Women of the Arts: Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen
By Morgan Ungerott

Imagine in your mind eleventh-century, medieval Europe . It is the age of kings, queens, and knights. It is an age of feudal lords, peasants, castles and the building of the great cathedrals, such as Chartres , and Notre Dame. Europe is not completely peaceful. Small fights, land disputes, and various religious battles rage on throughout the lands. Yet, to one family in Germany , living in a small town called Bingen, something quite momentous was about to occur-the birth of their tenth child they would call “Hildegard.”

It was 1098 when Hildegard came into the world. Although she was the daughter of a Knight, a custom of the time was that the tenth child was dedicated to the church at birth, because the family might have

difficulty feeding the child, with so many others around. So, at eight years old Hildegard was sent to receive a religious education from an “anchoress” named Jutta who worked in a monastery at Mount St. Disibode. (An “anchor” of the church was an even more difficult religious career than becoming a nun.) At eighteen, Hildegard became a nun, and by the time she was thirty-eight, she was named head of the nuns at the monastery.

This story of Hildegard the nun is perhaps unremarkable so far. During the medieval period many young women entered the convent and pursued a life of religious commitment. Hildegard’s story does not end at this point, and in fact will become much more significant.

Around 1140-1150, Hildegard experienced “visions” of meaningful religious events. After much personal deliberation, she finally felt lead to write down and interpret her visions so that what she experienced could be shared with others in the religious community. It took Hildegard ten years to write of her visions, which she entitled the “Scivias” or “Know the Ways.”

Pope Eugenius III became interested in her writings and sent representatives to meet her and bring back samples of her writing. The Pope was pleased with what he read and gave Hildegard and her “Scivias” a blessing. Word traveled fast around the early Catholic churches and many girls and women traveled to meet Hildegard. As a result, her monastery at St. Disibode-which was shared with monks and nuns-became overcrowded. She decided to relocate and create a new monastery just for women on a mountainside in Rupertsberg. Hildegard was instrumental in both the design and construction of the new monastery. It was a difficult process but included one of the first-mentioned uses of metal pipes to bring fresh, running water indoors.

After the construction of the new monastery was complete and the women had moved in, Hildegard returned to her religious study and output. Between 1158 and 1170 she traveled through southern Germany , Paris , and Switzerland on horseback and boat preaching at small churches and cathedrals. Her sermons were reported to be so interesting that written copies were often requested. It was also during this time that she began to compose music, an activity that would help keep Hildegard’s name alive throughout history.

Hildegard von Bingen composed seventy-two songs, which are called plainchants or Gregorian chants. Her melodies have been described as beautiful and ethereal and she is considered one of the most important female composers of all time. Her compositions are especially important because of the male-dominated world of the medieval period. In addition to her plainchants, she wrote a play with musical accompaniment, nearly seventy poems, and nine books. Two of her books were written about herbal medicine and the human body, and the others were about saints and theological texts. In addition, over one hundred of her letters to kings, bishops, Popes, and other leaders still exist. Music, however, was Hildegard’s passion. She wrote: “Sometimes when we hear a song we breathe deeply and sigh. This reminds the prophet that the soul arises from heavenly harmony. In thinking about this, he was aware that the soul has something in itself of this music.”

Hildegard von Bingen died September 17, 1179 at the age of 81. Nine hundred years later her music is available on CD, her books have been translated into many languages, and her writings are collected in important religious texts. The Catholic Church has never officially canonized her, but in Germany she is referred to as a saint. She was an incredible woman, especially when she is compared to the typical role or status of women during the middle ages. Hildegard has been and is a positive model for all women throughout time and today.


Morgan Karen Anne Ungerott grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and attended Cuyahoga Falls High School. Played girls basketball and tennis, class officer, choir member, graduated with honors. She is currently attending Cleveland State University, majoring in Education, and playing on the women’s tennis team.