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Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine

Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine

by Barbara Newman

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Barbara Newman reintroduces English-speaking readers to an extraordinary and gifted figure of the twelfth-century renaissance. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was mystic and writer, musician and preacher, abbess and scientist who used symbolic theology to explore the meaning of her gender within the divine scheme of things.

With a new preface, bibliography, and


Barbara Newman reintroduces English-speaking readers to an extraordinary and gifted figure of the twelfth-century renaissance. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was mystic and writer, musician and preacher, abbess and scientist who used symbolic theology to explore the meaning of her gender within the divine scheme of things.

With a new preface, bibliography, and discography, Sister of Wisdom is a landmark book in women's studies, and it will also be welcomed by readers in religion and history.

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Sister of Wisdom

St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine

By Barbara Newman


Copyright © 1987 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92018-7


"A poor little female"

Some years ago, wrote the monk Guibert to his friend Radulfus, strange and incredible rumors had reached his ears at the Belgian monastery of Gembloux. They concerned an old woman, abbess of the recent Benedictine foundation at Bin-gen-am-Rhein, who had gained such fame that multitudes flocked to her convent, from curiosity or devotion, to seek her prophecies and prayers. All who returned thence astonished their hearers, but none could give a plausible account of the woman, save only that her soul was "said to be illumined by an invisible splendor known to her alone." Finally Guibert, impatient with rumor and zealous for the truth, resolved to find out for himself. In the year 1175 he wrote to this famed seer, Hildegard, with mingled curiosity and awe. Surely she had received "rare gifts, till now practically unheard of throughout all ages"; in prophecy she excelled Miriam, Deborah, and Judith; but let her recall that great trees are uprooted sooner than reeds and keep herself humble. Meanwhile, perhaps she would deign to answer a few questions about her visions. Did she dictate them in Latin or in German? Was it true that, once she had spoken, she could no longer recall them? Had she learned the alphabet and the Scriptures as a child, or had she been taught by the Holy Spirit alone? As the abbess sent no reply, Guibert tried again some time later, having thought of more questions in the meantime. Did Hildegard receive her visions in ecstasy or in dreams? What did she mean by the title of her book, Scivias? Had she written any other books? And so forth.

In the end the seer favored Guibert with a reply—a detailed account of the mode of her visions—which so overwhelmed him that he declared that no woman since the Virgin Mary had received so great a gift from God. Hildegard, he continued, "has transcended female subjection by a lofty height and is equal to the eminence not of just any men but of the very highest."5 The white monks of Villers, with whom he shared her letter, saluted the abbess in even more exalted terms.

Hail, after Mary full of grace: the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the word of your mouth, which brings the secrets of the invisible world to men, unites heavenly things with earthly, and joins the divine to the human.

In contrast, Hildegard herself had composed her reply to Guibert with characteristic modesty, stressing her own frailty and insecurity. Like any monastic writer, she adopted formulas of humility that had long been de rigueur; but, like Guibert and the monks of Villers, she also realized that her gender had no small bearing on her vocation. When she identified herself as ego paupercula feminea forma—"a poor little figure of a woman"—she was appealing inversely to the same complex of ideas that led the Cistercians to compare her to the Virgin. Mary, the handmaid of God, "humble and exalted above every creature," typified for them a central paradox of Christianity: all who humble themselves will be exalted. But something other than Mary's personal humility and glory inspired the comparison. Lowliness, if not grace, could be generic; and, according to some of the most reputable theolo gians and scientists of the Middle Ages, it pertained generically to the bodies, minds, and mores of women. It followed that, if only the humble could be exalted, women had a paradoxical advantage—at least in theory. In practice, of course, this advantage was seldom apparent. To her admirers, therefore, Hildegard was a live epiphany of a truth that the social and even the religious establishment had done its best to suppress.

The dialectic cut both ways: a "poor little female" could be exalted to miraculous heights only on condition that her normal status remained inferior and subservient. Hildegard's activity as a prophet could seem divinely powerful only because it was humanly impossible. Thus, the very constraints that made her privilege so astonishing to her peers also gave it an added luster, which, in a more egalitarian Church, it could not have possessed. And Hildegard, no less than her contemporaries, accepted the paradox. Never did she suggest that, as a woman and a Christian, she had any "right" to teach or prophesy in the Church. Nor did she claim or demand equality with men. Rather, she insisted that God had chosen a poor, frail, untutored woman like herself to reveal his mysteries only because those to whom he had first entrusted them—the wise, learned, and masculine clergy—had failed to obey. She lived in a "womanish age" (muliebre tempus) in which men had become so lax, weak, and sensual—in a word, effeminate—that God had to confound them by making women virile. Choosing an instrument by nature frail and despicable, he proved again that he could work wonders despite all human order and disorder. "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God" (1 Cor. 1:27–29).

