Hildegard von Bingen Becomes Abbess

Hildegard’s leadership in two German monasteries and her mystical writings expanded her religious and political influence across twelfth century Europe and opened new possibilities for women’s religious leadership.

Summary of Event

It was believed that only two venues best suited medieval women: the home and the monastery. Women unattached to either were suspect and thus displaced from a divinely instituted order. Since women were thought particularly culpable in bringing sin into the world—as the biblical story of Adam and Eve was believed to have illustrated—they were considered unlikely conduits for divine revelation. Hence, the church was governed exclusively by male clergy and practically all its teachers and theologians were men. [kw]Hildegard von Bingen Becomes Abbess (1136)
[kw]Bingen Becomes Abbess, Hildegard von (1136)
[kw]Abbess, Hildegard von Bingen Becomes (1136)
Hildegard von Bingen
Women;Christianity and
Christianity;women and
Germany;1136: Hildegard von Bingen Becomes Abbess[1870]
Literature;1136: Hildegard von Bingen Becomes Abbess[1870]
Religion;1136: Hildegard von Bingen Becomes Abbess[1870]
Social reform;1136: Hildegard von Bingen Becomes Abbess[1870]
Hildegard von Bingen
Jutta von Spanheim
Eugenius III

Women who raised children bore Eve’s burden in one sense but atoned for it in another by modeling the maternal virtues associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Conversely, nuns reflected Mary’s holiness through their physical virginity and spiritual quest for communion with God. Such communion was best achieved in a monastery’s communal prayer and solitude. Worldly goods and power were sacrificed and monks and nuns lived dead to the world beyond the monastery walls.

Yet silence and solitude were not wholly constitutive of the lives of all medieval nuns. The monastery afforded them real leadership roles and space in which to exercise spiritual gifts other than maternal love. A few nuns, such as Hildegard von Bingen, spoke publicly, produced treatises on a variety of subjects, and corresponded with clerics, often with persuasive effect. As an abbess, she oversaw her community’s daily life and advised her nuns as they sought perfection in the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Some of these women were mystics Mysticism;Germany who claimed close union with God through visions and revelations. In the meditative atmosphere of a monastery a woman could reflect upon her spiritual experiences and think about them in a wider light. Some women received theological training in these settings and so were afforded tools to develop their minds.

Unlike their modern counterparts, medieval nuns performed little social outreach, though a few monasteries provided care for the sick and refuge for the poor. Prayer and contemplation were the norm. Daily activities in a Benedictine foundation such as Hildegard’s were punctuated by the canonical hours, or times of worship throughout the day and night. Otherwise, monastics worked their gardens and performed chores with a minimum of conversation and lived on simple meals of bread, water, wine, and vegetables. Monasticism;Germany

Intellectual and mystic met in Hildegard, the Sybil of the Rhine. She was a scientist and an otherworldly mystic, one who revealed the mysteries of the natural world and claimed extraordinary visions. Though a child of baronial wealth, born in 1098 in Bermersheim bei Alzey (now in Germany), she was destined for monastic life. This probably was because she was the tenth child, given by her parents to a holy life in reference to the biblical concept of the tithe, or tenth of one’s household income. Her sickly nature also precipitated her being pledged. Jutta von Spanheim Jutta von Spanheim , abbess of Disibodenberg, became her superior when Hildegard was eight, beginning a life of female monastic administration brought to fruition when she succeeded Jutta as abbess in 1136.

Hildegard described her visions as light streaming from above, filling her mind. Hence, she is often depicted with a stream of light from heaven over her. She did not claim that her visions were of real things, but rather, were of light, stars, or great circles visible in her mind and accompanied by knowledge of the Scriptures. They were seen, she explains, by her “interior” eyes in a wakeful state and not in dreams or hallucinations. She wrote down the fruits of her visions in her Scivias
Scivias (Hildegard von Bingen) (1141-1151; English translation, 1986), an abbreviated form of nosce vias (Domini), or “know the ways of the Lord.” She tells of being compelled to record her experiences at that time. Her reluctance to obey resulted in illness that subsided when she finally agreed to record them, a process spanning a decade.

The book is a mix of science, philosophy, and theology and gives an account of the universe, the self, and the harmony and order that attends them. Though she claimed this knowledge came through visions, there is much affinity with medieval thinkers with whom she would have been familiar. She continued developing her comprehensive vision in the De operatione Dei (1163-1173; Book of Divine Works, 1987). Book of Divine Works (Hildegard von Bingen) The writing of Scivias was not the first instance of her unusual gifts. It was reported that, as a child, Hildegard “saw” a calf inside its mother cow and accurately predicted its spots and coloring. This unusual gift for visioning could have won her derision or censure, but it instead received approbation from Pope Eugenius III Eugenius III , who read a portion of the Scivias at the Council of Trier in 1147.

