Among the most remarkable people of the twelfth century, one who stood forth on the stage of history and exercised there a part of no little importance, Hildegarde, is not to be passed over. Yet, when one comes to study her, she is a person who strikes the student with perplexity. She was, indeed, a woman possible at all times, but only possible as one of significance in the century in which she lived.
She was one of those marvellous women who, indeed, occupied a somewhat analogous place among the ancient pagan Germans – a seeress, a prophetess, even a priestess, like Velleda or Ganna. She took up the same position in the Christian Middle Ages, directed, ruled, foretold, threatened, and was listened to in all seriousness. Popes, prelates, kings consulted her, and all quailed at her threats and denunciations. She saw visions and dreamed dreams; she endeavoured to throw rays of light to illumine the past as well as the future. She thought with her inspired eye to unveil the mysteries of creation. Uneducated, she dictated in Latin; uninstructed, she wrote on natural history; unordained, she preached sermons even to popes.
All kinds of people wrote to her on all kinds of subjects, and she solved their difficulties, advised them in their perplexities, illumined their ignorance.
She has had imitators in all after ages – Antoinette Bourgignon, Joanna Southcott, Krüdner, and Madame Blavatski – but none achieved such success, exercised so wide an influence, was treated with so much submission.
The Emperor, the princes, the nobility, the clergy, the people all believed in her prophetic power, and accepted her commands without a murmur. Her warnings and promises were received as divine revelations, although she spared no one in her denunciations.
The cause for this unbounded respect has been a matter of dispute, but is still inexplicable. That she was a coarse deceiver, who imposed herself on the people as inspired, by a long-continued course of deception, cannot for a moment be allowed by such as without prejudice examine her writings and her conduct. She was made a tool of, and a willing tool, by Saint Bernard, to further the crusade he had at heart. But when, in spite of prophecy and promise, that crusade ended in hideous disaster and in dishonour as well, her influence with the people was not in the least shaken.
At the court of Count Meginhard of Spanheim lived the knight Hildebert of Böckelheim, his kinsman. Hildebert’s wife Mathilda bore him in 1098 a daughter, who was named Hildegarde, on their estate a little above Kreuznach on the Rhine. She was the tenth child, and her parents were no little concerned how to provide for such a fry. The simple expedient in those days was to send some of the family into monasteries and convents. From an early date Hildegarde was destined to be a nun. She, together with her kinswoman Chiltrude, the daughter of the count, were sent to be reared by Jutta, the abbess of Saint Disibod, a sister of Count Meginhard. Jutta was an uneducated woman; learning was of no account in her convent, and Hildegarde was brought up in ignorance of nearly everything that a young woman of good family ought to have acquired even in the twelfth century.
That Hildegarde was hysterical cannot be doubted, but hysteria is precisely the most mysterious of all ailments. The phenomena connected with it are the perplexity of physicians even at this day. Many and ponderous works have been written upon it in England, France especially, and Germany, but it remains still an unsolved puzzle.
From a very early age she saw visions, and when she spoke of them to her playfellows, and they stared at her and did not appear to comprehend what she said, she shrank into herself and refrained from communicating to others the things that she saw and heard, or fancied she saw and heard. Even at the age of five, this singular gift was noticed by her parents, who could not understand it. Jutta made the girl learn the Psalms in Latin, and she obtained some glimmer of an idea what the words meant, but she did not even acquire a knowledge of the alphabet, nor that of reading music.
Hildegarde was constantly unwell, but her aches and pains were apparently due to hysteria and nothing else, and the suppressed desire to be doing something, making her personality felt, which was impossible as she was situated. When, finally, she was bidden write down her visions, at once all her maladies left her.
“When, on one occasion, I was very much exhausted by my sickness,” says she in her own biography of herself, “I asked the nurse who attended me whether she saw things in any other way than with her eyes; she made me no answer. Then I was frightened, and I dared say no more about it to any one. But sometimes, inadvertently, when I was talking, I let slip prophetic sentences. And when I was, so to say, full of this inner vision, then I spoke much which was quite unintelligible to those about me. And when the force of the ecstasy grew, and I spoke something about it, more after the manner of a child than of a girl of my years, then I blushed and cried, and wished heartily that I had held my tongue. But out of dread of what would be said, I never dared to speak out openly as to what I saw. However (Jutta) the noble lady with whom I was had cognisance of this and consulted a monk of her acquaintance.”
To one in this condition, plenty of exercise, wholesome food, and hard work, and her head under the pump if she gave way to her fancies, would have been proper treatment. But in the twelfth century no one had any conception that hysteria was a physical disorder.
Jutta died in 1136, and by unanimous vote of the sisters Hildegarde was elected to be superior of the convent, when aged eight-and-thirty. She had now full opportunity to give way to her desire to take that prominent place to which she felt she was called. Two years, however, elapsed before she had made up her mind to write her visions and prophecies. There were difficulties in her way: she could not write, she knew nothing of grammar, and she was perhaps dubious how the world would accept revelations which were in shockingly bad grammar and spelling, and displayed profound ignorance of the real meaning of Scripture. However, she consulted one of the monks of the monastery of Saint Disibod, and he put the matter before the rest.
