Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Hildegard of Bingen



Herbalist, writer, dramatist, poet and composer, this remarkable 12th Century abbess and mystic is regarded as one of the most important women of the German Middle Ages, who at a time of political schisms and religious foment made her name as theologian, monastic trouble-shooter, consultant exorcist and visiting preacher.

A “first” in many fields, Hildegard produced major works of theology and visionary writings. When few women were accorded respect, she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, wrote major theological works, music still reverenced 1000 years later and treatises about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones.

The Early Years

Hildegard was born at Bermersheim in Rheinhessen in 1098, 10th (a tithe) and last child of a noble family.  As customary with a tenth child, she was dedicated by her parents, Hildebert and Mechtilde, at birth to the church, dedicated to the service of God.

Aged 8, Hildegard was placed in the charge of the anchoress (hermit) Jutta, daughter of Count Stephan of Spanheim, whose anchorage was physically attached to the church of the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. Anchors, mostly women, were shut off from the world in a small room, usually built adjacent to a church so they could follow the services, normally walled up with only a small window acting as a link to the rest of humanity. Food would be passed through this window and refuse taken out. Most of the time would be spent in prayer, contemplation or solitary handwork, stitching and embroidering. Because they were essentially dead to the world, anchors received last rites from the bishop before their confinement in the anchorage. It was a complete burial ceremony, with the anchor laid out on a bier. The reputation for holiness of Jutta and her pupil soon spread throughout the district, and other parents sought to have their daughters join what was developing into a small Benedictine convent, the cannoness orders normally open only to aristocratic women of noble and wealthy parentage.  Education was of the most rudimentary form - in subsequent years Hildegard was always quick to point out how limited her formal education had been, emphasising that she had been taught by an “indocta mulier” (unlearned woman) - and could never escape the feelings of inadequacy at its lack. She learned to read the Psalter in Latin, but always had secretaries to help write down her visions, constructing complicated sentences still a challenge to students of her writings. During the years between 1112 –1115, Hildegard made the decision to live in the monastery for good, taking the vows of the Benedictine order at the age of fifteen.

From the time she was a child, visionary experiences had set her apart. She records in her autobiographical Vita that she ‘saw so great a brightness that my soul trembled’ when she was only three, and discovered her ability to foretell future events. The faculty to see things with her soul was constantly present, both by day and night. This gift was immensely taxing to Hildegard’s health, causing recurrent illnesses - a link between her visions and state of health was recognised by Hildegard herself.  From an inherent weakness she learned to draw her strength. She described her temperament as ‘airy’, easily affected by changes in the weather and prone to infirmity - symptoms typical of the migraine sufferer.

The Awakening

During these years, Hildegard confided her visions only to Jutta and a monk named Volmar, who became her secretary, assistant and friend until his death in 1173. However, in 1141, Hildegard had a vision that changed the course of her life.  A vision of God gave her instant understanding of the meaning of religious texts, and she was commanded to write down everything she would observe in her visions.

“And it came to pass.. when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming… and suddenly I understood the meaning of expositions of the books”..

But Hildegard was also overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, and hesitated to act –

“But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of God, I fell onto a bed of sickness”

In 1136 Jutta died. Hildegard was elected “unanimously” – as is documented - her successor by the community, counting 10 women at that time.

In 1141 she began writing down her first theological visionary work SCIVIAS: KNOW THE WAYS (of the Light) finished in 1151. As again and again she was overcome by doubts during this work, she turned to Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux for advice. He supported Hildegard’s writings of her visions, encouraged further works and at the Synod of Trier in 1147/48, in the presence of the Cistercian Pope Eugenius III, read the work of the “Prophetissa teutonica” aloud to the assembled cardinals. Eugenius was favourably impressed, and authorized Hildegard ‘in the name of Christ and St Peter to publish all that she had learned from the Holy Spirit’. Official recognition that the work was divinely inspired allowed Hildegard a good deal of freedom to criticise the shortcoming of secular and spiritual leaders. She saw herself as continuing the work of the prophets in proclaiming the truths that God wished humanity to know.

