Doctor of the Week Middle Ages

The Polymath Hildegard of Bingen

Illustration of Hildegard of Bingen having a vision in Liber Scivias within the Rupertsberger Codex (around 1180)

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, founder of 2 monasteries, writer, inventor of the constructed language “Lingua Ignota”, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, prophet and polymath.

She played an essential role within the European monastic medicine, which started with Benedict of Nursia and reached its highpoint with Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard of Bingen is the perfect representative of the image of the Middle Ages: some demonize the time as “Dark Ages” and time of step backwards; others glorify it. Same happens to Hildegard: some deny her theories and others see her as pioneer or even feminist and claim that she discovered the blood circulation and even gravity.

Hildegard´s life

Hildegard was born into a family of free lower nobility in 1098. She was sickly from birth on and experienced visions from a very young age onwards. At the age of 8 or 14 Hildegard enclosed together with Jutta of Sponheim, the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim, the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. Till Jutta´s death in 1136, they two were closely connected and Jutta was a role model for Hildegard. With Jutta´s death Hildegard was elected magistra of the community.

In 1141, in one of many visions God instructed her to “write down that which you see and hear.” When Pope Eugenius heard about her writings he gave her Papal approval to document her visions.

Against the will of Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg and with the support of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz Hildegard she moved with her nuns to Rupertsberg and funded a monastery there in 1150. In 1165 she founded her second monastery at Eibingen.

When Hildegard died on the 17th September 1179 her fellow nuns claimed that they had seen 2 streams of light in the sky and cross over the room where she was dying.

Her works

Beside nearly 400 letters to popes, emperors, abbots and abesses, she wrote works on different subjects from the Ruptersberg manuscript, her first major work, to scientific and medical writings. At the end of her life, all her works were edited and gathered into the Riesenkodex manuscript.

Scientific and medicinal writings

Hildegard’s medicinal and scientific writings are based on her experience in the monastery’s herbal garden, infirmary, and reading in the library. Based on the antique humoral theory, Hildegard represented a holistic approach to health by applying tinctures, herbs, spices and precious stones, which could be e.g. used as jewellery.

She used spices like ginger, bertram, galgant and some long forgotten spices, which she included e.g. in dough of spelt. Her favourite spices were bertram and galgant as they had a positive affect on the digestion.

Her works reflect her skills in diagnosis, prognosis and treatment:

  1. Physica consists of 9 books that describe different plants, stones and animals in a scientific and medicinal way.
  2. Causae et Curae, which explains the human body, its connections with nature, and the causes and cures for various diseases. E.g. it includes an instruction on how to check blood, pulse, urine and stool; and draws connection between the lunar horoscope and the prognosis on disease and other medical conditions: A waxing moon positively influences human conception and sowing seeds for plants.

In these 2 books she descripted various medical treatments, including bloodletting and home remedies for many common ailments, like burns, fractures, dislocations and cuts.
Hildegard descripts 175 plants that have 437 health benefits: E.g. Cloves – also in combination with other ingredients- are used against gout, swollen intestines, stuffiness in the head and hiccups.

The magic 4: humors and elements

“Universal Man” illumination from Hildegard’s Liber Divinorum Operum (1165), early 13th-century copy.

Hildegard´s concept of the humoral theory is unique: She divides the 4 humours -blood, phlegm and black & yellow bile- into “superior” and “inferior” elements: Blood and phlegm are the “celestial” elements fire and air, and the two biles are the “terrestrial” elements water and earth.

Disease is caused by a disharmony of the humors: an dominance of the “inferior” humors. This disharmony and so disease were caused by Adam and Eve in the Fall.
So Hildegard adds a Christian motif to the antique humor theory.

The fame during her lifetime

During her lifetime Hildegard was accepted to preach publicly, which is unique even for her rank as well-known abbess and prophet: In 4 preaching tours she travelled throughout the Holy Roman Empire and addressed clergy and laity. She mainly preached on clerical corruption and called for reforms.

Hildegard´s preaching tour by Sean & Carmen Butcher

Furthermore, she was asked for advice by many abbots and abbesses and had contact with Elisabeth of Schönau, a nearby visionary, pope Eugene III and Anastasius IV, the German emperor Frederick I Barbarossa and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux etc.

Her preaching tour and her contact with many powerful people of her time reflects her extraordinary position within society.

The glory of her afterlife

Hildegard´s shrine in the parish church of Eibingen

Hildegard was among the first persons in the Roman canonization process, but the attempt failed four times, so she remains at her beatification. But still many popes including John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. called her a saint. In 2012 Pope Benedict XVI declared her a “Doctor of the Church”. This title is only held by 3 other women.

Beside her religious appreciation, she was commemorated on the German 10 DM in 1998 and feminists highlight her role within history.

Her medical writings, which were long neglected, faced a renaissance in “Hildegard-Medicine”.

“Hildegard Medicine”

In 1970 the Austrian Dr. Gottfried Hertzka coined the term “Hildegard-Medicine”, which he based on her medical works Physica and Causae et curae.

The concept highlights the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle, the use of herbs and detox methods including a therapy with precious stones.
Spelt is essential for a healthy diet and is used as “remedy”.

Critics point out that “Hildegard-Medicine” is little more than a modern marketing strategy for an alternative medicine. Hildegard´s name is mainly used to make money.

Some herbs are fulfilling their duty but other treatment follow the logic of medieval medicine and are outdated by today: A central issue is that some diseases can not recognized from their medieval description and often exact measures for applying the herbs are missing.

A study on Hildegard´s medical works showed that some of them were working probably. The author´s of the study point out that modern science should be more open to the use of herbs.

So while Hildegard´s medicine was useful at her time and can even provide health benefits today, “Hildegard-Medicine” is focused on gaining financial profit from her theories.

Hildegard did not discover the circulation of blood or gravity, she was no feminist, but she was a influential and powerful woman in 12th century Europe. Her biography and works still inspire many. That is her impact.

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