This year, I am studying church history and the development of theology through time. I started with Jesus and the Early Church and will finish this summer with American Church History. It has been an incredible journey of seeing God meet humankind through history - even through humankind’s imperfect efforts of living a life of faith the “right” way.
One quote that seems to summarize the purpose and gift of looking through history caught my attention.
…a visit to the past provides distance and a vantage point from which to comprehend the present. (1)
It is on this journey through the past which allows us to see the thread of legacy that defines our Christian faith. How the people in history have shaped our view of God, ourselves, and how the world works, has been an insightful experience. It is from that perspective, I would like to share how certain individuals in our past have shaped our views as well as how they invite us to look at the understandings we hold to be true.
Would you join me as we discover more about one such individual, Hildegard of Bingen?
To fully explore her story will take a few blog posts. We will look at Hildegard’s story, the context of the world she lived in and how that impacted her views, as well as her many and varied contributions. Hildegard was a prophet, scientist, mystic, visionary, poet, dramatist, musician, composer, and theologian. She was indeed a Renaissance woman.
Let’s explore more about her…
In 1098, Hildegard was the 10th child born to an aristocratic, upper nobility family in Bermersheim, Germany. (2) At eight-years-old, her parents dedicated her to religious life. Some view this as a means of education for a gifted young girl in that time. Others suggested she was a tithe to the church, being the 10th child. (3) It seems we honestly do not know her parents’ motives.
Sending a young child to live in a monastery would be unheard of today. However, during the Middle Ages, women were considered weaker and lower than men. This understanding impacted their ability to receive an education as well as their ability to teach or stand in their authority. Women had to know their place in society due to being judged for their emotionality.(4) Men were able to pursue a university education and teaching positions yet, this was entirely out of the question for women. Wealthy families interested in an educational opportunity for their daughters sent them to convents at a young age.(5)
Jutta von Spanheim, a family friend, was only six years older than Hildegard and lived as an anchorite connected to a Benedictine monastery.(6) An anchorite is someone who has decided to pursue a religious life of solitude, prayer, and study. During this time, choosing this kind of life meant a young woman could be free to pursue her relationship with God and not a life devoted to marriage and family. She could choose her own way to live. Those who chose a religious life were considered more spiritual, or closer to God, than those outside the church.
Jutta taught her young student to read using the Latin Bible and to recite the Benedictine office, specific prayers at specific times. Through time, other young women joined Jutta and Hildegard. When Jutta died in 1136, the other sisters asked Hildegard to be their new abbess, their leader.(7)
Learning Latin and reading the Bible would not have been available to a girl outside the convent. We will see this later as a gift that allowed Hildegard to write, speak, teach, and influence the religious authorities of her time. Remember, women were considered less than men and were not allowed education or the ability to teach or influence thought.
In fact, during the Middle Ages, laypeople did not have access to the Bible. The Church authorities felt they needed to protect others by controlling the interpretation of Scripture. The printing press and the translation of Scripture into German came a few centuries later.
Imagine being a gifted and intelligent girl, curious about God and the world around you, yet not free to pursue an education or to able to choose how to live your life. Leaving your home and family at eight-years-old being the way that gave you that right. I would imagine young Hildegard soaked up all she could even within any confusion caused by this change in her life. Hildegard seemed to truly embrace her journey due to the other nuns asking her to take the abbess role after Jutta passed.
As we continue this series, we will see how Hildegard influenced the world she lived in, even as a lowly woman. It is quite a story. So, to be continued…
Note: The picture at the top of this post is a portion of one of many of Hildegard of Bingen’s paintings. Here it is in full. This one depicts the choir of angels and is from her Rupertsberg manuscript.
1. Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 2nd edition, (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 2.
2. Katharina M. Wilson, Medieval Women Writers (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1984), 109.
3. Hildegard of Bingen, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L Baird and Radd K Ehrman, vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 5,11.
4. Elizabeth Dreyer, Passionate Spirituality: Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant, Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2005), 76.
5. Ibid., 18.
6. Ibid., 78.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!