Profile of Hildegard of Bingen

Profile of Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, writer, prophetess, composer, linguist, naturalist  and composer, is a prominent female figure from the Middle Ages (1098-1179) who continues to captivate readers and seekers of the Christian faith in the postmodern era. Her visions and writings served to establish her as a trusted prophet in her time, admired by many including St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and Pope Eugenius III. 

In a time of oppressive misogyny, Hildegard won the favor of the most powerful men in the church despite her lack of classical education or training. Hildegard was used by God as a visionary to open people’s eyes to the mystery of the cosmos and the divine order of nature.  In this paper we will explore Hildegard’s visions and writings, and discuss the role of the charismatic and the mystical in her spiritual formation.  We will then discuss Hildegard in comparison to other women leaders during this time period, and the overall role of the charismatic in the spiritual life of these women.

Hildegard, unlike her female Montanist predecessors in the 1st century, did not enter into ecstatic passionate experiences during her visions.  She was not part of a persecuted and heretical sect of the Church, but a respected member of the established Holy Roman Catholic Church in the German lands, subject to the pope himself. 

She lived a life of confinement within an abbey, and was surrounded only by her caretaker, Jutta, during her childhood, and the nuns under her care at the abbey of Disibodenberg, and following that the abbey at Rupertsberg.  “From the age of eight, her every move had been governed by monks and elders, rules and restrictions.  Any notion of self-expression was quelled, by herself or others.  Her one aim in life was obedience, submission, silence, self-denial, in effect to make herself invisible to the world.”[1] 

She was not a “wandering mystic” in the sense that she was mistrusted and persecuted by church authority. She had learned the scriptures and the daily office, and nothing more.  She was, however, a member of a small group of women who chose the path of “mystic” in a very oppressive period for women- perhaps to make her voice heard?  During the Middle Ages, women were not able to attend the newly forming classical schools, although they were permitted to serve as nuns in sister orders. Hildegard’s order was Cistercian, which was very strict and focused on labor, prayer and simplicity. 

When she was young, her parents, who were of the nobility, gave her as the tenth child into lifelong service of the Lord.  Some believe that her early migraine afflictions were a sign of her ability to communicate with God. She flourished within the monastic environment, although later in her writings she would condemn the practice of parents sending their children into the monastic life without their consent.   She was an unusual child, but her experience in the monastery from a young age gave her a leadership advantage in the abbey at Disibodenberg. She was elected abbess there soon after her caretaker, Jutta, passed away.

When Hildegard was in her twenties, she had a strong prophetic vision:

I saw an extremely strong, sparkling, fiery light coming from the open heavens.  It pierced my brain, my heart and my breast through and through like a flame which did not burn; however it warmed me… and suddenly I had an insight into the meaning and interpretation of the psalter, the Gospel and the other Catholic writings of the Old and New Testaments… [2]

This first of many visions would come to be a regular occurrence, but Hildegard was not willing at first to share them with anyone, except Jutta and her friend Volmar, a monk of Disibodenberg, who became her scribe.

 Hildegard’s first work, Scivias, is a complete work of visions that she received from the Lord. “And behold! In the forty-third year of my earthly course, as I was gazing with great fear and trembling attention at a heavenly vision, I saw a great splendor in which resounded a voice from Heaven…” [3] with this, Hildegard opens her work of grand and detailed visions of the wondrous things of God.

In Scivias, Hildegard claims that she experiences the visions in one flash or one moment, enabling her to remember everything, and she then is able to expound upon the vision once it has ended. Hildegard was especially concerned with cosmology, and the overall narrative of creation, fall and the redemption of man.   Her first set of visions deals with the topic of creator and creation, including the first two, “God Enthroned Shows Himself to Hildegard”, and “Creation and the Fall”. 

In the “God Enthroned Shows Himself to Hildegard”, God speaks to her directly, stating:

O human, who are fragile dust of the earth and ashes of ashes! Cry out and speak of the origin of pure salvation until those people are instructed, who, though they see the inmost contents of the Scriptures, do not wish to tell them or preach them, because they are lukewarm and sluggish in serving God’s justice.[4]

This rings very similar to the Old Testament callings of prophets to pronounce the justice of God on a people who had become lukewarm and disobedient. Given that these visions occured during the time of the Cistercian and Gregorian reforms, it is apparent that Hildegard senses her role as a prophetess to those in authority in the Church, just as the prophets of old. 