Now, as she was evidently sincere, and there could be no suspicion that Hildegarde was deceiving them, they had to decide whether these visions were from heaven or from hell. That there was a third alternative never for an instant occurred to them: it could not, in the nature of things, in the then condition of medical science, or rather ignorance. Manifestly there was nothing bad in these revelations, consequently the poor amiable monks were compelled to decide that they came from God.
The difficulty now arose how they were to be published. It was obviously impossible to issue to the world the farrago of grammatic blunders, and the confused nonsense of much that poured from her lips, and so she was given secretaries to write down in decent Latin what they supposed she meant to say. The Archbishop Henry of Mayence was called in before the decisive step was taken. He was an amiable, peace-loving, but feeble man, who was made archbishop in 1142. He gave his verdict in favour of the revelations.
Hildegarde says of herself: “In 1141, when I was forty-two years old and seven months, there came on me a dazzling light from heaven, and flashed through my brains and heart and bosom. It was like a flame that does not burn, but warms, just like a sunbeam. From thenceforth I had the gift of the interpretation of the Scriptures, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the books of the Old and New Testament. I had, however, no understanding of the several words of the text, as to their syllables and cases and tenses. When I have my visions – and I have had them from childhood – I am not asleep, nor feverish, nor am I necessarily in retirement, nor do I see with my bodily eyes, but with those of my soul.” Later she wrote: “I am always in a fear and tremble, as I have no certainty within me. But I lift up my hands to heaven, and allow myself to be blown about just like a feather in the wind.”
Her first book was called by her Scivias; which was her contraction for Disce vias Domini, “know the ways of the Lord.” Probably only the first part of it was sent to the Archbishop of Mayence, who gravely called his clergy into consultation over it. Then, when Pope Eugenius III came to Treves on his way to the Council of Rheims, he was shown it by the archbishop; he gave it to the Bishop of Verdun and other theologians to be examined. Afterwards, on their report, at the Council in 1148, he read it himself to the bishops there assembled, and it was received with applause.
S. Bernard was present, and he at once saw how much assistance he could get in promoting his darling object, a new crusade, if he could enlist Hildegarde in the cause; and he urged the pope to sanction and bless the prophetess. This Eugenius did in a letter, in which he accorded her his full permission to publish whatever was revealed to her. He could hardly do other. These writings were well intended, purported to do good, and that these visions and prophecies were the mere hallucinations of a diseased mind never could have been supposed at the time.
Hildegarde now shifted her quarters. Troops of women had come to place themselves under her direction, drawn by her fame. She settled on Saint Ruprechtsberg, near Bingen, where a suitable convent was erected for her.
But the good monks of Saint Disibod asked a favour of her which she could not refuse. They knew next to nothing about their founder, except that he was one of the many Irish who had left their native isle in the fifth century and had spread over Germany and Gaul. Would she through her prophetic power, which looked backwards as well as forwards, write them “by revelation” a life of their founder?
This she accordingly did, and the life she wrote was, she insists, given her “by revelation.” It is a long and tedious work, a gush of weak and watery verbiage. When reduced to its elementary constituents, it is found to consist of absolutely nothing more than what was already known – that Disibod came from Ireland, settled on the mount that bore his name afterwards, and died there. But this was distended into a tract of 6,250 words.
Hildegarde’s “Natural History” is a very funny book. She did not pretend to derive her knowledge of the property of things from inspiration, but there can be little doubt that, at the time when it was issued, those who regarded her prophecies as infallible, looked also on her enunciation of the properties of natural objects as inspired.
She begins the book by likening the world to a human body: the earth is the flesh, the rocks are the bones, the moisture of the stones is the marrow, the slate rocks are the toe and finger nails, the plants are the hair, and the dew is the perspiration. All plants are either hot or cold; so also are all animals. This is the radical division between them. The recipes given are profoundly silly. For a boil, house-flies are to be taken, their heads cut off, and they are to be arranged like herrings in a barrel round the swelling. A poultice is to cover all – but it is the flies that bring the gathering to a head. Here is one of the shortest of her botanical accounts – that of the meadow convolvulus. “The herb is cold, it has not great powers nor is it of much use. But if a man’s nails get scaly and crack, then let him grind up the convolvulus, mix with it a little quicksilver and lay it on his nails, tie a bit of rag round, and his nails will be lovely.”
Hildegarde wrote a commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict, another on the Athanasian Creed. She propounded difficult questions in Scripture, and solved them by her inner light, only making the difficulties greater, and always missing the simple meaning of a passage.
S. Hildegarde had her troubles. She did not get on very well with the Archbishops of Mayence. At the instigation of Saint Bernard she inflamed the minds of the people with a fever of zeal against the Saracens, and exhorted to a crusade. This resulted in a frightful massacre of Jews at Mayence, instigated by a monk named Badulf. The Archbishop Henry, a mild, amiable man, did what he could to protect the unfortunate Israelites, and opened to them his palace. But a papal legate appeared on the scene, and the Chapter induced him to depose the archbishop. He appealed to Rome, but the cardinals were bribed to declare against him. He had chosen his confidential friend, Arnold of Selnhofen, to take what money he could scrape together to Rome and plead his cause. Arnold made the most solemn assurances of fidelity, and betrayed his trust. He used the money entrusted to him to purchase the deposition of his friend and his own advancement.
