Hildegard of Bingen

To be or not to be: Feminist

People often discuss the question, “If you could have a dinner party with 8 people, living or dead, that you want to talk to, who would you invite”? Among my list would be some of my favourite authors and activists (e.g. Shakespeare, Harvey Milk, etc. – definitely NOT Plato), and after reading some of the selected writings of Hildegard of Bingen, I would consider adding her to my guest list. Not necessarily to stay for dinner, but perhaps just to stop by or take a polygraph test on the truthfulness of her visions.

Our discussion in seminar today really got me thinking: Was Hildegard an early Feminist? Were her constant references to her gender identity a mere projection of women in society at the time, or were they being used to gain the respect and support of her male counterparts in the church? In my opinion, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. As people, we are often conditioned and shaped by the societal norms we see around us as we age. During this period of history, women played relatively no substantial roles in the church: This may have influenced Hildegard’s self-deprecating remarks and beliefs about her gender identity, claiming to be “timid” and “miserable and more than miserable in my womanly existence” (Hildegard 3-4). Nevertheless, Hildegard could also have been using her gender identity to her advantage. By presenting herself as meek or somewhat uneducated, her claim that her visions were bestowed upon her by G-d is strengthened: Male heads of the church that questioned the validity of her visions would not be challenging Hildegard as a woman, but rather G-d himself. What could be more powerful than that?

I guess we’ll just have to invite her to dinner to see.


  1. Great idea to invite her to dinner! 🙂

    I think your points here are very astute: it’s hard to imagine she wasn’t influenced by her social circumstances, and thus she may very well have been sincere in her humility and self-deprecation as a female. I also want to give her the benefit of the doubt that she was likely very sincere about believing in the truth of her visions; she took up a religious life very early on and likely had a very strong faith. It would have been very wrong in that context suggest one is hearing from the divine while using this as a tool to get one’s views across. I’m not saying you’re suggesting that here, but it’s something that one could imagine as a possibility. I’m just not sure there’s any compelling evidence to suggest it.

    On the other hand, it seems legitimate to say that her visions and her deep faith in them could have given her a confidence that helped her stand up for what she believed, of which we get some evidence in the text and film. I wonder if she would ever have felt empowered to go on a preaching tour without her visions! And certainly others would not have let her do it. So her and others’ beliefs in the veracity of her visions could have helped her become a strong female figure who, conceivably, could have inspired other women at the time (though we don’t have much or any evidence of that in what we read and watched).

    I don’t have the text with me right now (I’m waiting for a plane and don’t have it with me in my carry on), but I remember some portion of the text, perhaps a song, in which she talks about how though people might blame a woman for our fallen status (Eve), it was also a woman who brought the redeemer of the Christian religion, Jesus. I think she talks in there about women somehow redeeming women, or Mary making up for Eve. But I may be misremembering. I kind of thought about she herself in that context–another strong woman bringing something important to the Christian religion. But I haven’t fully thought this through yet!

    On another note, can you please activate a plugin that allows those who make comments to check a box to say they’d like to receive a notification via email that someone has replied to their comment? Otherwise the person who comments would have to remember to come back to your post to see if you or others have replied (most of us aren’t going to remember to do that!). When you’re logged into your site, go to the dashboard, then “plugins” on the left, and find one called something like “subscribe to comments,” click “activate,” and you should be good to go!

  2. Now, I know this post is really about Hildegaard, but I cannot seem to get over my Plato obsession. Please forgive me.

    This will surely seem odd coming from me, but a few months ago a friend and I had the discussion of who we would invite to dinner and I actually said Plato. “But Zack!” you must be asking, “isn’t Plato just an old, outdated, arrogant, self-worshiping, sexually-frustrated dimwit? Why would you want to have dinner with him?” Well, yes, he was all those things, but he was also wholeheartedly committed to the truth. It would be fascinating, I think, to hand him a giant stack of books on things like the scientific method, empiricism, Christianity, Rene Descartes, the enlightenment, evolution and just see what he might think of them. Would he stubbornly stick to his theories, or would he change his mind? Watching who is very likely the greatest philosopher of all time fidget uncomfortably in his seat would be a wonderful way to spend an evening. Also, I must credit him, the man could appreciate a fine wine.

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