In “Creation and the Fall”, Hildegard records the following: “Then I saw as it were a great multitude of very bright living lamps, which received fiery brilliance and an unclouded splendor… and again I heard Him Who had spoken to me before, saying: ‘No unjust impulse takes the blessed angels from the love and praise of God.” [5] She sees a bright lights representing the trinity, and the following is illuminated to her: “This is the perception of God’s mysteries, whereby it can be distinctly perceived and understood what is that Fullness, Whose origin was never seen, and in Which that lofty strength never fails that founded all the of strength.” [6] 

Hildegard stated that the “living light” was what revealed to her the wisdom and riches of God.  She also depicts the “viriditas”, or the “work of the word”, as a symbol that arises from her visions. The “Zelus Dei”, or “fervor of God” is the initiant with which she cooperates in the heavenly visions.[7] According to Hildegard, she experiences the visions emanating from the “living light”, and experiences a warming sensation. This manifestation is common to modern-day accounts of experiences with the Holy Spirit.

Hildegard’s visions are surmised by modern scholars to be the result of migraines, a condition that can sometimes cause hallucinations and awake visions, and also cause one to be afflicted with severe headaches, nausea and general fatigue.

“As the description of Hildegard’s writings has shown, her interests were intellectual rather than mystical.  She sought to understand the world in all aspects, natural, human, and divine… but as well as understanding, Hildegard wanted to change the world: in a general sense, by making public her knowledge and understanding of God’s ways for man’s salvations in her writings, and more particularly, by recommending certain attitudes and positions.  To these ends the migraine experience was a wonderfully adaptable instrument, as was Hildegard herself.” [8]

It is clear that this interpretation does not completely reject the possibility of a supernatural occurrence, as Flanagan states: “What were in fact two ‘inner experiences’ – the migraine vision and her own mental process  - coalesced to form the vision and its interpretation, perceived by her as coming from a divine source.” [9]  The general trend in modern liberal scholarship is to explain miracles and supernatural occurrences, beginning with the Gospels and onward, through scientific and rational means.     

Hildegard states, “I hear these things not with the bodily ears, nor the thoughts of my mind, nor perceive them through any combination of the five senses, but entirely within my soul, with my external eyes open, so that I never suffer a lapse into ecstasy, but I see them fully conscious day or night.”[10]  She explains how she first reacted to these visions, and her reluctance to share them. “But I … refused to write for a long time … not with stubbornness, but in the exercise of humility … until, laid low by the scourge of God…”[11] This “scourge of God” could quite possible be the migraines that she was affected by her entire life.

As a member of the charismatic and renewal tradition, how can Hildegard’s visions be interpreted through a renewal lens, and not simply a scientific lens?  It is well known that many medieval spiritual maladies were actually physical ones, and the lack of knowledge of medical conditions caused people, specifically of a religious persuasion, to lean on their theological and scriptural understanding rather than scientific reasoning.

Hildegard’s role as a prophet came with sanction from Pope Eugenius himself, once he heard a reading of an explicit description of one of her visions at the Council of Trier.  Could these insightful and theologically timely commentaries simply be the result of migraine auras? Was Hildegard imposing her basic understanding onto the visions, and extrapolating what she willed from her own personal medical affliction?  This we will never know for certain, but it is of interest to us to explore the spiritual and supernatural possibilities in her situation. God may have chosen to specifically afflict Hildegard with these migraines so that she would physiologically have the ability to “see” these visions while fully awake and alert.

 Her affliction bears similarities to Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”- something that afflicted her and brought her to such a humble state of need that she relied fully on God, and was thereby able to see these miraculous and profound visions? It is also possible that women in this time period, Hildegard included felt the need and desire to be recognized within the male-dominated leadership, and becoming a mystic and prophet who confounded even the most learned men was the only path to recognition of their passion for the Lord.

Hildegard did not have many contemporaries, but the few that existed seem to have had varying visionary experiences, and none had such a large body of written work upon their deaths, or are recognized as being as influential in the modern day Church.  The only notable protégé and comparable figure was Elisabeth of Schönau.

