In our era of truly impressive women who lead and serve (still a ways to go, but progress is happening!), we don’t always know about the trailblazers who were cutting a wide swath of feminine power. Meet Hildegarde von Bingen, a truly remarkable woman, a composer, healer, a woman of faith and courage who left a legacy of work and music that is unparalleled. Renaissance women living in the modern world, meet the OG Middle Ages feminist icon.
by Stacy Bakri
Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”; Latin: homo universalis, “universal man”
noun: polymath; plural noun: polymaths
1. an individual whose learning and knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.
When you hear the term “polymath” some names that undoubtedly come to mind are Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Archimedes, da Vinci (does he even need mentioning?), Newton, Franklin, Du Bois, and Cousteau. All of these talented men are historical intellectual giants and worthy inclusions on this distinctive list of “Who’s Who of the Genius Set.” Leonardo da Vinci, being perhaps history’s most famous polymath, counted among his diverse interests and pursuits mechanical engineering, invention, painting, drawing, anatomy, astronomy, botany, cartography, and paleontology. However, this list omits the excellent company of some extraordinary women who were decidedly more enlightened than, and able to run intellectual circles around, any of their male contemporaries, and they are just as deserving of their place and our attention.
Perhaps you know Hypatia of Alexandria, the second century philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and political advisor who edited and penned commentaries on several works written by some of the men mentioned above, and who became a trusted counselor to the Roman Prefect of Alexandria. Fortunately for us her legacy is preserved in extant documents and surviving accounts of her work, and The Good Place paid her homage with a very inspired performance by Lisa Kudrow. Just call her “Patty.”
Marie Curie’s father tutored her at home with laboratory equipment from the institute where he was an instructor. His teaching led Marie to pursue a life of scientific research and study in chemistry and physics which led to her being the first woman recipient of a Nobel Prize, AND the first person to be a repeat recipient. In addition to earning multiple other scientific achievement awards, she was awarded several honorary doctorates from prestigious universities, and an element, Curium, was named after her. You glow, girl!
Most American schoolchildren learn how Hellen Keller accomplished all of her life’s work despite an early childhood illness leaving her completely deaf and blind. Her extraordinary story was famously told in The Miracle Worker in which Annie Sullivan tutored her in many methods of communication including sign language and hands on reading of faces. She graduated Phi Betta Kappa from Radcliff College of Harvard University, went on to author several books, championed civil rights, was a suffragist, a proponent of birth control, and was one of the founding members of the American Civil Liberties Union. She is known for her activism and accomplishments, and is a standard bearer for achieving success despite one’s handicaps, gender barriers, and obstacles.
We owe these extraordinary women a debt of gratitude for their work and sacrifices, but one woman defined what it meant to be a Renaissance woman even before the Renaissance was cool, Hildegard von Bingen. So who was she, and what is her influence and legacy? Born in 1098 AD in the Rhineland of Germany, Hildegard von Bingen was a visionary nun, Christian mystic, philosopher, abbess, and polymath. Counted among her diverse interests, talents and achievements are the founding of two monasteries, authoring nine books of both religious and scientific subjects, the creation of an alphabet and language to transcribe her thoughts and visions, the study of philosophy, theology, scientific natural history, herbology, sexology, gynecology, and nutrition and health; she was a poetess, and the composer of an entire corpus of sacred music. Some consider her composition “Ordo Virtutum” or “Play of Virtues” to be a pioneering work of opera. These are all incredible accomplishments and especially so for a woman in the 12th century. She was an outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, and as is often the case with intelligent, articulate, opinionated, and outspoken women, she courted controversy, backlash, and criticism. In her 81 years on this earth Hildegard of Bingen left a huge legacy as an outstanding example of how women, despite the evident constraints against them, have always managed to champion progress.
