Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Illuminating Life of Hildegard von Bingen



My forthcoming title, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, will be published on October 9,     2012, and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Who was Hildegard of Bingen?

Born in the Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard (1098-1179) was a visionary abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. An outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, she courted controversy. Late in her life, she and her nuns were the subject of an interdict (a collective excommunication) that was lifted only a few months before her death. Hildegard nearly died an outcast.

873 years after her death, the Vatican has finally given her the highest recognition for her considerable achievements. On May 10, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized her. In October 2012, she will be elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. Presently there are only thirty-three Doctors of the Church, and only three are women (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux).

What inspired you to write a novel about this 12th century powerfrau?

For twelve years I lived in Germany where Hildegard has long been enshrined as a cultural icon, admired by both secular and spiritual people. In her homeland, Hildegard’s cult as a “popular” saint long predates her official canonization.

I was particularly struck by the pathos of her story. The youngest of ten children, Hildegard was offered to the Church at the age of eight. She reported having luminous visions since earliest childhood, so perhaps her parents didn’t know what else to do with her.

According to Guibert of Gembloux’s Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, she was bricked into an anchorage with her mentor, the fourteen-year-old Jutta von Sponheim, and possibly one other young girl. Guibert describes the anchorage in the bleakest terms, using words like “mausoleum” and “prison,” and writes how these girls died to the world to be buried with Christ. As an adult, Hildegard strongly condemned the practice of offering child oblates to monastic life, but as a child she had absolutely no say in the matter. The anchorage was situated in Disibodenberg, a community of monks. What must it have been like to be among a tiny minority of young girls surrounded by adult men?

Disibodenberg Monastery is now in ruins and it’s impossible to say precisely where the anchorage was, but the suggested location if two suffocatingly narrow rooms built on to the back of the church.

Hildegard spent thirty years interred in her prison, her release only coming with Jutta’s death. What amazed me was how she was able to liberate herself and her sisters from such appalling conditions. At the age of 42, she underwent a dramatic transformation, from a life of silence and submission to answering the divine call to speak and write about her visions she had kept secret all those years.

In the 12th century, it was a radical thing for a nun to set quill to paper and write about weighty theological matters. Her abbot panicked and had her examined for heresy. Yet miraculously this “poor weak figure of a woman,” as Hildegard called herself, triumphed against all odds to become one of the greatest voices of her age.   

What special challenges did you face in writing about such a complex woman?

Hildegard’s life was so long and eventful, so filled with drama and conflict, tragedy and ecstasy, that it proved mightily difficult to squeeze the essence of her story into a manageable novel. My original draft was forty-thousand words longer than the current book. I also found it quite intimidating to write about such a religious woman. In the end, I found I had to let Hildegard breathe and reveal herself as human.

How did you research this book?

I completed a course on Medieval Studies at Lancaster University. I also read extensively in both English and German while listening to Hildegard’s transcendent music. My research took me to all the locations mentioned in the novel, from the ruins of Disibodenberg Monastery where Hildegard languished in the anchorage, to the site of Rupertsberg, the monastic house she founded for her nuns when life at Disibodenberg had become unbearable. Unfortunately Rupertsberg was completely destroyed in the Thirty Years War, but the location is still very beautiful and inspiring. You can see photos on my blog.

Hildegard’s second monastery at Eibingen endured right up until the secularization in the early 19th century when it was torn down. However, the former convent church remains and is now the Parish Church of Saint Hildegard, where Hildegard’s relics are kept – her heart, her tongue, and her hair. A short distance away is the new Abbey of Saint Hildegard, built in 1900, a flourishing Benedictine community and pilgrimage site where suitably enlightened nuns offer wine tasting (they grow their own vintage) and sell books on planting medicinal herbs by the phases of the moon.

Across the Rhine in the Hildegard Forum, also run by nuns who offer outreach for secular people who want to learn more about Hildegard, particularly her philosophy of holistic healing and nutrition. They manage a café/restaurant; offer seminars and retreats; and maintain an orchard and a medieval-style herb garden.

