Women in the Medieval Society: The Case of Hildegard of Bingen

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

Hildegard of Bingen, born in 1098, was a prominent character in the 12th century. Considering the limited role of women in the medieval society, she had impressive accomplishments and influenced many people’s lives. She was the author of many mystical books and has been the subject of many historical novels. Being the first woman to deliver public sermons and among the only ones to advise monarchs have made her an exceptional historical figure.

Top view of a cathedral in Germany.
Mainz Cathedral, located at the market square of Mainz, a city in Germany, where Hildegard of Bingen was born. (Image: Saiko3p/Shutterstock)

Early Life of Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen came from a noble family in Böckelheim, in the City of Mainz, near the Rhine River in Germany. According to her writings, her mystical visions started when she was five years old. This was when her parents decided to pledge her to a church. Their decision may have been due to her visions, her constant feebleness, or an unknown reason. This incident set her on a path that led to an extraordinary life.

Hildegard was sent to a local holy woman named Jutta to become prepared for a convent life and receive religious instructions. Jutta was an honorable religious woman who lived in a hilltop monastery named Disibodenberg. Holy women, like Jutta, typically lived just outside the walls of a monastery, or sometimes even within the monastery. For this reason, they were known as “anchoresses.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Hildegard Becomes a Leader

Many young girls and soon-to-be nuns were raised and educated in the custody of Jutta, but none of them were like Hildegard. Given her competence, after Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegard was elected as the leader of the nunnery.

At the time, Hildegard was 38 years old. Although her visions had stayed with her, she had not confided any of them to anyone. However, five years after being elected as the head of the convent, Hildegard had a strong vision that changed her life.

She claimed that she had been commanded to reveal what she saw to others. This compelling vision led her to believe that she had gained a profound understanding of both the Old Testament and the New Testament – one that her contemporaries lacked.

Image of Hildegard of Bingen
An illustrated portrait of Hildegard of Bingen.
(Image: Welcome Images/CC BY 4.0/Public domain)

The Divine Abilities of Hildegard of Bingen

Despite being ordered as many as four times in her vision, she did not dare to uncover her secrets. Her uncertainty was rooted in her fear of being ridiculed. This fear led to an illness that persisted for a considerable amount of time. To find a solution, she turned to her peers and superiors, who encouraged her to obey the command of God and expose her secrets.

In the 1140s, following that incident, she embarked on her writing journey and became well-known in religious circles. While attending a church council in Germany, Pope Eugenius heard of her expositions. He assembled a commission to see if these visions were genuinely inspired or a result of baseless hallucinations. The commission carefully examined Hildegard and approved her divine abilities.

Learn more about the Empire and the Papacy during the Middle Ages.

Achievements of Hildegard of Bingen

In an era when women barely knew how to read, Hildegard of Bingen had written many books and transcripts on a wide array of subjects. Her authorship included not only religious quotes and prescriptions, but also hymns, music, theological texts, and medical treatises.

Strangely enough, she even tried to replace the standard alphabet with one that she had invented, but it never caught on.

Hildegard used to take care of the sick nuns of her convent. Leveraging this experience, she wrote two comprehensive books about medicine and healing methods with botanical remedies. She also had immense knowledge of the human body, animals, fish, and reptiles.

Hildegard also became a well-known figure in the history of music. Having a natural talent for poetry and composing, she composed seventy-two songs and canticles for nuns to sing in the church, songs that are still being recorded and published to the world.

Hildegard of Bingen and other nuns at the monastery.
Hildegard of Bingen addressing the nuns at the monastery. In later life, she looked after the old and ailing nuns.
(Image: Unknown author/ Public domain)

Hildegard of Bingen’s Rise to Fame

Hildegard’s influence, however, was not limited to her authorship. She traveled widely throughout Germany to pass her words of wisdom to large groups of people and consistently made preaching tours in villages, towns, and even big cities.

Her extensive knowledge, great courage, supreme talents, and vast literary works made her the subject of increasing interest among commoners, clergymen, and even kings. Soon, she was able to undertake activities that were exclusive to men, such as exorcism. In addition to preaching, she expelled evil spirits from individuals as she went on her tours.

After a while, her fame spread throughout Europe. High-profile figures in Czechoslovakia and France started to seek both her prayers and her advice on crucial political matters. The fact people believed she was a prophetess made them think her prayers were genuinely effective.

Learn more about Monks during the Middle Ages.

Moving Away

As the head of a religious community, Hildegard of Bingen had other responsibilities as well. She had to be involved in continuous litigation on behalf of her fellow nuns. When she decided to move the nunnery away, families of nuns started to contest because they did not want to be far away from their children. Moreover, monks were also angry since they did not want to lose an important figure in their community. After all, she was a great opportunity and source of money for them. Therefore, they protested vigorously against her decisions. Despite these challenges, she maintained her position as a significant public figure, thanks to her role as the head of a religious community and her prophetical nature.

In an age ruled by emperors and kings, Hildegard of Bingen was among the only women who found favor with male monarchs throughout Europe and advised them on various matters. Few were able to command the attention she had.

Common Questions about Hildegard of Bingen

Q: Was Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor of the Church?

On October 7, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared Hildegard of Bingen as Doctor of the Church. She was among the few women who rose to high prominence in the medieval church.

Q: When did Hildegard of Bingen die?

Hildegard of Bingen passed away on September 17, 1179, when she was 81 years old. Two Benedictine monks, who had been her apprentices, started writing her biography the year after her death.

Q: Why has Hildegard become popular in recent history?

Because of her broad knowledge of healing, mystical character, her literary works as well as artworks, Hildegard of Bingen has become a respected figure in the contemporary Age.

Q: Is Mother Hildegarde real?

The book ‘Mother Hildegarde’ was written based on a real historical person, aka Saint Hildegard, who lived in the 12th century, as opposed to the 18th.

Q: What instrument did Hildegard of Bingen play?

Hildegard of Bingen was taught to sing and play the ten-stringed psaltery (a harp-like instrument) by Jutta, her religious teacher at the monastery.

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