Hildegard of Bingen’s Subversive Devotion

In honor of the Feast Day of Hildegard of Bingen, one of my favorite mediaeval holy women, I decided to see if I still had what it takes to write something semi intelligent. The jury’s still out, but what I came up with is below. I hope it will at least encourage the handful of followers I have to learn more about this amazing woman. 

Self-flagellation. Wearing hair shirts or knotted ropes. Self-mutilation. Throughout the Middle Ages, there are many examples of performative religious devotion. That is, “expressions of piety that often manifest themselves in violent fits of crying, excessive acts of penitence or severe bodily chastisement.”[1] Performative devotion was particularly prevalent among female holy women, in part because they were forbidden to teach about their visions by Church strictures, constrained by social rules, or simply confined by marriage and the burdens of mediaeval household management. Catherine of Siena, for example, drank pus from the wounds of lepers, Christina Mirabilis frequently tossed herself into ovens or open-pit fires, and Margery Kempe generally made a public spectacle of herself, all in the name of showing their devotion to Christ. Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century abbess, visionary, composer, all around holy woman extraordinaire, does not readily fit into this category of dramatic devotion. However, upon closer examination, she may well have the more ubiquitous and subversive devotion of many of her sister holy women. While some of Hildegard’s later-contemporaries were busy throwing themselves into ovens or drinking leper pus, she was hard at work writing, composing, and overseeing the illuminations of her divine visions. Each of these activities, seemingly a respectable and innocuous task for an abbess to devote her time to, contains an element of her own version of performative devotion.

Hildegard’s music is, to this day, widely studied, and she is often considered to have written one of the largest bodies of mediaeval musical repertoires. Her music was, by the standards of her time, quite unique in its form. To mediaeval composers, music was expected to conform to specific formulae, stay within certain parameters. The Cistercian Reform of Hildegard’s time was concerned with “bringing music into line with the properties of monastic life.”[2] Plainsong chant was interpreted by the Cistercians to mean having no more than ten notes, keeping within a limited range of melody, and not making big interval changes up or down the musical staff. Doing so might imply a lack of control, passion, or an arousal of emotion viewed as unseemly. As Holsinger notes, “If the music that the body sings is out of control, the body itself, along with the distinctive markers of gender and sexuality that construct it (and which it performs), becomes the site of discursive transgression.”[3] This is the opposite of what Hildegard does in her musical compositions. She has a wide range within her melodies, stretching far beyond the intervals generally considered proper for plainsong. Indeed, “several pieces, such as the responsory O vos angeli, exceed two octaves.”[4] The music is the manifestation of Hildegard’s performative devotion, her metaphorical hands thrust into the ovens of her faith. To deviate so wildly from accepted musical forms was a radical and potentially dangerous step, particularly in light of the existing Cistercian campaign for masculinity in music. When going up against the likes of Aelred of Rievaulx or Bernard of Clairvaux, both of whom felt that singing had the potential to emasculate the voice (and thus the man doing the singing), Hildegard’s devotion is all the more dramatic for its highly feminized undertones. Her music is the performative expression of her devotion, her feminine relationship with the Virgin Mary, to the nuns in her care, and to her own body. Hildegard takes the very thing her male counterparts are trying to avoid – the feminization of liturgical music – and highlights it instead. In this way, “when it is sung, then, the hymn’s music quite literally embodies Hildegard’s poetic meditations on the female body.”[5] She uses music – divine music, nonetheless! – to awaken the senses, to inspire passion and sensuality. Hildegard’s music is, indeed, a testament to her performative, dramatic devotion.

The divine illuminations of Hildegard’s visions also are a subtle source of subversive performative devotion. In her third vision, the Universe is described as

round and shadowed, in the shape of an egg, small at the top, large in the middle and narrowed at the bottom; outside it, surrounding its circumference, there was bright fire with, as it were, a shadowy zone under it. And in that fire there was a globe of sparkling flame so great that the whole instrument was illuminated by it, over which three little torches were arranged in such a way that by their fire they held up the globe lest it fall.[6]

Hildegard stated the source of her visions was divinely inspired, that she was directly commanded by God to write, and that her benefactors were no lesser men than the Archbishop of Mainz and the Abbot of Disibodenberg. In this, she followed in the tradition of holy women in naming the powerful men who supported her, not out of a desire to put herself forward, but to prove that her visions were valid, a political necessity of the time. These powerful religious men gave her patronage because even though she was just a woman, her words were valid. She then proceeded to give a highly feminine image to the shape of the universe, flying in the face of traditional Christian dogma. The egg imagery is deeply feminine, vulvar, organic, and sexualized. Hildegard described the egg as surrounded by a ring of “bright fire” with an inner “globe of sparkling flame.” What can one picture, particularly in light of Hildegard’s medical knowledge, but an image of childbirth? The description, in addition to her devout Marian reverence, makes the connection a natural one. Patriarchal Church structures are subverted through Hildegard’s vision into one of childbirth and motherhood, the most feminine imagery of all. The egg imagery is almost a precursor to the Cult of the Wounded Side which would become more prevalent in the later Middle Ages. The general egg shape resembles a vagina, and although many images of Christ’s Wounded Side would come to follow suit in later years, Church culture in Hildegard’s lifetime hadn’t yet gotten to the point where it would readily accept such a sexualized, feminized image as part of its central theology.

Hildegard of Bingen may not have been the firebrand her royal contemporary Eleanor of Aquitaine was, or as dramatic in her performative devotion as many of her sister visionaries. She wrote quietly and humbly about visions she had, she composed music of breathtaking beauty and emotion, and gently inserted her own unique brand of feminization and Marian imagery into her interpretation of theology while doing so. She didn’t eat leper scabs or self-immolate or starve herself to death in a fit of holy fasting. But it is clear that her quieter performative devotion was certainly the more enduring, as we are still studying her influence on a variety of fields nearly a thousand years after her death. Her musical compositions are studied in many music degree programs; she is a source of interest for modern feminist scholars and mediaevalists alike; and her writings on health and wellness are still relevant to modern practitioners. Her influence has remained strong in a multitude of disciplines across time, as befits a true Sister of Wisdom.

References

Abernethy, Susan. “Hildegard of Bingen.” Medievalists. WordPress, 6 Aug 2015. Web. 10 Sept 2015.

Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. Trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. New York: Paulist Press, 1990. Print.

Holsinger, Bruce. “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).” Signs 19:1 (1993): 92-125. Print

McQuinn, Kristen. “Dramatic Devotion: Performative Spirituality in the Lives of Late Mediaeval Holy Women.” MA thesis. Arizona State University, 2003. Print.

Endnotes:

[1] McQuinn, Kristen. “Dramatic Devotion: Performative Spirituality and Late Mediaeval Holy Women.” MA thesis. Arizona State University, 2003. Print. p. 1.

[2] Holsinger, Bruce. “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).” Signs 19:1 (1993): 106. Print.

[3] Ibid., 106.

[4] Ibid., 106.

[5] Ibid., 107.

[6] Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. Trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. New York: Paulist Press, 1990: p. 93. Print.

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