In this series of posts, University of Roehampton chaplaincy staff are reflecting, in honour of International Women’s Day, on women who have inspired them. Here Methodist Chaplain Nicola Morrison begins by writing about Hildegard of Bingen.
Hailing from the Middle Ages Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a quiet trailblazer, absolute legend, and, to my mind, the first Queen of Pop! I’m not alone in thinking her to be exceptional and in 2012 she was formerly canonized by the Catholic Church. She is now universally known as Saint Hildegard of Bingen.
An unlikely candidate for a title relating to popular music, Hildegard was a Benedictine abbess who spent most of her life in small isolated community (we can now all relate slightly better to this) which was shut away in an obscure hilltop monastery in the Rhineland, Germany. Whilst much of her work was forgotten until the latter years of the 20th century she was well regarded in her time and has recently gained fame as a writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath of the High Middle Ages.
“Glance at the sun. See the moon and stars. Gaze at the beauty of the green earth. Now think.”
As a musician, theologian and environmentalist I relate to Hildegard’s life and works in a number of ways. Most of all however she inspires me for the fact that in all her endeavours she was a strong, prolific, female presence in a world that was very much dominated by men, in fact this was one of the first things about her that captured my attention.
I came across Hildegard von Bingen years ago through a chance find of a music album entitled ‘Heavenly Revelations’. I was a music student at the time, specifically focusing on ‘early music’ which encompasses the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque period so it was not unusual for me to stumble on a random piece of plainchant concealed away in the dusty corner of the music library. As much as I like the purity of plainchant I normally find the monotony and tight vocal range of it instantly forgettable. But, Hildegard’s music stopped me in my tracks; from the opening three notes it holds a sublimely transcendent quality, is innovative (for its time), has moments of sheer haunting beauty, and (drum roll!) is composed by a woman, which was the biggest surprise of all to me. In all my studies I had never encountered a female composer of early music (now a google search yields a short list of other female composers of this time but none of them well known and none of them celebrated within my music school studies).
On reading more about Hildegard I discovered that not only was she a prolific composer whose music may not have been heard beyond her monastery until the late 20th century, she is also one of the first identifiable composers in the whole history of Western music. Alarmingly, despite being one of the Western world’s earliest named composers there was no mention of her music in any reference book predating 1979 and until recently she barely warranted an entry in the music bible that is ‘The New Grove Dictionary of Music’! Hildegard’s resurgence it seemed remained a solo voice ringing out within a male chorus.
As a lover of Hildegard’s music and maverick nature I am thrilled that in recent years she, and her music, has gained great popularity and status. Now there are hundreds of recordings of Hildegard’s music (so I feel comfortable awarding here the crown of ‘First Queen of Pop’), numerous biographies not to mention novels, popular histories, documentaries and websites hailing her as an early feminist and New Age guru. This attention is not only supremely well-deserved but long overdue as accounts written around Hildegard’s lifetime describe her as an extraordinarily accomplished woman: a visionary, a prophet, a pioneer who wrote practical books on biology, botany, medicine, theology and the arts. She was a prolific letter-writer to everyone from humble penitents looking for a cure for infertility to popes, emperors and kings seeking spiritual or political advice.
The more I discover about St Hildegard of Bingen the more inspiration I find. Although I am saddened that whilst known as brilliant in her lifetime it took over 900 years for her to receive the ongoing recognition and regard that is due her, I am thrilled that her works and in particular her music is now so widely available. I hope you will equally enjoy discovering something of her and be amused to know that Grand Piano in the The Well, Southland’s Chapel, is named Hilde in her honour!
Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you’ve got heaven and earth, and all of creation. You’re a world—everything is hidden in you.
Rev Nicola Morrison is Methodist Chaplain at the University of Roehampton.