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Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen.jpg
Illumination from Hildegard's Scivias (1151) showing her receiving a vision and dictating to teacher Volmar
Virgin, Abbess, Doctor of the Church
Born Hildegard von Bingen
c. 1098
Bermersheim vor der Höhe, County Palatine of the Rhine, Holy Roman Empire
Died 17 September 1179(1179-09-17) (aged 81)
Bingen am Rhein, County Palatine of the Rhine, Holy Roman Empire
Venerated in
Beatified 26 August 1326 (Formal confirmation of Cultus) by Pope John XXII
Canonized 10 May 2012 (equivalent canonization), Vatican City by Pope Benedict XVI
Major shrine Eibingen Abbey, Germany
Feast 17 September

Hildegard of Bingen (German: Hildegard von Bingen; Latin: Hildegardis Bingensis; c. 1098 – 17 September 1179), also known as Saint Hildegard and the Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German Benedictine abbess and polymath active as a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, and as a medical writer and practitioner during the High Middle Ages. She is one of the best-known composers of sacred monophony, as well as the most recorded in modern history. She has been considered by scholars to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.

Hildegard's convent elected her as magistra (mother superior) in 1136. She founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165. Hildegard wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal works, as well as letters, hymns, and antiphons for the liturgy. She wrote poems, and supervised miniature illuminations in the Rupertsberg manuscript of her first work, Scivias. There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the entire Middle Ages, and she is one of the few known composers to have written both the music and the words. One of her works, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play. She is noted for the invention of a constructed language known as Lingua Ignota.

Although the history of her formal canonization is complicated, regional calendars of the Roman Catholic church have listed her as a saint for centuries. On 10 May 2012, Pope Benedict XVI extended the liturgical cult of Hildegard to the entire Catholic Church in a process known as "equivalent canonization". On 7 October 2012, he named her a Doctor of the Church, in recognition of "her holiness of life and the originality of her teaching."


Hildegard was born around 1098. Her parents were Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, a family of the free lower nobility in the service of the Count Meginhard of Sponheim. Sickly from birth, Hildegard is traditionally considered their youngest and tenth child, although there are records of only seven older siblings. In her Vita, Hildegard states that from a very young age she experienced visions.

Monastic life

Perhaps because of Hildegard's visions, as a method of political positioning, or both, Hildegard's parents offered her as an oblate to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg, which had been recently reformed in the Palatinate Forest. The date of Hildegard's enclosure at the monastery is the subject of debate. Her Vita says she was eight years old when she was professed with Jutta, who was the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim and about six years older than Hildegard. However, Jutta's date of enclosure is known to have been in 1112, when Hildegard would have been 14. Their vows were received by Bishop Otto of Bamberg on All Saints Day 1112. Some scholars speculate that Hildegard was placed in the care of Jutta at the age of eight, and that the two of them were then enclosed together six years later.

In any case, Hildegard and Jutta were enclosed together at Disibodenberg and formed the core of a growing community of women attached to the monastery of monks. Jutta was also a visionary and thus attracted many followers who came to visit her at the monastery. Hildegard tells us that Jutta taught her to read and write, but that she was unlearned and therefore, incapable of teaching Hildegard sound biblical interpretation. The written record of the Life of Jutta indicates that Hildegard probably assisted her in reciting the psalms, working in the garden, other handiwork, and tending to the sick. This might have been a time when Hildegard learned how to play the ten-stringed psaltery. Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard simple psalm notation. The time she studied music could have been the beginning of the compositions she would later create.

Upon Jutta's death in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected as magistra of the community by her fellow nuns. Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg asked Hildegard to be Prioress, which would be under his authority. Hildegard, however, wanted more independence for herself and her nuns and asked Abbot Kuno to allow them to move to Rupertsberg. This was to be a move toward poverty, from a stone complex that was well established to a temporary dwelling place. When the abbot declined Hildegard's proposition, Hildegard went over his head and received the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz. Abbot Kuno did not relent, however, until Hildegard was stricken by an illness that rendered her paralyzed and unable to move from her bed, an event that she attributed to God's unhappiness at her not following his orders to move her nuns to Rupertsberg. It was only when the Abbot himself could not move Hildegard that he decided to grant the nuns their own monastery. Hildegard and approximately 20 nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150, where Volmar served as provost, as well as Hildegard's confessor and scribe. In 1165, Hildegard founded a second monastery for her nuns at Eibingen.

