SYMHC Classics: Hildegard von BingenStuff You Missed in History Class
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- 27 Mar 2021
This 2016 episode examines a Christian mystic of medieval Europe who was way, way ahead of her time. If she had lived a few hundred years later, and been male, people probably would have called her a renaissance man.
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Happy Saturday, everybody.
Hildegard Tom Bingham gets a name drop in one of this week's episode. So we are pulling our episode on her out of the archive. And after this episode came out, we got a few emails from folks who were surprised that we did not mention one particular detail about Hildegard, and that's going to be rectified in the forthcoming episode. We also heard from folks whose background is in music who are surprised that we did not spend more time talking about her work as a composer.
There are a lot of recordings of her music online, googling something like Hildegard von being in music. We'll take you to just a wealth of results. And this episode originally came out on March 7th, 2016.
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Tracy Wilson. And I'm Holly Fry. We are headed to medieval Germany today to talk about a woman who was way, way, way ahead of her time. She was Hildegard of Bingen, also known as Hildegard von Bingham. And as a symbol of the Rhine, so long time listeners, as we tell the story, will probably notice some similarities between her and past podcast's subject Marjorie Kemp, who was another Christian mystic who lived in medieval Europe back when we recorded that episode about Marjorie Camp, which was actually, I think, the first episode that I researched for the show.
When Holly and I came on, I really intended to do kind of a mini series on women mystics in the medieval world, because a lot of their lives are really super interesting. And listening to or learning about them can really dispel some of the misconceptions that a lot of folks have about the medieval world and about women's place, specifically in the medieval world.
Right. That was three years ago. Our recent episode on the history of the English language got me thinking about the medieval world again, though, so it seemed like a good time to come back and revisit this this world of women in the church in medieval Europe.
Hildegard was born in 10 Ninety-eight in Franconia, which is now a region in Germany. Her parents for Hilda, Bert and Matilda Hilda Bert was a lesser noble and Hildegard was their tenth count them 10 tenth child. Her health was fragile and as early as age three, Hildegard was experiencing religious visions. While Hildegard was still very young, her parents gave her to the church, according to some sources, including my medieval literature professor. This was meant to be part of her parents tithe.
Now, if you're not familiar with that term tithing is the practice of giving 10 percent of everything that you earn or produce to the church. It's not totally clear whether Hildegard, who by her own account was only about eight years old when this when she entered religious instruction, how to say in the matter she is technically one tenth of their produce children, I guess. Yeah, well, and it's one of those things where I don't think there is a record of her parents saying this is part of our time, but the fact that she's reported to be their 10th child and she then entered religious instruction and apparently tithing children was a thing that people did.
It all kind of comes together to be Hildegard was given to the church as part of her parents, Taieb, and the next few years of her life are a little bit fuzzy as well.
At some point, she met another religiously inclined young woman, Uta von Sponheimer, who was about six years her senior. And Yuto was also of noble birth and of a little higher station than Hildegard. Yuta eventually became Hildegard teacher and mentor.
Eventually, Hildegard and Uta wound up at the Benedictine monastery at Disobedient Burg, which is near the confluence of the Nayo River and one of its tributaries, about 60 miles or 100 kilometers southwest of Frankfurt, named after the seventh century Irish monk disobeyed disobey. Hardenberg had grown into a really important center of religious life in the area, and it had become home to a Benedictine monastery in 11 O8. In 1012, Utah was enclosed as an anchoress at the monastery.
Increases were women who, for religious reasons, essentially sealed themselves up in a very small cell for life. Men who did this were called anchorites, although most people who did it were women often, and Anchoress was literally walled in with a wall gradually being built around her that had a small window that let food be passed in and out, as well as a chamber pot. And depending on the size and configuration of the cell, it may have had additional windows as well to see directly into the sanctuary if want to join the cell or just to let in light.
Being an anchoress was a lot like following the life of a religious hermit. But instead of retreating to a remote place for a life of solitude and prayer, and Anchoress would be shot into a wall of a comparatively populated place, like a church, a monastery, or occasionally a town. By the time Hildegard lived, Anchoress had to get official permission from the church to do this, and the ceremony for Inclosing and Anchoress had a lot in common with the funeral, including The Anchoress receiving last rites.
