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World-Changing Women: Hildegard of Bingen

Updated Wednesday, 25th February 2015
Hildegard of Bingen spent many years wiriting her prophetic visions down, helping the sick and preaching in a time of male hierarchy. Read up on her religious life...

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Hildegard of Bingen 1098 - 1179 Germany Religious Life

Hildegard von Bingen image Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe. In medieval Christian Europe the life-choices open to women were limited.  Although the Church was organised as a male hierarchy, it did offer women the benefit of education and the means to attain some measure of autonomy. One woman who took advantage of these opportunities was Hildegard of Bingen.

Born in the Rhineland, the tenth child of noble parents, Hildegard was educated from the age of eight at the Benedictine monastery at Mount St Disibode.  She took her religious vows in her teens. Having experienced prophetic visions from a young age she spent many years, with the Abbott’s permission, writing them down.  Since her writings had to be subjected to the official sanction of a Papal Commission, her reputation grew and her presence gave the monastery much prestige, attracting visitors and pilgrims. However, Hildegard began to feel constrained by St. Disibode’s and in 1148 she left with her nuns (and their dowries) against the Abbott’s wishes and established a new house at Rupertsberg.

Here, Hildegard cared for the sick, studied their illnesses and wrote two books of medical and pharmaceutical advice.  She composed extensive religious poems, music and a play. But her major works are books of theology, some of which are based upon her visions.  Her surviving works also include more than a hundred letters to emperors and popes, bishops, nuns, and nobility, which reflect her single-mindedness, independent spirit, and refusal to be intimidated by power or authority.

Hildegard travelled throughout southern Germany and into Switzerland and as far as Paris, preaching and evangelising. She died on 17 September 1179.  She was formally canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.

This article is part of the world-changing women collection. All the articles in this collection are specially produced for the How women changed the world interactive tour created to reveal the untold stories the history books left out.

You can also view these articles without the interactive feature here.


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