The most compelling character in Western Europe’s revolutionary Twelfth Century was a woman: Hildegard. She was an abbess, a visionary, a composer and a friend of popes and kings, who defied authority and insisted on the validity of her revelations and agency.
Hildegard grew up in a Benedictine double monastery named for St. Disibod. It was here, at the age of six, that she was dedicated to God by her aristocratic parents as a tithe, the tenth of their 10 children—a forced abandonment which she later vigorously protested in her writings. She grew up as an anchoress, living in a cell with another young woman at the back of the monastery’s church.
But the narrow hermit’s life was not for Hildegard, and as soon as she could manage it, she broke from her cell and became the abbess of St. Disibod’s nuns.
Hildegard experienced visions from the age of five onwards but was pathologically reluctant to make them public: She was unschooled in the scholasticism of her day, and she was a woman. Finally, in her middle years, “weighed down by a scourge of God, I fell onto a bed of sickness,” where a voice told her, “O fragile one, ash of ash and corruption of corruption, say and write what you see and hear.”
From that moment and for the rest of her long life, Hildegard was unstoppable. “The heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming.” Her theological writings and her book of herbal medicine and midwifery, all gorgeously illustrated by her own hand, catapulted her into fame and travel, and earned her respect—even reverence—as “the Sybil of the Rhine.”
Throughout, she remained very much her own woman. Resisting Benedictine tradition, she insisted that the nuns in her charge look like the brides of Christ they were, their hair flowing free and wearing white gowns, jewelry, and crowns on special occasions. She preached that God is not a stern and distant judge, but close, personal, a lover to those who love him. His universe, she said, is infused with viriditas—“greenness,” life, fecundity. Only where the Devil is, does barrenness and desert reign.
And the Devil has no music. He cannot sing. That was important to Hildegard because some of her most resplendent revelations came in the form of glorious, utterly unique songs, culminating in the world’s first opera, a morality drama, Ordo Virtutum—the Play of the Virtues.
“Hearing earthly music,” Hildegard wrote, “enables humans to recall their former state” of heavenly connection with the divine.
Hildegard had no musical training. Her music and lyrics came as visions. For Hildegard, there was no split or argument between the revelatory and the artistic; they were one. And certainly her songs are different from the plainchant of her day. Many have a breathtakingly extreme melodic range of highs and lows, a musical roller-coaster ride, and listening to them transports one to another time, into another mode of being. The melodies convey serenity and stillness, but some also scalding spiritual experiences, as though Hildegard lived not entirely on a spiritual plain, but sometimes on a plunging, pitching sea. What life experiences, you cannot help but wonder, produced this sound?
The answer may be Richardis, a young noblewoman who came to St. Disibod while Hildegard was writing her first book of visions. Richardis was a talented woman. Her aristocratic upbringing meant she knew how to read and write—and she knew music. She quickly became an amanuensis to Hildegard’s visions, including her songs. And Hildegard loved her:
“When I wrote the book Scivias I bore a strong love to a noble nun…who connected with me in friendship and love during all those events, and who suffered with me until I finished the book.” The attempts of any who might attempt to separate the two women, Hildegard wrote, do not come from God who “did not create and choose them, but they arose from the unseemly boldness of ignorant minds.”
My play Virtue dramatizes this turbulent, spiritually and artistically expanding time in Hildegard’s life. I wrote it for everyone who yearns for the Spirit and for Love.
Tim Slover teaches playwriting at the University of Utah. His writing includes the play Joyful Noise (Samuel French), the novel The Christmas Chronicles (Random House) and the screenplay A More Perfect Union (PBS). His plays have been produced off-Broadway and in regional theatres in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
Virtue, by Tim Slover
Plan-B Theatre Company’s world premiere
Featuring Christy Summerhays as Hildegard
Directed by Jerry Rapier
Details and tickets: planbtheatre.org.
Also: Sunday, February 19, 7pm. A celebration of the life and music of St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). See calendar for details.