Saturday, September 17, 2011

Feast Day of Hildegard of Bingen

Today is the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen, mystic, herbalist, musical composer, naturalist, and Abbess.  Her life was full of accomplishments, an amazing feat considering she lived in the twelfth century.

I first discovered her when researching Julian of Norwich, whom I discovered when teaching the first half of the British Literature survey course.  I wanted to include more female writers, and the Norton Anthology of the time had about 12 female writers, even after a recent revision towards inclusion.  I thought there had to be more.

I had never thought of the twelfth century as a high water mark of feminism, but female monastics did amazing things during that time period.  By studying them, I came away with a new appreciation for the Church, where talented women found a cloistered kind of freedom.  In many ways, the cloistered life was the only way for medieval women to have any kind of freedom.

But Hildegard's life shows that freedom could be constrained, since women monastics answered to men.  For years, Hildegard wanted to move her group of nuns to Rupertsburg, but the Abbot who controlled them refused her request.

We all face constraints of various kinds, and the life of Hildegard shows what could be accomplished, even during a time where women did not have full rights and agency.  She wrote an amazing amount of material:  theology, letters, scientific/naturalist observations, musical notation, poems, and a morality play.  She wrote letters to emperors, kings, and popes in which she advocated for peace and social justice.

It's interesting to think about the different types of groups who have claimed her as their own.  Feminists claim her importance, even though she didn't openly advocate equality.  Musicians note that more of her compositions survive than almost any other medieval composer.  Her musical works go in different directions than many of the choral pieces of the day, with their soaring notes.  New Age types love her views of the body and the healing properties of plants, animals, and even minerals.  Though her theology seems distinctly medieval, and thus not as important to modern Christians, it's hard to dismiss her importance as a figure from church history.

I often say that it's odd I'm drawn to monasticism, as I'm a married, Lutheran female who has all sorts of worldly commitments, and thus cannot fully vow obedience.  But as I think about church history, I'm struck time and time again by how often monasticism has offered a safe space to women that no other part of society did.  I shouldn't be surprised that it's a tradition that speaks to me still.

Today is a good day to plant some herbs or listen to some medieval music while we write letters to the important people of our time to advocate for peace and justice.

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