International Women’s Day: spotlight on Hildegard of Bingen
Written by: Jennifer Bain
To commemorate International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to think about the “career” trajectory of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and what might have influenced it. Hildegard lived a very long life, even by modern standards, but she was what we would describe today as a late-bloomer. If she had died in her mid-thirties, as composers like Mozart, Schubert, and Purcell did, nobody now would know her name. She managed, though, to make up for lost time, as her extensive output across a broad range of subjects attests, and her work, particularly her visionary writings and her letters, circulated widely through at least 363 manuscripts from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries.
Hildegard’s rise to prominence began when she was 38, with her election as Magistra of the monastic community of women with whom she lived. In this position she did not have complete control over her own or the community’s affairs, since the women lived in buildings attached to a male monastic house at Disibodenberg and were under the rule of the Abbot. She must have had a new sense of agency, however, since it was only after she took on this responsibility that she began to write her visionary works, compose, and correspond with various secular and ecclesiastical authorities. She completed her first book of visions, Scivias, in her early fifties in 1151, not long after she had defied the Abbot at Disibodenberg and established her own convent in a key position overlooking the Rhine at Rupertsberg.
In 1834, the English writer, Sir Francis Bond Head remarked, “Everybody now-a-days has been up the Rhine.” While he was talking about a new influx of English tourists after the end of the Revolutionary Wars on the continent, the Rhine, a river extending 1200 km from modern-day Switzerland through Germany and the Netherlands, had been a thoroughfare since the time of the Romans. Almost halfway between the Romans and us, Hildegard recognized the Rhine’s importance as a conduit for power and influence, and established her convent where the river Nahe meets the Rhine.
Disibodenberg in the twelfth century was an isolated outpost; the monastery was at the top of a hill lying between two smaller rivers, the Glan (68 km long), and the Nahe (125 km long), a tributary of the Rhine. By moving her community of women from Disibodenberg to Rupertsberg, Hildegard positioned herself next to one of Europe’s greatest transportation routes for goods and people in the Middle Ages. This part of the Rhine was so significant that one of the imperial palaces was at Ingelheim, just 14 km down the river, giving Hildegard access to Frederick I Barbarossa who reigned from 1152-1190. Just a little bit further along (30 km from Rupertsberg) where the river Main meets the Rhine, is the important medieval city of Mainz, where Hildegard had an ally in its Archbishop, Heinrich. At Rupertsberg, she made herself far more accessible to visitors than she would have been at Disibodenberg, and it was from Rupertsberg that she began her first of four preaching tours in her early sixties (1158). In her late sixties, she established a daughter house in Eibingen (1165), across the Rhine, travelling there once a week to minister to the women.
It was only in travelling to Disibodenberg and other sites associated with Hildegard in 2007 and 2008 that I fully understood the role of place not only in Hildegard’s life and work, but also in the lives and work of many of the writers and clerics I was researching, who later circulated her ideas and increased her veneration. Hildegard’s writings circulated in the thirteenth century largely through a compilation put together by a monk, Gebeno of Eberbach, forty years after Hildegard died; Eberbach Abbey, where Gebeno resided, is located above the Rhine, 20 km from Eibingen in the direction of Mainz. The two successive parish priests in the village church in Eibingen in the nineteenth century, who worked tirelessly to increase Hildegard’s veneration, both grew up in Rüdesheim, a 10-minute walk from Hildegard’s Eibingen convent, while the Bishop of Limburg who supported their work grew up in Geisenheim, the next village along the Rhine. The librarian, Antonius van der Linde, who collected works relating to Hildegard and published in 1877 a very detailed, itemized description of one of her most important manuscripts, worked at the state library in Wiesbaden, across the Rhine from Mainz.
Surveying this panorama gives an immediate and visceral sense of the importance of location for our understanding of Hildegard and many of her revivalists.
Looking at maps to find these locations is useful, but taking boats along the river and watching barges move goods up and down, you immediately see the Rhine’s continuing role for travel and trade. Standing atop the Rüdesheimer Berg, the vineyard-covered mount above the town of Rüdesheim, you have a magnificent view of many of the sites in the story I tell in my book: the Nahe; the site of the Rupertsberg convent in Bingen; the village churches in Rüdesheim and Eibingen; the modern Hildegard Abbey behind Eibingen; and the Rhine itself extending beyond the limits of the eye in one direction to Koblenz, Cologne, and the Netherlands, and in the other past Ingelheim, Eberbach, Mainz and Wiesbaden towards southern Germany and Switzerland. Surveying this panorama gives an immediate and visceral sense of the importance of location for our understanding of Hildegard and many of her revivalists.
 Complete catalogue listings of these manuscripts are provided by Michael Embach and Martina Wallner in Conspectus der Handschriften Hildegards von Bingen (Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2013).
 A. v. d. Linde, Die Handschriften der Königlichen Landesbibliothek in Wiesbaden (Wiesbaden: Hofbuchhandlung von Edmund Rodrian, 1877), 28-98. For a database version of the 15-page annotated bibliogaphy of works relating to Hildegard that van der Linde provided with the volume (pp.1-15), see: http://hildegard.music.dal.ca/.
Cambridge University Press is delighted to support International Women’s Day 2017 (8th March 2017). From the 6th-10th March we will be sharing brand new blog content from our authors which explore the themes of ‘IWD 2017’ and continue the discussion on feminism and women today and through the ages.
Cambridge will also be celebrating women in academia and their work by making a variety of book chapters free to read online – including some of the most vital contributions to feminist theory and women’s history. These will be accessible from: www.cambridge.org/IWD2017