Basically, The Anchoress was leaving her worldly life behind for one that was focused exclusively on religious devotion and study. The life of Anchorites and increases was meant to be one devoted strictly to reflection, penance, study and prayer. Most of the time, it was also a lifelong commitment, although there were some who eventually left their cells.
And this Rothenburg, Hildegard and a servant lived with Yuta in her hermitage, Yuuta taught Hildegard Latin, along with the recitations and observations that were required as part of their order. Hildegard early musical education probably came from Utah as well. And because you just Hermitage was physically connected to the monastery there, Hildegard would have also been immersed in all of the spiritual and religious teachings and practices that were conducted within it.
Utha definitely took a more aesthetic and strict approach to her own spiritual life than Hildegard did. Apart from committing to be an anchoress for life, Utah also abstained from meat and periodically abstain from all food entirely. Throughout her life, she continually increased the number of hours a day she spent in study penance in prayer, and she also practised self flagellation as penance. Hildegard, while not taking quite the same approach in terms of deprivation and self flagellation, did interpret illnesses as a punishment from God for not following his instructions.
And that's actually a belief that would continue throughout her life.
Gradually, other young noble women were sent to Utah to study as well. So the Benedictine monastery became home to a community of nuns, and from within herself, Utah became its magistrate or its teacher and leader.
When you died in 1036 at the age of 44, she and Hildegard had been at this about Emberg for 24 years. At least eight other women had come to the monastery to live and study with them. And Hildegard, who at that point was 38, was elected to take you to this place as the magistrate. About three years after UTIs death. Hildegard, whose visions had continued since her childhood, had a particularly powerful experience in the form of both a vision and a voice from the heavens.
In her record of it, the voice said to her, Oh, fragile human ashes of ashes and filth of filth. Say and write what you see and hear. But since you are timid in speaking and simple in expounding and untaught in writing, speak and write these things not by a human mouth and not by the understanding of human invention and not by the requirements of human composition. But as you see and hear them on high in the heavenly places, in the wonders of God, explain these things in such a way that the hearer receiving the words of his instructor may expound them in those words, according to that will vision and instruction thus.
Therefore, Vahue in. You speak these things that you see and hear and write them, not by yourself or any other human being, but by the will of him, who knows, sees and disposes all things in the secrets of his mysteries, the sort of I'm going to impart and dictate to you revelations that you were going to write down exactly as you experienced them.
And in the same experience, he also had a more revelatory experience. And she wrote of that saying, quote, Immediately, I knew the meaning of the exposition of the scriptures, namely the Psalter, the Gospel and other Catholic volumes of both the Old and New Testaments. Though I did not have the interpretation of the words of their texts or the division of the syllables or the knowledge of cases or tenses. At first, Hildegard resisted this call. She didn't think she was up to the task.
She wasn't confident in her ability to write or to speak. Soon she became ill, something she thought she brought on herself by not following God's command. So eventually she embarked on just what the vision had instructed her to do, and this would eventually turn her into someone with a much broader influence than just the religious community. Disobedient burg, which we'll talk about after a sponsor break.
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This episode is brought to you by Comcast.
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Eventually, Yuta had told a monk named Valmar about the visions. And after a time, Wal-Mart basically became Hildegard secretary and editor. She would write her visions down on a wax tablet and hand them off to Valmar, who would refine their spelling and their grammar. Even though Hildegard was never confident in her writing skills, her written works are actually full of really complex ideas and thoughts after the vision commanding her to write down her visions.
The Archbishop of Mines learned about Hildegard visions and prophecies, and he convened a group of theologians to determine whether they were legitimate or heretical. And ultimately they decided that her visions were authentic and they allowed Wolmar to officially help her with her work. Hildegard really wanted this work to be taken seriously. This is at a time when various fringe groups were kind of splintering off from the Catholic Church and all kinds of people with all kinds of teachings were attracting large followings.
Hildegard really didn't like this. She thought all of these schisms and splinter groups were going to harm the church. So she wrote to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the hope of getting her teachings officially sanctioned by the church. He eventually brought her to the attention of Pope Eugenia's, also known as Pope Yujin, the third who encouraged her to continue on with what she was doing. And in 1047, he gave her the authority to speak in public and to write on theological matters, which was extremely rare for a woman.
