Hildegard of Bingen: Get to Know a Medieval Polymath’s Life

Working as a composer, writer, philosopher, and medical practitioner (among other things) within the enclosed world of her Benedictine abbey, Hildegard of Bingen led a truly remarkable life.

Dec 16, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

hildegard of bingen medieval polymath life


Also known as the Sibyl of the Rhine and canonized as Saint Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen was a Benedictine Abbess and medieval polymath, exercising her various talents as a composer, mystic, philosopher, writer, medical practitioner, and botanist, with some scholars crediting her as the founder of the scientific study of natural history in Germany. Here, we will take a closer look at the woman behind all of these remarkable achievements and explore the life of Hildegard of Bingen.


Hildegard of Bingen: Early Life

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Medieval artistic depiction of Hildegard of Bingen, via Your Classical


Born sometime around the year 1098, Hildegard’s parents were Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, placing her in the social ranks of the free lower nobility. A sickly child, Hildegard later claimed in her Vita that she experienced visions from an early age, including visions of what she termed the umbra viventis lucis (the reflection of the living light). In a letter she wrote to Guibert of Gembloux in her old age, she explained that she experienced this vision of the umbra viventis lucis in her soul, which (she states) ascends to heaven and “spreads itself out among different peoples, although they are far away from me in distant lands and places.”


On account of her spiritual disposition being evident from early childhood, Hildegard’s parents sent her to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg as an oblate (that is, someone whose life is dedicated to serving God). Her age at the time, however, is unclear. According to Hildegard herself, writing in her Vita, she was eight years old when she was professed, taking holy vows and becoming a member of the religious community at Disibodenberg. However, she may indeed have been eight when she entered the monastery and fourteen by the time she was professed alongside Countess Jutta von Sponheim, whose date of enclosure we know for certain was 1112.


When Jutta and Hildegard were enclosed at the monastery, however, they benefited from an education unavailable to most young girls of the medieval period. Jutta taught Hildegard to read and write, and both would have tended to the sick being treated at the monastery. It is also likely that it was here Hildegard began to study music.

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Monastic Life & Religious Works

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The Assumption of the Virgin by the Studio of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1625, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


When her childhood companion Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was made magistra of the community by her fellow nuns at Disibodenberg. Abbot Kuno also offered Hildegard the role of Prioress. Hildegard, however, asked him if, instead, she and her fellow nuns could move to Rupertsberg, as God had instructed her to do. When Abbot Kuno refused her request, she sought (and won) the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz, though Abbot Kuno still would not relent.


Abbot Kuno did, however, grant Hildegard his permission to record her visions, which would form the basis for Scivias (a contraction of Sci vias Domini, meaning Know the Ways of the Lord), her first theological work. Despite having Abbot Kuno’s permission and having been instructed by God to record her visions in 1141, Hildegard’s humility made her reluctant to do so. As a result, she was “laid low by the scourge of God” and “fell upon a bed of sickness,” as she states in Scivias.


Scivias contains twenty-six visions and is divided into three sections. The six visions related in the first section cover divine creation, including the structure of the universe, which Hildegard likened to the shape of an egg. The second section focuses on redemption, and the third on salvation. The illustrations contained in this work are representations of her visions.


Intrigued by news of her visions, a commission was sent by the Pope to Disibodenberg in 1148. The commission believed that Hildegard’s visions were, in fact, real and brought a section of Scivias back for Pope Eugenius III, some of which was read aloud to him at the Synod of Trier later that same year. Following this, the Pope sent Hildegard his blessing, which was interpreted as Papal approval to record her visions as divine revelations.


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Manuscript illumination from Hildegard’s Scivias (1151), depicting her receiving a divine vision and dictating it to Volmar, her teacher, via Wikipedia


However, the illness brought on by her hesitance in recording her visions would not be the only time she was physically stricken for failing to comply with God’s wishes in a sufficiently timely manner. According to Hildegard, Abbot Kuno’s continued reluctance to permit her relocation to Rupertsberg (and thus her inability to carry out what she believed to be God’s wishes for her) caused her to fall ill,  becoming paralyzed and bedridden.


