Saturday, 24 January 2015

like a feather on god’s breath

Though not entirely alone among accomplished and influential women of the Middle Ages in Europe, the fascinating life and career of twelfth century Abbess Hildegarde von Bingen did strike me as a pleasant rediscovery and one that certainly bears further investigation to appreciate her contributions fully.
Born as the tenth child to a family of minor nobility along the Rhine, Hildegarde was basically tithed to the Church and given over to a convent at a very young age. Her early life and traditional formative years were punctuated with visions—which were miraculous enough in itself, which she kept to herself, professing herself to be an unworthy vessel and inadequate messenger, and found her voice, so to speak, in middle age. Outside of this context, Hildegarde’s erudition and research—notably including the composition and scoring of hundreds of pieces of holy music (A Feather on the Breath of God was the title of one of her canticles), extensive studies in medicine, advocating the boiling of water of all things, and taxonomy of flora and fauna (which maybe three hundred years later inspired Dame Juliana Berners to group animals together with the most fanciful and creative collective terms, like a murder of crows or a murmuration of starlings) was brilliant and earned her the eventual recognition as a Doctor of the Church (bestowed by Pope Benedict in 2012), but what I find particularly amazing was that her life really did begin at forty and instead of retiring to quiet contemplation—at a time when people didn’t usually survive that long to begin with, really took ownership of what might be called a mid-life crisis and resolved to share her gifts.
Hildegarde’s resurgence in recent years is doubtlessly a grave oversight in history that needs amending but may be in part due to particularly liberated and thoroughly modern echoes in her life that resound with contemporary movements. Though claiming that all of her learning and works were the products of divine inspiration, as a woman she petitioned the Pope and played a major role in Church politics and even preached herself, her homeopathic practises fit right in today, for being a nun she said quite a lot about sexuality and could be considered the first person to pursue a course in gender-studies, not only developed chants and penned devotional songs but also wrote an elaborate musical in a morality play set to her own compositions. Moreover, she authored an illustrated exegesis of her own visions and invented a language and script that was kind of a coded pastiche of Latin and German that Hildegarde deemed more suited for those enigmatic and perplexing revelations that came to her, which she always felt incapable of fully disclosing. Some partial copies of her codex have been preserved but the complete Scivias (some six-hundred pages) disappeared in the tumult of war in 1945 from a vault in Dresden.