Before Hildegard's death in 1179, a problem arose with the clergy of Mainz: A man buried in Rupertsberg had died after excommunication from the Catholic Church. Therefore, the clergy wanted to remove his body from the sacred ground. Hildegard did not accept this idea, replying that it was a sin and that the man had been reconciled to the church at the time of his death.


Hildegard said that she first saw "The Shade of the Living Light" at the age of three, and by the age of five, she began to understand that she was experiencing visions. She used the term 'visio' (the Latin for "vision") to describe this feature of her experience and she recognized that it was a gift that she could not explain to others. Hildegard explained that she saw all things in the light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Hildegard was hesitant to share her visions, confiding only to Jutta, who in turn told Volmar, Hildegard's tutor and, later, secretary. Throughout her life, she continued to have many visions, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard received a vision she believed to be an instruction from God, to "write down that which you see and hear." Still hesitant to record her visions, Hildegard became physically ill. The illustrations recorded in the book of Scivias were visions that Hildegard experienced, causing her great suffering and tribulations. In her first theological text, Scivias ("Know the Ways"), Hildegard describes her struggle within:

But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close – though just barely – in ten years. […] And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out, therefore, and write thus!'

It was between November 1147 and February 1148 at the synod in Trier that Pope Eugenius heard about Hildegard's writings. It was from this that she received Papal approval to document her visions as revelations from the Holy Spirit, giving her instant credence.

On 17 September 1179, when Hildegard died, her sisters claimed they saw two streams of light appear in the skies and cross over the room where she was dying.


During her lifetime

Maddocks claims that it is likely Hildegard learned simple Latin and the tenets of the Christian faith, but was not instructed in the Seven Liberal Arts, which formed the basis of all education for the learned classes in the Middle Ages: the Trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric plus the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The correspondence she kept with the outside world, both spiritual and social, transcended the cloister as a space of spiritual confinement and served to document Hildegard's grand style and strict formatting of medieval letter writing.

Contributing to Christian European rhetorical traditions, Hildegard "authorized herself as a theologian" through alternative rhetorical arts. Hildegard was creative in her interpretation of theology. She believed that her monastery should exclude novices who were not from the nobility because she did not want her community to be divided on the basis of social status. She also stated that "woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman."

Hildegard map
Hildegard's preaching tours

Because of church limitation on public, discursive rhetoric, the medieval rhetorical arts included preaching, letter writing, poetry, and the encyclopedic tradition. Hildegard's participation in these arts speaks to her significance as a female rhetorician, transcending bans on women's social participation and interpretation of scripture. The acceptance of public preaching by a woman, even a well-connected abbess and acknowledged prophet, does not fit the stereotype of this time. Her preaching was not limited to the monasteries; she preached publicly in 1160 in Germany. (New York: Routledge, 2001, 9). She conducted four preaching tours throughout Germany, speaking to both clergy and laity in chapter houses and in public, mainly denouncing clerical corruption and calling for reform.

Many abbots and abbesses asked her for prayers and opinions on various matters. She traveled widely during her four preaching tours. She had several devoted followers, including Guibert of Gembloux, who wrote to her frequently and became her secretary after Volmar's death in 1173. Hildegard also influenced several monastic women, exchanging letters with Elisabeth of Schönau, a nearby visionary.

Hildegard corresponded with popes such as Eugene III and Anastasius IV, statesmen such as Abbot Suger, German emperors such as Frederick I Barbarossa, and other notable figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux, who advanced her work, at the behest of her abbot, Kuno, at the Synod of Trier in 1147 and 1148. Hildegard of Bingen's correspondence is an important component of her literary output.


Hildegard was one of the first persons for whom the Roman canonization process was officially applied, but the process took so long that four attempts at canonization were not completed and she remained at the level of her beatification. Her name was nonetheless taken up in the Roman Martyrology at the end of the 16th century. Her feast is 17 September. Numerous popes have referred to Hildegard as a saint, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Hildegard's parish and pilgrimage church in Eibingen near Rüdesheim houses her relics.

On 10 May 2012, Pope Benedict XVI extended the veneration of Saint Hildegard to the entire Catholic Church in a process known as "equivalent canonization," thus laying the groundwork for naming her a Doctor of the Church. On 7 October 2012, the feast of the Holy Rosary, the pope named her a Doctor of the Church. He called Hildegard "perennially relevant" and "an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of natural science and music."

Hildegard of Bingen also appears in the calendar of saints of various Anglican churches, such as that of the Church of England, in which she is commemorated on 17 September.