How many other women of the time do we find preaching with official approval, exorcizing, founding their own convents, and above all composing works which have given them a place among the “fathers, doctors, and writers of the Church?  The answer is, very few indeed.  The only other women of the twelfth century whose writings have survived were also German nuns, but their works are hardly comparable with Hildegard’s … Elisabeth of Schönau, inspired by Hildegard’s example, related her visionary experiences to her brother, who set them down in Latin[12](Flanagan, 13).

Elisabeth of Schönau and Hildegard’s visions differed in the following ways: “the comparative degree of reality which the objects of the vision has for each woman… that between vision and hallucination.”[13] It is clear that Elisabeth’s visions were more hallucinogenic, in the sense that she was not awake and alert when experiencing them but fell into a trance.  Elisabeth’s visions showed “less evidence of the wide reading that characterizes Hildegard’s work”[14], and Elisabeth was also more ascetic in her practices.  In one of her letters to Elisabeth, Hildegard expresses the following: “ Daughter, may God make you a mirror to life.  But as for me, I remain in the meagerness of my own mind. I am very tired, anxious and fearful, at times sounding forth as the small sound of the trumpet from the Living Light.” [15] It is clear that there was a measure of affection between the two women. Despite all comparisons, however, Hildegard is the only woman of her day to experience the types of visions, and to create such a large body of written and artistic work to support them.

Let us examine the possible reasons that Hildegard truly stood alone in most respects among her contemporaries of the time.   Were her experiences simply migraines, visions produced from a physiological abnormality, or were they a gift form heaven, as she would have us believe? Was the Holy Spirit still operative during the Middle Ages? And if so, why would it be that the charismatic and mystical would be confined to the experiences and understanding of women, and not the learned halls of the classical school.

There are four main reasons for the visions that Hildegard experienced, and these can be attributed to the few other contemporaries of her day, although to a lesser extent. The first reason: God had chosen Hildegard to be a bearer of His word.  It is clear that this young girl was chosen from a very tender age, and consecrated to the service of the Lord.  She was already extremely sensitive to the workings of the Holy Spirit, according to historians, as a young girl.  Whether the visions were a result of migraines, or true supernatural experiences, God created her and chose to reveal these visions to her in that manner. I do not believe that the visions are a mere physiological result of her affliction, which were then illuminated by her writing later on.  The Lord chose to use Hildegard to speak truth to the Church in that time- a true prophet.

The second reason is that during medieval times, women were resolutely oppressed within the Church.  Admission to a classical school or gaining a post as a bishop was unheard of.  The only viable option for women who wanted to devote their lives to God’s service was to become a nun or an abbess. But even then,  almost every aspect of their lives were governed by their brother abbey.  By way of her visions, Hildegard was able to gain a place in the medieval Church that was unprecedented at the time.  She gained permission to move her abbey to Rupertsberg, out from under the government of the Disibodenberg monks. She corresponded frequently with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as the pope, even going so far in her later years as to correct and reprimand him for the power struggle between he and the current emperor. 

In a letter to Pope Anastasius IV, she expresses the following: “O man, the eye of your discernment weakens, you are becoming weary, too tired to restrain the arrogant boastfulness of people to whom you have trusted your heart. Why do you not call these shipwrecked people back?” [16]  In a letter to the newly designated King Frederick, she implores him:  “Now, O King, pay careful attention! All lands are clouded by the plots of the many people who through the blackness of their souls put out the light of justice.” [17] This is the voice of a commanding figure who is speaking the truth of God to power, not a weak and inform abbess who has no sense of importance. Hildegard spoke with the truth of the prophets of old, not fearing their rebuke or retribution. Not only did she accomplish these remarkable things, but in the twilight of her life she embarked upon several various preaching tours throughout the region, something of which no abbess or nun had ever attempted.

