Thursday, November 13, 2014

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)

The next few posts will be about Hildegard of Bingen and the parables, more contributions to the recent series of posts about people whose interpretations of the parables of Jesus have not received enough attention.

This series of posts will probably continue until the Society of Biblical Literature meeting. Shortly after that meeting, I probably will write about Thomas Hart Benton and his lithograph of the prodigal son parable, which is the subject of my paper at SBL.

But, first, Hildegard of Bingen, and I will start with some biographical context of this fascinating mystic:

Hildegard of Bingen was the first major German mystic and most famous twelfth-century female mystic. She not only wrote about her visions (e.g., Know the Ways, i.e., Scivias; Book of Life’s Merits; Book of Divine Works) but also treated numerous other topics, such as prophecy, poetry, medicine and science (e.g., Physica and Causae et curae), music (e.g., the Symphonia), ethics (e.g., the morality play set to music: Ordo virtutum), theology, as well as writing over three hundred letters, developing a secret coded language for her religious community, and preaching numerous sermons.

The above picture is an illumination from a manuscript of Scivias. It portrays showing Hildegard receiving a vision (the red "five fingers" that reach from above and are around her head). She dictates to Volmar, her scribe/secretary/editor (Note that only his head is portrayed as being inside the inner sanctum where Hildegard receives the vision).

Hildegard was born in 1098 in Bermersheim, about a dozen miles southwest of Mainz, Germany. Hildegard writes that she began having mystic visions in her early childhood (e.g., see Hildegard 1986: 2). She also began a lifelong struggle with painful illnesses, some of which her biographer Theodoric attributes to an early hesitation to write down what the Spirit had revealed to her (Theodoric: 1995: 37-38), and there often appears to be a correlation “between periods of illness and intense visionary activity” (Young 2012: 259). At the age of eight, Hildegard was “tithed” (she was her parents’ tenth child) into a religious life by her parents and entrusted to the care of the holy woman named Jutta (Judith). Both Jutta and Hildegard entered the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg, and a small community of women gathered into a religious community with Jutta as its head. Upon Jutta’s death about thirty years later (1136), Hildegard succeeded her as the head of the community. Hildegard then moved the religious community to Rupertsberg (~1150) and then to Eibingen (1165), across the Rhine River from Bingen. 
In a powerful vision in 1141, Hildegard saw a “very great light,” and a voice from heaven told her to “write and speak about the marvelous things” that she saw and heard from God (Scivias; Hildegard 1986:1-2). This vision and subsequent visions in 1163 and 1167 were especially decisive in Hildegard receiving what she divined to be a decisive exegetical mandate to share what the Holy Spirit had revealed to her (Kienzle 2009: 7). Her visionary experiences thus gave Hildegard direct insight independent of the education usually reserved for males:

In that same [experience of] vision I understood the writings of the prophets, the Gospels, the works of other holy men, and those of certain philosophers, without any human instruction, and I expounded certain things based on these, though I scarcely had literary understanding, inasmuch as a woman who was not learned had been my teacher (Dronke 1984: 145).

Theodoric writes that Pope Eugenius III, at the request of Bernard of Clairvaux, approved and blessed portions of Hildegard’s work, Scivias, and commanded her to finish it (Theodoric 1995: 39). This approval proved crucial to Hildegard’s position and influence, since it was extremely unusual during this time period for a woman to produce such visionary writing and to have such authority (see Kerby-Fulton 2010: 344; Young 2012: 260).

Starting around 1158 Hildegard began to travel extensively on preaching tours in the Rhineland, speaking mostly to monastic or clerical audiences about the degenerate state of the church and society and the need for reform and renewal. Hildegard’s homilies demonstrate her role as a visionary preacher and her belief that her understanding of Scripture comes as a gift straight from God. Her visions did not, in her view, authenticate her message; instead they served as the source for her message. She spoke not with her own voice but with the voice “of the Living Light she saw in her visions” (Young 2012: 261).

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