Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life

Sabina Flanagan's Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life had been gathering dust on a bookshelf at the Retirement Bunker for years. I'm not sure where it came from; it's a trade paperback so odds are that either I or the Younger Daughter ordered it from the Quality Paperback Book Club back in the '90s and then never got aorund to reading it. We both like history and we both have a passing interest in the Middle Ages, although it's not an area of specialty for either of us.

Hildegard of Bingen definitely falls into the Middle Ages. She was born in 1098 and died in 1179. There were a lot of passing pop culture references to her a decade or so back -- she apparently composed music which was suddenly influencing various New Age musicians -- and that may have piqued our curiousity at the time.

In any case, the book sat on a shelf for quite a while. Then in October, as I was packing the Guppy for an extended road trip, I went through the bookcases looking for books I either hadn't read yet or had read so long ago the details were now a blur. Hildegard of Bingen caught my eye. For a relatively slender tome, it turned out to be a remarkably hard slog. Having troubles with insomnia? I recommend this book. I don't mean to imply that it's necessarily a bad book. On the contrary, it's academic prose in full flower. Lots of speculating and theorizing and referencing other scholars' works. This is a book designed to garner a good time slot at academic conferences and to impress one's tenure committee. It is most definitely not written with the general reader in mind.

Why do I say that? Well, among other things, the age range dates provided above are about the only solid biographical details the author provides. Flanagan makes a classic mistake authors who are too close to their subject matter make: she knows so much about Hildegard of Bingen that she assumes the readers do, too. Similarly, she definitely glosses over the context. The book would definitely have benefited from a little explication of what exactly was happening with the medieval church, what the Benedictine rule was, and who some of the auxiliary players were. For example, she does a long explication on Abelard and Heloise and the perceived role of women in the 12th century. Well, if the only time you've heard those names is when they're a question on "Jeopardy" you may find the comments about women being assumed to be the weaker, dumber sex interesting but you're not going to really understand why the author chose to quote either of them.

Similarly, at one point Flanagan mentions that Hildegard was on the wrong side in the political maneuverings of the time, some dispute between the Catholic Church and Barbarossa. It probably would have been a good idea at that point for the author to have used the man's full name and title, Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor. If nothing else, it helps ground Hildegard in time and place.

So just who was Hildegard of Bingen? As far as I can tell from reading this book, she was a German woman who got shoved into a cloistered life while she was still quite young. Flanagan reports that Hildegard was described as sickly so she theorizes that Hildegard's parents dedicated her to the Church because they figured they had nothing to lose, the kid wasn't going to live long anyway. She may have been as young as 5 or as old as 8 when she got shoved into a cell occupied by an anchorite, a female hermit named Jutta, and stuck there until Jutta died over 30 years later. Anchorites never left their cells; in some cases they were literally walled in (the door bricked over after they entered) with only a small opening left for others to pass food and other necessities in and for the anchorite to pass the slop bucket out. The anchorite's job, so to speak, was similar to that of other cloistered religious: spend the bulk on one's time in contemplation and prayer. In exchange for praying for other people, the anchorite got fed on a regular basis, although some would indulge in fasting and other mortifications of the flesh in order to get closer to God. It was apparently fairly common practice to build a cell for an anchorite, either male or female, as an ell on a church. There would be a small opening in the church wall to allow the hermit to listen to services.

Hildegard became known for her "visions." My take on the whole thing tends to be, yeah, I'd experience a psychotic break and start hallucinating if I was stuck in a dungeon at the age of 5, too.
Flanagan notes that Hildegard didn't seem especially saddened when Jutta died. My thought was why should she have been? She got stuck in that cell as a child and had probably spent her whole life functioning as Jutta's servant, doing whatever grunt work needed to be done while getting to hear various petitioners at the window asking the holy woman (Jutta) to pray for them or their loved ones. Rather than mourning, Hildegard probably did the Happy Dance because she was finally free of the cell and able to get out into the world more, even if it was just within the walls of a convent. No more listening to mass being celebrated next door; she was finally able to actually go into the church.

Freed from the life of an anchorite, Hildegard went on to leave the monastery where she'd been imprisoned as a child and established a new convent where she served as abbess. In her early 40s she began to share the visions she'd apparently been experiencing since childhood. She began writing down (or dictating to someone who could write; Hildegard's own literacy has been questioned) the various visions and what she believed God was telling her about their meanings. In almost all of her writings Hildegard was careful to emphasize that what she said wasn't her personal opinion; it was what God told her to say. Flanagan notes that by doing so Hildegard made it likelier her writing would actually be published and discussed. The low status of women in medieval intellectual life meant that if she had ever said "This is what I think" instead of "This is what God told me to say" no one would bother reading her words.

So was Hildegard nuts? Was she crazy or just misinterpreting manifestations of a physical disorder? Back in the 12th century, of course, no one thought about psychotic breaks or mental illness in general. If someone had visions or started ranting about seeing angels or demons, that person either got labeled as a prophet (if she was lucky) or possessed by demons (unlucky). Hildegard was one of the lucky ones. She saw the "living light" and described her visions in terms that matched up pretty well with what the church wanted to hear at the time. She'd condemn corruption and abuses by the clergy but always did so in terms that were sufficiently general that no one ever felt personally attacked.

In the final chapter of the book, Flanagan discusses speculation that Hildegard experienced migraines and that what she interpreted as visions were actually some of the phenomena migraine sufferers see on a regular basis. I find that theory believable. One of the warning signs a migraine is about to hit is a visual shimmering, a distortion in your field of vision. I get an occasional migraine, although they've gotten rarer as I've gotten older, and when they first started hitting the visual shimmering reminded me of a dragon. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction and was an Ann McCaffrey fan; dragons made sense to me. Hildegard was totally immersed in a Christian belief system; it would be totally logical for her to believe she was seeing the face of God or the wings of angels. Does the fact her body of work -- her lengthy writings on various subjects, interpretations of her visions, the advice she gave to people who wrote to her, her songs, etc. -- are somehow diminished? Probably not. She was sincere in her beliefs, and her readers at the time knew it.

What I actually find moderately amazing, and it's something that Flanagan doesn't touch on at all, is that Hildegard's writings survived. Back in the 12th century every letter, every manuscript, every document, had to be handwritten. If you wanted multiple copies, a copyist had to sit down with a quill and an ink bottle and do that copying. Given the number of wars that swept over Europe, the demolishment of monasteries and convents following the Protestant Reformation, and just the passage of time in general it's moderately astounding that any of Hildegard's work is still around after almost 800 years.

Bottom line: If you're fascinated by 12th century Catholic theological minutiae, you might like this book. In general, though, this particular work is one I'm strongly tempted to quietly slip into a recycling bin. I read it because, as I noted above, the book wasn't actively bad and once I'd started it I felt compelled to keep reading. I kept hoping the author would provide a little more social or cultural detail. It never happened, but there are worse fates than wasting an hour or two reading the lyrics to medieval hymns. I cannot picture anyone else doing that, though, so don't think it's even worth dropping into a St. Vincent de Paul or Friends of the Library donation box.


  1. For years we belonged to the Quality Paperback Book Club, but they became too expensive.
    the Ol'Buzzard

    1. I had a serious addiction for quite a few years.

  2. I occasionally don't finish books I start. Congrats to you for sticking with it.
    the Ol'Buzzard


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