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Divine Power Made Perfect in Weakness:St. Hildegard on the Frail Sex

Divine Power Made Perfect in Weakness:

St. Hildegard on the Frail Sex

by Barbara Newman.
'Peace Weavers, Medieval Religious Women', vol 2 ed JA Nichols and Lillian Thomas Shank, Cistercian Publications 1987.

BARBARA NEWMAN (Ph.D. Yale) is known for her work on medieval religious culture and women's spirituality. She has been a Fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Alice Berline Kaplan Center for the Humanities at Northwestern.

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. St Paul to the Church of Corinth (1 Co 1:27-29)

But I—a poor woman, weak and frail from my infancy—have been compelled in a true and mysterious vision to write this letter. And lying in bed with a serious illness, I have written it by the command and assistance of God to present it to the prelates and masters who are sealed for God’s service, that in it they might see who and what they are ... And I heard a voice from heaven saying: Let no one despise these words, lest if anyone despise them, the vengeance of God fall upon him. St Hildegard to the Monks of Eberbach.(2)

When the Church of Corinth compelled St Paul to defend his apostolic claims, he took his stand on the unlikely grounds of foolishness and weakness, setting a precedent that has challenged Church leaders ever since. In two millennia of history, few have been able to echo his words more justly than St Hildegard, abbess of Bingen (1098-1179). But the boast is doubly paradoxical, for this famed visionary was richly endowed with what medievals called gifts of nature and fortune as well as grace. Born of a noble family at Bermersheim bei Alzey, she was offered to God as an oblate at the age of eight, grew up in the hermitage of Jutta of Sponheim near the flourishing monastery of St Disibod, and took her monastic vows ca. 1112-1115. (3) The hermitage meanwhile was growing into a full-fledged convent observing the benedictine Rule, and when Jutta died in 1136, the nuns elected Hildegard as abbess (magistra) in her place. Five years later, she received her prophetic call and embarked on the momentous public and literary career which was to continue for nearly four decades. By her death at the age of eighty-one, she had found time and energy to found two monasteries, undertake four extensive preaching tours,(4) and counsel an endless stream of visitors and pilgrims, as well as compose three major theological works, a scientific and medical encyclopedia, a liturgical song cycle, two saints’ lives, the first european morality play, and a vast correspondence. It is not easy to take her self-image as ‘a poor woman, weak and frail from infancy’ at face value.

Mindful of Paul’s example and of the need to be (or at any rate to seem) humble, monastic writers throughout the Middle Ages advertised their defects, whether of wisdom or holiness, learning or style. Thus, when St Hildegard’s prefaces remind readers of her physical frailty, her scanty education, and her unpolished Latin, she is taking her place in a long line of rhetorically humble monks.(5) Yet her protestations involve more than a mere ‘humility topos’. For one thing, she is telling the truth: her health was precarious, her schooling (though not her learning) meager, her prose untutored and rough. More to the point, however, Hildegard could lay claim to a more authentic ‘weakness’ than any of her fellow theologians, for a very simple reason. To be a woman in the twelfth-century Church was, among other things, to be foolish, weak, low, and despised in the world. To be a travelling female preacher, as Hildegard was, could indicate only one of two things: heretical folly, or else divine power made perfect in weakness.

An Effeminate Age

One of Hildegard's favorite self-designations is ego paupercula feminea forma: ‘I, a poor little figure of a woman’. Other self-deprecating labels—wretched, ignorant, feeble—slip in and out of this catch phrase.(6) Whenever she introduces herself with this formula, Hildegard will ascribe the work that follows not to herself but to God, ‘the living Light’, for obviously she—mere female that she is!—could not be expected to know anything herself. In this way the apologetic tag humbles the writer at the same time that it exalts her authority, while challenging the reader to transcend worldly standards and glorify God in his prophet.(7)Hildegard’s sex thus becomes her personal claim to that divine foolishness and weakness which is stronger and wiser than men.. And in this case, ‘men’ means not homines but viri, for Hildegard was keenly aware of her anomalous role as a woman. In fact, she saw her gender as an essential condition of her prophetic call which, like the Old Testament prophets, she interpreted in broadly historical terms.

The seer’s understanding of her mission rested not only on her spiritual experience, but also on the conviction that hers was a muliebre tempus, an ‘effeminate age’ in which men have grown so womanish that God must call women to do men’s work. Thus her first prophetic book, the Scivias (begun in 1141), opens with a divine injunction to the visionary. Although she is but a weak mortal, ‘ashes from ashes’, she is to proclaim the word of salvation, for the masters and doctors to whom it was entrusted have grown slack.

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 preserving the justice of God.... 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.(8)

Later in the same work, God speaking through the prophet again castigates priests for refusing either to preach or to practise what is right. But alongside the divine voice, we can hear the prophet’s anger at the misogynist attacks she must face: God tells her to declare his fiery work even though she is ‘trampled underfoot’ by the male sex ‘because of Eve’s transgression’.(9) While admitting the generic frailty of her sex, Hildegard refused to let men use either Eve’s feminine weakness or her own as an excuse to ignore their own moral and spiritual weakness. Time and again, she ascribed her prophetic calling to the laxity of male teachers and prelates. At one time, she complains, theologians used to expound the Bible with great zeal, but today their books are greeted with indifference: ‘nowadays the Catholic faith wavers and the Gospel limps among the peoples . . . and the food of life—the divine Scripture—has grown tepid’. Hence God must now reveal his mysteries through a chosen vessel who has never been taught by man.

