RE-VISIONS: Back to the habits of the medieval prophet, Hildegard of Bingen

By Rhonda-Lee Bugg


"Every perfection of the soul, which is not always in act, is a habit." - Thomas Aquinas
"RE-VISIONS: Back to the habits of the medieval prophet, Hildegard of Bingen" by Rhonda-Lee Bugg is an introductory article which explores some new avenues for Hildegard studies. Drawing mainly on the New Medievalism and New Philology this article brings together some new ideas about the ways in which our understanding of Hildegard might be furthered by combining new literary theory, especially that branch of French feminist scholarship being done by Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous with traditional nineteenth century hermeneutics and historicism.

Not in rhetoric alone, then, but in the phenomenon of understanding as well the universality of human linguisticality proves itself to be an intrinsically limitless element which carries everything which -- not merely the cultural heritage transmitted through language, but through everything pure and simple; for nothing that is can remain outside the realm of interpretation and intelligibility in which we have our common being. Hence the validity of Plato's fundamental assertion that he who beholds things in the mirror of speech becomes aware of them in their full and undiminished truth. And there is an equally profound and accurate insight to be had from Plato's doctrine that all cognition is first what it is only as re-cognition; for a ‘first cognition' is as little possible as a first word.
Hans Georg Gadamer

O fragile human, ashes of ashes, and filth of filth! Say and write what you see and hear. But since you are timid in speaking, and simple in expounding, and untaught in writing, speak and write these things not by a human mouth, and not by the understanding of human invention, and not by a human mouth, and not by the understanding of human invention, and by the requirements of human composition, but as you see and hear them on high in the heavenly places in the wonders of God. Explain these things in such a way that the hearer, receiving the words of his instructor, may expound them in those words, according to that will, vision and instruction. Thus therefore, O Human, speak these things that you see and hear. And write them not by yourself or anything other human being, but by the will of Him who knows, sees and disposes all things in the secrets of His mysteries.
Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias

Hildegard of Bingen, empowered with Sapientia, called aloud in the streets and raised her voice in the public squares. Her words covered the earth like mist and morning dew providing moisture, the basic nutrient of all fertility. Called to build her life on the foundation of the obsculta, Hildegard of Bingen ran to accomplish the work given her to do, while there was still light - the light of Sapientia.
Hildegard Ryan, OSB

