Saint Hildegard of Bingen – medieval mystic and early holistic healer
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Herbalist, theologian, consultant exorcist, composer and poet – this remarkable 12th century abbess and visionary is regarded as one of the most important women of the Middle Ages. Equal parts nun and scientist, musician and philosopher, naturalist and doctor, she is considered to be the first important naturopath and herbalist of her time, as well as the first female German physician and the mother of German botany. Her teachings, grounded in the harmony between body and soul, continue to be reflected in today’s holistic approach to healing and prevention. According to Hildegard, true health could never be granted from outside/external sources alone. Rather, her medicine saw healing as a multi-dimensional process that required the unity of body, mind and spirit. In an era when few women were accorded respect, Hildegard was sought out by bishops, popes and kings for her sage advice and insight.
Hildegard of Bingen was born at Bermersheim in Rheinhessen in 1098, the 10th (a tithe) and last child of a noble family. As was customary with a tenth child, she was dedicated at birth to the church and the service of God. At age 8, Hildegard was placed in the charge of the anchoress (or hermit) Jutta at the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. Such anchors (mostly women) led an ascetic life, and were shut off – quite literally, walled off – from the world in a small room that was usually built adjacent to a church with only a small opening that allowed food to be passed through and mass to be heard. Their time was spent in solitary prayer and contemplation. Because they were essentially dead to the world, such anchors received last rites from the bishop before their permanent confinement in the anchorage. Jutta’s reputation for holiness, along with her young pupil Hildegard, soon spread and other parents sought to have their daughters join their small Benedictine convent. Hildegard took the final vows of the Benedictine order when she was fifteen. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected abbess, fully responsible for the government and administration of her growing monastic community. She remained here until her death at the age of 81.
From the time she was a child, Hildegard was set apart by her visionary experiences. These visions led her to see humans as “living sparks” of God’s love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun. She spent years recording these visions (along with drawings of what she had seen and her interpretation of them), saying that she “saw so great a brightness that my soul trembled.” This gift sapped Hildegard’s health, causing recurrent illnesses – a link between her visions and overall state of health that she herself recognized. The way she describes the precursors to her visions, as well as their debilitating after-effects, point to classic symptoms of migraine sufferers. Although a number of visual hallucinations may occur during such an attack, the more common ones described are the "scotomata" which often follow perceptions of phosphenes in the visual field. Scintillating scotomata are also associated with areas of total blindness in the visual field, something Hildegard might have been describing when she spoke of points of intense light and "extinguished stars." Additionally, severe migraine attacks are often followed by sickness, paralysis, blindness – all of which Hildegard suffered – as well as a subsequent feeling of euphoria that she also describes. Oliver Sachs, best-selling author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, as well as other books that explore the relationship between the brain and the mind (and the ways in which the physical state of our nervous system affects our perception of reality), argues that Hildegard’s writings and drawings clearly reveal that she suffered regularly from migraine attacks. Importantly, Sachs adds that this has nothing to do with whether her visions are authentic insights into the nature of God and His relation to the Universe.
Hildegard was widely sought after as a healer, exorcist and psychotherapist, and was well known for her dietary and medical writings. Much of her advice – similar to early Chinese medical texts – seems eminently sensible. She repeated recommended a balanced diet, sufficient rest, the alleviation of stress, and a wholesome moral life to all of her patients. She was also a social justice advocate – speaking up on behalf of those who were less fortunate in both means and spirit – proclaiming that each human being deserved the opportunity to develop their individual talents and potential. As word spread about this remarkable mystical healer, she was highly sought out for counseling and healing by some of the most influential people of her time.
Hildegard relied on the curative power of natural objects to heal those who sought her out, and wrote major treatises on natural history and the medicinal use of plants, animals, tress and stones. Her medical texts reflect the fact that Benedictine monasteries during the Middle Ages were often the last resort of the sick and afflicted. As such, Hildegard’s writings represent the final phase of medieval or “monastic” medicine, before universities became the new centers of medical instruction. She very intentionally and intrinsically wove science, art and religion together, each with their own beauty and power, in all of her writings.
Many of Hildegard’s scientific views appear to be descendent from the ancient Greek cosmology of the four elements – fire, air, water and earth – with their complementary qualities of heat, dryness, moisture and cold, as well as their correspondence to four humours of the body – choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm and melancholy (black bile). Specifically, earth provides life force, air supports flexibility, water moisturizes and nourishes, and fire strengthens: all flow together and none can exist alone without the others. Of the four elements, two possess heavenly qualities (air and fire) – and form the spirit – while the other two (earth and water) have earthly qualities – and form the body. Our constitution is ultimately defined by the preponderance and interplay of these elements or humours. Indeed, we still use words such as “choleric,” “sanguine,” “phlegmatic” and “melancholy” to describe personalities. Hildegard believed that dis-ease arises when the delicate balance of these elements is upset – and that consuming the right plant or animal could restore balance and health. Except that Chinese medical theory contains five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water), Hildegard’s writings regarding the origins of dis-ease and importance of balance are strikingly similar to the ancient Asian sages. Indeed, her descriptions of an herb’s qualities and utility would have been at home in any Chinese materia medica when she writes, for instance: “Reyan (tansy) is hot and a little damp, and is good against all superfluous flowing humours and whoever suffers from catarrh or has a cough, let him eat tansy. It will bind humours so that they do not overflow, and thus will lessen.”
