Education was generally restricted to the elite classes, so that took a large portion of women (and men) out of the equation. Within the elite classes, it seems that a woman might have access to an education under certain conditions. If a girl was lucky enough to have a father who believed in her ability, he might provide access to learning. However, abbeys and convents were the institutions most likely to educate girls so they could read the scriptures.
As we can see, pathways to education were available to some women. However, then and now, a well developed mind does not guarantee acceptance by one’s peers. It appears there were women reading in abbeys and working as scribes, and yet so few had a voice that was heard beyond the four walls of their home or cell.
This is what makes Hildegard of Bingen so exceptional. She was fortunate to be handed certain privileges that set her apart and gave her opportunities to cultivate her intellectual talents. Hildegard took full advantage of these privileges, coupled with cunning strategy, to ascend beyond the limitations imposed by her society.
Hildegard of Bingen was born in 1098 in the German province of Reinhessen. Eleventh century Germany, under the Ottonian Empire, allowed “great convents… to flourish as places of learning” (Chadwick, p49).
Despite the more advanced social climate of Germany during this period, Gregorian reforms of the 11th and 12th centuries placed restraints on women. Hildegard worked within the system to not only make her voice heard, but to be an influence on other young women.
Yet, it was not until the age of forty that Hildegard began to reveal her visions. Like any young child who is different than her peers, Hildegard appears to have felt shame or embarrassment. Perhaps at the age of forty she finally felt the self-consciousness of youth replaced by the confidence of womanhood.
Another major factor may have been her recent promotion to head of her abbey in 1136. Her new title and position of authority may have given her the courage to reveal her visionary side.
As abbess, Hildegard already wielded some authority over her own abbey. When her gift was acknowledged by the Church, she was actively sought out by people outside of the convent. Her gift brought her fame, which in turn gave her more authority.
The religious establishment in which she was raised actually originated as a monastery.
When Hildegard entered as a child, it was originally to be enclosed in a cell with a noble woman turned anchoress called Jutta.
Here, Jutta would have been Hildegard’s religious mentor, tutoring her in the ways of the Lord.
Eventually, the monastery grew and was forced to adapt to larger numbers. It soon turned into a co-ed establishment as both a monastery and convent inhabited by monks and nuns.
Jutta and Hildegard’s position of being the first two women on the premises seems to have given them seniority over those who assumed the role upon Jutta’s death.
It was only after her promotion that she made her visions known. Whether it was calculated planning or a genuine spiritual urging can be debated. Either way, timing is everything, and her announcement was timed perfectly to work toward her benefit.
Her convent was growing steadily, partially due to her own fame, and her nuns needed accommodations suitable for their numbers. As the monastery had been adding on and expanding regularly anyway, plans to build were a non-issue.
What the monks didn’t expect, however, was that Hildegard would announce she had received a “command from God to move her nuns to Rupertsberg… some 30 km from [their monastery] at Disibodenberg” (Flanagan, p5). Again, whether this was a sincere supernatural revelation or Hildegard’s way of manipulating the system in which she lived is open to speculation.
If God’s message wasn’t clear enough, Hildegard also sought help from an influential noble widow who was able to sort things out with the Archbishop of Mainz who finally approved her request.
Hildegard continued to break gender barriers throughout her life.
She felt confident enough to not only write a congratulatory letter to the new King in 1152, but also give him advice, and also corresponded with other European heads of state.
If the idea of a woman preaching openly to a mixed audience is still controversial in some Christian sects today, then it was undoubtedly more so in 12th century Europe. Yet Hildegard did so openly in 1160 in the city of Trier..
While continuing her writing, Hildegard founded a second convent in 1165 “presumably to cater to nuns who could not be accommodated in” her original convent (Flanagan, p9).
Here we can clearly see her influence was such that she attracted many followers.
In her article entitled “Hildegard of Bingen at 900, The Eye of a Woman,” June Boyce-Tillman argues that Western culture has lost, and therefore must reclaim, our historical femininity. Boyce-Tillman acknowledges the notion that a modern “feminist approach [cannot be applied] to an age that knew nothing of feminist theorists” (Boyce-Tillman, p31).
Boyce-Tillman parallels the characteristics in Hildegard’s art, especially in how it differs from her male contemporaries, as inherently influenced by her femininity.
This is an important observation, especially when juxtaposed with Boyce-Tillman’s psychology analogy. If women sometimes think differently than men, it stands to reason that they might express themselves differently than men, which would in turn be reflected within their art. Boyce-Tillman points out that within Hildegard’s visual art “circular and oval shapes [often associated with the feminine] are common” (Boyce, Tillman, p32).
Indeed, Boyce-Tillman discusses aspects of Hildegard’s career that are hard not to consider feminist.
In her musical drama Ordo virtutum, Hildegard melds together all of her many talents, including writing, music, and visual art.
This play was cast almost entirely with women actors, “the only man with a significant part” is the Devil (Boyce-Tillman, p34).
Here we see Hildegard elevating the status of the women under her leadership when the trend of the time was to subjugate them.
Ann Storey discusses other ways in which Hildegard promoted the interests of women in her article, The Theophany of the Feminine.
Though Hildegard did suffer from “self-doubt and fear of ridicule” (Storey, p16), it appears she possessed enough boldness to re-word scripture in a way more flattering toward women, changing “the man was not created for the woman but the woman for the man” to “woman is created for the man and man is made for woman” thus placing woman on equal footing as men (Storey, p17).
Although most scholars marvel at Hildegard’s forward thinking views on her gender, there is one issue that many find puzzling; “her rejection of the ordination of women” (Thompson, p350).
Furthermore, Hildegard seems to ascribe both masculine and feminine attributes to God (Thompson, p352). According to Thompson, Hildegard views the roles of men and women as serving two distinctly different functions. As aforementioned, Hildegard thought of the Church as female.
This leaves the role of the priesthood as masculine. Thompson asserts that Hildegard viewed the two roles akin to a farmer and the land he tills to bring forth his crop.
The idea of the fertile earth as feminine is not unique to Hildegard, but rather a universal theme in many earlier pagan mythologies. Through this analogy, the priest sows the seeds which cause the “body of the church [to] conceive” (Thompson, p364).
In other words, the priest’s sermons fertilize the church, and the church nurtures his teachings so that the congregation can be fruitful.
Boyce-Tillman, June (1998). Hildegard of Bingen at 900: The Eye of a Woman. The Musical Times, 139(1865), 31-36.
Storey, Ann (1998). A Theophany of the Feminine: Hildegard of Bingen, Elisabeth of Schönau, and Herrad of Landsberg. Woman's Art Journal, 14(1), 16-20.
Thompson, Augustine (1994). Hildegard of Bingen on Gender and the Priesthood. Church History, 63(3), 349-364.