Hildegard first book finished following this endorsement by the pope was called SkyBitz, taken from the Latin phrase Schizophrenia's Domani or know the ways of the Lord.
It was completed around 1051, and it describes many of her visions and also offers apocalyptic prophecies and perhaps in reference to her own young life. It records one vision that makes it quite clear that parents may only give their child up for a holy life with that child's informed consent in some translations.
That's literally the title of that passage. You may only give up your child to the Lord with the child's informed consent. At about the same time as she finished skimpiest, Hildegard also moved her community, she and the nuns left, disavowed Hamburg. They settled in a cloister that had been built for them near Binyon, which is where her name Hildegard of Bingen eventually came from. This wasn't a particularly popular decision at the monastery at Disipio, Hamburg. There are a lot of likely reasons for why Hildegard decided to do it.
One was that she was really dissatisfied with how the Benedictine community, at least in Bundaberg, had been living. She thought their lifestyle was excessive and she was really concerned that schisms within and outside the community were going to tear it apart.
Another was that word of Hildegard visions and works had been spreading for a decade. At this point, more and more noble women had come to disobey Oedenberg, to take holy orders and study with her. And the monks were not too happy about giving up progressively more space and influence in favor of this influx of women.
And a third reason was that she had been directed by God to move them, and when she didn't immediately do it, she had fallen ill. She continued writing and teaching extensively her other two major revelatory works are Liebovitz Moratorium and Liebert Divinorum or Parum, or Book of Life's Merits and Book of Divine Works. She also wrote extensively about medicine and nature, although unlike her other works, these weren't based on religious revelations or visions. They were based on her own study and reflection and on her practice as a healer.
These works include Physical Cawsey at Curie and Lieber Subtotal Atom. That last one is the book of subtleties of the diverse nature of things. These medical writings draw from the Greek ideas of elements and humour's, as well as the idea of innate healing powers found within inanimate objects. Her medical writings, like her spiritual ones, really stress the need for humans to approach life through a balance of science, religion and art with science and art, both like religion coming from God.
Hildegard was no stranger to writing history either. She actually wrote a biography of Saint Disavowed.
That was the one that the religious community had been named for her that she had left previously. Seventy-Seven lyric poems are attributed to her along with their music. So was essentially hymns that she wrote and composed. There are definitely composers in the West who lived before she did, but she is really the first one that we also have biographical details on.
Although she never seems to have created artwork on her own. There are pieces of visual art that exist today that are based on her descriptions and she wrote extensive letters.
About 145 of them still exist today, and some of them are to the most powerful religious and secular leaders who were alive at the time. Many of them reveal themselves to be part of an ongoing correspondence. It's not like they were 145 unanswered letters of some kind of kook, like they were letters that she wrote as part of guidance that she was giving to people that the people were receiving. The recipients of her letters include popes, kings, abbots, friars and whole communities of monks and nuns.
There are also more than 50 sermons that survive, and a lot of them follow the same themes as the letter she was writing. It's really clear from reading her letters and her sermons that as she got older, a lot of the timidity and uncertainty that she had carried about her abilities and her use of language were replaced by a more calm, a more confident and assertive way of approaching things. She also wrote repeated warnings to the monks of Disobey Edinburg, warning them that their excesses and the schisms within the religious community.
We're going to bring about their ruin. This turned out to be quite prescient. Fractures of the religious community actually led to armed struggles in the 13th century. The monastery was converted into a fortress and by the end of that century it lay in ruins, some of which still exist today.
Although many of Hildegard writings take a distinctly innately feminine approach to their descriptions of her visions and her relationship with God. Some of these are actually descriptions that border on coming off as sexual. Nothing was ever considered to be heretical. Her descriptions are very rich and vivid and very poetic. And as we talked about, it's been a while now. But as we talked about in our episode of Marjorie Camp, a lot of times the writings of this sort were viewed as being heresy, but hers were actually really well accepted.
She was, in fact, admired and respected all over Germany during her life. The very first biography written of her referred to her as a saint, and she was considered a local saint in parts of Germany for centuries before being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. In addition to all her writings and teaching her community of nuns, Hildegard also traveled extensively around Germany, preaching about the revelations from her visions. In 1063, she founded a second convent and all of this, the extensive writing and teaching, having her teachings accepted by the church as a whole.
