Hildegard’s Search for Order
Hildegard of Bingen’s work-—musical, artistic, and scientific-—is concerned with creating an order out of chaos, and in this order, giving birth to creation, a sort of echo of God’s creation, what she called viriditas—-the greening of existence. In being concerned with such pursuits, she was in fact rejecting what has, until recently, been considered a feminine mode of thinking for one which has been considered masculine-—the pursuit of knowledge through order, science, logic, as opposed to pure emotion. However, more than simply rejecting one rigid system for another-—pure logic or pure mysticism—-Hildegard creates a synthesis of the two, finding a middle ground in which she could discover the way to make the world green.
We see this most prominently in her work as a doctor and natural scientist. In her treatises on the properties of plants, animals, and minerals, we see her continuing the traditions started in the classical era. There is, of course, a certain irony in a woman continuing the sciences of men like Aristotle, but this is no deterrent. As Glaze points out, "Hildegard's work follows a… chronology… As a medical writer crafting her material, Hildegard did not simply reproduce a randomly arranged collection of shorter treatises… Her sense of textual order was more sophisticated than that of her early medieval monastic predecessors" (132). Hildegard took what would have been "more than two hundred folios of medical literature derived from ancient sources" (130) and put them into her own creative order, so as to establish the place of humanity in the context of God, the universe, and disease. Is this the work of a lowly woman? Indeed.
Moreover, when we tackling sexuality in a positive light, something which is rare in ecclesiastically--produced literature. In the Causes and Cures, we are given various ways a child may develop, based on the way they are conceived. Whether there is any scientific basis in Hildegard's writings on this fetal development is not the issue--they were scientific for her time. What is important is that the use of sexuality and reproduction is seen as a positive thing. It is not simply a means to beget more of St. Jerome's virgins, but is a way to take part in the viriditas of the world.
Just as interesting, though, is the way that Hildegard takes this positive view of sexuality and turns Jerome's--and Western society as a whole--views on its head. Hildegard gives the virgin a way to take part in this viriditas, only through a spiritual means--a type of precursor to Freud's theory of sublimation. In the Ordo virtutum and antiphons to the Virgin Mary, we are shown that though a virgin may not give birth to a person, she is just as capable of giving birth to other creations--art, and music, and virtue. The point of being a woman is not simply to give birth to other people, but to create and take part in the fruitfulness of the earth, both physical and spiritual.
We also see the pursuit of order in her artistic pursuits, namely those of music, theater, and graphic art. Though Hildegard may not have drawn each picture by hand, she certainly oversaw each illumination, and was their designer, making sure that certain "features that have long been recognized as reflections of the visual disturbances typically associated with migraine attacks" (Caviness 113). The art was the result of her visions, and it only makes sense that she would be the final authority on the quality of the illuminations. When one looks at her illuminations, one is often struck by not only by her images of Ecclesia--a powerful and motherly Church, but of her depictions of the order of the universe, especially the piece called “The Egg of Creation,” which forms a type of mandala, the old symbol of the universal order emanating from the omphalos, and the order of the life of man, such as the depiction of the journey of an Everyman soul from sin to the Tabernacle. The illuminations serve the purpose of giving a visual representation of what Hildegard saw as the plan of God, and as such, she was visually plotting the order of creation.
There is no question that the entire basis of music is the creation of order--the ordering of random sounds into a mathematical pattern which gives the listener pleasure. Hildegard "is the most prolific composer of monophonic chants known to us" (Fassler 150), and as such plays an important role in showing modern society the importance of music in the monastic life. Music followed an order--different songs were to be sung at different periods of the day. Moreover, music was used as a form of instruction; it formed part of the rules that the orders must live by, and by composing her own music, Hildegard is as much as creating, adapting, the order to her own ideas about the proper running of a convent under the Benedictine Rule. (How interesting that both she and her contemporary Heloise saw the problems in applying a male rule to a female body.)
As has often been remarked, in her Ordo virtutum the devil has no song; this is clearly Hildegard’s way of elevating music-the creation of order in sound so as to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”-—as well as the music makers, all of whom would have been women. As such, she may be upsetting the established patriarchal order, but in doing so, she sets up a higher order where women are not to be secondary, silent creatures, but powerful figures that can take on even the devil himself.
Hildegard of Bingen was a remarkable woman--abbess, educator, doctor, composer, playwright, and scientist, she communicated to the world a sense of order which, sadly, was ignored until the present day. Hildegard was able to take the medieval misconceptions, beginning with Jerome, about women, intelligence, sexuality, and creativity, and show that by subverting them and taking the middle way between logic and mysticism was the way to creation.
Caviness, Madeline. “To See, Hear, and Know All at Once.”
Fassler, Margot. “Melodious Singing and the Freshness of Remorse.”
Glaze, Florence Eliza. “Behold the Human Creature.”