In her autobiography, Hildegard even observes that her birth took place around 1100 in an age when Christian fervor had grown cool, clearly hinting that if the times were out of joint, it was she who had been born to set them right. (11) Ever since the reign of Henry IV, she writes elsewhere, society had been plunged ‘into feminine levity ... so that now to the scandal of men, women prophesy’.(12) (The seer’s plural may refer to herself and her protegée, Elisabeth of Schönau.) Only the scandal of female prophets will shock the Church into recognizing the greater scandal of men who can and should proclaim the Word, but will not. So to shame them into repentance, God has transformed a frail virgo into a thundering virago. One of Hildegard’s correspondents likened her to the ancient prophetess Deborah, who rose up to fill a similar vacuum: The strong men in Israel ceased and held their peace, until Deborah arose—arose as a mother in Israel’ (Jg 5-7 Vulg).(13)

In historical terms, then, Hildegard saw herself as a remedy divinely appointed for the ills of her times. An effeminate age calls for a feminine prophet, and an epoch of weakness for the weaker sex. When speaking of this muliebre tempus, Hildegard applies the epithet ‘female’ in a purely pejorative sense. By her showing, the Church of her day had grown soft, sensual, cowardly, and worldly—full of the vices misogynists would impute to women. Yet when she looked at her own feminine ‘weakness,’ this trait became ambivalent, for she found her physical, mental, and moral failings as a woman offset by a peculiar openness to God. Thus her reflections on womanhood and weakness, initially spurred by her prophetic call and the circumstances of her mission, gradually led her to deeper spiritual insights. The pauline paradox, with its special relevance to the feminine, sheds a new and sometimes surprising light on her own human shortcomings, the mystery of sexual difference, the ‘feminine’ qualities of inspiration and priesthood, and the saving weakness of the Incarnation itself. Some of her discoveries, though shaped by medieval notions of masculine and feminine which many would now question,(14)can still point the way for women who seek God in and through their own womanhood, instead of pursuing ‘equality’ through the attempted denial or obliteration of difference.

Thorns in the Flesh

Like St Paul, Hildegard had to admit that even the richest grace had yet to extirpate her own thorns in the flesh. Although her illumination had conferred a knowledge of divine mysteries, together with an awesome task, her limitations remained. The fire from heaven did not grant her miraculous healing, or proficiency in grammar, or cheery self-confidence. But while she could accept her ill health and her ignorance of letters as providential, she remained troubled by the diffidence, fear, and insecurity which she perceived as typically female faults. In a letter to Bernard of Clairvaux (1147), the first of her several hundred epistles, Hildegard called herself ‘wretched and more than wretched in the name of woman’ and contrasted her own fear with the abbot’s audacity: Two years ago I saw you in this vision as a man looking into the sun, not frightened but greatly daring; and I wept because I only blush and am timid’.(15) The seer’s second book, Liber vitae meritorum, portrays the vices of Desperatio and Tristitia saeculi (or in current parlance, depression and despondency) in feminine form (16) On the other hand, Hildegard tried to correlate the timiditas she attributed to women with the biblical virtue of timor Domini, ‘fear of the Lord’:

God created woman so that she might hold him in fear and fear her husband as well. Hence it is right for a woman always to be fearful (timida). For she is a house of wisdom, because things earthly and heavenly are perfected in her. On the one hand mankind is born through her, and on the other, good works appear in her with chaste modesty.... The reverent (timorata) woman gathers all the riches of good works and holy virtues into her bosom, never ceasing until she has fulfilled all that is good.(17)

Hildegard’s culture, of course, strongly encouraged women to behave timidly toward God and their husbands, so it is not surprising that she ascribed this proclivity in her sex to natural law. Moreover, her cloistered childhood and her precocious visions, which exposed her to ridicule as a girl, may help to account for her own fearful character.(18) Yet, after due allowance for psychology and culture, Hildegard maintained that the Creator gave woman a fearful nature not merely because she is subject to man, but because her own dignity deserves a respect which borders on awe. Woman is called to be a ‘house of wisdom’ (Pr 9:1) whether she elects the vocation of motherhood or of ‘chaste modesty’ (monasticism), hence she must venerate the one—divine or human—who fulfills and exalts her. What then is the difference between the timorata mulier whom the seer praises, and her own fears which she deplores? In modern terms, we might say that she faced the task of transforming neurotic or self-regarding fear into the reverent fear that becomes one in whom ‘heavenly things are perfected’. Her correspondent at Clairvaux would contrast the servile fear which is cast out by love with the chaste and filial fear which remains forever.(19)

Another of Hildegard’s frailties, according to her self-diagnosis as a physician, stemmed from her peculiar temperament. In medieval medicine, the four physical and psychological types known as complexions or temperaments (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic) were normally correlated with the elements of fire, air, water, and earth.(20) In addition, the ‘warm’ elements of fire and air were commonly regarded as masculine, the ‘cold’ pair of water and earth as feminine.(21) In her medical treatise Causae et curae, however, Hildegard presented a theory of humors and temperaments which differed considerably from the standard views. (22) For instance, she found a special affinity between the airy temperament and the nature of woman. God created Adam from the earth, earthy, for he was to till the earth and subdue it; ‘but Eve, taken from his marrow, was soft and possessed an airy mind and a keen, delicate life, for the weight of the earth did not oppress her’.(23) The female body needs to be airy—permeable and spacious—to accommodate children in the womb. (24) Eve, the first mother, ‘was made like the purest air, for as aether enfolds the inviolate stars, so she—inviolate, incorrupt, without pain—held the human race within her’.(25) Since the Fall, however, woman’s airy nature has caused problems. Hildegard writes that women are fenestrales et ventosae: their bodies are like windows which freely admit the stormy elements raging without.(26) In consequence, women are especially vulnerable to ailments provoked by the weather, making their health more fragile than that of men.

This theory would now be only an episode in the history of medicine, were it not for the subtle way Hildegard applied it to her spiritual life. She regarded her own nature as even more airy than most women’s, and to this defect of her constitution she ascribed the illness which had plagued her from childhood on.(27) Late in her life, however, she came to see a link between her troublesome temperament and her spiritual gifts. Her last great work, the Liber divinorum operum (completed in 1173), ends with an autobiographic passage in which the seer speaks of herself in the third person. The Holy Spirit has deigned to anoint her—a paupercula feminea forma— with the oil of his mercy, unlearned and feeble though she is. From infancy she has suffered constant pain, as if enmeshed in a net, and her visions themselves cause her great weariness. Moreover her ways are not those of other men; she is like an infant whose veins are not yet full of blood.

