Author of the earliest surviving medieval morality play and regarded by some as the founder of the scientific study of natural history in Germany’s history, Hildegard of Bingen is arguably one of the most remarkable women of the medieval period. Not only was she a polymath composing works on medicine, mysticism, and music, but she also invented her own language and alphabet. Ranging from visionary theology to medical theory, here we will take a closer look at some of her most ground-breaking works and explore the many ways in which Hildegard of Bingen made history via the written word.
Completed between 1151 and 1152, Hildegard of Bingen’s first theological work was Scivias (a contraction of Sci vias Domini, which translates as Know the Ways of the Lord) and was informed by her visionary experiences. Despite having been instructed by God in one such vision to make a record of them and having permission from Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg to make such a record, Hildegard was reluctant to do so out of a sense of humility.
As a punishment for failing to carry out God’s wishes sooner, she was “laid low by the scourge of God,” as she states in Scivias, and “fell upon a bed of sickness.” Rousing herself from her sickbed, however, she sought to amend for her tardiness and set about writing Scivias.
Scivias relates twenty-six visions experienced by Hildegard, which are then divided over three sections, thus mirroring the Holy Trinity. The six visions contained in the first of these sections concern divine creation, including the creation and Fall of man and the very structure of the universe itself, which Hildegard likened in shape to an egg.
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The second section focuses on salvation through Jesus Christ and the sacraments, while the third section (the longest by far of the three) looks forward to the coming Kingdom of Heaven. The final vision recorded in Scivias contains fourteen songs, all of which are responsories and antiphons. As a composer, music would go on to have an abiding influence over Hildegard’s work throughout her life.
Having heard of her visions, a papal commission was sent to Disibodenberg in 1148. Upon deciding that Hildegard’s visions were authentic, the commission brought a section of Scivias back for Pope Eugenius III to hear read aloud at the Synod of Trier. The Pope then sent Hildegard his blessing to record her visions.
2. Ordo Virtutum
Just as Hildegard wrote fourteen songs for the final vision recorded in Scivias, she also composed several liturgical songs, including responsories, hymns, and antiphons, which were then collated into the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum cycle. As well as this, around the year 1151, she also composed a musical allegorical morality play titled Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues).
Not only is Ordo Virtutum thought to be the earliest example of a morality play by more than one hundred years, but it is also the only musical drama to survive from the medieval period with an authorial attribution for text and music. A version of the play without the music is also included in Scivias.
As is typical of the medieval morality play tradition, Ordo Virtutum concerns the struggle of an ordinary human soul between a life of virtue and a life of sin, represented by the Virtues and the Devil, respectively.
At the beginning of the play, the Virtues are introduced and praised. Then souls trapped in mortal bodies bemoan their imprisonment, while one happy Soul is keen to bypass the world of the living and ascend to heaven directly. The Virtues counsel this Soul that she must live first, but the Devil soon lures her away from the path of righteousness.
The next section of the play is the longest and, though it expands upon the moral and religious themes explored in Ordo Virtutum, marks a break from the play’s main plotline. The Virtues each take turns to describe themselves, with the Devil interrupting them with insults and criticisms.
Following this section, the Soul is now repentant for her sins. For her repentance, the Virtues welcome her back, and together they defeat the Devil. God is then praised, and a procession of all the dramatis personae follows.
3. Liber Vitae Meritorum
By the time Hildegard set about writing her second work of visionary theology, Liber Vitae Meritorum, that is, The Book of the Rewards of Life, between 1158 and 1163, Abbot Kuno had finally granted her wish to relocate to Rupertsberg and found a monastery alongside a group of around twenty other nuns. It was in this newly founded religious community, then, that she set about her new work, in which she expanded on the themes of virtue and vice previously explored in Ordo Virtutum.
