Why Is Hildegard Relevant Today??

In the twelfth century, Hildegard addressed issues that are even more relevant in the twenty-first century.

The Environment

Medieval people had a very different relationship with the natural environment than we do today. On the one hand, they were far more intimately connected to it. Without modern technology providing a protective artificial environment moderating everything from the cycles of light and darkness to disease and weather, their lives revolved around the rhythms, sounds, textures, and smells of the natural world. On the other hand, because the natural world was the fabric of their existence, they were less likely to idolize and fetishize their encounters with it. Sky and soil, flora and fauna, were simply the only world they knew.

Much of Hildegard's work - including her visionary theology, science, and music - was inspired by and celebrated the natural world. In this sense, she was one of most vocal of medieval "environmentalists." But her understanding of it was firmly Christian. Like St. Paul and St. Patrick before her, or St. Francis after her, she did not worship the creation but rejoiced in what the creation revealed about its Creator.

Central to much of Hildegard's work is the concept of viriditas, a Latin word meaning vitality, fecundity, lushness, verdure, or growth. She understood this to be an animating principle for the natural world, including animals and humans. According to the Old Testament, in the beginning God spoke the universe into being. The word of God brings forth movement, energy, and reproduction in all living things. That reveals God's character, and through appreciation of the natural life he creates we can more deeply know and experience him.

Therefore, engaging with and understanding nature is a means to see through it to what lies behind it, and an intimate connection with the natural world makes possible an even more intimate connection with the supernatural.


The Role of Women

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.


Natural Medicine

The Rule of St. Benedict says that the primary duty of monastic life is to take care of the sick. As a Benedictine nun, Hildegard lived her life according to this principle. She was an expert herbalist and healer who dedicated herself to the care of the sick and infirm, toiling constantly to alleviate the physical and spiritual sufferings of everyone who sought her help.

The Catholic Church taught (and still teaches) that God created a natural world that is good. It follows that many natural substances have properties that are beneficial for humans. Medieval scholars believed that nature is God's apothecary, or pharmacy, to use the modern term. Science and medicine sought to discover these natural properties and harness them for healing purposes. Hildegard and other medieval healers practiced the most advanced natural sciences known at that time. Medieval monasteries often had large gardens where a variety of useful herbs were grown. They were also places where people could go for healing, as well as centers of scientific and medical learning.

Hildegard authored two works relating to healing. The first is Causae et Cure, which examines the causes and cures of diseases, offering remedies that are mainly plant-based. The second is Physica, a compendium of botany, zoology, stones, metals, and elements, describing their physical and medicinal properties. These books are not based on Hildegard's visions. However, as she once wrote to a schoolmaster in Paris, "Thus I am not steeped in human knowledge nor have I any particular intellectual gifts. Neither am I bursting with physical health. Rather, I rely exclusively on the help of God."

The Church

The Roman Catholic Church had roughly the same structure during the twelfth century that it does today. Local priests ministered to lay people. Bishops had authority over the churches and priests within their diocese, archbishops over several adjacent dioceses. At the top of the magisterium was the bishop of Rome, the pope. Abbots and abbesses were also under the authority of the pope through the hierarchy of their religious orders. From time to time, councils and synods were held to sort out the Church's position on controversial issues. But while the Church had roughly the same structure as today, the society it operated within was very different from ours.
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