clothes. Whereas it is very common in traditional exegesis to depict the church as a female and the church’s redemptive role as motherly, Hildegard vividly described the vivid image of Ecclesia giving birth.[Image at right]

And this I saw the image of a woman as large as a great city, with a wonderful crown on her head and arms from which a splendor hung like sleeves, shining from Heaven to earth. Her womb was pierced like a net with many openings, with a huge multitude of people running in and out. She had no legs or feet, but stood balanced on her womb in front of the altar that stands before the eyes of God, embracing it with her outstretched hands and gazing sharply with her eyes throughout all of Heaven.

And that image spreads out its splendor like a garment, saying, “I must conceive and give birth!”

Then I saw black children moving in the air near the ground like fishes in water, and they entered the womb of the image through the openings that pierced it. But she groaned, drawing them upward to her head, and they went out by her mouth, while she remained untouched. And behold, that serene light with her figure of a man in it, blazing with a glowing fire, which I had seen in my previous vision, again appeared to me, and stripped the black skin off each of them and threw it away; and it clothed each of them in a pure white garment and opened to them the serene light (Scivias II.3, in Hildegard 1990:169).

According to this vision, Ecclesia is having an inverted version of childbirth to give new life to sinful souls that enter the lower part of Ecclesia through her womb. They are cleaned in the body of Ecclesia, and then go out from the Ecclesia’s mouth as purified. In this passage, Hildegard clearly juxtaposes women’s childbirth and Ecclesia’s redemption as well as women’s reproduction and Ecclesia’s re-creation of human beings.

Hildegard’s writings show relatively more compassion to women in general than do texts by either female or male contemporaries. She presents the woman’s body as less contaminated by original sin, which is unusual in medieval theology and medicine. For example, Thomas Aquinas devalued the woman’s reproductive process so much that he argued that in the moment of Jesus’ conception, the Holy Spirit was entirely separated from the Virgin Mary’s reproductive parts and blood. In other words, the blood used in the conception of Christ never visited Mary’s lower regions. “For then the blood was brought together in the Virgin’s womb and fashioned into a child by the operation of the Holy Spirit. And so Christ’s body is said to be formed of the most chaste and purest blood of the Virgin” (Summa Theologiae IIIa. a.31 q.6: 29, in Thomas Aquinas 2006).

Hildegard appreciated women’s bodies as more purifying and more able to be purified. According to the creation narrative in Genesis 2, Adam was made from dirt whereas Eve was produced from Adam’s rib by God; therefore Hildegard concluded that Adam and male descendants are harder, more rigid, and difficult to change compared to women, both physically and psychologically. Because of this hardness in Adam, his body deteriorated so much that it became polluted, while Eve’s body began to have flows, in other words, menstruation. Hildegard further insisted that it was better that Eve, the woman, committed the first sin because humankind might have a better chance to recover her pure body and mind. If Adam had brought the sin first, his hardness would have made it difficult for his descendants to repent and return to God.

At the same time, Hildegard argued that the female body has the power to nullify the man’s deadly nature, which inevitably originated from God’s power to make Adam; women, however, could overcome men’s noxious semen and create children. In Causae et curae Hildegard explained that during intercourse and conception the woman’s foam tempers the polluted nature of semen, kindling it and converting it into an appropriate state so it can be generated as a fetus.

And her blood is stirred by the man’s love and she emits something like foam, but more bloody than white, toward the man’s semen; the foam conjoins itself to it (i.e. the semen), and strengthens it and makes it warm and bloody; for after it falls into its place and lies there, it becomes cool. And for a long time it is just like venomous foam until fire, namely heat, warms it up and until air, namely breath, dries it out, and until water, namely flow, sends pure moisture to it, and until earth, namely skin, constrains it. And thus it will be bloody—i.e. it is not entirely blood, but just mixed with a little blood. And the four humors, which a human being draws from the four elements, remain around the same semen moderately and temperately until the flesh is kind of coagulated and firmed up, so that the form of a human being can be figured in it (Causae et Curae, Lib. II in Hildegard 2008:51–52).

Hildegard thus asserted that all four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) and all four humors generated from them (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, as identified in Greek medicine) of the female body work together to generate a fetus by giving semen appropriate qualities. Again, the interesting point is that in Hildegard’s understanding the woman’s body neutralizes the poisonous character of the man’s semen, emphasizing the positive power of the woman’s body. This contrasts with the majority of folk and Christian medicine that regarded the woman’s body as fatally polluting due to blood from menstruation and childbirth.

