Born in the Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary nun and polymath. She founded two monasteries, went on four preaching tours, and wrote nine books addressing both scientific and religious subjects, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.
Over eight centuries after her death, Hildegard was canonized in May 2012 and on October 7 was elevated to Doctor of the Church in October, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have made a significant impact. Hildegard is only the fourth woman in the history of the Church to receive this distinction.
But to most people today, Hildegard is known best for her soaring ethereal music.
The first composer for whom we have a biography, she composed seventy-seven sacred songs, as well as Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music.
Her melodies are completely unlike the plainchant of her era—or anything that has come before or since. Likewise her lyrics are highly original and feel fresh to us even today. She was the only 12th century writer to compose in free verse.
A Benedictine superior, Hildegard and her nuns sang the Divine Office eight times a day. She believed that song was the highest form of prayer—the mystical power of music reunited humankind to the ecstasy and beauty of paradise before the fall, connecting the singer directly with the divine, and joining heaven and earth in a great celestial harmony.
Singing the divine praises was absolutely central to Hildegard’s identity as a nun. But late in her life, the great composer and polymath was silenced.
Hildegard and her nuns were subject to an interdict, or collective excommunication, when they refused to disinter a supposed apostate buried in their churchyard. As punishment for their disobedience, they were forbidden the sacraments, the mass, even forbidden to sing the Divine Office.
It was the prohibition against singing that hit Hildegard the hardest. She wrote a passionate letter to her archbishop in protest. “The soul is symphonic,” she told him. She also warned him that by forbidding her and her daughters from singing God’s praise, the archbishop himself risked going to an afterlife destination where there was no music, ie hell.
Hildegard’s words seemed to give the man pause for thought. He lifted the interdict just a few months before her death in 1179.
“There is the music of heaven in all things,” Hildegard wrote. “But we have forgotten to hear it until we sing.”
I find her song Caritas Abundant in Omnia (Divine Love Abounds in All Things) to be particularly stirring. Hildegard conceived of Caritas, or Divine Love, as a feminine figure, an aspect of the Feminine Divine:
Caritas habundat in omnia
Divine love abounds in all things.
She is greatly exalted from the depths to the heights,
Above the highest stars,
And most loving towards all things,
For she gave the highest King the kiss of peace.
Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is Kirkus Review 2012 Book of the Year. Visit Mary’s website.