Wednesday, 19 August 2009

What I did during my summer vacation

Many apologies for missing last month's blog post. I was traveling in Germany, doing research for my current work-in-progress, a novel exploring the life of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), visionary, abbess, and polymath.

Now we shall embark on a brief excursion into the 12th century.

Hildegard was born of a noble family in the village of Bermersheim near Alzey in Rheinhessen. Nothing remains of her family home, but here is the view of the village church:



At the age of eight, according to most sources, Hildegard's parents offered her, their tenth child, as a tithe to the Church. The little girl was sent to the remote monastery of Disibodenberg where she was enclosed in an anchorage with Jutta von Sponheim, a noblewoman only seven years older than herself. Here are pictures of what they think are the ruins of the Frauenklause, or the women's anchorage:




Even today Disibodenberg feels like a very lonely, forlorn place.

Following Jutta's premature death, thought to be caused in part by her extreme aceticism, Hildegard was elected Magistra of her small community of nuns. In sharp contrast to Jutta, Hildegard advocated a lifestyle based on healthy moderation as opposed to constant fasting and mortification of the flesh. She began work on her magnum opus, Scivias, before taking the radical step to break free of the monks of Disibodenberg and establish her own abbey at Rupertsberg on the Rhine. Nothing remains of Rupertsberg Abbey today but it stood just off to the left side of this picture:



After initial hardships, Hildegard's abbey at Rupertsberg flourished and here she wrote on subjects as diverse as medicine, natural science, and human sexuality. She healed with herbs and gemstones; corresponded with religious and secular leaders who sought her advice; and composed an entire body of sacred music. Her visions, immortalized in brilliant illuminations, earned her the title Sibyl of the Rhine.

She eventually founded a daughter abbey at Eibingen, across the Rhine, just above Ruedesheim. Though the original abbey no longer remains, the new Abbey of St. Hildegard, built in 1904, is home to a community of Benedictine nuns who continue Hildegard's work. They also grow and sell excellent wine which you can taste in their giftshop. Hildegard believed that wine was very wholesome! In fact, the Rule of Saint Benedict said that people in holy orders were allowed to consume half a liter a day. Hmmmmmm . . .



Here is a panoramic view of the abbey taken from the opposite bank of the Rhine:



What Hildegard achieved in her lifetime was unprecedented for a 12th century woman. Although Saint Paul forbade women to preach, Hildegard went on several preaching tours and was not afraid of locking horns with emperors and popes. She had to pay a steep price for her independence of mind. When she was in her seventies, she and her nuns were the subject of an interdict, or collective excommunication, which was lifted only shortly before her death. She died, as she had lived, seeing visions of the world beyond this one.

Next month my blog post will return to the 17th century, I promise!

1 comment:

Alison Stuart said...

Is she going to be the subject of your next book, Mary? I can't even begin to imagine the life of a small child condemned to life as an Anchorite! It is a tribute to her tenacity that she survived and went on to such extraordinary success.