Hildegard also emphasized the abiding potency of God present and working in women during the process of childbirth. During childbirth, the eternal power of God is awakened and stirring the mother’s body so that a baby can be born out of her body, just as Adam was produced by God.

With childbirth imminent, the vessel in which the infant had been enclosed, is split. The power of eternity, which brought forth Eve from Adam’s side, arriving soon, is present and overturns every corner of the dwelling place of the woman’s body. All the joints of the woman’s body become involved with that force and they assist it and open themselves. They hold themselves while the infant emerges, and then resume their former arrangement. While the infant emerges, his soul feels the power of eternity, and is happy (Causes and Cures, Lib. II, in Hildegard 2008:56).

These descriptions from Hildegard of Bingen’s medical and theological writings show her appreciation of the beneficial power in the woman’s body.

Of course, Hildegard was not arguing for women’s equality. She continued to believe that women were weaker than men and that women could not become priests. She kept insisting that she was nothing but an uneducated woman. She nevertheless transformed these medieval gender stereotypes into views more favorable to women. Because the woman’s body was weaker, it made it easier to be corrected and to make human salvation less difficult. Woman could not become priests, because their reproductive duties were strongly tied them but since men were not fulfilling their duties of priesthood, Hildegard had to become a messenger of God instead of men. She argued that if women have the virginal life, they could be like priests in giving people new life as a spiritual reproduction although she was still against women taking priestly office (Clark 2002:14–15). Even when Hildegard did not support women’s equality, she still suggested that the woman’s body could be represented and understood as positive, purifying, and re-creative. She expressed this in numerous spiritual and medical writings.

As we have seen, Hildegard’s Scivias presents Ecclesia’s salvific process replicated in the woman’s reproductive process. In her vision, Ecclesia, having the female body, draws the souls through her womb and gives birth to them after cleansing their sins. This power in the woman’s reproductive body is also related to Hildegard’s cosmological view that the power of giving a life (originated from God is present in every creature of God, and makes the whole universe move.

This power of making life was named viriditas by Hildegard of Bingen through her various writings. Although there is no exact equivalent word in English, Hildegard called it “greening power.” Viriditas is the capacity within plants to absorb natural elements and generate them into green leaves. She described this greening power as dominating in summer, in contrast with the dryness prevailing in winter (Book of Divine Works in Hildegard 2018:169). Viriditas could actually be present in any creation of God. For example, according to Hildegard’s Physica (Natural Science, ca. 1150), the gem emerald possesses such viriditas that it can heal people by being placed upon their bodies (Hildegard 1998:138). 

Viriditas is not only present in plants, but also in all creatures of God. Thus, Hildegard’s theology contributed to a creation-centered spirituality. If a person is full of viriditas, it means she or he judges what is right and wrong and follows the good will of God. If the person lacks viriditas, they do not follow the soul’s right discernment between good and evil. Just as a plant could bear fruits only by having this greening power, people cannot have good outcome without viriditas (Book of Divine Works in Hildegard 2018:196).

By relating viriditas to menstruation, Hildegard established herself as a kind of medieval medical expert knowledgeable about women’s health and reproduction.

The stream of a woman’s menstrual period is her life-giving vital force and her exuberant vigor. This sprouts into offspring, as a tree with its vital force [viriditas] sprouts and flowers, producing leaves and fruits. So a woman, from the vital force [viriditas] of the menstrual blood, produces flowers and leaves in the fruit of her womb (Causae et curae Liber II, in Hildegard 2008:87).

Hildegard’s concept of viriditas is not only a natural scientific idea but also a theological construct because she described it as the power given to humankind by God. God used this greening power to create the whole world. “In the beginning, all creation was verdant, / in the middle, flowers blossomed; / later, the viriditas came down” (Ordo Virtutum 481vb, in Hildegard 2007:253–54). After Adam and Eve committed the original sin, this greening power seemed to be repressed in their bodies (Marder 2019:138), but the Virgin Mary revivified viriditas by becoming viridissima virga, “the very green branch,” by herself, bringing back salvation and revitalization to human beings (“Song to the Virgin 19.1” in Symphonia, in Hildegard 1998:127). Viriditas is the vital power of greening in Hildegard’s natural science; at the same time, it is her understanding of salvation and the restoration of humanity in her theology.