Between 1147 and 1151 Hildegard left Disibodenberg with her nuns, the growing convent then consisting of 18 women.  In a vision, Hildegard was directed to site a new convent at the confluence of the rivers Rhine and Nahe, where St Rupertus once lived as a hermit. The early years at Rupertsberg were ones of considerable hardship and poverty, and it was not until 1158 that Hildegard finally succeeded in obtaining a charter regulating the distribution of assets between the two houses. Once this was accomplished, the Rupertsberg nuns developed unusual and elaborate forms of dress and of worship, devised by Hildegard for her nuns, inspired by her visions to celebrate the Kingdom of heaven in all its beauty and extravagance. The complex eventually accommodated fifty women, some monks and lay-personnel. As abbess Hildegard was fully responsible for the government and administration of her monastic community. In 1165 she acquired the site of a former Augustinian house in Eibingen, near Rudesheim, on the opposite bank of the Rhine and established a daughter-foundation with buildings to house thirty nuns. Until the year of her death she crossed the Rhine twice a week to visit the affiliated house.

Hildegard the Healer

Hildegard was widely sought after as a healer, exorcist and psychotherapist.  It is for her dietary and medical writings that Hildegard has attracted most popular attention in her native Germany, thanks mainly to the dedicated work of a small number of practitioners of Hildegard medicine, who have sought to test and put into practice the cures suggested by the seer. “There is no evidence that Hildegard had any medical training”, says Dr Wighard Strehlow, who has practised Hildegard's medicine for many years in Germany.  “We have to believe that it was all revealed to her by God, and scientific study of her ideas has shown she is always 100% correct”.

Much of her advice seems eminently sensible, and was no doubt put into practice in her convent and elsewhere.  She recommends a balanced diet, sufficient rest, the alleviation of stress and a wholesome moral life.  Some of her more exotic treatments must have been awkward to effect – ostriches, whales, vultures, lions and leopards are all listed with their healing qualities, alongside various rare precious stones and metals.

Hildegard wrote her own psychotherapy textbook (Liber Vitae Meritorum) and described 35 everyday psychological risk-factors (vices – see table below) from nerve-wracking anger to world-weariness resulting from greed for possessions. According to Hildegard, demons could not enter or possess people, but they could envelop and obsess them. In treating exorcisms, she writes of creating a therapeutic drama performed with great ceremony and seriousness (reminiscent of a shamanic journey in which the sick person takes part with their imagination).

The Writings

Hildegard’s extensive works are so varied in style and content that some commentators have doubted they could all have come from the same pen. Although doubts regarding the authenticity of the major theological texts have been laid to rest, uncertainty regarding the natural-philosophical texts is a recurrent theme of Hildegard studies.

The medico-scientific writings

These reflect that Benedictine monasteries at the time were often resorts of the sick and afflicted. Hildegard’s writings represent the final phase of early medieval or “monastic” medicine, before the shift to universities as centres of medical instruction. Hildegard’s scientific views were derived from the ancient Greek cosmology of the four elements – fire, air, water and earth – with their complementary qualities of heat, dryness, moisture and cold, and the corresponding four humours of the body – choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm and melancholy (black bile). Human constitution was based on the preponderance of one or two of the humours. Indeed, we still use words "choleric", "sanguine", "phlegmatic” and “melancholy” to describe personalities.  Dis-ease upset the delicate balance of the humours, and consuming the right plant or animal, which had the quality you were missing, could restore healthy balance to the body. Consequently in giving descriptions of plants, trees, birds, animals, stones, Hildegard is mostly concerned in describing that object’s quality and giving its medicinal use. Thus: “Reyan (tansy) is hot and a little damp, and is good against all superfluous flowing humours and whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat tansy. It will bind humours so that they do not overflow, and thus will lessen”.