Her Leto's, her leadership, the medical writing being allowed to go out and speak in public about theology were extremely rare for a woman living in the 12th century.
And Europe, basically, if she had lived a few hundred years later and been male, people probably would have called her a Renaissance man. We will talk about more about her legacy after a quick break from a sponsor.
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Hildegard of binging died following an illness at her monastery on September 17th, 1079. Well, she was extremely prominent in her time, especially considering her gender, and she was immediately revered as a local saint. Academic and greater public interest in her life have waxed and waned over the centuries since then. Most recently, academic interest in Hildegard started to revive in the 1960s with the publication of German language editions of her letters and songs. This also ran parallel to the second wave of the feminist movement in the United States.
Hildegard writings about women and her being able to accomplish such a high degree of renown and authority, especially in comparison to most women of her time, made her a popular figure in the feminist movement.
A lot of the things she actually wrote that wouldn't be considered particularly feminist today, as we understand the term she definitely wrote about women as being the weaker sex and about herself as being unqualified to do a lot of what she was doing because she was a woman. She also recorded visions that detailed why women, for example, should be able to talk about God and God's work, but should not be able to be priests. So a lot of people sort of position her as being a feminist for her time.
Translations of large bodies of her work into English didn't actually happen until 1982, and her popularity really started to spike in the United States in the 1990s because her mysticism and the elements of her life and work that could be considered feminist fit in well with the New Age movement, which was popular at the time. A big part of this was her running theme. That creation was the work of God. And so it is the work of humanity to care for it.
She also wrote a lot about things being connected to God from activists. She wrote, quote, All living creatures are sparks from the radiation of God's brilliance. And these sparks emerge from God like the rays of the sun. If God did not give off these sparks, how would the divine flame become fully visible?
It sounds like something that would be like a poster with a beautiful sunset on it and in watercolors and watercolors in a in a store that sells like New Age books and supplies. And it might actually there might actually be such a poster like a lot of the things that she wrote have that kind of like warm feel good kind of focus. Today, there have been additions of huge chunks in her work made available in multiple languages, and in addition to that, people have written novels about her as a character and there are numerous audio recordings of her songs.
Pope Benedict the 16th proclaimed her to be a saint on May 10th, 2012, and proclaimed her as a doctor of the Universal Church on October seven, 2012. Doctor of the Universal Church is a title given to Saints whose writings are significant and are useful to people in any age of the church. This basically means her spiritual writings are viewed as bearing the same importance as those of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas S.B, the venerable and Saint John of the Cross, among others.
Her feast day is the 17th of September.
I think she's one of only four female doctors of the universal church. There may actually be one more that's been named since then, but I think there's only been one doctor of the universal church named at all since she was in 2012. So, yeah, she is. She's so interesting to me. One, the whole idea of Anchoress is it's really interesting to me. And there are other more prominent anchor is than U2. So maybe another three more years from now in this mini series that's going to play out over there.
Apparently, I will I will do an episode, one of the anchors, because they are fascinating to me. I see the appeal for you of Anchoress since you are a woman who really values moments of solitude. Yep. I can see where you would be very fascinated and charmed by thinking about that whole concept.
Yeah, they are very interesting. And a lot of them, like I read an article that was sort of a it was not a scholarly article. It was basically somebody meditating on how kind of cool and interesting it is that during the medieval period, if you were a weird person, especially a weird woman who just wanted to be by yourself and never talk to anyone, there was this option for you. And I don't know that that's like actually an accurate reflection of what life is.
And as an anchor, it was like but I was like, yeah, I can see how that that would appeal to some people. And then, of course, there are the people who would like try to figure out a medical explanation for Hildegard divisions. And I read one article that was, like most historians today, agree that she was suffering from migraines. And I was like, this is literally the only reference to migraines and everything that I read about Hildegard.
The research this most historians that I think might think things. Yeah. Thanks so much for joining us on this Saturday. Since this episode is out of the archive, if you heard an email address or a Facebook URL or something similar over the course of the show, that could be obsolete. Now, our current email address is History podcast at I Heart Radio Dotcom. Our old HowStuffWorks email address no longer works, and you can find us all over social media at MTT in history.
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