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German prophet and visionary, often called ‘the Sybil of the Rhine'. She wrote extensively on her visions in a work entitled Scivias, the meaning of which is uncertain but seems to come from the Latin Scito vias Domini, or Know the Ways of the Lord . The work was prepared during the years 1141-1151 and stands as Hildegard's best known text because it contains not only her visions but her interpretation of them through artwork and biblical exegesis. The end of the Scivias also contains one of the earliest known liturgical plays. Hildegard utilizes a great many female symbols as representative of the Church in her work. Hildegard seems to have been aware that her experience, as revealed through her visions, letters, art and music was a valid method of intellectual and spiritual didacticism.
She always fought to have her voice heard, especially because through her it was God's voice and not only hers which spoke. There are many issues about the relationship between ‘self' and ‘other,' ‘individual' and ‘community' which arise from Hildegard's opening paragraph to Scivias, reproduced above. These issues, ones which Hildegard was very aware of, concern identity, both gendered and religious. Hildegard goes to great pains in order to convince her audience that they should focus on God and not specifically on ‘her voice.' This idea has radical implications for current feminists who feel that women have no ‘voice' because it has been surrendered both to man on earth as well as a ‘masculine' God in the sky. It does not seem to be so with Hildegard. This ‘community of voices,' not only God's and Hildegard's but also the various translators, echoes and scribes which make up the work, echoes part of Gadamer's idea about ‘words': words which seem to have no gender, or which contain both genders at once. Gadamer's fundamental assertion, in the quotation cited at the outset of the Introduction, is really that all understanding, universal or otherwise, is universal in that it comes from our own personal world view. In this way Hildegard's voice and God's are one, even as they can only be variants of one another. Hildegard, in other words, can only hear and understand God's voice when it is a voice she has already heard: her own. And so, Gadamer might respond to the ‘visionary experience' by saying all visions are re-visions. A re-vision is a communal experience as well as a personal one. A re-vision is inspired as well as pragmatic because of its fundamental grounding in re-presenting important concepts, ideas, thoughts, in a way that reveals both individual and worldly/scholastic viewpoints. The reasons for these re-presentations are often varied and multi-focused, kaleidoscopic in iconography and intention.
This paper will look at Hildegard's re-visions and re-presentations of the Divine in light of the ‘New Medievalism/ new philology' which came on to the literary/historical scene around 1990. In looking for a fruitful avenue from which I could speak convincingly about the ‘new' medievalism I chose to focus on Hildegard studies for two reasons. The first is because both seemed to flower at a similar chronological juncture. At the same time that there was renewed interest in Hildegard a ‘new' form of medieval textual interpretation was being developed from theories of semiotics and deconstruction. This ‘new' interpretation, though, was one which seemed to have evolved from the ideas of Wilhelm von Humboldt and other Hermeneuticists of the nineteenth century. Using Hildegard as the topic for a New Medieval interpretation is perhaps because her work is both beautiful and useful; the two necessary components, if we agree with William Morris, that are necessary in any household. I believe both the ‘new' methodology of the medievalists as well as Hildegard's writings to be what Maud Burnett McInerney calls "an overlap between the pragmatic and the prophetic" (McInerney xx). It is the hope that a methodology which links theory and practice on an enlightened level is coming into.
The late twentieth-century proved a flourishing time to study the works of Hildegard and consequently a great deal of criticism, scholarly and otherwise was prepared on the female prophet. McInerney, in the introduction to her edited collection of essays on Hildegard, writes that
the thrust of feminist medieval scholarship over the past decade or so, with its emphasis on depathologizing and recontextualizing the experience of medieval women, encourages us to read Hildegard's life and her works in increasingly complex and nuanced ways. The rehabilitation of Hildegard's reputation, in English at any rate, begins with the work of Peter Dronke in his 1970 book Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages and has been carried on by the work of scholars such as Barbara Newman and Joan Cadden in the United States and Sabina Flanagan in Australia, to name only a few (McInerney xxiii).
A great deal of beauty exists within these scholar's voices, regardless of their sometimes problematic scholarship. The point is that with the necessity of feminism within the medieval scholarly tradition, voices and experiences which were not seriously studied fifty years ago have come to light. Those which, we discovered, were not dead but merely had been silenced for years, now are being heard again from an advanced perspective.
For the most part Hildegard studies has focused on the prophet's gender in relation to her spirituality. Her works, originally written in Latin, were translated by myriad scholars in the hope of revealing her word to the world. Work done in tandem with literary theory was part of what aided scholar's interest in this medieval female and her time. New ideas about interpretation meant that scholars were no longer persuaded into presenting literary analysis which focused on facts, statistics, or translations that medievalists might never uncover. Even more importantly late twentieth-century feminist texts were being written that relied heavily on creativity and interest rather than on scholarly rigeur. New categories of literary analysis made work on a female figure like Hildegard seem impressive, fresh, and useful to the cause. Chris Weedon, in a text which seeks to combine feminism and literary theory, asserts,
[t]o practice literary criticism is to produce readings of literary texts and in the process of interpretation temporarily to fix meaning and privilege particular social interests. Feminist criticism seeks to privilege feminist interest in the understanding and transformation of patriarchy. How the feminist critic fixes meaning will depend on the framework within which she reads a text (Weedon 136-137).
For the medievalist there are many implications tied to these ideas.
There has been a great deal of reticence in applying poststructuralist, or postmodern theories to the Middle Ages resulting from lack of textual evidence, the necessity of translation and the reluctance to accept post-enlightenment doctrine. There are many avenues of interpretation, both textual and contextual, which are currently being ignored. The main issue is the relationship between text and context, that which concerns the realm of historicism. Because the realm of literary criticism that has been adopted by most current Hildegard scholars involves a great deal of creativity it has rapidly become a trap where literary and historical veracity has become merely the plaything of the puppet called the literary analyst. Wilhelm von Humboldt, speaking to budding historians in 1821 warned them of this particular danger:
[There] exists a crucial difference between the historian and the poet which eliminates all danger, in that the historian subordinates his imagination to experience and to the exploration of reality. In this subordination the imagination does not function as pure imagination and is therefore more properly called faculty of presentiment (Ahnungsvermögen) and talent for combination (Verknüpfungsgabe)... Two paths must therefore be followed simultaneously in order to approach the historical truth: the exact, impartial, critical determination of what has taken place and the connection of the results of this investigation, the intuitive conjecture of that which is not attainable by the former means (von Humboldt 106-107).
This type of scholarship, which comes from the Hermeneutic tradition, fully supports historicism and text analysis (which focuses on evidence rather than inference). While I do not suggest that all literary critics of the twenty-first century fully support nineteenth-century Hermeneutics it is rather an important point to note that literature-as-text should and must stand as praxis before the analyst applies her/his own interpretive and intuitive/imaginative strategy. Most of the current medieval theory that I support owes a debt to both the Hermeneutic method and poststructuralism, not to mention Anthropology, Psychology and the Social Sciences. Too often medievalists are seen as book-worm scholars uninterested in current theory and methods of analysis. The rise of the ‘New Medievalism' suggests that this is changing, especially with the rise of feminist studies of Hildegard. Like Barbara Johnson I believe that "the question of gender is a question of language" ( Johnson 37) and opening up the boundaries of medievalism to really adopt feminism is the fullest expression of Johnson's idea.
If looking at Hildegard from a perspective which is both historical and literary is now acceptable a great deal of thanks are due to the New Historicists who opened the realm up in the early 1980's. Scholars such as Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Montrose, in summary, argued that New Historicism revealed "an array of reading practices that investigate a series of issues that emerge when critics seek to chart the ways texts, in dialectical fashion, both represent a society's behavior patterns and perpetuate, shape, or alter that culture's dominant codes" (Cadzow 535). It is important to note how theories about identity, context, gender, and history have come together in the new models of medievalist theory.
There are as many ‘types' of interpretations focused on Hildegard as there are texts written by Hildegard herself. Sabina Flanagan, in a recent book of essays on Hildegard suggests that this is because of the broad focus of her work:
Why should the work of this Benedictine nun attract such intense attention nine centuries after her birth and at the turn of the new Millennium? Part of the answer lies, no doubt, in the broad sweep of her interests, from music, theology, ethics and cosmology to zoology and medicine. Nor were those interests mainly theoretical. The subjects over which she let her visionary imagination and understanding play also informed her own activities in the world and her practical alignment with it. (Flanagan xiii)
Hildegard is an inspiration because she could comprehend a great deal and work with great skill in many different areas; she was what we might today call a ‘multi-tasker'. What seemed to be, for the medievalist, about learning about the way the world worked in its intricacies, now seems to be simply about the process of acquiring more and ‘doing it all' in order to prove one's worth. More than these particular differences are the ways in which scholars have interpreted Hildegard's position as a feminist (or not as a feminist). Certainly she falls into the category of ‘the woman who did it all'. Her marriage to Christ and her work with the Church make her truly an overwhelming figure.
Medieval writers loved to play games and used rhetoric to a degree that we, in the twenty-first century, find almost impossible to comprehend. What new scholars need to remember, however, is that Hildegard was foremost a devout Christian; consequently, the mirror of truth and speech for the medieval writer, especially as a visionary, is unending and eschatological. The medieval viewpoint is always on the end of time, unlike our own presentist viewpoints. To this end new types of criticism and interpretation have involved expanding notions of awareness. Their main conduit for this has been historicism. Medieval scholars could benefit from broadening their viewpoint contextually as well as contracting their focus textually. This would result, perhaps, in analyses that cover less material in more detail. In this way they might "depict each event as part of a whole, or, in other words, on the basis of a single event depict the form of history itself" (Humboldt 108). Humboldt's view of analysis seems to relate well to the issue of Hildegard and her writings. We may find, within her texts, a view of the world that is both social (macrocosmic) and individual (microcosmic). This revelation is highly re-visionist because it allows us to rethink the relationship that we have with a text and what I see as the ‘textual community' not as it has usually been understood but simply as all the factors, people and writings that come together in the producing of a medieval manuscript and its transmission.
Perhaps by looking at Hildegard through the french feminists Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous we may find Hildegard studies reflected under a new light. Their understanding of the relationship between the body of the author and the body of the text makes a writer like Hildegard (who did both biological and spiritual work) ideal. This kind of work, although now becoming popular, was not always so. Philip August Boeckh, the brilliant Hermeneutic scholar and literary critic of the nineteenth-century once prophesied that, "[w]hen an age is hostile to criticism, because it is viewed as either pedantic or destructive, either false criticism prevails or true criticism is unrecognised" (Boeckh 144). Certainly studies of the Middle Age have, in the critical past, lived up to this truth. But perhaps not without doing a present credit to the discipline. Boeckh also wrote that the "best critic is swift to conjecture but slow to express judgement" (Boeckh 145). I think we will see that this too has been the case with medieval literary critics and historians. There are already many books being written on Hildegard to help with understanding how a new interpretation would work; of great benefit to this study are those scholars who have been open to new methods and criticism throughout their career.
It is my hope that increasing interest in presenting medieval literature from this new theoretical viewpoint will expand the amount of knowledge we have about the Middle Ages, about women, and about literary historiography in general. Hildegard's work is overwhelmingly inspirational and a joy to behold. By looking at her from a new and more critical perspective I hope that it may appear even more so. It is always with pleasure that, in the ‘light' of Sapientia, we might delve into both our world and Hildegard's, that the two voices succumb and surrender to a higher interpretive power and are seen to prevail.

Works Cited