Viriditas, the greening power enlivening creatures of God, expressed in her visionary writings, also appears in Hildegard’s music, revealing how important Hildegard considered this idea. The following was the responsory sung by her nuns, which originated from her book Scivias III.13.7b.

O. nobilissima viriditas Responsory for Virgins

R. noblest green viridity,
you’re rooted in the sun
and in the clear
bright calm
you shine within a wheel
no earthly excellence
can comprehend:

R. You are surrounded by
the embraces of the service,
the ministries divine.

V. As morning’s dawn you blush,
as sunny flame you burn (Responsory for Virgins).


Hildegard of Bingen encouraged women’s participation in religious services and dramas. Although her religious life was restricted to the convent, her influence extended outwards to both women and men in many ways. By composing liturgical songs and mystery plays that featured women performers, she especially encouraged women’s involvement in church liturgy. In this way, Hildegard shared what she learned from others (and God’s direct instruction to her) with the nuns and other female colleagues. For example, her play, the Ordo virtutum (Order of the Virtues), the first surviving morality play, which was written in 1151, depicts a soul’s struggle between sin and virtue and presents Hildegard’s style of exegesis.

At the same time, Hildegard used homilies to deliver her understanding of scripture to the women in her care as abbess. Using these means, and supported by her theological knowledge and experience as a woman, Hildegard created gateways for religious women’s more active participation in liturgy. In particular, her music and plays were more accessible to her nuns once she moved her abbey to Rupertsberg and separated from the double monastery at Disibodenberg.

Although Hildegard of Bingen did not think of herself as a composer, she composed seventy-seven songs, mainly for practical use by the nuns in her convent. Hildegard treated music and singing as an essential part of the monastic life following the rule of Saint Benedict. Many of her songs were antiphons, accompanying the psalm reading or liturgies. Others are responsory, sequences, and hymns, which could be used for various liturgies. Although her music is highly religious, it seems that Hildegard must have been exposed to non-religious musical components as she mentioned “a lyre” in the Liber vitae meritorum (White 1998:14).

Hildegard’s music concretely conveys her theological views. In fact, her visions were mostly sung to musical accompaniment. She frequently emphasized what she saw and heard. Often, Hildegard reported that she heard music in her visions, demonstrating the significance of the musical component in her religious life. In the last vision in the Scivias, Hildegard says, “Then I saw the lucent sky, in which I heard different kinds of music, marvelously embodying all the meanings I had heard before” (Scivias, in Hildegard 1990:525). Then, she wrote down nine songs recording what she claimed to have heard in her visions. Furthermore, they embodied her mystical experiences, providing meaning through music. In other words, music was the ultimate medium of her visions.


Hildegard of Bingen was an unusual woman in that she was a strong and able leader who enjoyed fame in her own lifetime. She not only supervised nuns in two convents, but she also influenced male authorities. Living in a time when women were forbidden to teach or preach, Hildegard was able to use holy visions and spiritual illness as sources of spiritual and secular influence. She corresponded with many people, men as well as women, to deliver her message. At the same time, Hildegard cared for her charges through her teaching, writing, and administration.

Hildegard might have been considered a threat to male authorities in the church due to her direct visions from God; she certainly made broad claims to authority as God’s messenger. In fact, she explicitly criticized male authorities by saying that these men with power did not do what God asked them to do; and that was why she called her contemporary time an “effeminate age” (Newman 1985:174). When men were not accomplishing their duties, in her opinion, it was time for women to do the job. Thus, Hildegard claimed to be the proper messenger of God since men were not fulfilling God’s orders; she advocated for her works of preaching and teaching, which were strongly prohibited by the church for women (Newman 1985:175).

Hildegard’s theology and belief in her God-given visionary authority challenged the medieval view that women, as the weaker sex, were susceptible to evil and the devil (Caciola, 2015:27–28).


Like other medieval female saints, Hildegard faced a number of issues both in the Catholic Church and in secular society. Even after she was publicly accepted as a God’s messenger by Pope Eugenius III when he approved her Scivias in 1148, she was sometimes involved with theological or political conflicts with other theologians or the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa (1122–1190). For example, Hildegard was not afraid to rebuke Frederick Barbarossa regarding the German papal schism although he was the imperial protector of her Rupertsberg monastery. She called him an infant and a madman, threatening him with God’s voices although he kept his promise to protect her monastery (Newman 1987:13).

