Can you imagine being shut away from the world before reaching your teens? That’s what happened to Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179 CE). Yet she emerged from a life of solitude to become one of the most educated women of the Middle Ages: a writer, naturalist, composer, and a spiritual leader, one who exchanged letters with popes, archbishops, and even an emperor.
We don’t know much about Hildegard’s early life. She was born into a large noble family in what is now Rhineland, Germany, and may have been the youngest of eight or even ten children. From an early age, she was sickly, and she experienced visions in which she saw and heard strange and wonderful things; many scholars think her visions were probably symptoms of migraines, which would also explain her poor health. She was sent to a monastery at Disibodenberg to live with a religious woman named Jutta von Sponheim, who chose to live as an ascetic (a person who rejects all worldly pleasures, spending their life alone in prayer). From then on, Hildegard’s world was limited to a small stone cell and the monastery. She may have been as young as eight when she left her family behind and retreated into religious life.
Many families sent their daughters to live alongside Jutta at Disibodenberg, where she was the Prioress, the head of a community of nuns. She acted as a teacher for the young girls, and Hildegard learned to read and write. She also heard the music of the monastery’s religious services every day, which must have inspired her own musical compositions. She may have worked in the garden and taken care of the sick; she later wrote about botany and medicine.
When Jutta died in 1136, the nuns of the community all voted for Hildegard to succeed her as their leader. After this, she began to write down what she saw and heard in her visions, believing that God had ordered her to do so.
Although the nuns were under the control of the monastery at Disibodenberg, Hildegard fought hard to establish her own convent where they could live independently. She and her nuns moved to a new monastery in 1150, and she founded a new community across the river, called Eibingen, in 1165. Her influence grew and she wrote volumes of philosophy, music, medicine and natural history. Three of her works, Scivias, Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of the Rewards of Life), and Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works) are about her religious visions. She also created her own language, called Lingua Ignota. Her writing had attracted the attention of the Pope, as well as several archbishops. Many of the most important men of the time wrote to Hildegard as friends and confidants. Surprisingly, she was even allowed to preach publicly: something that was normally completely out of bounds for women.
Hildegard’s lonely, difficult girlhood turned her into a force to be reckoned with: a respected and accomplished woman who preached gentleness, justice, and peace. Her lush, beautiful writing and music is still with us today, and there is still a community of religious women on the site of her monastery at Eibingen.