I also visited Bermersheim, Hildegard’s birthplace. Unfortunately nothing remains of her family home, but there’s a statue of her in the churchyard, high on a hill, with views of lush green vineyards. Not far away is Sponheim, her mentor Jutta’s birthplace, where the ruins of Sponheim Castle still stand.

If Hildegard has long been venerated as a “popular” saint in Germany, why  did it take the Vatican so long to canonize her? Why Hildegard and why now?

The first attempt to canonize Hildegard began in 1233, but failed as over fifty years had passed since her death and most of the witnesses and beneficiaries of her reported miracles were deceased. Her theological writings were deemed too dense and difficult for subsequent generations to understand and soon fell into obscurity, as did her music. According Barbara Newman, Hildegard was remembered mainly as an apocalyptic prophet. But in the age of Enlightenment, prophets and mystics went out of fashion. Hildegard was dismissed as a hysteric and even her authorship of her own work was disputed. Pundits began to suggest her books had been written by a man.

Newman states that Hildegard’s contemporary rehabilitation and resurgence was due mainly to the tireless efforts of the nuns at Saint Hildegard Abbey. In 1956 Marianne Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, published a carefully documented study that proved the authenticity of Hildegard’s authorship. Their research provides the foundation of all subsequent Hildegard scholarship.

In the 1980s, in the wake of a wider women’s spirituality movement, Hildegard’s star rose as seekers from diverse faith backgrounds embraced her as a foremother and role model. The artist Judy Chicago showcased Hildegard at her iconic feminist Dinner Party installation. Medievalists and theologians rediscovered Hildegard’s writings. New recordings of her sacred music hit the popular charts. The radical Dominican monk Matthew Fox adopted Hildegard as the figurehead of his creation-centered spirituality. Fox’s book Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen remains one of the most accessible and popular books on the 12th century visionary. In 2009, German director Margarethe von Trotta made Hildegard the subject of her luminous film, Vision. And all the while, the sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey were exerting their quiet pressure on Rome to get Hildegard the official endorsement they believed she deserved.

Pope John Paul II, who had canonized more saints than any previous pontiff, steadfastly ignored Hildegard’s burgeoning cult, possibly because he was repelled by her status as a feminist icon. Ironically it is his successor, Benedict XVI, one of the most conservative popes in recent history—who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, defrocked Matthew Fox—is finally giving Hildegard her due. Reportedly Joseph Ratzinger, a German, has long admired Hildegard.

Were Hildegard’s visions caused by migraines?    

Neurologist Oliver Sacks believes that Hildegard’s visions and the debilitating chronic illnesses she suffered throughout her life can be attributed to migraines. In Scivias, she describes being bedridden while she received the divine command to write and speak about her visions. Sacks maintains that the symptoms she describes are identical to those of migraine sufferers. He also states that the concentric rings of circles in the illuminations of her visions are reminiscent of a migraine aura.

Critics of this theory will point out that Hildegard, in her medical treatise Causae et Curae, described the migraine in detail but never connected this diagnosis to herself. Moreover she herself did not paint the illuminations that illustrated her visions. So the rings of light could be the illuminator’s stylistic interpretation and nothing to do with any alleged visual hallucinations on Hildegard’s part.

Thus, the “migraine theory” remains speculative. In our hyper-rationalistic age, I think we are too hasty to “diagnose” historical figures with readily-identifiable conditions—ie “Mozart was autistic.” One thing we do know is that Hildegard lived in an age of faith. She and those around her sincerely believed her visions were real. Hildegard wrote an epic trilogy explaining her visions, relating them to the human struggle for redemption, how the fallen world can be reconciled with the created world. Therein lies her genius, not in any catalogue of physical symptoms.

What was going on between Hildegard and the young nun Richardis? Was Hildegard a lesbian?
Hildegard’s passionate letters to and about her protégée Richardis von Stade reveal the abbess at her most human and vulnerable. Alas, it’s far too easy to misinterpret this in an anachronistic light. In her otherwise gorgeously nuanced film Vision, Margarethe von Trotta portrays Hildegard in the throes of a painful midlife infatuation with a much younger woman. This belies the fact of how long their relationship endured—Richardis closely supported Hildegard during the ten years it took her to write Scivias. When Richardis left to be abbess in distant Bassum, Hildegard was heartbroken. Richardis later deeply regretted leaving her. 