The people of Mayence were greatly incensed against Arnold, who was thrust on them by the pope himself, without election by the Chapter, and was invested by the pope the same day on which the friend was degraded whom he had betrayed. On reaching Mayence Arnold did nothing to appease the popular resentment; his court was magnificent, his servants were splendidly liveried, and his table was noted for its luxury. Knowing what a power Hildegarde was in the diocese, he wrote a hypocritical, canting letter to her, beseeching her prayers. She replied with a sharp admonition: “The living Light saith unto thee, Thou hast a form of zeal only, which I hate. Cleanse restlessness from thy soul, and cease from doing injustice to thy people. Rise up and turn to the Lord, for the time cometh speedily.”
Seeing the ferment of men’s minds increase, Arnold resolved on leaving Bingen, where he then was, to go into his cathedral city and put down all resistance with a high hand. He purposed lodging the first night in the monastery of Saint James, outside the walls. Hildegarde warned him of his danger, but he would not listen. A friend, the abbot of Erbach, also cautioned him. “Bah!” scoffed the archbishop, “these Mainzers are dogs; they bark, but do not bite.” When Hildegarde heard this, she said, “The dogs have had their chains broken, and they will tear you to pieces.”
He scorned these warnings, and in June 1160 went to the monastery in which he had purposed to lodge. But he had rushed, unwittingly, into the jaws of the lion, for the abbot of Saint James was his most deadly enemy. The abbot at once sent tidings to the city that the archbishop was there. A mob poured out of the city gates. The archbishop, hearing the roar of their voices and the tramp of their feet, was paralysed with fear; the rioters entered the abbey, rushed upon him, and a butcher split his head with an axe. The dead body was dragged forth and cast into a ditch, where the peasant women, coming to market, pelted it with rotten eggs and bad cheese.
In 1150 Christian was archbishop, but he was in Italy. He was a man of arms, who loved fighting, and had no relish for the duties of his position. During his absence Hildegarde got into difficulties with the administrator of the see. A certain young man had been buried in the cemetery attached to her monastery who had incurred excommunication. An order was sent her to dig the body up and throw it out of consecrated ground. This she refused to do. She insisted that the young fellow had been absolved and had received the last sacraments, and she furnished a vision in which she had been forbidden to exhume the body. But the administrator did not repose such confidence in her visions as to submit. An interdict was laid on her convent, so that the sisters were forbidden to recite their offices and to have the sacraments administered there.
No priest in the diocese dared disobey, and the whole convent was struck with paralysis. Hildegarde wrote, but could obtain no concession. Then she appealed to the military bishop, who was in Italy. The administrator sent his account of the affair, and the interdict was renewed. So time passed. Hildegarde still obstinately, and rightly, refused to have the body dug up and cast to the dogs. She wrote again to the archbishop, and finally obtained a removal of the interdict. As she complained, there had been no investigation into the facts – it had been a party move of spite against herself.
Although in 1170 Hildegarde was aged seventy-two, her literary energy did not fail. She still composed treatises, and continued to write letters in answer to those she received, or to thunder against those persons whose conduct deserved reprobation. Her correspondence extended from Bremen and the Netherlands, to Rome, and even to Jerusalem. Her denunciations of abuses, corruptions in the Church, were outspoken, and she even prophesied the fall of the empire and a reformation in religion; but the condition of affairs both in the state and in Christendom were so bad, that it required but little foresight to tell that such could not possibly last without a convulsion.
Her style is not without a certain amount of rude eloquence, but is involved. Those who took down her words were clearly not always able to make out the drift of what she said; but, indeed, she herself probably could not wholly explain them. The words poured forth in a stream, rolling her ideas about in confusion, and she was impatient of her secretaries meddling over-much with her revelations and prophecies, lest they should make sense indeed, but at the expense of their genuine character.
She had one of those eager, restless minds, which at the present day would have made of her a platform oratress, a vehement writer in magazines, and a reformer on school and hospital boards: always vehement with purpose. Her activity, as already said, took several directions – that of exhortation to repentance and good works, that of deep theological research, and of Scriptural interpretation, that also of the study of Natural History. But she did more than that: she wrote hymns and composed melodies. She had never been taught musical science as then understood. That was no loss to her. Her airs are as rambling and incoherent as her prophecies.
She also pretended to speak in an unknown tongue, and to be able to interpret this language. The study of this pretended new language is suggestive and amusing. It has been taken in hand by Grimm, Pitra and Roth. It presents an amusing jumble of words German, Latin, and misunderstood Hebrew.
Hildegarde died at the age of eighty-two, in 1179. She has not been formally canonised; she is, however, inserted as a saint in the Roman kalendar on September 17th, the day of her death.