For she is a minister (officialis) inspired by the Holy Spirit, and she has a complexion of air. Therefore infirmity is driven into her from the air itself, the rain, the wind, and from every tempest, so that she can by no means enjoy any security of the flesh. Otherwise the inspiration of the Holy Spirit would not be able to dwell in her.(28)

In her old age, Hildegard speculated on the meaning of afflictions that hitherto she could only bear with patience. If the airy make-up of her body and spirit left her exposed to rheumatic fever, the Föhn, the demonic powers of the air,(29) and every other malaise, she knew that it also opened her to that heavenly breath which, like the wind, blows where it will. Her insight rose beyond the abstract recognition that ‘suffering builds character’ to a full and concrete self-knowledge which embraced body and spirit, human weakness and divine power at once. But eight centuries later, it is not easy to reconstruct—much less to explain—what she meant by certain physical expressions. In a celebrated letter to Guibert of Gembloux (1175), she remarked that her soul ‘rises up high in the vault of heaven and in the changing weather’ (in vicissititdinem diversi aeris) and spreads itself out over faraway peoples ‘according to the shifting clouds’.(30) Although her visions were far from ethereal, she hinted that her soul—like Eve’s body—somehow expanded to become as capacious as the heavens. Whatever Hildegard’s precise meaning, it is clear that the ‘airiness’ which gives other women the capacity for motherhood had in her become a capacity for God. Physical weakness was but the price that she, like any other fallen woman, had to pay.

Passivity and Prophecy

One of Hildegard’s most striking images for woman’s constitution occurs in the Causae et curae, where she compares a woman’s body to the frame of a lyre which is pierced to make room for the strings.(31) This same image, like the aeolian harp of the Romantics, served her as an emblem of prophetic inspiration. In another of her third-person epilogues she presents God speaking of his prophet as just such an instrument:

The person who has seen and revealed these things in writing lives and does not live; a woman of ashes, she perceives and does not perceive; and she reveals the marvels of God not by herself hut as one touched by them, just as a string touched by the harper sounds not by itself but by his touch.(32)

Using a comparable image, Hildegard reminded Elisabeth of Schönau that God’s elect are like wind instruments which remain mute until the divine musician sounds them. A trumpet does not sing with its own voice, but with the breath of Another: even so the prophet.(33)In several letters, Hildegard compared herself to a little feather (penna) soaring on the wings of the wind: she is nothing in herself but, uplifted by the Spirit, the penna is mightier than the sword!

What man can strive against that voice that thundered, mounting up on wings, and vanquished the abyss, resounding under cover of maternal freshness? And what wings of the wind can outrun that voice by their swiftness? Cannot this voice make a little feather fly so that no sword can prevail against that feather? (34)

The prophet felt herself to be essentially passive, sounding or soaring only when the divine breath touched her. Her sense of this irresistible, overpowering voice bears comparison with Abraham Heschel’s similar, though more synergistic view of the prophetic stance as ‘sympathy with God’.(35)

Hildegard was neither the first nor the last to see an analogy between this state and the attitude of a wife to her husband—though, to be sure, the analogy came easier to medieval minds than it does to modern. The common prejudice which views the passive role as demeaning and undignified, or at any rate inferior to the active, assumes the absence of this divine point of reference. If human activity seems so far superior to the passive and receptive state, it may be because the creature’s essential stance vis-à-vis the Creator is forgotten. But for Hildegard there was nothing shameful in a woman’s passivity, any more than it was shameful for the prophet to remain empty and still until the divine word resounded through her. Moreover, we tend nowadays to apply terms like active and passive—or strong and weak—to the human personality as a whole, so that it seems not only demeaning but downright false to characterize a woman’s entire being as weak and passive. But Hildegard and her contemporaries used such labels in a far earthier and more limited sense. When she wrote that ‘God joined man and woman, that is the strong and the weak, together in marriage’,(36) she was thinking primarily of sexual relations in which the roles are simply not reversible. What she envisioned was not a static hierarchy which relegates woman to the inferior place, but a dynamic union in which the woman’s potential for giving life will be actualized by the man. Woman’s emptiness and frailty are inseparable from her fertility and depth: ‘Although man has greater strength than woman, yet woman is a fountain of wisdom and a wellspring of deep joy, which man draws out to perfection.(37) When Eve was created, Hildegard writes, she gazed at Adam, ‘as a soul which longs for heavenly things stretches upward, for she set her hope in the man’.(38) Erotic love in women, as Hildegard saw it, is by nature aspiring and even adoring. We must also bear in mind that for medieval theologians, the natural outcome of every sexual union, were it not for the Fall, would have been conception. According to Hildegard’s physiology, woman’s physical weakness enhances her ability to conceive. Her fragility, to borrow aristotelian terms, is not sheer impotence but potency vis-à-vis act.

Overshadowed by the Most High

The woman who renounces marriage does not thereby renounce her feminine nature. The nun, in Hildegard’s eyes, is one who re-orients not only her affections but all the capacities of her being toward the heavenly Bridegroom.(39) In the process, she becomes spiritually what the Mother of God was physically—a woman so ‘overshadowed’ by the Holy Spirit that she becomes a vessel of the Word of God. One vision of the Scivias records an intimate dialogue between God and the seer—a device common in other prophetic books but rare in Hildegard’s—in which she expresses her own sense of unworthiness and terror. God reassures the prophet by reminding her of the Virgin’s childbearing: Mary too was a humble maiden, a paupercula, yet he made her the slayer of death.(40) She was indeed so humble that, despite the grace of her virginity, she meekly submitted to Joseph, ‘for if Mary had had no one to care for her, pride would easily have snatched her, as if she had not needed a husband to provide for her’.(41) Outward submission and obedience, even for the one woman without sin, were necessary to safeguard the humility which made her capable of bearing Christ. How much more, Hildegard implied, should a sinful woman let herself be overshadowed by her husband’s authority! (42) Far more important, however, was Mary’s poverty of spirit before God. When she received the angel’s message ‘that the High King wished to dwell in her chamber, she looked at the earth from which she was created and called herself the handmaid of God’,(43) and the power of the Most High overshadowed her.