Hildegard faced serious objections from the monks of Disibodenberg when she wanted to move the monastery for women. Although Abbott Kuno tried to interfere with her plan by refusing to transfer the nuns’ dowries, she persisted, declaring that her intention was God’s intention, and insisting that her physical illness was caused by the monks’ hard hearts as a punishment of God until they yielded and changed their opinion (Newman 1985:175). Hildegard was not afraid to hold firm to her opinion in the face of church authorities’ opposition or displeasure, because she was convinced that she was a vessel to deliver God’s words. Hildegard and her women’s monastery at Rupertsberg even received an interdict (that is, a prohibition on participating in church rites) from prelates in Mainz because the nuns did not obey an order from church officials in the Mainz diocese, although it was quickly removed. This case shows that Hildegard of Bingen was not afraid to raise her voice against male church authorities in the Middle Ages when women were subjected to men and mystics were also subjected to ecclesiastical censure. She strongly pursued her goals while holding to her conviction that she was doing the right thing.

These struggles show that Hildegard of Bingen asserted what she believed was her divinely given spiritual authority to meet challenges to her actions on the part of male authorities in political and religious conflicts.


Hildegard of Bingen’s life and productivity have been extensively studied and researched. Like other women of her era, she began to attract scholarly attention due to the emergence of feminist studies in history in the twentieth century. Afterwards, her works on theology as well as secular topics were translated and analyzed in many books and articles. To gain a complete understanding of this medieval mystic, it would be necessary to read her works in a holistic way that encompasses her religious, physiological, cosmological, medical, astronomical, and musical theories.

Although Hildegard of Bingen was widely welcomed by modern feminist scholars as a woman who was intelligent and powerful in the Middle Ages, it is also true that she accepted and perpetuated the gender stereotypes of her peers. Although she stated that women’s bodies purified men’s semen and contained God’s power in childbirth, in her medical and theological writings, she insisted that women were weaker than men and they were subject to men. She also argued that women should not become priests, although she believed that some of women’s roles were similar to priestly duties. While she said that women should not approach an altar, she also wrote that women had a more direct relation to the Holy Spirit because they could have Jesus as their husband. Is Hildegard of Bingen’s theology woman-repressing or woman-empowering? It shows how important it is for modern readers to understand her theology within its medieval context.

Hildegard was not the only case in which a woman was called “teacher” in the Middle Ages, but she was exceptionally famous and respected for her spiritual knowledge during her lifetime. She was unusual among medieval religious women, because she could read and write by herself, even if she still needed to accept male guidance. Having joined her mentor Jutta in the religious life during her childhood, Hildegard began her studies quite early. Even when she did not mention other theologians by name in her books, her writings show that she must have been trained in theology by Jutta, by Volmar, and through her independent study of books in the monastery library. Moreover, her correspondence with contemporary theologians and male elites indicates that she was sufficiently educated to make effective theological arguments. Equipped with physical and visionary forms of religious experience, and an education, Hildegard was able to live up to her renowned status, which she had created by presenting herself as a prophet with an authoritative voice in her spiritual writings, and by comparing herself to the biblical prophets such as Moses and John the Evangelist (Newman 1999:19–24). Her own followers compared her to female prophets in the Bible, such as Deborah, Huldah, Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist (Letter to Hildegard 75, Newman 1987:27).

The fact that Hildegard wrote about medicine and the natural sciences, as well as described her religious visions and spiritual understanding, also makes her different from many women of her time. In her books, she brought the spiritual knowledge that she claimed to have received from God to bear on secular subjects in addition to religious ones. She wrote on medicine, mineralogy, musicology, and natural science, among other topics. For her, these “secular” disciplines could belong to theology because they explained God’s order in a micro-macro cosmology. Her vivid illustrations of the human as the micro version of the macro cosmos penetrate all her writings.

