Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 190-192
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Voice of the Living Light:
Hildegard of Bingen and Her World
Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Edited by Barbara Newman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. ix, 278 pp. $19.95 (paper). ISBN 0-520-21758-6.
The amazing Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) cannot be summed up any better than does Barbara Newman: "she would have been extraordinary in any age" (1). Abbess, spiritual visionary, scientist, healer, author of unusually wide range, composer, preacher, prolific correspondent, religious advisor, reformer, and saintly figure, Hildegard's long life stands as testimony to what a brilliant and well-placed woman could accomplish in the medieval century that produced more outstanding women than any other. While her contemporaries Héloïse and Eleanor of Aquitaine quickly had the modern limelight shone on notorious aspects of their lives, Hildegard took longer to attract interest. But she began making up for initial obscurity as the nine hundredth anniversary of her birth approached and the attention of scholars outside of Germany, musicians, and large numbers of new-agers converged on her.
Compared with Christine de Pizan and Margery Kempe, however, there is still little critical literature on Hildegard in English, no doubt in part because not all of her works have yet been translated from Latin. This book of nine essays, most of them by leading scholars, presents the main aspects of her multifaceted achievements with a breadth and detail that make it an excellent introduction for the general and scholarly reader alike.
The editor's initial essay, "Sibyl on the Rhine: Hildegard's Life and Times," situates Hildegard against the backdrop of twelfth-century aristocracy, politics, and monastic culture. Newman traces Hildegard's early years as a religious with the recluse Jutta of Sponheim. She assesses the Latin learning she imbibed under Jutta's tutelage and sketches her relationship with the three men who served as her amanuenses: the beloved priest Volmar who remained with her until his death in 1173, Godfrey of Disibodenberg, and, in the last three years of her life, Gilbert of Gembloux. Newman describes the role played by Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugene III in Hildegard's recording her life-long visions in her first work, Scivias (Know the ways), and her struggle to found her own community at Mount Saint Rupert. The article concludes with a survey of the broad spectrum of works she subsequently produced and traces the preaching tours she undertook in her seventh decade.
"Abbess" by John Van Engen focuses on Hildegard's central role as magistra and spiritual guide. Van Engen follows Hildegard's trajectory from Jutta of Sponheim's hermitage at Disibodenberg, to leadership of the small group of women who had flocked about the recluse, to the founding and financing of her own monastery at Rupertsberg and its eventual expansion into two communities totaling eighty nuns. Van Engen culls evidence from Hildegard's correspondence and spiritual writings as well as from contemporary documentation on her to portray both how Hildegard construed her role and the ways in which she was appreciated by the nuns who followed her. Hildegard emerges as a complex [End Page 190] figure: a courageous, wise, and creative woman who provided for her communities and even composed medical reference works, liturgical songs, and sermons for them, a devoted Benedictine who allowed her charges to celebrate feast days with extravagant dress, a saintly figure who was not exempt from human frailties and prejudices of class.
Constant Mews's essay "Religious Thinker" follows nicely upon Van Engen's "Abbess." Mews begins by briefly pointing out the shortcomings of previous analyses of Hildegard's religious thought and proceeds with a discussion of her three visionary works, Scivias, Liber vite meritorum (Book of Life's Merits), and Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works). Mews focuses on Hildegard's use of organic images, particularly those of the living light and of "viriditas" (verdure, vitality, etc.) to express theological ideas. He also compares her ideas on the...