Mary’s gesture, admitting her own earthiness at the moment of her election, is one which can and must be imitated by all of God’s chosen. Hildegard consciously thought of herself, and of all the prophets, as ‘overshadowed ones’ whose own darkness was both exposed and illumined by the divine light. A revealing text from the Liber divinorum operum plays richly on the word ‘shadow’ (umbra), which can also denote reflections in a mirror. For the same heavenly light which overshadowed the prophets (and the Virgin) is metaphysically the light of divine Wisdom, which in Hildegard’s vision appeared as a luminous fountain reflecting and foreshadowing all creation. In it the archetypes of all creatures—their platonic ideas, as it were—shine resplendent in the mind of God. (44) In a different metaphor, this light becomes the divine creative voice which utters forth the whole world, as well as the specific oracles revealed through the prophets—of whom Hildegard is one. Thus the divine voice proclaims:

My glory overshadowed the prophets, who by holy inspiration predicted things to come, as all that God wished to make was foreshadowed in him before it came to he. When reason utters its voice, the sound is like thought and the word like a work. From this ‘shadow’ issued the book Scivias, through the form of a woman who was but a shadow of strength and health, for these vital forces were not active in her. (45)

The bright shadow of revelation—what Hildegard would later call ‘the reflection of the living Light’—fell on the prophet’s own shadowy figure as the voice of divine reason empowered her weakness. And like Mary in her vignette of the annunciation, she paused for a metaphorical glance at the earth from which she was made. Thus the seer deliberately imitated the Virgin Mother, for the new prophetic book revealed ‘through the form of a woman’ embodied an utterance of the divine voice, a lesser incarnation of the Word. Unlike Mary, however, the prophet must acknowledge the imperfection of what she has conceived, even though the conception is from God. In one of her unpublished letters, she warned that even when the living Light inspires some human soul, the prophet may fall into pride or vainglory and thence into delusion, ‘so let what proceeds from truth be heard, and what from lying be removed’.(46) In practice, Hildegard vehemently resisted any attempt to tamper with her visions.(47) But in theory, she admitted that even in the inspired words of prophets the stamp of human weakness remains.

Woman and the Humanity of Christ

The mystery of divine power perfected in weakness, with the feminine coloring that Hildegard gave it, enabled her to relate the fact of sexual difference to the Incarnation in unexpected ways. While discussing the creation of man and woman, she explains how Eve was both complementary and subordinate to Adam, observing that neither sex could exist without the other, and then adds: ‘Man also signifies the divinity of the Son of God, and woman his humanity’.(48) At first glance, this analogy seems either misogynist or absurd. Christ was, after all, male, so how can his humanity be specifically symbolized by woman? Or was Hildegard using this comparison as yet another excuse to belabor woman’s inferiority? But to notice only the hierarchical ranking of the sexes would be to miss the truly radical anthropology that her statement implies. If woman truly signifies the humanity of God, then the female—not the male—is representative Man: femina capax Dei. But given the priority of Adam and the masculinity of Christ, what can this mean? Several answers are possible. In the first place, Christ received his humanity from a woman without the help of man; in the second place, he remains humanly present and incarnate in the Church, which is signified under a feminine form as the Bride of Christ. It is more likely, however, that when Hildegard spoke of the humanity of Christ she referred primarily to his weak, suffering flesh; and she could not help but associate this weakness with the feminine.(49) But this is a weakness which redeems that of the first woman, for ‘God himself had created man strong and woman weak, and her weakness gave rise to her fault. Likewise divinity is strong, but the flesh of the Son of God is weak, yet through it the world is restored to its former life.’(50) Hildegard is here replacing the traditional contrast of two women— Eve and Mary—with a contrast between two kinds of frailty. The weakness of Eve put the strong man Adam to shame, but the weakness of Mary’s Son confounded the ‘strong man’ Satan. Death came through the frailty of a woman, and life through the frailty of God—but even in this case, the name of frailty is Woman.

What is more, Hildegard wanted to see the weakness of Eve not only as the cause of her fall, but also as a providential circumstance which lightened her guilt. She even speculated that if Adam had fallen before Eve, the man’s stronger character would have hardened him in sin so far that repentance and forgiveness would have been out of the question. But Eve, being softer and weaker, could more easily repent just as she was more easily seduced in the first place.(51) Just as the seer’s own airy complexion made her more vulnerable both to illness and to inspiration, Eve’s weakness made her more susceptible to sin as well as to grace. Once more, the pauline paradox illumines the ambiguous mystery of the feminine. It is this ambiguity, this frailty at once so perilous and tender, that Hildegard wanted in the last analysis to identify with human (and sometimes all too human) nature.

The Feminine Divine

Insofar as woman signifies the humanity of Christ, she also signifies the Incarnation itself as a theological mystery—in Hildegard’s terms, the ‘eternal counsel’ by which God willed to become man (Ps 33:11). Like several twelfth-century theologians, she believed in the absolute predestination of Christ, a doctrine which asserts that God created the world and man because it pleased him to be incarnate, regardless of Adam’s sin.(52) In Hildegard’s visions, Christ’s predestined coming in the flesh is represented by radiant female figures—Sapientia, Caritas, Ecclesia—inspired at several removes by the feminine persona of Wisdom in the Old Testament.(53) Such visionary forms signify the incarnate Word not as an historical fact, but as the eternal plan of God’s loving providence. In these theophanies, the feminine form still signifies the humanity of God, but now as ‘the mystery hidden for ages in God ... as a plan for the fulness of time’ (Eph 3:9, 1:10). Here there is no longer any place for human weakness, except insofar as God has foreseen and provided for it. Yet the visions still reveal that weakness of God which is stronger than men: God’s weakness is his tender mercy, his forbearance, his love for men restraining his dread judgment.