 I do not believe that Hildegard’s visions were prearranged or her writings were fabricated so as to gain power for herself, however, once she gained a certain level of sanction from the pope, it is clear that her writings became more frequent, and her correspondence increased, showing that she certainly enjoyed her newfound level of approval. The role of prophet was the only possible path that women of that period could tread without stepping on the toes of the current leadership structure.  Women were not trusted in general- but Hildegard’s writings brought truth and conviction, and were undeniably of the Lord. “She is a woman in a patriarchal culture, and a male-run church who strove to be heard, who struggled to offer her own wisdom and gifts borne of the experience and suffering of women of the past.” [18] 

In a letter to St. Bernard of Clairvaux she complains of the burden she carries as a woman in a patriarchal culture. ‘I am wretched and more than wretched in my existence as a woman,’ she complains. Like any member of the ‘anawim’ or oppressed peoples anywhere, she struggled for years with the ‘I can’t’ or ‘I shouldn’t’ or ‘who am I to’… feelings that she had been taught.  She related how often she was confined to a sickbed because she succumbed to this covering up of her talents and her voice and how her conversion- which was in fact a decision to write her visions for a larger community- brought about a physical reenergizing and got her, literally, out of bed.[19]

The third reason, which reflects my personal renewal theology, is that the Holy Spirit was truly working through Hildegard in a fresh and prophetic way that was unmatched by anyone in her day.  The voluminous writings and explanations of her visions, along with the illuminations that served to supplement the visions, could not have simply come from the mind and intellect of this untrained woman, whose Latin was even known to be unpolished.

Historically and scripturally speaking, the Lord uses those who are humble and unlearned, who are simple and pure in heart, to truly “see God”, as Hildegard did.   There is no other explanation than that which has been put forth- Hildegard was experiencing supernatural visions given to her from the Holy Spirit, and the supernatural wisdom from above to expound upon them and share with the church in her time.

“’The German prophetess’ was a title given to Hildegard by her contemporaries.  In an illumination that accompanies the text of her visions, she is depicted as being touched by descending tongues of fire as she listens for ‘the voice from heaven’ before writing her text on a wax tablet.  Such a medieval image is never just an individual portrait in the modern sense.  It rather refers to Hildegard’s specific social role as a visionary and prophet who had deep insight into Scripture and could therefore write and speak to the people in the name of God, calling them to an alternative consciousness” [20]

It is through this “alternative consciousness”, and a high level of conviction, that Hildegard shows the Church the way of redemption, righteousness and justice.  Her life was not only shaped by these visions, it was defined by them. Although her experiences were fairly unique in her time, she was able to gain a level of authority ad acceptance that allowed her to speak truth to power- a role that had been granted to very few in the history of the church. Her physical and psychological afflictions are similar to the prophets of old, who suffered in various ways.  Her witness to the power of the Holy Spirit, and God’s ability to work through anyone, man or woman, is compelling in a day when many of the miracles of God are reduced to scientific explanations due to a lack of faith in the miraculous.     








Craine, Renate.  Hildegard: Prophet of the Cosmic Christ.  New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1997.

Flanagan, Sabina.  Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life.  New York: Routledge, 1989.

Flanagan, Sabina.  Writings of Hildegard of Bingen.  Boston: Shambala, 1996.

Hildegard of Bingen, Ed. Fox, Matthew.  Book of Divine Works. Santa Fe; Bear & Company, 1987.

Hildegard of Bingen, Ed. Fox, Matthew.  Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen.  Santa Fe: Bear & Company, 1985.

Hiledgard of Bingen. Selected Writings. London: Penguin Books, 2001

Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

Maddocks, Fiona.  Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age.  New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Pernoud, Régine.  Hildegard of Bingen: Inspired Conscience of the Twelfth Century.  New York: Marlowe and Company, 1998.

[1] Fiona Maddocks, Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age (New York: Doubleday, 2001)

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 59.

[4] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 67.

[5] Ibid., 73.

[6] Ibid., 161.

[7] Régine Pernoud, Hildegard of Bingen (New York: Marlowe and Company, 1998)

[8] Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life (New York: Routledge, 1989), 209.

[9] Ibid., 210.

[10] Ibid., 196.

[11] Ibid, 60.

[12] Ibid., 13.

[13] Ibid., 197.

[14] Hildegard of Bingen, Selected Writings (Penguin Books). 79.

[15] Ibid., 81.

[16] Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, Ed. Matthew Fox (Santa Fe: Bear & Company, 1987), 273.

[17] Ibid., 289.

[18] Hildegard of Bingen, Commentary by Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen (Santa Fe: Bear & Company, 1985),13.

[19] Ibid., 13.

[20] Renate Craine, Hildegard: Prophet of the Cosmic Christ (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 33.










Chapter 1- Little Girl, Big Dreams