Magazine article New Internationalist

(Von Bingen, Hildegard. Canticles of Ecstasy)

Magazine article New Internationalist

(Von Bingen, Hildegard. Canticles of Ecstasy)

Article excerpt

CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, history is not made by Great Men. Behind the parade of kings, popes, barons, the dreary lists of dates and battles, stand the ranks of real people, seldom mentioned in history books but doing work of quality and, on occasion, genius. It comes as little surprise that the vast majority of those 'hidden from history' are women. Such a one was Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century abbess who was, among other things an author, a composer, a scientist and a natural historian.

Born in 1098 to a moneyed family, Hildegard was at the age of eight walled into the Benedictine convent at Disibodenberg where she lived with the abbess, her aunt Jutta. Always a sickly child, Hildegard began to have what we today would probably call fits or epileptic seizures but which were then understood as visions and intense spiritual revelations. he said: 'From my girlhood I felt in myself in a wonderful way the power of the mysteries of secret and wonderful visions.' Her reputation as a seer and dispenser of prophecies grew, leading to her popular name 'The Sibyl of the Rhine'. In 1136 Hildegard succeeded Jutta as abbess and in 1150 founded her own community at Bingen.

As Abbess at Bingen, her fame and creative power increased significantly and, far from the image of cloistered innocence, she proved to be an astute and nimble operator on the twelfth-century political scene.

Hildegard's curiosity and thirst for knowledge knew no bounds. She was omnivorous in her writing and thinking and delved in such varied fields as medicine, heredity and botany. She wrote poetry, biographies, cryptography, one of the earliest mystery plays and collated several encyclopediae. She was also a highly original thinker, developing a detailed cosmology and a new scientific theory concerning the effect of the elements on the 'humours' of the body. Such studies allowed her a place at the centre of twelfth-century intellectual as well as spiritual life. At the time of her death in 1179--at the age of 81-she was widely respected and there were many calls for her to be canonized.

Despite all this it is doubtful whether we would recall the name of Hildegard today were it not for the music she composed for her fellow sisters. Her pieces, which she called symphoniae harmoniae celestium revalationum, were in a form of Plainsong or Gregorian chant. …

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