In Hildegard’s first vision of the feminine Divine, she beheld a radiant woman adored by suppliant angels. A voice from heaven identified her as Scientia Dei, the Knowledge of God:

She is awesome in terror as the Thunderer’s lightning, and gentle in goodness as the sunshine. In her terror and her gentleness, she is incomprehensible to men, because of the dread radiance of divinity in her face and the brightness which dwells in her as the robe of her beauty.... For she iswith all and in all, and of beauty so great in her mystery that none could comprehend how sweetly she bears with men, and how she spares them with inscrutable mercy.(54)

To ‘see’ the figure of Scientia Dei, as Hildegard did in this vision, meant also to see how she is known by God, for it is this operation of grace which mediates self-knowledge to sinners. The frightened visionary, who was at first overcome by fear and trembling, found herself able to endure the revelation only when it was mitigated by feminine sweetness. For to her sensibility, the form of woman conveyed both the awesome beauty of divine things and the saving restraint—the 'veiled’ quality—that makes epiphanies bearable. In a later vision, she saw divine Wisdom as a female figure of dazzling yet tempered splendor, ‘for divinity is terrible and mild to every creature’.(55) The figure stands with hands folded reverently before her breast to signify that Wisdom prudently reined in her power, as if ‘ordering all things mightily and sweetly’ (Ws 8:1), and her feet lie hidden from view because her secrets are manifest to God alone. Out of consideration for human frailty, the Majesty of heaven shows itself discreet and reserved in feminea forma, yet even so the vision ‘is radiant with such brightness that it bedazzles the gaze of mortal minds’.

In one of her most lyrical visions, Hildegard witnesses to a kind of annunciation in heaven as divine Caritas—the eternal archetype of the Mother of God—proclaims the Incarnation to come. She appears as a virgin arrayed in cosmic glory:

And I saw one like a lovely maiden, her face gleaming with such radiant splendor that I could not perfectly behold her. Whiter than snow was her mantle and more shining than the stars, and her shoes were of the finest gold. In her right hand she held the sun and the moon and tenderly embraced them. On her breast was an ivory tablet in which there appeared the form of a man, the color of sapphire; and all creation called this maiden Lady. But she spoke to the form which appeared in her bosom, saying: ‘With you is the beginning in the day of your power, in the splendor of the holy ones; I bore you from the womb before the morning star.’ (Ps 109:3 Vulgate)

And I heard a voice saying to me: ‘This maiden whom you see is Love, who has her dwelling place in eternity. When God wished to create the world, he leaned down in the tenderest love and provided all that was needful, as a father prepares an inheritance for his son.(56)

Allusions to fatherhood and motherhood blend as Caritas, a female persona, utters a psalm verse often used to invoke the Father’s eternal generation of the Son.(57) This same verse, however, had acquired marian connotations through the liturgy; in the Office it occurs as an antiphon for Christmas and Candlemas, celebrating Christ’s birth in time.(58) Thus the virgin mother Caritas mediates between the eternal and the temporal birth of the Son. Reminiscent of both God the Father and the Virgin Mary, she is identical with neither, for she is an epiphany of that primordial humanity of God predestined ‘from before the foundation of the world’.

Priesthood and the Mother of Mercy

Another aspect of God’s humaneness—or as Hildegard would have it, femininity—emerges when she speaks of penance and mercy. The virtue of Misericordia, or divine grace redeeming sinners, appeared to the seer dressed in a white veil (like Hildegard’s nuns) because:

>Mercy, in the person of a woman, is a most fruitful mother of souls snatched from perdition. For as a woman covers her head, so Mercy subdues the death of souls. And as woman is sweeter than man, so Mercy is sweeter than the fury of crimes raging in a sinner’s madness before his heart has been visited by God. This same virtue appears in the form of a woman because the sweetest Mercy arose in feminine chastity, in the body of Mary.(59)

The beloved marian title Mater misericordiae led Hildegard to reflect on the maternal tenderness of God. Like a merciful woman he will soften and sweeten, instead of condemning, the heart embittered by sin; and this yielding quality evokes a similar response in the soul. For when God created male and female in his image, Hildegard remarks, he extended this dual likeness to the soul as well as the body. The male designates strength, courage, and justice in the inward man, while the female denotes mercy, penance, and grace.(60)

Obviously, both men and women seek active virtue as well as repentance and forgiveness, so this notion of a bisexual imago Dei in the soul anticipates our current interest in counter-sexual elements of the psyche (61) While Hildegard was not recommending androgyny, she did strongly urge each sex to cultivate the spiritual gifts of the other. She was herself praised for possessing ‘a masculine mind in a female body’—a familiar topos of praise for women, although her own opinion of herself was quite different.(62) Yet she too exhorted women to strive for the masculine virtues of constancy, vigor in pursuing the good and valor in resisting evil. On the other hand, she insisted no less that men, and especially priests, must imitate the feminine grace of God.(63) In a letter to Pope Eugenius III (1153), she begged the pontiff to judge an erring bishop ‘in keeping with the motherly heart (viscera) of God’s mercy’, because ‘God desires mercy rather than sacrifice’ (Mt 9:13).(64) Alardus, abbot of St Martin in Cologne, was advised to teach his monks with maternal tenderness instead of strident words, that they may open their mouths to receive bread instead of thistles.(65) And pastors were to realize that their flocks will be spiritually weakened unless they are allowed to suck ‘the breasts of maternal mercy’.(66) Although Hildegard would have been the last to encourage tolerance of sin, she wanted confessors to show the feminine ‘weakness’ not of laxity but of compassion, as St Paul demanded: ‘who is weak, and I am not weak?’ (2 Co 11:29). In this way too they will reveal the humanity of the Son of God.

Even at the altar, Hildegard would have the priest assume a feminine role vis-à-vis God. It is striking that, in an age which witnessed a growing emphasis on the priest’s unique power to ‘confect the sacrament’, Hildegard offered primarily feminine role models for the celebrant. Like Ecclesia in medieval paintings of the Crucifixion, the priest stands beside the cross to catch Christ’s blood in a chalice and proffer it to the faithful.(67) Or like the handmaid of God, he offers his humble consent to the miracle:

When the priest repeats the words of God, the body of the incarnate Word of God is again confected. Through that Word all creatures, which formerly had not appeared, came into being; and the same Word was incarnate of the Virgin Mary as in the twinkling of an eye, when she said with humility: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’. And the flesh of the selfsame Word of God blossoms forth at the words of the priest.(68)

Thus every Eucharist re-presents not only Christ’s passion and resurrection, but also the incarnation of the Word, with the priest as it were impersonating the Mother of God. Hildegard even used the same metaphor of ‘overshadowing’ for the Virgin Annunciate and the consecrated gifts. As the Holy Spirit once brooded over the Virgin’s womb, like a great mother bird, so; now it spreads its wings over the offering until the chick hatches and flies to heaven, leaving only a shell (the visible forms of bread and wine) beneath.(69) But why should Hildegard compare the words of institution, which are Christ’s own, with Mary’s Ecce ancilla domini? Parallels between the annunciation and the Eucharist remind the faithful sharply that it is not human power which commands God to descend, but human weakness which receives his coming. The priest is no miracle-worker, but only a servant like Mary consenting to the miracles of God.(70) At the most sacred moments of her life, the Bride of Christ is most feminine, and Hildegard would not let even the gregorian reform obscure this knowledge.

