17 September: The Abbess Hildegarde of Bingen.

'Underneath all the texts, all the sacred psalms and canticles, these watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me. My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.'

Hildegarde of Bingen (c1098-1179)

The Abbess, Hildegarde of Bingen, died this day in 1179 aged about 81.  She had been a nun since (probably) the age of fourteen. As the tenth child of her parents she was given to the church as an oblate and put into the care of the Abbess, teacher and anchorite, Jutta of Sponheim.  A contemporary account of the life of Jutta was discovered in 1991 and it casts new light on her pupil who is now regarded as being something one of the greatest polymaths of the middle ages.

Hildegarde of Bingen is famous as a composer of sublime liturgical music for women’s voices – I’m listening to her setting of ‘O virga ac diadema’ as I write. But before her compositions shot her into the public eye in 1983, with the issue of the CD ‘A Feather on the Breath of God,'  Hildegard was mostly known within theological circles as a prodigious writer. She wrote hundreds of letters, a play, her autobiography and three volumes of visionary theology.  She invented her own language based on Latin and she was a noted healer. Most interesting (to me) she wrote ‘Physica’ and ‘Causae et Curae’, two encyclopaedic manuals of natural history and herbal medicine. 'Causae et Curae' is extremely unusual in that it deals explicitly with the psychological and physiological differences between men and women; sex, abortion, contraception and menstruation. Hildegarde might have been cloistered but she wasn't narrow.

 Hildegarde received ‘visions’ all her life and she may have had temporal lobe epilepsy like St Theresa of Avila. We also now know that TLE can manifest itself in a condition called hypergraphia – an obsessive need to write.  Alternatively, Professor Oliver Sacks thinks Hildegard may have suffered from the showers of phosphenes associated with severe migraine and which show themselves as lights on the visual field. She wrote of her visions ‘I saw an extremely strong, sparkling fiery light coming from the open heavens.' That could easily be migraine.

Whatever the cause, in the mediaeval world it was not regarded as abnormal for a woman who denied herself the opportunity of a husband and children to be subject to such phenomena. The condition of receptive submissiveness to a husband in the case of married women, or to God, in the case of nuns, was believed to make the latter more susceptible to mystical experiences. 

In marked contrast to her mentor, who was a noted ascetic, Hildegarde adopted a more rounded attitude to life and in some respects was remarkably liberal - her nuns were not required to shave their heads for example.  The Benedictine rule that she followed, warned against an excess of anything including fasting and Hildegarde mentions the dangers of this explicitly. Maybe the example of Jutta had shown her how women could damage themselves in this way.

 ( 'The Universal Human' - Illustration from the manuscript of 'Scivias')

In fact, Hildegarde’s entire theology was based on harmony of the created world and its relation to the Creator. Her music breathes that with every note and it is astonishing in its sensuality.  It abounds in colourful images of natural, organic things – gardens, growth, fecundity, flowers, jewels. Take this description of the Virgin Mary in 'Ave, Generosa' - 'Your flesh has known delight; like the grassland touched by dew and immersed in its freshness: so it was with you, O mother of all joy.'

Hildegarde was very interested in food and its relationship to health and her attitude to it was full of common sense. Her 'Physica' list thirty seven species of fish,which is not bad for someone who lived on top of a mountain. She suggests abstaining from butter 'lest weak flesh become fatter', salt is good - 'but not to excess' and spearmint aids digestion. Mind you, she did also suggest that an unconscious bat tied to the thigh and left to die there would cure jaundice and that an ointment of sparrow hawk flesh and fat cools a woman's 'ardour' if rubbed around the bellybutton. I wonder how she knew that? 

At a time when eating uncooked vegetables was regarded as dangerous, Hildegard recommends 'green food' as a way of keeping the body in harmony with creation and she coined the word 'viriditas' - greening power.  Her life coincided with an astonishing opening up of the west to new tastes and ingredients which happened as a result of the First Crusade. Maybe she would have liked this.

Rocket and walnut salad with yoghurt cheese and honey.

This is so simple and so sophisticated and so 'now' - but it could easily have been eaten in the twelfth century. It's a simple lunch to be eaten in a shady cloister overlooking a herb garden, with the sound of women's voices practising "O vis angeli' in the distance.

I made labneh - yoghurt cheese, by adding a teaspoon of salt to 500ml of greek yoghurt and draining it through a sieve for two days. Place the cheese on a pretty plate. Toss the leaves in a light dressing made with walnut oil and lay them beside the cheese adding the walnuts in a little pile.  Drizzle with runny honey - I used some Austrian acacia honey. Serve with good bread. A grinding of black pepper would not go amiss.

As you can see from the photo I added some raw cured ham and a few greengages to make a lunch platter for two to pick at. Perfect on a warm autumn day.

The Spirit of God
is a life that bestows life,
root of world-tree
and the wind in its boughs.
Scrubbing out sin,
she rubs oil into wounds.
She is glistening life
alluring all praise,

(note the pronoun!)



Toffeeapple said...

Thank you for this post, it has pointed me toward Hildegarde whose music I had never heard. She was a forward thinking woman I believe.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful site you have. I wondered if you are a fan of sous vide, and if so if you might be interested in a collaboration? Please drop me a mail if so, thank you :) seth at jumpingspidermedia dot co dot uk

Angela Williams Duea said...

Gorgeously written. Thank you for introducing me to an exceptional woman in Hildegarde. She sounds fascinating.

Liz Woods said...

Thank you all! More next Sunday...

Mary Beth said...

Liz, so happy to see you are back from holidays! Love your plan for Sunday posts, too. And glad to see Hildegarde here. The scope of her legacy is dazzling. You filled in even more background for me re her visions... helps me understand better why I always had the sense that so many of the "best" saints were just kinda crazy. Wonderful, but out of reach. That being said,your lovely little feast in her honor is the kind of eating that husband and I enjoy doing on Friday nights- a few nice cheeses, some crusty bread, the fruit, and WINE. Perfect!
Also, I hope the book has been selling well. I have been enjoying it immensely.