The Humours

warm & dry
warm & moist
cold & moist
cold & dry
yellow bile
black bile
Cardinal point
phase of life
old age

Above all, it is the sense of life in creatures which fascinates Hildegard - what she calls their ‘radiance’ which may be their ‘greenness or seeds or flowers or beauty’ (DW4, 11). She compares the soul directly with the moisture (rainfall, dewfall) which gives green freshness to the earth: ‘The soul is the green life-force of the flesh. For, indeed, the body grows and progresses on account of the soul, just as the earth becomes fruitful through moisture. And the soul is also the moisture of the body because the soul moistens it so that it does not dry out, just as rain flows down into the earth’ (DW4, 21). The concern with order and harmony is expressed by Hildegard’s understanding of health, and runs through her work – the central, unifying image she uses here is that of ‘greenness’ (Latin: viriditas). Her imagery of greenness, living and moist, seems to capture the very essence of a natural and divine fecundity.

Hildegards’ Subtililates diversrum naturarum creaturarum (The Subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Created Things, circa 1151-1158) has been preserved as two texts, the Physica (Natural History) also known as Liber simplicis medicinae (Book of Simple Medicine) and the Causae et Curae (Causes and Cures) also known as Liber compositae medicinae (Book of Compound Medicine).

The Physica consists of nine sections or books, the first and longest comprising accounts of more than two hundred plants. There follow books devoted to the elements - earth, water (including local German rivers), air – trees, precious stones, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and metals.  The medicinal use of these objects are paramount, descriptions often being reduced to statements of their four cardinal properties – hot, dry, wet or cold, e.g. ‘Broom is very hot. And let those suffering from leprosy squeeze broom in their hands and express the juice and often smear it on themselves where they are affected..or let them also cook up its flowers in butter to make an ointment and apply it frequently to themselves, and the sores will diminish’.

The Causae et Curae consists of five sections of varying lengths. It proceeds from cosmology and cosmography to the place of humanity in the world. There follows a version of traditional humoural theory which leads to a list of more than two hundred diseases or conditions to which humans are subject. The following two sections are concerned with cures for a selection of illnesses, using mostly herbal remedies, as foreshadowed in the Physica. In the Causae et Curae there is some attempt to provide actual proportions for the ingredients used in the recipes. The final section includes discussions of uroscopy and astrological prognostications (lunaria) according to the phase of the moon at the time of conception, e.g. ‘Those conceived on the thirtieth day of the moon, if male will be poor and if noble will always descend to lower things and will not have happiness; they will easily fail in bodily strength and the flesh but will live quite a long while. Females will be poor, and will more willingly live among foreign folk than familiar ones; they will not be very weak in body and will live long enough’.

The Herbs

Herbs and spices featured in Hildegard’s works include: aloe, anise, asarum, betony, bindweed, birthwort, blackberry, blessed-thistle, blueberry, boswellia, celery, cloves, cranesbill, dittany, fennel, feverfew, flax, galangal, hazel, laurel, lungwort, mallow, milk thistle, mullein, myrrh, nettles, nutmeg, pansy, pepper, plaintain, poppy, rose, rue, sage, spindle, vervain, white pepper, winter wheat, wormwood, and yarrow.

Drawing on both native European herbs and imported spices, Hildegard comes up with some surprising herbal remedies which Dr Strehlow (see below) claims have a remarkable success rate, and rarely appear in the work of earlier herbalists.  Alpinia galanga (galangal) is one of her favourites, recommended for dizziness and exhaustion, and specifically for angina - alongside rather up-to-the-minute dietary advice to cut back on high fat/cholesterol food, alcohol and salt. Dr Strehlow prescribes small pills of the plant to be dissolved slowly on the tongue, similarly to modern use of nitroglycerine.