Women in Love

Nowhere is divine power perfected in weakness more plainly than in the martyrs. Not surprisingly, Hildegard showed a special reverence for those women who had offered God the double sacrifice of virginity and martyrdom. Together with Elisabeth of Schönau, she honored the legendary St Ursula whose ‘relics’, along with those of the eleven thousand virgins supposedly martyred with her, had recently been unearthed near Cologne.(71) In all likelihood this saint never existed, but in any case Hildegard cared less for the ostensible facts of her life than for her role as a type of the heroic virgin Ecclesia. One of the seer’s most carefully crafted hymns, addressed to Ursula, begins by juxtaposing Ecclesia as the Bride of Solomon—a figure of more-than-human stature—with the sainted virgin. Ursula herself is portrayed as an innocent girl who (much like Hildegard) fell in love with Christ upon seeing him in a vision and forthwith renounced marriage and the world, desiring to join her Beloved at the heavenly wedding feast.

In a vision of true faith
Ursula fell in love with the Son of God
and renounced her betrothed along with this world,
and gazed into the sun, and called to the loveliest youth, saying:

In great desire I have desired to come to you and sit with you
at the heavenly wedding feast,
running to you by a strange path
as a cloud streams like sapphire in the purest air.’

And after Ursula had so spoken,
the report of it spread through all nations
and they said,
How naive the girl is!
She does not know what she is saying.’ (72)

Thereupon the devil and his chorus of scoffers begin to mock the girl, until at last the ‘fiery burden’ of martyrdom falls upon her. But as she and her companions perish, their blood cries out to heaven and all the elements join with the.angels in a symphony of praise:

Let all the heavens hear this
and praise God’s Lamb in lofty chorus—
for the throat of the ancient serpent
is choked by these pearls strung upon the Word of God. (73)

In a startling metamorphosis, the host of virgins have become a necklace of pearls to choke the devil: the seed of the woman crushes the serpent’s head (Gn 3:15). Thus the cosmic victory of the Church has been entrusted to a troupe of fragile girls who appear in the world’s eyes as so many lovesick adolescents. This triumphant hymn, honoring the power of weakness and the wisdom of folly, brings us full circle to Hildegard’s own self-image; for surely in Ursula’s faithfulness to her visionary Bridegroom, despite her ‘girlish ignorance’ and despite mockery and murder, the seer of Bingen found a model for her own unlikely mission.

On balance, Hildegard’s theology of the feminine—as expressed in her own spiritual life as well as her teaching—is both radical and conservative. Her assumptions about the nature of man and woman, whether we choose to call them stereotypes or archetypes, belong to the conventional wisdom of her age (and of other ages before and after). Yet the conclusions she drew from them were by no means commonplace, especially when she turned to the mysteries of Christ and the eternal Wisdom. She was the first theologian to reflect at length on the meaning of womanhood, considered not abstractly but from the incomparable depth of her experience. But great as her achievement was, in this respect her influence was slight; centuries were to pass before the Church would resume the task she had begun. Her activity in the public sphere, on the other hand, would be emulated by scores of charismatic women in the later Middle Ages. Yet here too, Hildegard reveals this same blend of respect for tradition and radical novelty. Perhaps no one has summed up her attitude—reserved, ever mindful of her frailty, yet finally and triumphantly free—better than the friend and secretary of her last years, Guibert of Gembloux. To justify the seer in view of her inevitable detractors, the Flemish monk writes:

The Apostle does not permit a woman to teach in the Church. But this woman is exempt from this condition because she has received the Spirit, and with a heart instructed in wisdom by his teaching, she has learned through her own experience what is written: ‘Blessed is the man whom you have instructed, O Lord, and out of your law you have taught him’ (Ps 94:12). And she may be unskilled in speaking, yet not in knowledge, for by her wholesome teaching she instructs many, pouring forth abundantly as if from two breasts the milk of consolation for the young and the wine of correction for those who are stronger.

But although the anointing of the Spirit, like a school-mistress, teaches her all things inwardly and bids her, as it is told in her writings, to offer confidently in public what it has taught her in secret so as to instruct her hearers, she is nonetheless mindful of her own sex and condition, and especially of the aforesaid prohibition. Yet she obeys the Spirit, not him whom the Spirit sends. . .

Likewise the Apostle commands women to veil their heads, partly for decency’s sake and partly to commend a certain just submission. But this woman is free, not indeed from every law, but at least from the one which orders brides to wear veils. For she has transcended female subjection by a lofty height and is equal to the eminence, not of just any men, but of the very highest. Beholding the glory of the Lord with unveiled face, she is being transformed into the selfsame image as by the Spirit of the Lord, from glory into glory.(74)


1. The themes of this essay are treated more fully, in their historical context, in the author’s Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley, 1987).

2. Ep. 51; PL 197:268C. All translations are mine.

3. The chief source for Hildegard’s life is her Vita by the monks Gottfried of St Disibod and Dieter of Echternach (PL 197:91-130), trans. Adelgundis Fuhrkotter, Das Leben der hi. Hildegard van Bingen (Dusseldorf, 1968). A useful short biography is Kent Kraft, ‘Hildegard of Bingen’, in Katharina Wilson, ed., Medieval Women Writ-ers (Athens, Georgia, 1984) 109-23.

4. Between 1158 and 1159 Hildegard travelled along the Main, preaching at monastic communities in Mainz, Wertheim, Wurzburg, Kitzingen, Ebrach, and Bamberg. Her second trip in 1160 took her to Metz, Krauftal, ana Trier, where she preached publicly. Within the next three years she visited Boppard, Andernach, Siegburg, and Werden, addressing clergy and people together at Cologne. After 1170 she undertook her fourth and final journey in Swabia, preaching at Roden-kirchen, Maulbronn, Hirsau, Kirchheim, and Zwiefalten.