Her writings assert that she was a legitimate messenger of God, even though a woman. Granted, she was not totally free from the patriarchal culture of the Catholic Church and medicine; but using femininity to signify weakness (Newman 1987:88), as a teacher, she eventually turned her weaker sex into an advantage. When women were not allowed to preach or to teach theology, Hildegard articulated a justification appropriate for her time about why she could teach: men abandoned their privileged duty to teach God’s words to people and they had lost viriditas, so now women should become “manly” and take over their job (Liber divinorum operum 3.8.5, in Hildegard 2018:430–31). In her medical writings, Hildegard argued that women’s weaker, softer body, which lacked semen, kept women safe from the poisonous degradation of semen, whereas Adam, with the stronger body, had semen, which was degrading and polluting (Cause et curae, Hildegard 2009:140). This view is quite different from that of her contemporaries, who claimed that women should be subjected to men in the Church because of their weaker bodies, their lack of semen, and their monthly pollution through menstruation. Hildegard made women’s weaknesses into strengths, and wrote that women were more flexible because they did not have polluted semen and thus were not stubborn in either mind or body. She claimed to receive all religious and secular knowledge from God, pointing out that she was such a simple and unlearnt woman that she could not possibly have made up or fabricated these ideas on her own (Scivias “Declaration,” Hildegard 1990:56).

Relying, then, on the legitimacy of divinely given visions, Hildegard of Bingen advocated for women in the monasteries, and developed a female-centered science to explain gender differences. Her concept of viriditas and creation-centered spirituality has greatly influenced both Christian ecofeminists and other feminist theologians. For example, Mary Judith Ress appreciated Hildegard’s viriditas as a bio-spirituality to remind readers that all creations are closely linked to God in this greening power (2008:385). Although Hildegard’s cosmology can be seen as anthropocentric (that human beings represent the center of God’s creation) her micro/macro-cosmism that emphasizes human beings’ links and responsibilities to all of God’s creations is appreciated by feminist theologians (Maskulak 2010:46–47). Along with Hildegard’s concept of viriditas, Jane Duran argues that Hildegard’s ontology is also highly gynocentric. She uses very feminine conceptions, such as connectedness and relatedness, as opposed to men’s normative and distanced qualities. In doing so, she presents personified individual virtues that exist in women as well as men (Duran 2014:158–59, 165).


Image #1: “Frontispiece of Scivias, showing Hildegard receiving a vision, dictating to Volmar, and sketching on a wax tablet” from a miniature of Rupertsberg Codex of des Liver Scivias Facsimile, Fol. 1r.
Image #2: “Hildegard receives a vision in the presence of her secretary Volmar and her confidante Richardis.” Liber divinorum operum, sec. XIII in., ms. 1942, c.1v from Biblioteca Statale di Lucca.
Image #3: “Ecclesia, the Mother of the Faithful and Baptism.” Rupertsberg Codex of des Liber Scivias II.3, Facsimile, Fol. 51r.


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Newman, Barbara. 1999. “Hildegard and Her Hagiographers.” Pp. 16-34 in Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters, edited by Catherine M. Mooney. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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Newman, Barbara. 1987. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Ress, Mary Judith. 2008. “Remembering Who We Are: Reflections on Latin American Ecofeminist Theology.” Feminist Theology 16:383–96.

White, John D. 1998. “The Musical World of Hildegard of Bingen.” College Music Symposium 38: 6–16.

Supplementary Resources

Bowie, Fiona, and Oliver Davies, eds. 1990. Hildegard of Bingen: An Anthology. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Cadden, Joan. 1984. “It Takes All Kinds: Sexuality and Gender Differences in Hildegard of Bingen’s ‘Book of Compound Medicine.’” Traditio 40:149–74.

“Hildegard of Bingen: A Chronology of her Life and the History of her Canonization.” Abbey of Saint Hildegard. Accessed from https://www.abtei-st-hildegard.de/hildegard-of-bingen-a-chronology-of-her-life-and-the-history-of-her-canonization/ on 11 October 2019.

International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies. Accessed from http://www.hildegard-society.org on 14 October 2019.

Kienzle, Beverly Mayne. 2001. “Hildegard of Bingen’s Teaching in Her Expositiones evangeliorum and Ordo virtutum.” Pp. 72-86 in Medieval Monastic Education, edited by George Ferzoco and Carolyn Muessig. London: Leicester University Press.

Kienzle, Beverly Mayne, Debra L. Stoudt, and George Ferzoco, eds. 2013. A Companion to Hildegard of Bingen. Leiden: Brill.

McInerney, Maud Burnett, ed. 2014. Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays. New York: Routledge.

Newman, Barbara. 2003. “Commentary on the Johannine Prologue: Hildegard of Bingen.” Theology Today 60:16–33.

Newman, Barbara, ed. 1998. Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Newman, Barbara. 1995. From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sweet, Victoria. 2006. Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky: Hildegard of Bingen and Premodern Medicine. New York: Routledge.

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31 October 2019


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