Another Hildegard favourite is Triticum oestivum (spelt grain). She recommends this for breakfast mixed with “fruits of the fields” as a type of medieval muesli. Spelt is also one of Hildegard’s ‘happiness makers’ – herbs which combat black bile which she saw as a source of melancholy and depression. Others in this category include Anacyclus pyrethrum/Radix pyrethri (pellitory, which she suggests should be used as a spice, adding a pinch or two during cooking), sweet almonds, oats, fennel, summer savoury, liquorice and hyssop. Arum maculatum (cuckoo pint) is recommended for severe depression, while Primula veris (primrose flowers) should be made into a compress, and bandaged across the heart overnight to raise the spirits.   Recommendations familiar to us 21st century herbalists include Plantago psyllium (psyllium seed) for constipation, Marrubium vulgare (white horehound) for coughs, and Apium graveolens (celery seed) for rheumatism, while more uncommonly Aquilegia vulgaris (columbine flowers) was recommended for scrofula and Gentiana lutea (yellow gentian) for severe heart pain. Foeniculum vulgare (fennel) (clears sight) and Tanecetum balsamatica (costmary) (brings a sweet scent to your life), are suggested in a 3:1 combination to “drink diligently when human beings’ intellect and perception of senses are hollowed out by too many and distracted thoughts” - could prove a useful stress-buster prescription for 2004.

Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine (Dr Wighard Strehlow & Gottfried Hertzka, MD)

The German authors of this intriguing book have applied Hildegard’s curative arts and remedies to modern illnesses for over 4 decades.  They document their findings that healing herbs, diet, simple way of life and honouring spirituality have as great healing power today as in the 12th Century. 15 chapters cover varied aspects of treatments for the eyes, ears, teeth, colds & flu, skin, heart, digestion, diet, liver, gallbladder, nerves, dreams, rheumatism, cancer and fasting.  An absolute “must read” for students of integrative medicine through a multi-dimensional approach to body, mind, emotions and spirit.  The book contains innumerable exciting and highly effective remedies including zinc wine as a therapeutic remedy for cataracts and early glaucoma, violet salve for effective healing of scar tissue, chestnuts as an ideal brain and nerve food, and betony herb pillows and the precious stone jasper to regulate one’s dream life.

Parsley-honey wine is one of a number of excellent tonics, well known to Hildegard patients and currently much in vogue in America for heart patients:

Take 8 – 10 parsley leaves with stems. Boil in one quart of natural (organic) red or white wine with two tablespoons wine vinegar for five minutes. Add three-quarters cup honey (one-third cup or less for diabetics) and heat up again for five minutes. Skim off the foam, strain and rebottle the wine (PL1159A).  Take one to three tablespoons daily and all gripping, shooting heart pain, caused by weather or excitement will disappear. Equally valuable in heart pain caused by chronic rheumatic disease or heart insufficiency, as well as in cases of rehabilitation after heart attacks – heart wine can never harm you.

Hildegard recognised the causative factor of rheumatism and gout stem directly from the struggle for life, and fear.  She urged the recognition of what we would now call the ‘precancerous state’, suggesting remedies which act as a prophylactic and prevent the disease. Herbs she recommends include sage, ginger, fennel, rue, white pepper, tormentil, field mustard, cleavers and burdock extracts, with yarrow tea as an anti-metastasis measure. Dr Strehlow and his colleage Dr Gottfried Hertzka successfully used the remedy she suggests once cancer has developed, combining eel gall, ginger, long pepper (Piper longum), basil, powdered ivory and a powder prepared from vulture beaks (from a vulture killed in an accident, as the bird is a protected species).

Theological Writings

SCIVIAS – Know the Ways [of the Light]” her first, longest and best-known work, is a contemplation of the history of creation and salvation. It is divided into three books of six, seven and thirteen visions, respectively, describing each vision and then explaining its meaning.  Described as “a comprehensive guide to Christian doctrine”, Book 1 deals principally with the creator and Creation from the origin of the world and of man, the birth of the church and Christ’s salvation to the fulfilment at the end of time. The eternal story of God and mankind, their turning away from and returning to the Creator, is brought to life in ever changing pictures. Book 2 expands on the theme of Redemption, considering God’s remedy for the world and humankind in the fallen state depicted in the first book. Book 3 concentrates on salvation, and explores the work of the Holy Spirit in building the Kingdom of God by means of the virtues. The complete work is striking and powerful.