5. See Ernst Curtius, ‘Devotional Formula and Humility’, in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard Trask (Princeton, 1953) 407-13.

6. For examples see Ep. 1 (PL 197:145C), Ep. 7 (159A), En. 51 (264D); Regulae S. Benedicti Explanatio (1055A); Explanatio Symboli Sancti Athanasii (1078Q; Liber divinorum operum Prol. (742A) and III. 10.38 (1037C); VitaeS. Disibodi Prooemium 8, ed. J.-B. Pitra, Analecta Sacra 8 (Monte Cassino, 1882) 357. This edition will henceforth be designated ‘Pitra’.

7. Such inversion of standards is a commonplace of biblical prophecy; cf. Jr 1:6-7, Dn 10:16, Am 7:14-15.

8. Scivias I.I; ed. A. Fuhrkotter, CCcm 43-43A (Turnhout: 1978) 8.

9. Scivias II. 1; Fuhrkotter, p. 112.

10. Scivias III. 11.18; Fuhrkotter, p. 586.

11. Vita 11.16; PL 197:102CD. Portions of the Vita, narrated in the first person, comprise Hildegard’s memoirs as dictated to her secretary and biographer, Gottfried.

12. ‘Ein unveroffentlichtes Hildegard Fragment’, IV.28; ed. Heinnch Schipperges, Sudboffs Arcbiv fur Geschicte der Medizin 40 (1956) 71. Cf. Ep. 49; PL 197:254CD. 13 Ep. 75; PL 197:297C. Cf. Vita 11.24; PL 197:108C.

14. Conventional views of male and female character are encapsulated in the oft repeated derivations of vir from virtus or vis (strength) and mulier from mollities (softness); see Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae XI.2.17-18 (PL 82:417A). Two concise reviews of sexual stereotyping in the Middle Ages are Marie-Therese d’Alverny, ‘Comment les theologiens et les philosophies voient la femme’, in La Femme dans les civilisations da Xe-XIIP siecles (Poitiers: 1977), 15-40; and Vern Bullough, ‘Medieval Medical and Scientific Views of Women’, Viator 4 (1973) 485-501.

15. Ep. 29; PL 197:190AB. For a corrected text of this letter see M. Schrader and A. Fuhrkotter, Die Ecbtbeit des Schrifttums der bl. Hildegard van Bingen (Cologne-Graz: 1956) 105-108.

16. Uber vitae meritorum III.50, V.48; Pitra, pp. 125, 202.

17. Liber vitae meritorum 1.96; Pitra, p. 44.

18. Vita 11.16; PL 197:103AB.

19. Bernard of Clairvaux, Liber de diligendo Deo XIV.38 (ET The Book on Loving God, CF 13:130).

20. A standard humoral chart can be found in Isidore of Seville, De natura rerum 11; PL 83:981-82.

21. ‘Scientists call these two elements [fire and air] masculine, hut water and earth feminine. For the former lie above, the latter below; the former are active, the latter passive.’ Alberic of London (‘Third Vatican Mythographer’), ed. G. H. Bode, Scrip-tores rerum mytbicarum latini tres, I (Cellae, 1834) 163. Cf Thierry of Chartres, De sex dierum operibus, ed. N. M. Haring, Commentaries on Boetbius (Toronto, 1971) 562; and William of Conches, De philosophia mundi 1.23 (PL 172:56): ‘the warmest woman is colder than the coldest man’.

22. See R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky and F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy (London, 1964) 110-11; H. Schipperges, ‘Menschenkunde und Heikunst bei Hildegard von Bingen’, in Anton Bruck, ed., Hildegard von Bingen, 1179-1979. Festschrift zum 800. Todestag der Heiligen (Mainz, 1979) 295-310.

23. Causae et curae, ed. Paul Kaiser (Leipzig: Teubner, 1903) 46. On this general subject see Bernhard Scholz, ‘Hildegard von Bingen on the Nature of Woman’, American Benedictine Review 31 (1980) 361-83.

24. Causae et curae, p. 59.

25. Ibid., p. 104.

26. Ibid., p. 105.

27. For the alternative theory that Hildegard saw herself as a melancholic woman, see Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (+203) to Marguerite Porete (+1310), (Cambridge, 1984) 181-82. Although the airy temperament was normally regarded as sanguine rather than melancholic, such an anomaly will not surprise readers familiar with Hildegard’s originality.

28. Liber divinorum operum III.10.38; PL 197:1038A; Gent Universiteitsbiblio-thek Ms Cod. 241, ff. 391-92.

29. Vita 11.27; PL 197:109-10. For evil spirits as ‘powers of the air’, cf. Eph 2.2.

30. Ep 2; Pitra, p. 332

31. Causae et curae, p. 105.

32. Liber vitae meritorum VI.68; Pitra, p. 244. For the textual correction vivit for vidit, I am indebted to Dronke, Medieval Women Writers, p. 308, no. 38.

33.Ep45; PL 197:217D.

34. Ep 34; Pitra, p. 520. Cf. Ep 77 (Pitra p. 540), Ep 1 (PL 197:1468), Ep 58 (PL 197:277BC).

35. A. Heschel, The Prophets (New York, 1962).

36. Scivias II.6.78; Fuhrkotter, pp. 291-92.

37. Ep 13; PL 197:1678.

38. Causae et curae, p. 136.

39. Ep 141 (PL 197:372B): ‘For she must remain such as Eve was before God presented her to Adam, because then she looked not to Adam but to God’. Cf. Ep 116 (PL 197:337D-338A): The virgin ‘stands in the simplicity and the beautiful wholeness of Paradise which will never fade, but remain forever green . . . Virgins are wedded in the Holy Spirit to holiness and the dawn of virginity; therefore it befits them to come to the High Priest as a whole burnt offering consecrated to God.’

