Hildegard von Bingen: Sybil, Saint, and Scientist
This post is written in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating the achievements of women in science and technology.
Hildegard von Bingen (born 1098 – died 1179) is probably best known as a medieval religious visionary, literary author, and composer. But she was a woman of many more talents, including natural philosophy and medicine.
Born the tenth child of minor nobles in what is now southwestern Germany, Hildegard was dedicated into church service by her parents (a very common practice at the time). Her religious devotion was, however, genuine; the divine visions she had throughout her life inspired her to write books of religious philosophy and create masterpieces of liturgical music. Although never formally sanctified by the Catholic church, through her works and her involvement with the 12th century church she did achieve beatification, and is celebrated regionally as a saint. Music and religious philosophy were not, however, the only aspects of her multi-faceted intellectual life; she wrote plays and poetry, founded her own monastery, and even invented her own language and alphabet. And found among her lesser-known achievements are large volumes devoted to her observations about the natural world.
Two of Hildegard’s greatest works, the Physica (a medical encyclopedia) and Causae et Curae (“Causes and Cures”), were devoted to medicine. In Physica, Hildegard extensively classified plants, animals, and even inanimate natural objects such as rocks and metals and specified their medicinal uses. In Causae et Curae, she catalogued hundreds of human diseases and conditions and discussed the remedies for each. As medieval medicine of the time relied heavily on the presence and balance/imbalance of varying humors in the human body (known as humorism), any discussion of disease and cure required an extensive background in natural philosophy. She even provided her own interpretation of contemporary humoral theory as part of the framework of her discussions.[1. Sabina Flanagan, “Hildegard von Bingen” http://www.hildegard.org/documents/flanagan.html#causae]
So what is the significance of Hildegard’s works in terms of the achievements of women in science? Of course there is the obvious remarkability of a woman being celebrated (even in her own lifetime) as a writer and intellectual in a masculine society where women were overwhelmingly undervalued as artists, academics, and businesspeople. She is also considered by some to be the first female German doctor.[2. “Hildegard von Bingen”, German Wikipedia http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hildegard_von_Bingen#Bedeutung_in_Biologie_und_Medizin] But more than that, her writings on natural philosophy seem to also foreshadow modern scientific observational methods:
[Physica and Causae et Curae] were uncharacteristic of Hildegard’s writings, including her correspondences, in that they were not presented in a visionary form and don’t contain any references to divine source or revelation. [3. Kristina Lerman, “The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/hildegarde.html]
Hildegard dedicated herself to a religious way of life that her contemporaries would have branded conventional; her religious devotion was sincere and her works never spilled over into heresy. And yet, she explored her own insights in a way that was decidedly unconventional at the time.
Interested in more information? Here are some resources used in compiling this article:
- Wikipedia Article: Hildegard von Bingen
- German Wikipedia Article: Hildegard von Bingen (in German)
- Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/St. Hildegard
- International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies
- Excerpts of Hildegard’s writings from “Other Women’s Voices: Translations of Women’s Writing before 1700”
- Adelgundis Führkötter: “Die heilige Hildegard (1098 bis 1179): Liber simplicis medicinae et Liber compositae medicinae” (German)
- Mensch und Heilkunde bei Hildegard von Bingen (Teil 2: Geschlecht und Charakter) (German)
How did you find out about her? Wow! Fascinating woman.
Wow! Fascinating woman. How did you find out about her?
No offense mom, but this IS what I got a degree in, remember? 🙂