In the second great work “Liber Vitae Meritorum” (Book of Merits of Life) Hildegard discusses the creation of man as a free being. All his life the decision is left to him to correspond to his being in God’s image, founded in creation. The six visions are all variations on the same theme: the figure of a man superimposed on the world from the heavens to the abyss, who turns through the same points of the compass and observes the various interactions between the powers of light and darkness. The thirty-five vices are outlined with the punishment and penance for each; the paralysing effects of vice, the sense of apathy and inability to turn either to the world or to God, makes the condition sound rather like what today might be called clinical depression.  It adds up to a simple formula of contentment, happiness and peace that most modern-day psychologists would agree leads to wellbeing. Or as Hildegard put it: “When the consciousness of the soul in a person perceives nothing of sadness, danger and evil in fellow humans, then the heart of the same person opens up to joy, like flowers open towards the warmth of the sun”.  Hildegard believed in the existence of evil spirits and thought they entered into the bodies of people in such circumstances, and manipulated them from within.   The virtues are more a means of defining the corresponding vices than an aid to overcoming them. The emphasis of the book is on future punishment and present penance as a way of avoiding or minimising it. The work can be seen as an early contribution to the development of the theology of Purgatory that became so important a feature of the later Middle Ages.

Her third work “Liber Divinorum Operum” (Book of Divine Works) considered by many to be her most impressive, is a monumental cosmic scripture, depicting the world as a piece of art by God. The human being is seen as a microcosm reflecting in all his physical and mental conditions the laws of the whole macrocosm. Everything is related to each other, linked mutually and inseparably united in God. The concept of oneness and wholeness was a key concept. Like Scivias, this work is divided into three parts, and comprises ten visions of varying lengths. The first book, the first four visions, deals with God’s creation of the world, aided by Charitas (Love), and the privileged place of humanity within it. The second, taken up by the fifth vision, develops the idea of humanity as the moral centre of the world, faced with ultimate judgement. The third book incorporating the final five visions, is once again concerned with salvation, especially the Incarnation and the end of time.

Some commentators consider these a trilogy.


More than 300 letters survive, along with many letters written to her, which give valuable insight into her private thoughts and personal struggles - although medieval letters were intended for public consumption rather than being intimate expressions of emotion or personality. Hildegard’s correspondence dates from around the time of her recognition by the Synod of  Trier and increases in volume and in variety of recipients until her death, including four popes (Eugenius III, Anastasius IV, Hadrian IV, Alexander III) and the powerful German emperor Frederick I or Barbarossa. They are a testimony of fearless directness, radical truthfulness, admonishing concern, refreshing and humorous generosity, commitment to the poor and far reaching political influence. Among them are letters to Henry II of England and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Hildegard gives them general words of encouragement and admonition, indicating the exchange took place well before the murder of Thomas Becket. There are also letters from various heads of houses who write about their desire to put aside their office for a simpler and more spiritual lifestyle (medieval downsizing?).

Other Works

 Includes a selection of readings from the Gospels, with an allegorical commentary, commentaries on the Rule of St Benedict, on the Athanasian Creed and two biographies: The Life of St Disibod and The Life of St Rupert, a history of the patron saint of her own convent and of his mother Bertha, who outlived him for many years. Bingen was sacked by the Vikings around 882, but the church where Rupert and Bertha were buried miraculously survived so that Hildegard could eventually reclaim the site for her convent.  There are also the Solutions to Thirty-Eight Questions, in which Hildegard attempted to solve theological problems put to her by the monks of Villiers and Guibert of Gembloux. During the years 1148 – 1152 Hildegard created the enigmatic Litterae ignotae (unknown writing) and Lingua ignota (unknown language - a glossary of some 900 invented words, mostly nouns, thematically arranged) which have yet to be deciphered, and have intrigued students of Hildegard for many years. She wrote to Pope Anastasius IV in 1153/4 that she had been inspired by God to ‘form unknown letters, and utter an unknown language, and to resound with melody in many tones’.  Did Hildegard encourage her nuns to speak this rather limited language so as to communicate in secret? This has never been established.

