Academic journal article Magistra

Textualizing and Contextualizing Hildegard's Body in Theoderic's Vita

Academic journal article Magistra

Textualizing and Contextualizing Hildegard's Body in Theoderic's Vita

Article excerpt

The myriad of voices present in the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis document its uncertain and unlikely composition as part of the initial canonization procedures undertaken in the early thirteenth century. Although the text is unique in its incorporation of autobiographical material, Barbara Newman argues that one cannot consider the Vita a fair representation of women's writing because of its "collective authorship."(59) Hildegard's visions and self-reflections serve as the heart of the text, but they have been edited, organized, and glossed by the commentaries of three male biographers: Gottfried of St. Disibod, Guibert of Gembloux, and Theoderic of Echternach. This examination of the Vita attempts to account for this structural innovation as a rhetorical strategy employed by Hildegard's hagiographers to circumvent direct claims to editorial authority.

Since the Vita's destiny as official documentation mandates what is and what is not excised from its final structure, conspicuous absences of significant data, such as detailed accounts of Richardis of Stade's defection and the papal interdict placed upon Hildegard's abbey, suggest that the text promotes a political agenda in direct opposition to that of true biography. One must assume that these absences are not editorial oversights, but deliberate omissions and glosses designed to further the agenda of the editors' patrons. That agenda seems to have been to promote Hildegard as saint while retrospectively sanitizing ecclesiastical error by paradoxically designating Hildegard's suffering as both evidence of her misguided agency and a sign of her divine election.

Divested of her bold wit and aristocratic values, the Hildegard of the Vita is a carefully edited, sanitized, and reconstructed image of people's saint. Although Hildegard's confrontations with authority ultimately promote her as a model of sanctity, this fame through notoriety threatens the authority of Hildegard's superiors. For instance, if one accepts that Hildegard acts under divine influence when she initiates her abbey's move to Rupertsberg, then the dissenting static she receives must be viewed as a direct challenge not to Hildegard's authority but to God's.

As final editor of the Vita, Theoderic of Echternach must reconcile the conflicting interests of the ecclesiastical community that stood to benefit directly from the seer's posthumous reception, because the most significant events in Hildegard's life were those that placed her insubordinate and under suspicion of heresy. Employing gloss to disassociate the acts of editing and authorizing from any one discernable figure involved in the Vita's completion, Theoderic's three-book, three-forward structure distances both reader and writer from their natural positions so that editorial authority is displaced onto the Divine. Designating himself as a "reader" rather than a "writer" of Hildegard's memoirs and Gottfried's initial vita (extant as Book One), Theoderic asserts that reading and writing are passive activities. The Vita states, "the marvelous Lord permitted [miracles] to be worked through her."(60)

Hence, just as Hildegard is not directly responsible for her visions and accomplishments, Theoderic's responsibility as editor is not interpretation; he records. Theoderic writes himself as his patrons' inferior substitute. While a simple topos of humility would detract attention from accusations of authorial bias, Theoderic's role as "substitute" further licenses his text by allowing him to claim the position of editor indirectly. He writes:

In response to your mandate, venerable abbots, I undertook the task of putting in order the records of the life of the holy and pious virgin Hildegard which Gottfried, a man with a spirit and zeal, had begun with rather outstanding style but had never completed, and of embellishing it -- decorating it as it were with flowers...I was so afraid that I was sitting in judgment on the work of someone else. …

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