Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179A.D.) was the youngest of ten children of a noble in Germany. From a young age, Hildegard saw light phenomena and experienced visionary impressions. Unlike other women of her time, this was uniquely Hildegard, as these inner visions contributed to her works in the coming years. Calling Hildegard a philosopher would be problematic. She is seen most often as a visionary, her works seen as visionary literature. Alois Dempf associates Hildegard with German historical symbolism. It was a historical-philosophical movement that separated all pre-Christian and Christian history into periods and had symbolic typological connections between them. Since women were prohibited to freely criticize and question certain issues in public, the way around it was through mystical writing. Hildegard took great care in her works to conceal her own interpretations as inquiries of the word of God. Hildegard as well as other women used the negative portrayal of women by male theologians and philosophers to justify women’s position of the weaker person as being the voice for God.
Scivias, Hildegard’s most famous work, produces her fundamental conviction of the mutual integration of Creation and history of salvation. In her vision of the universe, Hildegard makes use of the Ptolemaic concept of the world. The vision, however, modified Ptolemy’s concept by referring to the world as an egg (a female symbol.) As well as stating that Earth was men’s abode, and the yolk and the center of the universe. From Hildegard’s overall salvation-orientated perspective, it could be seen that she was fully aware of the consequences of human actions that are for or against God. Her overall outlook was far more optimistic and realistic, in relation to the criticisms of the time and warnings of corrupt human behaviors. Scivias and Hildegard’s other works used feminine symbols such as the moon and the city as well as Synagogue and Church to represent her own body as a vehicle of spiritual connection with God.
The second work by Hildegard focused on the ethics in the Middle Ages, the struggle of virtues and vices. Shown as visionary, Hildegard illustrated vices, which must be overcome by the soul over and over again, as combinations of animal and human body parts. Virtues were contradictions to the vices. According to Hildegard, virtue and the Holy Spirit in men are united and the connection could not be analyzed any more closely. Hildegard wrote about more than ethics and theology, but also about the nature of the human individual in a world with God. In most of her works, Hildegard continuously inserted the idea that the power of women came from their weakness and their association with God; as well as the claim of men being weak due to their strength.
Hildegard dabbled in theology, eschatology, ethics, nature, gender, and the cosmos. When talking about the image of God in men, she was careful to not confine God in one gender and to make a distinction of gender when it came to God. She was very conscious in the labels and the inferiority complex placed on women during the Middle Ages. In all her works, she tried to justify women being on the same plane as men, not inferior to them. More than that, she showed the positive in the weakness of women and the negative in the strength of men. I am not sure whether that would help in elevating women or at least leveling the playing field between men and women. Instead of showing the strengths of a woman, she showed that a woman’s weakness is great, positive, and powerful in its own right. I had not thought about it that way but this view allows women to embrace their own selves and not be inferior to men.
I am extremely interested in Hildegard as a visionary, a person who can see visions of the future. It seems more magical and fantastical than reasonable and concrete. Yet, her visions allowed Hildegard to create and to connect with philosophy and knowledge. Using visionary writings as a mask to her responses against the Church and commenting philosophically on issues was ingenious. It shows Hildegard was an intelligent and bright woman despite her lack of education. Yet, how much philosophy could be interpreted from writings deemed mystical? Were Hildegard's intentions to write about ethics and theology or did they happen to connect? How many other women during this time had to hide their own thoughts and interpretations in God, losing their true ideas?
Chapter 2. "Hildegard of Bingen" of A History of Women Philosophers: Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Women Philosophers A.D. 500-1600 by Mary Ellen Waithe