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  • Hildegard of Bingen and the Greening of Medieval Medicine
  • Victoria Sweet* (bio)

Hildegard of Bingen’s fame is on the rise, eight hundred years after her death. In the past two decades, scholarly as well as popular interest in her visions, music, theology, and medicine has taken off, leading to the first recordings of her music, the first translations of her texts, and the first attempts—for better or for worse—to practice “Hildegardian medicine.” During this same period, anthropologists have changed our understanding of medical systems, clarifying their relationship to the sociocultural ecologies from which they arise; recently, historians have begun to apply these insights to Western medicine. This paper introduces Hildegard as an untapped source for our evolving understanding of premodern European medicine. I will begin with an account of her life and work; I will then present an analysis of her medical text in its twelfth-century context, and will conclude with a discussion of her medicine as a praxis that both reflects and expresses the premodern relationship of humans with the natural world. [End Page 381]


Hildegard of Bingen was born in the rural Rhineland in 1098, two years after the First (and only successful) Crusade, and she died in 1179, just after the Third Lateran Council. 1 Her life thus spanned the “twelfth-century renaissance,” an era in Europe of expanding population and growing new cities, of the reinvention of a money economy, of written law, and of government bureaucracy—a time that encouraged the creation and circulation of new knowledge. Her parents, Hildebert and Mechthild, had promised their tenth child as a tithe to the church, and so, at the age of fourteen, she entered the double monastery of Disibodenberg on the rivers Nahe and Glan in the lower Rhineland. 2 The [End Page 382] idea of double monasteries, which housed both men and women, resurfaced during the early years of the century, and Hildegard’s entry into Disibodenberg probably meant that she had more access to literate, male culture than she would have had in a more conventional monastery. Her religious instruction was entrusted to Jutta, the magistra of the women’s side of Disibodenberg; it comprised a Latin education based on the Bible and the patristic writers. 3

When Jutta died unexpectedly in 1136, Hildegard was elected magistra. Five years later she began her first book, Scivias, her interpretation of a series of complex visions that she had experienced. In 1148, at the age of fifty, she made an unusual decision: to leave the comfortable situation at Disibodenberg and, with all of the other nuns (and their property), to move twenty miles north to the “deserted and waste place” of the Rupertsberg at Bingen on the Rhine. 4 There, the townspeople, along with some of Disibodenberg’s monks, built her a new monastery. Within a few years, she had attracted so many entrants that a second monastery was constructed across the Rhine at Eibingen.

In her thirty years as abbess of Rupertsberg, Hildegard was enormously productive. She wrote two additional books on her visions, several biblical commentaries, two biographies, and a medical and a natural-scientific text; composed more than seventy Gregorian chants and two musical dramas; and created a secret language and script. Despite her vows of enclosure—which, in theory, restricted her to the cloister—she managed to remain very much in touch with the outside world. 5 After [End Page 383] the approval of Scivias by Pope Eugenius in 1147, she began to receive visits from and correspond with hundreds of people throughout Europe, including Henry II of England, Louis VII of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the empress of Byzantium. In her late sixties she embarked on a series of tours, preaching to crowds gathered in the cathedrals of Mainz, Cologne, and Worms, among others. In 1178, at the age of eighty, she defied an order of the pope to disinter a friend buried in the monastery’s cemetery at Rupertsberg: the pope claimed he had died excommunicate and was, therefore, not entitled to a church burial, while she insisted he had repented and been absolved. Shortly before her death, the pope relented and rescinded the...