Modern interest

Hildegard VS
German coin by Carl Vezerfi-Clemm, commemorating the 900th anniversary of Hildegard's birth
Hildegard von Bingen. Line engraving by W. Marshall. Wellcome V0002761
Line engraving by W. Marshall

In recent years, Hildegard has become of particular interest to feminist scholars. They note her reference to herself as a member of the weaker sex and her rather constant belittling of women. Hildegard frequently referred to herself as an unlearned woman, completely incapable of Biblical exegesis. Such a statement on her part, however, worked slyly to her advantage because it made her statements that all of her writings and music came from visions of the Divine more believable, therefore giving Hildegard the authority to speak in a time and place where few women were permitted a voice. Hildegard used her voice to amplify the church's condemnation of institutional corruption, in particular simony.

Hildegard has also become a figure of reverence within the contemporary New Age movement, mostly because of her holistic and natural view of healing, as well as her status as a mystic. Although her medical writings were long neglected and then, studied without reference to their context, she was the inspiration for Dr. Gottfried Hertzka's "Hildegard-Medicine", and is the namesake for June Boyce-Tillman's Hildegard Network, a healing center that focuses on a holistic approach to wellness and brings together people interested in exploring the links between spirituality, the arts, and healing. Her reputation as a medicinal writer and healer was also used by early feminists to argue for women's rights to attend medical schools.

Reincarnation of Hildegard has been debated since 1924 when Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner lectured that a nun of her description was the past life of Russian poet-philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, whose visions of Holy Wisdom are often compared to Hildegard's. Sophiologist Robert Powell writes that hermetic astrology proves the match, while mystical communities in Hildegard's lineage include that of artist Carl Schroeder as studied by Columbia sociologist Courtney Bender and supported by reincarnation researchers Walter Semkiw and Kevin Ryerson.

Recordings and performances of Hildegard's music have gained critical praise and popularity since 1979. There is an extensive discography of her musical works.

The following modern musical works are directly linked to Hildegard and her music or texts:

  • Alois Albrecht [de]: Hildegard von Bingen, a liturgical play with texts and music by Hildegard of Bingen, 1998.
  • Azam Ali: O Vis Aeternitatis and O Euchari by Hildegard of Bingen, 2020
  • Cecilia McDowall: Alma Redemptoris Mater.
  • Christopher Theofanidis: Rainbow Body, for orchestra (2000)
  • David Lynch with Jocelyn Montgomery: Lux Vivens (Living Light): The Music of Hildegard Von Bingen, 1998
  • Devendra Banhart: Für Hildegard von Bingen, single from the 2013 album Mala
  • Gordon Hamilton: The Trillion Souls quotes Hildegard's O Ignee Spiritus
  • Ludger Stühlmeyer: O splendidissima gemma. 2012. For alto solo and organ, text: Hildegard of Bingen. Commissioned composition for the declaration of Hildegard of Bingen as Doctor of the Church.
  • Peter Janssens: Hildegard von Bingen, a musical in 10 scenes, text: Jutta Richter, 1997
  • Richard Souther, Emily Van Evera, Sister Germaine Fritz OSB*: Vision: The Music Of Hildegard Of Bingen. 1994.
  • Sofia Gubaidulina: Aus den Visionen der Hildegard von Bingen, for contra alto solo, after a text of Hildegard of Bingen, 1994
  • Tilo Medek: Monatsbilder (nach Hildegard von Bingen), twelve songs for mezzo-soprano, clarinet and piano, 1997
  • Wolfgang Sauseng: De visione secunda for double choir and percussion, 2011
  • David Chalmin and Bryce Dessner: "Electric Fields" for soprano, 2 pianos, electronics, & multimedia, 2022

The artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Hildegard.

In space, the minor planet 898 Hildegard is named for her.

Hildegard was the subject of a 2012 fictionalized biographic novel Illuminations by Mary Sharatt.

The plant genus Hildegardia is named after her because of her contributions to herbal medicine.

The off-Broadway musical In the Green, written by Grace McLean, followed Hildegard's story.

In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, neurologist Oliver Sacks devotes a chapter to Hildegard and concludes that in his opinion her visions were migrainous.


In film, Hildegard has been portrayed by Patricia Routledge in a BBC documentary called Hildegard of Bingen (1994), by Ángela Molina in Barbarossa (2009) and by Barbara Sukowa in the film Vision, directed by Margarethe von Trotta.

A feature documentary film, The Unruly Mystic: Saint Hildegard, was released by American director Michael M. Conti in 2014.

Hildegard makes an appearance in The Baby-Sitters Club #101: Claudia Kishi, Middle School Drop-Out by Ann M. Martin, when Anna Stevenson dresses as Hildegard for Halloween.

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