Music  - “Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations”

At the heart of Hildegard’s extraordinary creativity was her accomplishment in music. She would have been immersed from the start in the singing of the Divine Office, sung, according to the Benedictine Rule, 8 times a day beginning at 2am and concluding around 9pm - thus around 4 hours a day. Musician and scholar Christopher Page puts it well when he says “day after day she sang the words of the liturgy and read the words of the Latin Bible until her memory was dyed with them to the deepest and most irremovable tint”.

She writes in her autobiographical passages: “I composed and chanted plainsong in praise of God and the saints, even though I had never studied either musical notation or singing”.  Hildegard combined all her music into a cycle called “The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations”. She wrote profusely as no woman before her, and describes it as the means of recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise. Her talent and motivation drove her to write 77 chants and the first musical drama in history, which she entitled “Ordo Virtutum” (“The Ritual of the Virtues”), portraying in 35 dramatic dialogues the eternal struggle between good and evil. Described as “the earliest morality play” an errant soul wavers between the blandishments of the devil and a choir of virtues. Hildegard wrote hymns and sequences in honour of saints, virgins and Mary, imbued with vibrant descriptions of colour and light that also occur in her visionary writings. Over 300 times in her writings, Hildegard uses music to illuminate spiritual truths. She wrote in the plainchant tradition of a single vocal melodic line, a tradition common in liturgical singing of her time.  However, unlike the narrow scope of the mild, mainstream music of her day, her zesty melodies soar, leap and swirl in rhapsodic emotion. For Hildegard, the composer, the monastic setting was ideal – a scriptorium where experienced copyists could pen her music, a skilled and practised performing body to sing it, and occasions for the performance of her music.

Her music is undergoing a revival and enjoying huge public success. A group, Sequentia, recorded all Hildegard’s musical output in time for her 900th birth anniversary in 1998.

Preaching Tours

In around 1158, a prolonged illness - a prelude to most of Hildegard’s major decisions - was followed by her first preaching tour.  Already around 60 years of age, the woman who had been cloistered for over 50 years set out on a series of preaching tours. On the first, which took her along the river Main as far as Bamberg, she preached to monastic communities at Wurzburg and Kitzingen. During her second tour in 1160 she took the highly unusual step (for a woman) of preaching in public at Trier, as well as visiting communites at Metz and Krauftal. On her third tour, undertaken sometime before 1163, she went north to Cologne and Werden; her fourth, in 1170, took her south to Zwiefalten. Although she described herself as ‘a simple creature’ and as a ‘poor little woman’, the writings and letters which record the text of her public sermons display remarkable assurance and originality. She felt confident enough to address the most exalted religious and secular leaders of her day, whilst never losing her interest in the ordinary workings of the human mind and body, or of the natural world around her.
She died peacefully in the bosom of her community on 17th September 1179 at Rupertsberg in her eighty-second year.  Her canonisation process, initiated soon after her death, was never formally concluded, the documentation being deemed insufficient, but in 1324 Pope John XXII gave permission for her ‘solemn and public cult’ and Hildegard’s status today is that of a canonical saint. Her feast is celebrated in the German calendar on the anniversary of her death.

Hildegard for the 21st Century

Fasting and sauna elimination/detoxification programmes, gem therapy, music therapy,  the healing power of diet (neither extreme vegetarianism, a totally raw diet, nor teetotalism), Flower Essences (Hildegard wrote, as did Paracelsus in the 15th Century, about collecting dew from flowering plants to treat health imbalances, rediscovered by Edward Bach 60 years ago) - and way of life in place of medicinal drugs and surgery: Hildegard knew and used them all.  The rapid growth of interest in Hildegard over the last two decades is a powerful testimony to her relevance for us today.  Many of her thoughts and teachings mirror those of the latest Mind-Body Medicine “gurus” with uncanny precision - steadfast proof that the views of mystics throughout the century are changeless and enduring. Hildegard’s views of the Universe are of balance and wholeness. Although very much a reflection of her times, with the far greater emphasis on the fire and brimstone nature of religious thought, the common denominator knowledge that our own nature, the rhythms of our minds and bodies, are an echo of the greater rhythms of the natural world is still present – we do not exist in isolation, but in the unity of creation, parts of an encompassing whole. Like creation itself, we capture and reflect something of the overflow of divine light, love and ebullience.