It is this conviction that underlies Hildegard's prophetic call, announced at the beginning of the Scivias:

O frail human form from the dust of the earth, ashes from ashes: cry out and proclaim the beginning of undefiled salvation! Let those who see the inner meaning of Scripture, yet do not wish to proclaim or preach it, take instruction, for they are lukewarm and sluggish in observing the justice of God. Unlock for them the treasury of mysteries, which they, the timid ones, bury in a hidden field without fruit. Therefore pour out a fountain of abundance, overflow with mysterious learning, so that those who want you to be despicable on account of Eve's transgression may be overwhelmed by the flood of your profusion.

Such was Hildegard's mission: to unlock the mysteries of Scripture, to proclaim the way of salvation, to admonish priests and prelates, to instruct the people of God. And all this was entrusted by God to a woman, despite the transgression of Eve, because "the wise and the strong" had fallen even lower than women.

At the close of this introductory chapter, I shall return to the question of female authority and the strategies that a twelfth-century visionary could use to reinforce it. First, however, an account of Hildegard's career and of her prolific writings will serve to reveal the degree and types of authority that she actually claimed.


Our information about Hildegard's life is unusually thorough, for we possess several hundred letters written to or by the saint. Many of these contain biographical data. Hildegard's Vita, composed between 1177 and 1181 by the monks Gottfried of St. Disibod and Dieter of Echternach, incorporates memoirs dictated by the saint in the first person. A fragmentary Vita by Guibert of Gembloux provides further details. Other sources include chronicles, documents pertaining to the two monasteries founded by Hildegard, and the Acta compiled in 1233–1237 for her canonization. These last deal chiefly with miracles of healing and exorcism ascribed to Hildegard, so their main historical value lies in the evidence they furnish about her cult.

Born in 1098 at Bermersheim bei Alzey, Hildegard was the tenth child of noble parents, who dedicated her to God as a tithe. Three of her siblings also devoted their lives to the Church: one brother was a cantor at the Mainz Cathedral, another became a canon in Tholey, and a sister took the veil at Hildegard's convent. In 1106 the eight-year-old girl entered a hermitage near the flourishing monastery of St. Disibod to be raised by the highborn anchoress Jutta of Sponheim. From Jutta she "learned the Psalter," in other words, she was taught to read Latin. Her further education was entrusted to the monk Volmar of St. Disibod, who would become her lifelong friend, confidant, and secretary. During her teens (c. 1112–1115) Hildegard made her profession of virginity and received the veil from Otto, bishop of Bamberg. In the meantime, the hermitage had grown into a full-fledged monastery observing the Benedictine Rule, and, when the mistress Jutta died in 1136, the nuns elected Hildegard as her successor. Five years later the abbess received her prophetic call and began to compose the Scivias, with the help and encouragement of Volmar and her favorite nun, Richardis von Stade. A thirteenth-century miniature shows the seer in action: illumined by fire from on high, she transcribes the heavenly dictation on wax tablets, while Volmar copies the corrected text into a book, and a nun stands by to assist her mistress (frontispiece).

From early childhood, long before she undertook her public mission or even her monastic vows, Hildegard's spiritual awareness was founded in what she called the umbra viventis lucis, the reflection of the living Light. Her letter to Guibert of Gembloux, written at the age of seventy-seven (1175), describes her experience of this light with admirable precision.

From my early childhood, before my bones, nerves, and veins were fully strengthened, I have always seen this vision in my soul, even to the present time, when I am more than seventy years old. In this vision my soul, as God would have it, rises up high into the vault of heaven and into the changing sky and spreads itself out among different peoples, although they are far away from me in distant lands and places. And because I see them this way in my soul, I observe them in accord with the shifting of clouds and other created things. I do not hear them with my outward ears, nor do I perceive them by the thoughts of my own heart or by any combination of my five senses, but in my soul alone, while my outward eyes are open. So I have never fallen prey to ecstasy in the visions, but I see them wide awake, day and night. And I am constantly fettered by sickness, and often in the grip of pain so intense that it threatens to kill me; but God has sustained me until now.

The light that I see thus is not spatial, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud that carries the sun. I can measure neither height, nor length, nor breadth in it; and I call it "reflection of the living Light." And as the sun, the moon, and the stars appear in water, so writings, sermons, virtues, and certain human actions take form for me and gleam within it.

Now whatever I have seen or learned in this vision remains in my memory for a long time, so that, when I have seen and heard it, I remember; and I see, hear, and know all at once, and as if in an instant I learn what I know. But what I do not see, I do not know, for I am not educated, but I have simply been taught how to read. And what I write is what I see and hear in the vision. I compose no other words than those I hear, and I set them forth in unpolished Latin just as I hear them in the vision, for I am not taught in this vision to write as philosophers do. And the words in this vision are not like words uttered by the mouth of man, but like a shimmering flame, or a cloud floating in a clear sky.