I don’t believe their relationship was sexual. Since Hildegard made no attempt to hide her love for Richardis, I don’t believe that she believed their love was in any way shameful. In Surpassing the Love of Men, Lillian Faderman points out that before Freud and Havelock Ellis and our modern theories of sexual orientation, women could be very ardent in expressing their love for each other  without experiencing any social condemnation. Think of Emily Dickinson’s deeply romantic letters to Sue Gilbert, who later became her sister-in-law. The Victorians made no attempt to censor these letters. Only in the 20th century did people begin to find them scandalous.

In Hildegard’s own age, the view of sexuality was completely male-oriented. Male homosexuality was punishable by death while the only recorded cases of women being punished for loving other women were in the rare instances where one woman cross-dressed as a man, usurping male identity and male privilege, and under this guise actually married another woman. Otherwise it appeared that nobody really worried about women’s relationships. According to John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Anastasius, one of the many popes during Hildegard’s long lifetime, dismissed the one passage in the Bible (Romans 1:26) alluding to women’s same sex relationships, and actually queried whether lesbian relationships were even possible. “Women offer themselves to the men,” Anastasius wrote. An intimate relationship that did not involve men was apparently inconceivable to this pontiff.   

What relevance does Hildegard have for us today?

I think that Hildegard’s legacy remains hugely important for contemporary women. While writing this book, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women bishops still cause controversy in the Episcopalian Church while the previous Catholic pope, John Paul II, called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests.

Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—she was thrust into an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, that can inspire us today.

The cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world, infusing all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature, and even perceived God as feminine, as Mother. Her vision of the universe was an egg in the womb of God.

Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.

But surely Hildegard was no feminist in today’s sense. She was a woman of her time.  

Traditionalists will point out that Hildegard was deeply conservative in many respects and will argue that she has been unfairly appropriated by feminists and by New Age spirituality. She never called for women priests, for example. But Hildegard lived in a golden age of monasticism, when an influential abbess could wield considerably more power than the average parish priest.

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton in her essay “Prophet and Reformer: Smoke in the Vineyard,” maintains that although Hildegard’s sacramental theology was orthodox, her reformist thought was radical, as evidenced in her blazing sermon against ecclesiastical corruption which she delivered in Cologne in 1170. If the clergy did not reform and end their abuses, Hildegard preached, the secular princes would rise up against these men, oust them from their offices, and seize their property and wealth. For this reason the Lutheran Church in Germany regards Hildegard not only as a reformer, but as a prophet of the Reformation. Indeed her theology and philosophy are so complex and multi-stranded that her work and life continue to inspire very diverse groups of people, from conservative Catholics to feminist theologians, such as Barbara Newman, whose book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine profoundly influenced me.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Pendle Witch Summer

August 2012 commemorates the 400th Anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials in which nine people from the Pendle region in Lancashire, England were hanged as witches based on the testimony of a nine-year-old girl. Mother Demdike, the most notorious of the accused witches, died in Lancaster Prison before she could even come to trial. She is the heroine of my novel Daughters of the Witching Hill.

To commemorate this solemn anniversary, I will be taking part in several events this summer.

8:00 Friday 15 June, I'll be telling tales of cunning woman Mother Demdike and the Queen of Elfhame at the Storytelling Circle at Pendle Witch Camp.

2:30 Sunday 24 June, I shall appear in historical costume to discuss the Pendle Witches' true and tragic story and to read from Daughters of the Witching Hill at Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford.

August 17-19, I'll be a speaker at the Capturing Witches Conference at Lancaster University, a multi-disciplinary academic gathering with speakers addressing everything from historical witchcraft to fictional treatments of the witches to Neopagan belief to the current witchhunts still targeting children in Nigeria.

It's my hope that these events draw attention to the often overlooked fact that the Lancashire Witches are not some ghoulish sideshow, but real women and men who suffered and died on account of ignorance and religious intolerance. May all witch hunts end forever.