Polymaths, in addition to possessing a broad range of interests and talents, are also recognized for overcoming handicaps, be they physical or societal, and for their ability to self-educate. Hildegard was no exception and demonstrated a love of learning and knowledge at an early age yearning to understand nature, her surroundings, and especially to understand what she called later in life her umbra viventis lucis, or “Reflection of the Living Light.” The 10th child of a noble family, the light visions Hildegard experienced as a child prompted her parents to send her at age eight to a Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. There she was tutored by Jutta von Sponheim who instructed her in reading, writing, theology, and how to interpret her divine visions. After Jutta’s death, and Hildegard was elected Abbess, she suffered a series of physically painful umbra viventis lucis which were interpreted as direct messages from God summoning her to take charge of her destiny and record the meanings of her visions for posterity. In her time at the monastery Hildegard had had confident her experiences to Jutta only out of fear of persecution. Based on her own descriptions of these occurrences, it is now believed that Hildegard suffered from migraine headaches complete with full visual auras. It is not difficult to understand how someone affected with this condition could have interpreted its symptoms as divine visions and revelations from God. Inspired by her newfound courage of her holy dictate, she went on to write and illuminate the first of her many books, “Scivias,” or “Know the Ways.” “In the same vision I understood the writing of the prophets, the Gospels, and the other saints, and of certain philosophers, without any human instruction. And I expounded some of them, although I had scarcely any knowledge of literature, as an uneducated woman had taught me.” ~ Hildegard of Bingen
A cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, a revelation of the animating life force created by the natural world that infuses all creation with vitality. “I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars … I awaken everything to life.” ~ Hildegard von Bingen, “Liber Divinorum or “Book of Divine Works.” Hildegard believed the divine was manifest in every leaf, blade of grass, flower, or stone, and each piece of nature was in sum total God. Through Creation was revealed the face of the Creator and Hildegard celebrated nature’s sacred beauty and reveled in its complexity and life force. Her reverence of the natural world is present today with those who work to preserve our planet, mitigate climate change, and ensure the beauty of nature for eternity. Her belief in the penetrating life force created by all living and non-living things is echoed through a small, fictional, mystical teacher who reveres his environment and its surrounding, emanating life force as well.
In the immortal words of that renowned master of funk, Stevie Wonder tells us:
“Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands.”
He’s not wrong. Music is a form of communication that transcends borders, philosophies, ideologies, and centuries. Every culture from the dawn of time has developed music in some form. Hildegard is perhaps best known for her musical compositions, which have steadily gained recognition and appreciation in the past several years. The first composer for whom we have a biography, she composed 77 sacred songs and the aforementioned Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music or, as some might call it, a proto-opera. As a Benedictine superior, she and her nuns sang the Divine Office eight times daily, and she believed song was the highest form of prayer. It was mystical, transformative, and reunited humankind to the ecstasy and beauty of paradise before the Fall. Music connected the vocalist directly with the divine, and joined heaven and earth in a great celestial harmony. Her lyrics, as well as her melodies, were highly original and she composed in free verse. “Wisdom resides in all creative works. In creative work, interconnectivity is learned and cosmic connections are celebrated.” “The soul is symphonic.” Hildegard von Bingen, from her 1178 letter to the prelates of Mainz. Music moves the soul for many through performance or just listening and experiencing. It is not difficult to imagine that were she with us today Hildegard would appreciate the power of connecting to others through song much like Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act.
Hildegard lived a full life earning the respect and admiration of her peers, politicians, royalty, and leaders of the Church. Centuries later she was canonized as Saint Hildegard and the Sibyl of the Rhine and bestowed the rare honor of Doctor of the Church, a title reserved for saints who demonstrated particular ecclesiastical and scientific scholarship during their lives. Her writings and works have inspired modern day feminist scholars, artists, authors (one can find inspiration in Tolkien’s work), performing and visual artists, environmental activists, and across many other disciplines. To tell Hildegard’s story requires extensive narrative; it is simply impossible to contain the wonder that is Hildegard in the span of one brief article. Fortunately, getting to know her is not difficult; there are several recordings of her musical compositions, books written about her, and a recent film about her life, “Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen” was produced in 2009. Be inspired to meet Hildegard von Bingen, the most amazing woman you probably don’t know, but you should.
Want to rock out like a badass medieval abbess? Then the “Bardcore” stylings of Hildegard von Blingen’ is what you need.
Hildegard von Blingen’ YouTube Channel.
Renaissance Festival performer Magnolia Strange is releasing a new album of von Bingen’s compositions, we featured her, read about her and her work!
What does a gal with bachelor’s degrees in Art and Russian from the University of Texas do with her life? OBVIOUSLY she becomes an actor, director, theater producer, wife, full-time stay-at -home mom, history buff, crafter, wine lover, paralegal, and general over achiever. Stacy Bakri loves every role she’s played from stage classics, to the iconic Mona Lisa at the Texas Renaissance Festival, to being a hands on mom to her own kids and for anyone else who needs it, and helping people plan for what happens after their timely demise. Her mission is to make life for those around her a little bit easier.