In the Footsteps of Hildegard

It is still possible today to trace the footsteps of Hildegard, starting at her birthplace, Bermersheim - a small, peaceful village where the almost forgotten smell of new-mown hay filled the late afternoon - demonstrating no overt indication that this was once the seat of a powerful ruling house.  The sole witness of those illustrious days may be the small church reputed to be 1000 years old, where a manuscript of 1731 records that a manor house stood right by the church.  Assuming that, as was usual in the Middle Ages, the church stood within the '‘demesne'’(domain) of the manor, this could be the location of Hildegard’s baptism and early dedication to the Church.

The convent of Disibodenberg, where Hildegard began her religious life, is now the still powerful ruin of a great past. Excavations are ongoing under the direction of Baroness Racknitz, who has created the SCIVIAS foundation of Disibodenberg – there is even an email address: scivias@disibodenberg.de – to protect and preserve the remains of a 1000 year old Christian tradition.

St Rochus’ Chapel, near Bingen, features a statue of Hildegard in the centre of the altar, surrounded by 8 ‘stations’ showing scenes of her life – as a child viewing a mysterious light, being brought by her parents to Jutta’s hermitage, writing SCIVIAS, Pope Eugenius III approving her work, an encounter with Bernard of Clairvaux, meeting with Emperor Barbarossa, preaching and death at Rupertsburg.

Rupertsburg itself has long been the industrial town of Bingersbruck – the only remnant of the great monastic site is the underground vaults, built into an exhibition centre.

I visited the awesome Ebingen Parish Church, whose size and magnificence equals that of a young cathedral.  Located here is the gilded splendour of the Hildegard Reliquary, manufactured in 1929.  Shaped as a building, the door features the four cardinal virtues – justice, courage, prudence and moderation. Four saints decorate each of the front and back panels.  This contains the remains of Hildegard (except skull, heart, hair and tongue) and smaller relics of SS Giselbert, Rupert and Wigbert.  The south-east corner of the church features a Hildegard sculpture, to commemorate the first Hildegard procession in 1857.  On 17th September, the day of Hildegard’s death, a growing number of pilgrims visit Eibingen to join the procession of relics in honour of the great saint.

1400 years on, it is still possible to experience the legendary hospitality of the Benedictine tradition, at the new Abbey of St Hildegard of Eibengen.  The New Romanesque style convent, a little way up the hill from the historic site of the old monastery, is where the revival of the tradition of Hildegard’s convents began.  Today about 60 nuns, aged 25 – 88, live in this beautiful, timeless place.  Seven times a day the sisters gather in the great Abbey church where Hildegard is portrayed, quill pen in hand, above the sacristy door.  As in earlier times, the convent is a completely self-supporting community, with a goldsmithery,  workshops for decorating candles and for book and manuscript restoration, and shops selling books, art, wine, liquers and spelt products.  Scientific research on Hildegard’s works and care for pilgrims and guests seeking retreat and quiet (also in the Benedictine tradition) are a large part of the convent’s work.

My small, spotless room looked out on the familiar colours of green, of grey, of silver and rusty gold of the herb garden.  The aromatic breath of the plants, the fragrance of new bread and the hum of bees in the sun-drenched sage encapsulated peaceful contentment.  The accustomed bells of childhood marking meals and services were striking in the stillness, drowning time.  After dinner I went in the growing dusk down to the ruins of the old convent.  A rising moon shone down on the empty spaces where once the gentle pace of daily worship and work held sway - fads, fashions and fancies through the ages would have passed this place by. The silence of the centuries, untroubled by the traumas and stirrings of the world outside, was oddly companionable, even welcoming.  I recalled Hildegard’s vibrant words of praise for the joy of the religious life: the purity and clarity of living water and the vital force of all the herbs and flowers of earth and paradise - filled with the fragrance of life-giving power, just as the summer is filled with the scent of green plants and flowers, and new air that breathes the fresh green force of harmony..

