The Most Influential Woman of the Middle Ages
Of course women played critical roles in medieval society, but individual women rarely had influence as public figures or the leaders of visible institutions. Those who did were usually noblewomen who had political significance because of family connections or the alliances their marriages could create.
Hildegard was unique because her influence came from her professional accomplishments, already recognized in her day. There were, of course, other women who ran convents of nuns, but Hildegard's writing, composition, and public speaking gave her visibility and earned her recognition far beyond other women of her era. Nearly five hundred years before Gutenberg's press revolutionized book publishing, Hildegard's prolific writing on theology and natural science, as well as her musical compositions, were widely copied and read. She was also a popular and widely traveled (for her time) public speaker on a variety of topics.
Hildegard's influence also came from her professional relationships and written correspondence with male leaders, including Bernard of Clairvaux, various bishops, and the pope himself. During her era, it was almost unheard of for a woman to exchange views and advice with such powerful figures.
One of the best indicators of Hildegard's contemporary significance was the effort to canonize her (declare her an official saint of the Roman Catholic Church) soon after her death. The process has several stages, and while she didn't reach the final stage of full canonization for almost nine hundred years, she was one of the first people for whom the relatively new procedures of canonization were initiated.
The political landscape and communications technology of the twelfth century limited Hildegard's influence during her lifetime to parts of what are now Germany and France. Over the centuries, as her works were more widely published, more of the world has come to recognize the significance of her accomplishments.