Medieval, Science

Hildegard of Bingen

By Sophie Johnston

There has been a resurgence of interest in the figure of Hildegard of Bingen, particularly in female religious circles. But despite increased knowledge of her ecstatic religious visions and contribution to medieval music, few are aware that Hildegard also wrote extensively on the subjects of medicine and natural science. These ‘scientific’ works are amongst the most remarkable and original of her writings, providing fascinating insight not only into the thought of the Middle Ages, but into the mind of an extraordinary and highly original woman.

Born in 1098 to a noble German family, Hildegard appears to have had little formal education and so, as an unlearned woman, and enclosed nun, she was an unlikely candidate for the roles of writer and preacher that she assumed. It was unheard of for women to write theological treatises, let alone for men to take them seriously, but in 1147-8, her incomplete manuscript was read out approvingly by Pope Eugenius III, and Bernard of Clairveaux gave her his backing.

Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe

This support allowed ‘the Sibyl of the Rhine’ to achieve such unthinkable heights of influence that she was to be sent on four preaching tours across Europe before her death in 1179. The role of prophetess, writing down the visions granted her by grace of God, provided a biblically-sanctioned outlet for her creative and spiritual energies usually forbidden to women. As ‘God’s mouthpiece,’ Hildegard could legitimately subvert the natural order, a ‘foolish thing of the world’ chosen ‘to confound the wise.’(1Cor 1:27)

Although her scientific ideas are found throughout her visionary writings, Hildegard also wrote two lesser known works devoted solely to issues of medicine, physiology and what may loosely be termed ‘science’. These were Physica, or the Book of Simple Medicine, and Causae et curae, or the Book of Compound Medicine. Her scientific writings are in some respects quite different from her other works. Where her more theological writings are presented as direct revelation, her two books of scientific writing make no such claims. During the medieval period however there was no category of ‘science’ – theories about the human body, the cosmos and man’s place in the universe incorporated ideas from theology, magic, and natural philosophy. It may be then that the books’ subject matter, the ‘secrets of God,’ allowed them to be bracketed with more overtly prophetic writings.

There are certainly hints of the supernatural and religious in Hildegard’s scientific writings. Alongside many practical remedies in both books are prayers or charms, and Hildegard admits that if God withholds his aid, remedies cannot cure the patient. Added to this are hints of sympathetic magic in her remedies and assessments of the various plants, animals, gemstones and metals. Hildegard is particularly notable for her idea that qualities like viriditas, or ‘green energy’, could be transferred from objects into the people that ate, touched or applied them.

In one instance, she warns against using the leaves of the walnut tree once the nut has begun to grow. She believed that once the nut began to ripen, the succus, or ‘vital fluid’ would be diverted to its growth, diminishing the efficacy of the leaves. Instead, the leaves used in her remedies should be picked in spring when they were “like young girls before they have borne children.” This principle of sympathetic transference could also apply to character and disposition – Hildegard warns against eating the raven, lest his crafty and thieving nature be imbibed with his meat.

In much of this, Hildegard is simply a woman of her time. There are however two major ways in which her work is remarkably original: her adapted theory of humours, and her view of female sexuality. The first of these is absolutely central to her scientific work, defining her whole approach to medicine and physiology. The fundamental theory underpinning both Hildegard’s works is an interesting fusion of classical and Christian thought. In the first place, she bases her understanding of illness on the premise that there are four elements –fire, air, water and earth – which correspond to four qualities – hot, dry, moist and cold. There were also four corresponding humours in the body – choler, blood, phlegm and melancholy, or black bile. An imbalance of these inside the body could lead to illness. This ancient philosophical idea is married with the Christian notion that the earth and everything in it was put there by God to be of service to Man. There was little, according to Hildegard that could not be of medicinal use – all had God-given elemental properties that could be used to cancel out the effects of humoural imbalance. Thus in Physica, Hildegard advises that the ‘dryness’ of quince made it suitable for use as a poultice to draw out the ‘damp’ of an ulcer.

But Hildegard does not simply employ the traditional categories; hers is an adapted system in which the humours not only have different names but different characteristics and correspondences. According to Hildegard, heat created siccum, the dry humour; warm, moist breath created the damp humour, or humidum; blood, which she considered watery, produced spumaticum or ‘foamy humours’; and flesh, which corresponded to earth, produced tepidum, a cool humour Her greatest innovation was to conceive of a hierarchy of humours; she considered each person to have two dominant humours in the body, which she called flegmata, and two minor humours, called livores. Illness could thus be explained by a struggle for predominance within the body: Whence if in any man the dry humour [flegma] outweighs the damp and the damp outweighs the foamy and cool, here the dry humour [flegma] is like the mistress, and the damp is like the maid, and the foamy and cool like lesser and inferior and envious servants, and these last two, are according to their strengths the complement [livor] of those superior ones. (Causae et curae, Bk. 2, 44)
Although Hildegard was clearly influenced by the traditional system, she also thought outside it to create her own theory of the human body.

Hildegard was by no means a proto-feminist; she writes with the internalised sexism one expects in a woman of the twelfth century. The mix of tradition and innovation is in itself an interesting element of her work and when reading her writings, one is presented at once with the theories of a highly exceptional and innovative woman, and with a small window in time, shedding fascinating light on the intellectual and religious world of the twelfth century as it impacted on one German noblewoman.

Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179 : a visionary life / Sabina Flanagan
London : Routledge, 1989
Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen / text by Hildegard of Bingen with commentary by Matthew Fox
Santa Fe, N.M : Bear & Co, c1985
Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings / ed. Oliver Davies
London: Penguin, 2001

You may also be interested in some of her music (though not related to the article), if so:

Hildegard von Bingen – 11,000 Virgins-Chants for the Feast of St Ursula by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen and Anonymous
ASIN: B0000007FU
Label: Harmonia Mundi

Hildegard von Bingen – The Origin of Fire
by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen and Anonymous 4
Label: Harmonia Mundi

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