By Kristin Berkey-Abbott
Sept. 17 is the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen, a German mystic, herbalist, musical composer, naturalist and abbess. Her life was full of accomplishments, an amazing feat considering she lived in the 12th century.
I had never thought of the 12th century as a high water mark of feminism, but female monastics did amazing things during that time period. By studying them, I come away with a new appreciation for the medieval church, where talented women found a cloistered kind of freedom. In many ways, the cloistered life was the only way for medieval women to have any freedom. Cloistered life offered the only protection available to women who lived at the edges or outside the margins of society: widowed, artistic, not wanting to be married, weird in any way.
But Hildegard’s life shows that freedom was constrained, since women monastics answered to men. For years, Hildegard wanted to move her group of nuns to Rupertsburg, but the Abbot who controlled them refused her request.
We all face constraints of various kinds, and the life of Hildegard shows what could be accomplished, even during a time when women did not have full rights and agency. She was an abbess, and because being in charge of one cloistered community wasn’t enough, she founded another. She wrote music, and more of her music survives than almost any other medieval composer. She was an early naturalist, writing down her observations about the natural world and her theories about how the natural world heals us. She wrote to kings, emperors and popes to encourage them to pursue peace and justice. She wrote poems and a morality play and along the way, a multitude of theological meditations.
She did all of these things, in addition to keeping her community running smoothly. Yes, I’m thinking about Hildegard as an administrator, a woman who could be efficient and artistic at the same time. It’s no wonder that I find her inspiring.
It’s interesting to think about the different types of groups who have claimed her as their own. Feminists claim her importance, even though she didn’t openly advocate equality. Musicians note that more of her compositions survive than almost any other medieval composer. Her musical works go in different directions than many of the choral pieces of the day, with their soaring notes. New Age types love her views of the body and the healing properties of plants, animals and even minerals. Though her theology seems distinctly medieval, and thus not as important to modern Christians, it’s hard to dismiss her importance as a figure from church history.
I often say that it’s odd I’m drawn to monasticism as I’m a married, Lutheran female who has all sorts of worldly commitments and thus cannot fully vow obedience. But as I think about church history, I’m struck time and time again by how often monasticism has offered a safe space to women that no other part of society did. I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a tradition that speaks to me still.
It’s a tradition that speaks to many others too: Have you listened to the Hildegard of Bingen channel on Pandora?
Maybe her feast day is a good day to tune in that medieval music. We could listen while writing letters to those in charge, letters that demand more work toward social justice. Or we could focus on other writing projects, as Hildegard of Bingen did. We could plant a healing herb garden.
On her feast day, let us say a prayer of thanks for Hildegard of Bingen and other medieval matriarchs of Christianity.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college professor and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.