Hildegard tended the gardens at the monastery and studied herbs extensively to understand their extensive healing power. She wrote two treatises on medicine and natural history, known in English as The Book of Simple Medicine and The Book of Composed Medicine, between 1151 and 1161 (no original manuscripts exist of either work). In some manuscripts, the two works are combined as The Subtleties of the Diverse Natures of Created Things. They are often referred to by their Latin titles, Physica and Causae et Curae, respectively.
Physica is an encyclopedic work that consists of nine books, the first and longest detailing the characteristics of more than 200 plants. Additionally, there are books devoted to the elements, trees, precious stones, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and metals. The medicinal use of these objects is paramount, with descriptions of their four cardinal properties: hot, dry, wet or cold.
Causae et Curae consists of six books of varying length that proceed from cosmology to the place of humanity within the world. Hildegard lays out her version of traditional humoural theory and catalogs a range of diseases according to their causes, symptoms and treatments. She lists more than 300 plants here, emphasizing medical and physiological theory for their usage. Some of these include: aloe, boswellia, celery, cloves, feverfew, flax, lungwort, milk thistle, myrrh, nettle, poppy, sage, vervain, wormwood and yarrow. Ostriches, whales, vultures, lions and leopards are among the more exotic treatments that Hildegard features, along with their healing qualities.
The three basic tenants of Hildegard’s practice as an herbalist were: detoxification, nutrition and natural remedies – an approach that is not unlike many modern-day herbalists and holistic practitioners. She examined each patient as a whole, including their lifestyle and temperament, not just their symptoms. She would recommend individualized nutritional therapy and herbal remedies to counter-act deficiencies, as well as purifying procedures such as bloodletting or fasting. Essentially, Hildegard sought to purge the body of toxins, re-supply it with wholesome nutrients, and treat specific disorders with herbs and other remedies found in nature. She also believed that God was the true healer. Hildegard also argued that God represented the perfect complementary balance of masculine and feminine – mirroring the Chinese theory of Yin-Yang and the notion of mutual duality that exists within, and among, us all.
As an early nutritionist, Hildegard was particularly taken with the restorative powers of spelt grain (triticum oestivum), which she regularly recommended to her patients for breakfast, mixed with “fruits of the field” – a type of medieval muesli or Chinese congi. She referred to spelt as a nutritious grain that provided “right flesh and right blood.” Spelt was also one of Hildegard’s “happiness makers” – herbs that combat black bile which she saw as a source of melancholy and depression. Today, you can find spelt in most health food stores.
In her psychotherapy text (Liber Vitae Meritorum) Hildegard describes 35 common psychological risk factors for depression, ranging from nerve-wracking anger, to world-weariness, and greed for greater possessions. Indeed, Hildegard went so far as to insist that failure to reach our human potential inevitably creates pathology and dis-ease.
Finally, it is from Hildegard that we receive the word viriditas, meaning “greening power,” life force or vital energy. To Hildegard, nature’s green-ness symbolized the fertile, life-giving force of the universe – a gift from God that allows us to serve as the gardener of our own body. Viriditas is what also allows for the healing energy of plants to be transferred to humans as potent medicine. To her, the plant world and every creature in nature was an expression of viriditas, the divine power of God on earth.
To Hildegard, viriditas was the opposite of ariditas – the “dryness,” “drought” or “infection” that can arise when the flow of viriditas is blocked. Her exploration of the divine force of nature was a way to combat the inherent tension between the life-affirming and balance-seeking attributes of viriditas and the barrenness and dryness of arditas. Physical disease and spiritual decay were the result when the flow of nature’s greening power was blocked. Hildegard believed that wellness required constant vigilance against dryness overtaking our viriditas. Indeed, the pursuit of greening power informed much of Hildegard’s work on herbal healing and nutrition. It was also fundamental to her view of the interconnectedness of the natural world, humanity and the divine.
Never one to back down from controversy, Hildegard ran afoul of church authority late in her life when she gave permission for a man to be buried in the abbey cemetery who had previously been excommunicated as a revolutionary. Angered local church canons demanded Hildegard exhume his body from consecrated ground. She refused, claiming she knew that the man had repented and that his sins had been forgiven. Not satisfied, the canons authorized civil authorities to dig up the body. On the evening before their arrival, Hildegard, vested in her abbess robes, went to the grave, blessed it, and with the help of her nuns, removed all the cemetery markers and stones so that the excommunicated man’s plot could not be identified. Irate canons retaliated by placing the abbey under interdict: mass, sacraments and the singing of divine office were forbidden on premise. Still, she would not yield. Church authorities finally lifted the interdict after Hildegard warned them that those who prevent God’s praises in this life will, in their own afterlife, go to “the place of no music.”
Had Hildegard lived in the 21st century, she surely would have been at the forefront of integrative medicine and the multi-dimensional approach to mind-body-spirit health. Fasting and sweating, detoxification, gem and music therapy, the healing power of a balanced diet, flower essences, and behavioral/lifestyle changes in place of medicinal drugs or surgery were all healing strategies that characterized Hildegard approach to healing. The interest in Hildegard and “Hildegard medicine” over the last few decades is a powerful testimony to her relevance to us today. Many of her teachings mirror those of modern-day holistic “gurus” with uncanny precision – including her emphasis on balance and wholeness.
Moreover, her larger view of the Universe – and the belief that the rhythms of our own mind and body are an echo of the greater rhythms of the natural world around us – parallel the belief of the early Daoists who saw humans as a microcosm that reflect the larger macrocosm of the natural world around us. Like so many of the ancient Chinese sages whose insight proved true millennia ago, Hildegard understood that we do not exist in isolation, but in unity with creation – parts of an encompassing whole. Like creation itself, Hildegard believed we humans capture and reflect the divine light, energetic vitality, and love of the Universe that surrounds us.