Eventually, Abbot Kuno relented, and Hildegard, along with around twenty other nuns, moved to the monastery in Rupertsberg in 1150. Here, Volmar, a Saint Disibod monk, was the community’s provost and father confessor, as well as acting as Hildegard’s personal scribe. In 1165, she went on to establish another abbey at Eibingen.


It was in Rupertsberg that Hildegard wrote her next visionary theological work, Liber Vitae Meritorum, between 1158 and 1163. In this work, she expanded on the theme of virtue and vice that she had previously explored in her musical morality play, Ordo Virtutum, which is thought to be the first example of that dramatic genre. And Liber Vitae Meritorum, in turn, contains one of the earliest evocations of purgatory as the place in which souls work to offset their earthly sins and so gain admittance to heaven.


Her final visionary work of theology, however, was arguably her grandest, as Liber Divinorum Operum contains ten visions of cosmic scale to demonstrate the relationship between God and His created universe. The book is undeniably ambitious in scope, too, and ends with prophesying the defeat of the antichrist.


Music, Medicine, & Botany

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Artistic depiction of Hildegard of Bingen, via Perth Observatory


As well as her morality play, Ordo Virtutum, which contained an impressive 82 songs, Hildegard also composed a number of liturgical songs, including responsories, hymns, and antiphons, which were collated into the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum cycle.


As part of her monastic duties, Hildegard would have had to tend the monastery’s herb garden and the patients treated in the monastic infirmary, which was a lifeline for the local community. Over time, she gained greater expertise in treating disease and gained knowledge of humoral theory, which, at the time, was the leading medical practice.


In her capacity as a medical practitioner, Hildegard distilled her theory and practice into two works, the first of which was Physica. Divided into nine books, Physica details the medicinal properties of various fauna and flora. The second work, Causae et Curae, is an exploration of the human body, the ways in which it is affected by disease, and its relationship to the rest of the created world. Including remedies for common ailments and injuries and such medical practices as bleeding to balance the body’s humors, both medical works by Hildegard offer us a rare glimpse into an area of medieval medicine that would otherwise be lost to us, as many of these treatments were typically administered by women.


Hildegard’s medical and scientific theories, however, were distinctly her own. In Causae et Curae, for example, she situates humankind (the microcosm) as the apex of the divinely created cosmos (the macrocosm). The interplay between the two spheres informs the individual’s spiritual and physical health, as was in keeping with her theological approach to the interconnectedness of God’s creation. Moreover, while she accepted humoral theory, she advanced her own notion that there was a hierarchical relationship between the humors that corresponded with the elements.


Lingua ignota and Litterae ignotae: Hildegard’s Alternative Alphabet

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Line engraving of Hildegard of Bingen by W. Marshall, 1642, via the Wellcome Collection


Hildegard also constructed her own alternative alphabet, the litterae ignotae, of 23 letters, which she used in the construction of her own language, the lingua ignota, one of the earliest known constructed languages. The lingua, however, does not amount to a full language in itself. Rather, it consists of a glossary of 1,011 words, almost all of which are nouns with some adjectives, beginning with her constructed words for divine beings, such as God and the angels, before moving on to humans, other animals, flora, and more. There is no grammar inherent to lingua ignota, but as the words are substituted into Latin texts, it borrows from the grammatical rules of Latin.


Perhaps the most salient question regarding her creation of an alternative alphabet and language is what their intended purpose was. We can only speculate on that point, though some have argued that it was intended as a secret, encoded language, or else that it might have been her approximation to a more ideal, universal, and perhaps even holier language. This latter interpretation gained traction in the nineteenth century, when so-called universal languages, such as Esperanto, were being developed.


By the standards of any time period, Hildegard of Bingen led a remarkable life. As a woman of profound religious devotion, her cloistered life not only gave her the freedom and the means to write works of visionary theology, but it also gave her the education that enabled her to compose music, as well as allowed her to tend to the sick and so develop her own medical theories. It is said that, when she died on 17th September 1179, her fellow nuns saw two streams of light appear in the sky pass over the room where she lay dying – and, to this day, Hildegard of Bingen’s legacy shines bright.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.