Just as Ordo Virtutum was the earliest example of a morality play, Liber Vitae Meritorum, in turn, contains one of the earliest known depictions of purgatory as the place in which souls must perform acts of penance in order to offset their earthly sins before gaining admittance to heaven. As is typical of later medieval depictions of purgatory, however, Hildegard’s portrayal of the punishments of purgatory is decidedly grisly, thus underscoring the work’s message of the value of living a virtuous life of religious devotion and penance.
The gruesome depictions of the punishments of purgatory are matched by Hildegard’s grotesque portrayals of the Vices. Despite their unsightly appearances, however, the Vices are presented as nonetheless attractive by virtue of their specious yet seductive rhetoric. In contrast with the Vices, however, are the Virtues, who offer correction for the vices’ deceptions and point the way to moral rectitude.
4. Liber Divinorum Operum
Her final visionary work of theology, however, was arguably her grandest. Liber Divinorum Operum (The Book of Divine Works) was inspired by a vision Hildegard experienced in which she claimed to have witnessed “the sparkling drops of sweet rain” experienced by John the Evangelist. Liber Divinorum Operum is therefore heavily concerned with John’s Gospel, especially the Prologue to John’s Gospel.
As Hildegard’s final theological work focuses on the nature of God’s created universe, there is also an extended commentary on the Book of Genesis 1–2:3. As part of this commentary, she advances cosmological, ecclesiological, and tropological interpretations of each of the seven days of creation. Far from merely recording her visions, then, Liber Divinorum Operum showcases Hildegard’s serious, even scholarly reading of scripture.
Like Scivias before it, Liber Divinorum Operum is divided into three parts, over which Hildegard details ten visions that have been revealed to her. These ten visions are of cosmic scale to demonstrate the relationship between God and His created universe. The book is undeniably ambitious in scope, too, and ends with Hildegard prophesying the defeat of the antichrist and, thus, humanity’s ultimate salvation.
5. Causae et Curae
In addition to her religious writings, Hildegard also wrote medical and scientific works that were informed by her religious understanding of the world. 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. She distilled the knowledge and practical experience she thus gained to write Physica, a work that details the medicinal properties of various fauna and flora across nine books.
Though this work was scientific in focus rather than visionary, it was nonetheless informed by her religious beliefs, as Bruce Hozeski has argued, insofar as she subscribed to the idea that Genesis teaches us that all things were put on earth by God for human use. And in turn, this belief in the interconnectedness of God’s created universe informs Hildegard’s other scientific work, Causae et Curae. In this work, she positions humankind as the apex of the divinely created cosmos. At the same time, however, she recognizes that humankind is merely the microcosm within the macrocosm. And it is the interplay between humankind and the world around them that informs not only an individual’s physical health but also their spiritual health.
Thus we can see that Hildegard’s medical and scientific understanding of the world, as articulated in Causae et Curae, was distinctly her own. She used the word “viriditas,” meaning “greenness,” to equate human health with that of a plant, thus taking a holistic approach to human health by viewing it within the wider context of the health of the natural world.
Moreover, while she accepted humoral theory and worked according to it within her own medical practices, she also put forward her own notion that there was a hierarchical relationship between the humors that corresponded with the elements. According to her hierarchical conception, celestial elements (fire and air) were superior and terrestrial elements (earth and water) inferior, with blood and phlegm corresponding with the celestial elements and black and yellow bile corresponding with the terrestrial elements.
As well as offering her own original medical theories, Causae et Curae also includes more mundane remedies for common ailments and injuries. Even in this respect, however, the work is remarkable simply by virtue of the fact that it offers us a rare glimpse into an area of medieval medicine typically administered by women that would otherwise be lost to the historical record.
Hildegard of Bingen’s works are as varied as they are extraordinary. From visionary theology to medical theory, her work was always remarkably original, be it describing her own personal experiences with receiving visions and the insights they gave her into her faith or building on established humoral theory with her own medical observations. While this list is in no way an exhaustive account of her work, it attests to the full scope of her genius.