Hildegard called herself a “poor little womanly creature.” Such humility combined with her physical ailments figured into her visions. Scholars have speculated about the possible psychosomatic causes for her visions, speculating that migraine headaches produced “stars,” lights, and blurred vision. Whatever their cause, admirers continue to laud her experiences as spiritually instructive.

Humility, however, did not mean reticence. She was in touch with worldly realities around her. When Pope Eugenius approved her visions, she replied by admonishing him to reform Church abuses. Few other correspondents escaped her review, except Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian abbot and Crusade leader. She told Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa that his rule was corrupt and that she envisioned storms clouding his career. Henry II of England received a similar admonition. She also made four preaching tours across Europe during her career.

Her own reforming work involved separating the Disibodenberg nuns from their male counterparts in 1148. Such a move scandalized the monks, to whose abbot the nuns were to be obedient. A move meant loss of income for the monks, as well as personal sorrow over sundered friendships. As usual, a divine vision accompanying a bout of illness confirmed the plan, and Hildegard moved her eighteen nuns to Rupertsberg in 1150. As an abbess, she accommodated to some institutional biases, such as choosing only well-bred women as nuns. High-born women brought wealth and prestige, ensuring the practical survival of her community.

Her closest confidant in the monastery, Richardis von Sade Richardis von Sade , became abbess of another monastery in 1151, despite Hildegard’s opposition. The move crushed Hildegard as much as it advanced her protégé. Nonetheless, Richardis was persuaded by Hildegard’s sadness to return to Rupertsberg, where Richardis died shortly thereafter.

An episode from her last years illustrates Hildegard’s outspoken leadership. It involved the burial of a man in the Rupertsberg monastery yard whom the Church had excommunicated. The local archbishop considered null the dead man’s forgiveness by the Church and ordered the body removed from holy ground. Hildegard refused, arguing her case before a tribunal and disguising the grave. Not until the archbishop died two years later was the issue resolved in Hildegard’s favor, and the saying of mass by priests could resume for the Rupertsberg nuns. Months later, she died, satisfied that justice and mercy had met in her leadership.


Hildegard’s ability to lead was coupled with an appreciation of science, poetry, and music. Among her nonvisionary works is a morality play designed for use in churches, music, Music;Christian a treatise on the human body and disease, and a secret alphabet and language. In all these works, Hildegard understood herself to be a channel of divine revelation. For her, there was no separation between the mystical and the scientific, the known and the sensed. As the Scivias described it, the human body with its senses and emotions was a microcosm of the universe, where divinely given form joined matter in creating harmony, order, and beauty. Even her music defied twelfth century conventions with its free verse and rhapsodic melody.

Her fame as a mystic and intellectual have won Hildegard attention in recent scholarship on medieval women. Despite her intriguing spirituality and bold leadership, she is not officially recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church, though scores of faithful study her works, enjoy her music, and laud her example.

Further Reading

  • Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. An in-depth analysis of the literature and religious language of medieval women.
  • Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Women in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row, 1978. An informative social history concerning customs, mores, and the role of women in medieval life.
  • Hart, Columba, et al., eds. Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias. Classics of Western Spirituality Series. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1990. A solid introduction to Hildegard and a translation of her key work.
  • Hildegard von Bingen. Eleven Thousand Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula. Harmonia Mundi France, 1997. One of several recordings available of Hildegard’s music.
  • Hildegard von Bingen. Scivias. Translated by Bruce Hozeski. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Bear, 1986. A translated text of Hildegard’s major visionary cycle, accompanied by black-and-white illustrations of the text’s illuminations. Introductory essays include a biographical sketch, a review of her work, and an analysis of the structure and contents of Scivias.
  • King-Lenzmeier, Anne H. Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2001. This study treats Hildegard’s writing as a coherent body of work. It brings together and analyzes the visionary and nonvisionary writing with the music, and provides biographical and sociological information to place the work in context.
  • Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. New York: Doubleday, 2001. A biography of Hildegard emphasizing the wide variety of her accomplishments in many fields and the diverse and contradictory facets of her personality.
  • Newman, Barbara. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. This book examines Hildegard’s theological views, placing her within her intellectual milieu.
  • Newman, Barbara, ed. Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Scholars in different fields analyze Hildegard and her realm from varied perspectives.
  • Petroff, Elizabeth A. Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Anthologizes and analyzes in great detail the varied genres produced by medieval women.
  • Wilson, Katharina M., ed. Medieval Women Writers. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. Another valuable anthology of women’s literature, including that of Hildegard.
  • Zum Brun, Emilie, and Georgette Epiney-Burgard. Women Mystics in Medieval Europe. New York: Paragon House, 1989. A chapter on Hildegard links her with other female mystics and provides excerpts from their works.