HistoryExtra Women of the Middle Ages Masterclass: Hildegard of Bingen with Janina Ramirez

Our three-part virtual lecture series hosted by historian and host Janina Ramirez offers a new look at the medieval world through the women who are usually written about it. This second session examines how our modern understanding of terms such as ‘nun’ and ‘convent’ shaped our understanding of the intellectual and creative abilities of medieval women. Focusing on the individual Hildegard of Bingen, discover an environment in which men and women could become talented polymaths and change the world around them through education, writing, and political activism.


Who was Hildegard of Bingen?

Janina Ramirez presents the ultimate Renaissance woman, Hildegard of Bingen

It is often assumed that medieval women were deprived of education from childhood and deprived of the resources they would need to match their male counterparts. Yet the achievements of Hildegard of Bingen – a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic and visionary who inspired a cultural renaissance from her native Rhineland in the 12th century – have long challenged this assumption.

Atop a hill in a remote part of the German countryside, the abandoned medieval monastery of Disibodenberg is where we come closest to Hildegard of Bingen. In these evocative ruins 900 years ago, she quietly and patiently developed her knowledge and range of talents to become one of the great polymaths of the medieval world.


Listen | In 15 minutes of fameJanina Ramirez explains why Hildegard of Bingen deserves more recognition


Medieval monasteries were distinctly gendered sites. In Disibodenberg, the monks dominated the buildings, from the church to the refectory. But on the northern outskirts was another small community that was separate, but could nonetheless benefit from this rich cultural environment: a group of young nuns. It was there, in a cell adjoining a tiny church, that Hildegarde came as a child and lived locked up until her forties.

When her mentor and abbess, Jutta, died in 1136, Hildegard became hers. Luckily, she would live to be 81 for a long time and it was this longevity that helped etch her name in the pages of history. But it is also her charisma, her passion and her intelligence that made Hildegard recognized as Sibyl of the Rhine and adviser to popes and emperors.

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Even today it is remarkable for an author to have his collected works compiled into a single volume. But that’s what survived in the Riesencodex, which was written at the time of his death. Almost lost after World War II and only saved thanks to the daring exploits of two women (Margarete Kühn and Caroline Walsh, who stole the Risencodex of the post-war Soviet authorities and brought it back to the nuns of Eibingen), this enormous manuscript shows the full extent of Hildegard’s achievements.

A 13th century depiction of Hildegard of Bingen (centre) receiving a vision in the presence of her secretary and confidante (Photo by Fine Art Images)

Building a Women-Centered World

Hildegarde excelled in every area she turned to. She wrote theological texts of great mystical originality, based on the visions she had experienced since childhood. His letters to the good and the great of the medieval world show his ability to influence the politics and opinions of his time at the highest level. Yet the intimacy of her personal correspondence with her loyal worshipers shows that she could passionately connect with people on a human level. “Your divine absence has made me drunk with the wine of sorrow,” wrote one such follower, a nun called Gertrude, lamenting the fact that she had yet to meet Hildegard in person.

Hildegarde’s scientific works, which range from natural history to the first description of a female orgasm, are based on decades of work in hospitals and on the special needs of women. His artistic abilities were showcased in the psychedelic illuminations of his lyrics, while his contributions to music were extraordinary. Unlike other composers of her time, Hildegard’s songs and singing style leap across octaves in an attempt to capture the celestial through sound. She even invented her own language.

The woman-centered world she built, especially in the spiritual realm, showed the church as a nurturing mother and Love and Wisdom symbolically as women. But in the temporal realm too, she led a powerful community of influential nuns in her convent in Bingen. Here, art, music and education allowed the women around him to become increasingly ambitious and to play increasingly important roles in 12th-century Europe.

Janina Ramirez is a cultural historian, broadcaster and author based at the University of Oxford. His latest book is Femina: A new history of the Middle Ages, through the women who are written about it (WH Allen, 2022)

This text first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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