40. Scivias III. 1; Fuhrkotter, p. 330. Cf. Scivias I. 2.33, p. 37.

41. In vigilia nativitatis Domini, Expositiones Evangeliorum 1; Pitra, p. 245. The notion that virginity without humility is of little worth was a commonplace: cf. Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmos 75.16 (CCSL 39: 1049); Bernard of Clairvaux, Homilia super Missus est 1.8, (SBOp 4:20); Rupert of Deutz, Commentariorum in Apocalypsim 2.3 (PL 169:900D).

42. Nonetheless, the prophet herself had no qualms about obeying God in defiance of her superiors. She successfully fought her abbot’s resistance to her move from St Disibod to Bingen (1150), and at the end of her life defied a bishop’s interdict (1178) in order to avoid desecrating a grave.

43. Liber divinorum operum 1.1.17; PL 197:750CD.

44. Ibid. III.8.2 (PL 197:981A): ‘The purity of the living God is indeed a leaping fountain, resplendent with his glory. In that splendor, God with great love embraces all things whose reflections appeared in the leaping fountain before he bade them come forth in their own forms.’ For instances of this widespread Christian Platonism cf. Augustine, Tractatus in Joannem 2.1.16 (PL 35:1387); Eriugena, De divisione naturae 3.16 (PL 122: 667A); Honorius, Liber XII Quaestionum 1 (PL 172:1178C); Rupert of Deutz, De Sanaa Trinitate, In Genesim 1.5 (CCcm 21:132-33).

45. Liber divinorum operum III 8.2; PI. 197:979D-980B.

46. Berlin MS Lat. qu. 674, ed. and trans. Dronke, Women Writers, pp. 185 and 256-57.

47. See Ep 29.25-27 (Pitra pp. 431-33) for Hildegard’s heated argument with her secretary Guibert of Gembloux over his desire to rewrite her works in a more urbane and elegant Latin.

48. Liber Divinorum operum 1.4.100; PL 197:885C. On this theme, see Caroline Bynum, ‘". . .And Woman His Humanity": Female Imagery in the Religious Writing of the Later Middle Ages’, Gender and Religion. On The Complexity of Symbols, edd. Caroline Bynum, Steven Harrell, and Paula Richman (Boston, 1986).

49. Cf. Elisabeth of Schonau’s vision of a sorrowing woman clothed with the sun, identified as ‘the sacred humanity of the Lord Jesus’. Liber visionum III.4; ed. F. W. E. Roth, Die Visionen der hl. Elisabeth (Brunn, 1884) 60-62

50. Liber vitae meritorum IV.32; Pitra, p. 158.

51. Causae et curae, p. 47. Cf. Scivias 1.2.10; Fuhrkotter, p. 19.

52. For this doctrine cf. Honorius, Libellus VIII quaestionum (PL 172: 1187C), Rupert of Deutz, De gloria et honore Filii hominis, super Mattaeum 13 (CCcm 29:415), Glossa Ordinaria, Si 24:14 (PL 113:1208D).

53. See especially Pr 8:1-9:6, Si 24, and Ws 6:24-8:1. A fine study of these texts is Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (London, 1972) Ch. 9.

54. Scivias III.4.15; Fuhrkotter, p. 401.

55. Ibid. III.9.25; Fuhrkotter, p. 538-39. Hildegard anticipates Rudolf Otto’s famous definition of the Holy as tremendum et fascinosum.

56. Ep 30; PL 197:192D-193A.

57. Ambrose, De fide 4.8 (PL 16:634) is one example among many.

58. Georges Frenaud, ‘Le Culte de Notre Dame dans I’ancienrie Liturgie latine’, in Maria, VI, ed. Hubert du Manoir (Paris, 1961) 193, 198.

59. Scivias III.3.8; Fuhrkotter, p. 380.

60. Liber divinorum operum II.5.46; PL 197:952A

61. For a recent Jungian treatment of this theme, sensitive to the nuances of spiritual life, see Ann Belford Ulanov, Receiving Woman: Studies in the Psychology and Theology of the Feminine (Philadelphia: 1981).

62. Ep 136; PL 197:363D. Cf. Ep 84; PL 197:305CD.

63. This theme is also extremely common in cistercian writers. See Caroline Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: 1982) Part IV.

122 Notes: Barbara Newman

64. Ep 1; PL 197:148B. For a corrected text see Schrader and Fuhrkotter. Ecbtbeit. p. 114.

65. Ep41; PL 197:208D.

66. Ep 83; ed. Francis Haug, ‘Epistolae S. Hildegardis secundum codicem Stutt-gartensem’, Revue benedictine 43 (1931) 67.

67. Cf. the lost Rupertsberg MS illustration of Scivias II.6, repr. in Fuhrkotter, plate 15.

68. Ep 47; PL 197:225B. Cf. Scivias II.6.15; Fuhrkdtter, p. 244.

69. Scivias II.6.36; Fuhrkotter, pp. 264-65. Cf. Ep 47; PL 197:238B. Parallels between the annunciation and the Eucharistic consecration are common in Eastern liturgies; see John of Damascus, De orthodoxa fide IV. 13 (PG 94:1141 A, 1145A). For Western analogues cf. Ambrose, De mysteriis 9.53 (CSEL 73:112); Paschasius Rad-bertus, De corpore et sanguine Domini 3 (CCcm 16:27).

70. For Mary as priest cf. Ernaldus of Bonneval, De laudibus beatae Mariae, PL 189:1727A; Elisabeth of Schonau, Liber visionum 1.5, ed. Roth, p. 6.

71. Cf. Liber revelationum Elisabeth de sacro exercitu virginum Coloniensium, ed. Roth, pp. 123-38; Guy de Tervarent, La Iegende de Ste. Ursule dans la litterature et /’art du Moyen- age (Paris: 1931).

72. ‘De Undecim Milibus Virginibus’, ed. P. Barth, M.-I. Ritscher, and J. Schmidt-Gorg, Hildegard van Bingen: Lieder (Salzburg, 1969), No. 54, pp. 270-72.

73. Ibid. ‘Hoc audiant omnes caeli/ et in summa symphonia laudent Agnum Dei,/ quia guttur serpentis antiqui in istis margaritis/ materiae Verbi Dei suffocatum est.’

74. Guibert of Gembloux, Ep 16; ed. Pitra, p. 386.

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