Moreover, I can no more recognize the form of this light than I can gaze directly on the sphere of the sun. Sometimes—but not often—I see within this light another light, which I call "the living Light." And I cannot describe when and how I see it, but while I see it all sorrow and anguish leave me, so that then I feel like a simple girl instead of an old woman.

But because of the constant sickness that I suffer, I sometimes get tired of writing the words and visions that are there revealed to me. Yet when my soul tastes and sees them, I am so transformed that, as I say, I forget all pain and trouble. And when I see and hear things in this vision, my soul drinks them in as from a fountain, which yet remains full and unexhausted. At no time is my soul deprived of that light which I call the reflection of the living Light, and I see it as if I were gazing at a starless sky in a shining cloud. In it I see the things of which I frequently speak, and I answer my correspondents from the radiance of this living Light.

A revealing passage in the saint's Vita suggests that, although Hildegard perceived this extraordinary light from her infancy, decades were to pass before she understood the light and the figures she saw in it as a gift from God. At the age of three, Hildegard told her biographer, she shuddered at the vision of a dazzling light that she was still too young to describe. When she was five she startled her nurse by looking at a pregnant cow and accurately predicting the color of the unborn calf. Often she foretold the future. In her teens, however, the naive and fragile girl finally realized that no one else could see what she saw. Embarrassed, she ceased to recount her strange experiences, although the visions continued. The girl confided only in her mistress, Jutta, who reported the visions to Volmar.

With the exception of this discerning monk, those around Hildegard do not seem to have understood her predilection for visions as a charism. It is impossible to say whether the child's peculiarity inspired or merely confirmed her parents in their pious wish to present her as an oblate, for they might have feared that her frailty and eccentricity would disqualify her for a normal married life. Monasticism in this period frequently served as a refuge for weak and handicapped children of the nobility. Even after Jutta's death, when Hildegard became abbess of her convent, she did not at once take advantage of her authority to disclose her visions. It is significant that, after she had responded to the call of 1141 and begun to write, she never described any of the visions she had seen prior to that year. Only in retrospect, it appears, did Hildegard recognize these early experiences as a stage of preparation for her calling.

Despite her assurance of divine revelation, the seer sought further confirmation from the Church. In 1147 she wrote to St. Bernard, whom she greatly admired, to request his prayers and counsel. In this letter, the first of more than three hundred ascribed to her, Hildegard called herself "wretched and more than wretched in the name of woman," and bewailed her sickness, insecurity, and fear; but she went on to describe her visions as "great marvels" revealed by the Spirit of God. The abbot of Clairvaux endorsed Hildegard's gift, though with some reserve. Meanwhile, Volmar had told Kuno, abbot of St. Disibod, of his protégée's visions, and Kuno in turn informed Heinrich, archbishop of Mainz. When Pope Eugenius III, a Cistercian and disciple of Bernard, presided over a synod at Trier in 1147–48, Heinrich broached the matter of Hildegard's visions. Intrigued by his report, the pope sent two legates to the nearby St. Disibod to visit the seer and secure a copy of her writings. They returned with the still incomplete Scivias, from which Eugenius himself read publicly before the assembled prelates. The council was suitably impressed, especially as Bernard chose this moment to intercede for the visionary who had besought his aid. At his suggestion, Eugenius sent Hildegard a letter of greeting, giving her apostolic license to continue writing. From this point on, her fame and her circle of correspondents grew steadily until her death.

Once Hildegard had become a celebrity, her convent at St. Disibod began to attract so many postulants that the monastery could not house them. For this reason she decided to move, founding a new community at the Rupertsberg opposite Bingen—a site revealed to her in a vision. The monks of St. Disibod, reluctant to lose their new source of prestige and revenue, opposed this plan. However, Hildegard used her family connections to secure the support of Heinrich of Mainz. At the same time, she fought the monks with passive resistance, taking to her bed with a paralyzing sickness that she ascribed to her delay in fulfilling God's will. This visitation finally won the skeptical Kuno's assent, upon which the seer immediately rose from her sickbed. The property was acquired, the convent built, and in 1150 Hildegard and eighteen of her nuns moved to the new foundation. She now began to struggle for independence from the monks, finally securing exclusive rights to the Rupertsberg property from Kuno and his successor in 1155. Three years later Heinrich's successor, Arnold of Mainz, granted the convent his protection and regulated the temporal and spiritual relations between St. Disibod and the Rupertsberg nuns. Throughout these negotiations, the seer's health continued to fluctuate in accord with the success or setbacks met by her plans. By 1165 the Rupertsberg had become so prosperous that Hildegard was able to found a daughter house at nearby Eibingen. This convent, now the Abbey of St. Hildegard, is still in existence, although the original Rupertsberg was destroyed during the Thirty Years' War.


Excerpted from Sister of Wisdom by Barbara Newman. Copyright © 1987 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Barbara Newman is Associate Professor of English at Northwestern University.

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