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Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen, considered a prophet by her contemporaries, was a Benedictine abbess, writer, and composer.  Her accomplishments and her standing are extraordinary, particularly as she remains virtually the only known female figure of her time who achieved such intellectual stature and whose contributions have had lasting impact.

Dedication to the Church

Hildegard was born in 1098 at Bermersheim, near the German city of Mainz.  Godfrey of Disibodenberg, her secretary and first biographer, cites her parents’ names only as Mechtilde and Hildebert.  Apparently they were members of the local free nobility, who decided to dedicate Hildegard, their tenth child, to the Church. 

This commitment meant that at around the age of eight, Hildegard entered enclosure at the monastery of Disibodenberg with an anchoress named Jutta.  Hildegard’s early education, guided by Jutta and a Disibodenberg monk, emphasized prayer and recitation from the Book of Psalms.  She also learned to read and write and eventually took the veil around the age of fifteen.  It is unclear whether or not she received musical instruction.

Jutta’s mentorship of Hildegard certainly guided the path that Hildegard ultimately took.  Jutta was the daughter of a count, and her beauty and spirituality eventually attracted a number of followers like Hildegard.  As their numbers increased, Jutta became the head of what grew into a convent, which Hildegard subsequently joined. 

The relationship between the two women was such that Jutta was the first person whom Hildegard told about her visions.  In her writings, Hildegard reported that she began to experience visions at the age of three as a young and sickly child in Bermersheim.  The visions continued during her early years at the convent, but she confided only in Jutta, and, later, in her teacher and secretary, a monk named Volmar.  She was plagued throughout her life with bouts of ill health, often directly linked to her visions.  Today, Hildegard’s experiences are often considered symptomatic of a certain type of migraine.

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Hildegard was dramatized in a 1994 movie starring Patricia Routledge as Hildegard.

Public Revelations and Major Compositions

There is little information regarding Hildegard’s life at the convent between her profession ceremony and the time at which she eventually succeeded Jutta as leader of the sisters.  The bestowing of this office occurred upon Jutta’s death in 1136, when Hildegard was about thirty-eight-years old. 

Four years later, when she was forty-two, Hildegard experienced an especially remarkable vision, from which she understood that she was to be charged with the duty of transcribing and communicating her revelations.  Silent no longer, in Latin she wrote down what she saw throughout her long life.  The resulting documents, accumulated over more than three decades, are comprised of Scivias (possibly shortened from Sci vias Domini, or “Know the Ways of the Lord”), Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits), and Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works).  

The first of these, Scivias, includes fourteen texts recorded in later manuscripts with music.  Found among various German sources, there are seventy-seven notated songs attributed to Hildegard.  These mostly include antiphons  and responds, as well as some sequences and hymns, the texts of which, in combination, correspond to a liturgical cycle.  For these works, Hildegard contributed both the Latin texts and the melodies, which were notated in neumes.

She also produced a musical morality play, Ordo virtutum (Play/Ritual of the Virtues), the earliest documented example of this genre, for which she wrote the verse and eighty-two songs.  While the precise dates of composition remain unknown, it has been suggested that the songs in Scivias and in the morality play were completed some time before 1151.  In addition to her religious writings, Hildegard penned two volumes on scientific and medical subjects, Physica (Natural History) and Cause et curae (Causes and Cures).  These have been dated from the period between 1150 and 1160.

Final Noteworthy Achievements and Canonization

Around 1150, Hildegard moved her religious community to a new site at Rupertsberg, near Bingen.  There she was recognized as an abbess, wrote many of her major works, and developed an impressive reputation outside of her convent.  In the 1160s and 1170s she embarked upon several preaching tours to other religious communities and public sites, an activity almost never undertaken by women at the time.  There is evidence that she was also a highly sought healer and exorcist.  Moreover, she maintained correspondence with important political figures of the day, including the German king and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III.  It is noteworthy that in 1165, Hildegard oversaw the establishment of a second convent in Eibingen, on the opposite side of the Rhine from Bingen.

In her final year, the convent at Rupertsberg suffered a sentence of interdict, due to a conflict with the clergy in Mainz over the burial location of a man thought to have been excommunicated before his death.  The interdict, which placed severe restrictions on the daily religious activities of the nuns, was lifted at last in the spring of 1179, the same year that Hildegard died.  The details of Hildegard’s death are not recorded in her Vita, begun by Godfrey and completed by Theodoric of Echternach in Trier, nor in the work of Godfrey’s successor at Rupertsberg, Guibert of Gembloux.  It is known, however, that she died peacefully on September 17, 1179.  

While there is no extant official document of her canonization, there is evidence that certain steps were taken in the process.  By the thirteenth century, martyrologies included Hildegard’s name and assigned her a feast day (September 17).  She is therefore considered a saint.  In later Medieval literature, she is also referred to as the “Sybil of the Rhine.”


A revived interest in Hildegard’s works began in the 1980s and early 1990s, initiated with the 1982 recording A Feather on the Breath of God.  This award-winning album featured the group Gothic Voices and soprano Emma Kirkby as guest soloist.  However, the strongest public attention directed at Hildegard’s music came from several other sources: the “new age” chant craze in the mid-1990s; a new feminist scholarly interest in the forgotten female figures of Western music history; the increasing strength of the early music/historical performance movement; and the 900th anniversary of Hildegard’s birth.  Among recordings of music by Hildegard, those by the groups Sequentia and Anonymous 4 are particularly well-regarded. 


Bain, Jennifer.  “Hildegard on 34th Street: Chant in the Marketplace.”  Echo 6 (2004). 27 Jan. 2006 <>.

Bent, Ian D., and Marianne Pfau. "Hildegard of Bingen." The New Grove Dictionary of  Music and Musicians.  Vol. 9.  Eds. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell.  London: Macmillan, 2001. 493-9.

Flanagan, Sabina.  Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life.  London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Grout, Donald Jay, and Claude V. Palisca, eds.  A History of Western Music.  5th ed. New York and London: Norton, 1996.