September 2003…

The warm green and blue silence of gentle hills and wide river, shimmering in the rich sunlit peace of the golden afternoon, can’t have altered very much since St Hildegard wrote, preached and practised her herbal art in this place almost 1000 years ago.  No sound of bird, no bell of sheep, just the powerful magic of this ancient place.

To research Hildegard’s life, learn of her wisdom, compassion and common sense, and gain some insight of her range of interests, style and personality has been utterly absorbing.  Undimmed through the centuries comes a clear sense of her zest for life, irrepressible energy, and imaginative power. Most of all, and of the greatest interest to my kind hosts, is the continuity of the herbalist’s art in the same ongoing healing tradition, with its satisfying sense of wholeness and completion, full circle.

I leave tomorrow, to go on to Dornburg-Thalheim (between Cologne and Frankfurt). There Mother Meera, the young Indian Avatar believed by many to be the living incarnation of the Divine Mother on earth now, gives Darshan (communication with the Divine) – a modern day healer in a different time – but that is another story…


SCIVIAS trans. Mother Columba Hart & Jane Bishop, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1990)


HILDEGARD OF BINGEN’S MEDICINE Dr Wighard Strehlow & Gottfried Hertza, M.D. (Bear & Co, books to celebrate and heal the earth)


HILDEGARD OF BINGEN: AN ANTHOLOGY Fiona Bowie & Oliver Davies, trans. Robert Carver

Books 1 & 2 of the Vita sanctae Hildegardis,  (hagio-biography)

Music available:

Canticles of Ecstasy
Ordo Virturum Vol 1
Symphoniae Spiritual
Antiphons and Songs
Feather on the Breath of God


Negative forces (vices)
Positive forces (virtues)
Amor seculi (love of the world)
Amor celestis (heavenly love)
Petulantia (exuberance)
Disciplina (discipline)
Joculatrix (love of entertainment)
Verecundia (modesty
Obduratia (hardheartedness)
Misericordia (mercy, charity)
Ignavia (cowardliness)
Divina victoria (crowned with God’s victory)
Ira (anger)
Patientia (patience)
Inepta laetitia (inappropriate mirth)
Gemitus ad Deum (sighing to God)
Ingluvies ventri (gluttony)
Abstinentia (abstinence)
Acerbitas (bitterness of heart)
Vera largitas (generosity)
Impietas (wickedness)
Pietas (devotion)
Fallacitas (lies)
Veritas (truth)
Contentio (contention)
Pax (peace)
Infelicitas (unhappiness)
Beatitudo (blessedness)
Immoderatio (immodertion)
Discretio (moderation)
Perditio animarum (lost soul)
Salvatio animarum (saved soul)
Superbia (arrogance)
Humilitas (humility)
Invidia (envy)
Charitas (charity)
Inanis gloria (thirst for glory)
Timor Domini (fear of God)
Inobedentia (disobedience)
Obedentia (obedience)
Infedelitas (infidelity)
Fides (faith)
Desperatio (desperation)
Spes (hope)
Luxuria (luxury)
Caritas (chastity)
Injustia (injustice)
Justitia (justice)
Torpor (apathy)
Fortitudeo (strength, bravery)
Oblivio (oblivion)
Sanctitas (holiness)
Inconstantia (inconstancy)
Constantia (constancy)
Cura terrenorum (concern for worldly things)
Celeste desiderium (yearning for heavenly things)
Obstinatio (obstinacy)
Compunctio cordis (repentance of heart)
Cupiditas (greed)
Contemptus mundi (despising the world)
Discordia (discord)
Concordia (concord)
Scurrilitas (curiosity)
Reverentia (reverence)
Vagatio (vagabond’s life)
Stabilitas (stability)
Meleficium (cult of the devil)
Cultus dei (cult of God)
Avaritia (avarice)
Sufficientia (sufficiency)
Tristitia seculi (sadness of the world)
Celeste gaudium (heavenly joy)

Nov/Dec 2003 - Florabel Campbell-Atkinson MCPP MNIMH, Medical Herbalist
The European Journal of Herbal Medicine (Phytotherapy) Vol 6 No 3 Spring 2004