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Falling in and out of love with Hildegard of Bingen

Or: how my mind really works

Tracey Martin

I had a project. I wanted to change the way we (who is we? - everyone?) speak about the more than human. I wanted to find a way to express that we are not just connected, not just part of but somehow are nature – and nature is us. (I’m not a fan of the word ‘nature’ - I think it’s part of the problem. But I haven’t yet found a better word.)

Nature – let's call it life – but does that exclude rocks? -cannot be divided into parts.

Humans have spoken and written about in a certain way for centuries – when I say humans, do I mean all humans or just those of us who are products of or have been subjugated by the dominant white, scientific, patriarchal society – which might be most of us by now. So how can we use different language and/or use language differently? At first I thought it might be as simple as talking about other than humans as if they were humans – using he and she and they, even better using ‘we’ to mean the whole of being, the universe. (This is of course not a new idea – numerous indigenous languages do this already.)

I really struggled with this. There are poets who have explored this. Alice Oswald lets the river speak in ‘Dart’, Jorie Graham explores the boundaries humans have put up between themselves and the rest of life and the consequences of that in ‘[To] the last [be] human’.

How we came to keep on living

but to no longer be


Jorie Graham, from ‘Although’ in the collection Sea Change

I’m a poet but not a great poet. I’m not sure I can produce anything that is better than what is already being done.

And who are humans speaking to but humans? I have to admit to being rather fond of humans. I know they/we have caused great destruction but I’ve spent most of my life trying to help (not always very successfully) humans. I am one myself, after all. Can I be and work in a way that accepts humans as at one with/inseparable from the whole of life. What happens to human rights? What happens to our relationships with each other?

Christianity has been influenced by and has influenced the way we talk about the more than human. God as an all-powerful ‘superhuman’ entity has supposedly given humans a special place in the world, made the earth for them and placed them above other living beings.

Even the more benign interpretation that has recently been given to ‘stewardship of the earth’ as taking care of it for God is problematic. It still suggests superiority and that humans know best. Humans might occasionally give up something so that the whole can benefit. But who makes these decisions? And what usually happens is that the humans who suffer are not the ones with the power.

All this is background (or foreground?) for how I came to have a brief love affair with Hildegard of Bingen. For those of you who have not met her before, Hildegard was a 12th century nun who wrote, composed music, gave advice to popes and kings and ran a community of nuns in Germany near the town of Bingen. She was belatedly made a saint by the Catholic Church in 2012, riding on a wave of renewed interest in her music and her writings about, among other things, ‘viriditas’, greenness.

It was my supervisor who suggested I might like to explore Hildegard. It was not the first time I had come across her. I read her first in Jane Hirshfield’s anthology ‘Women in Praise of the Sacred’. There was a flourishing of female mystics and poets around this time in Europe – though their works are in many cases only just beginning to be appreciated.

I was intrigued by this woman who, in a time when women were quite constrained, seemed to have been thinking about the relationship between God and human and nature quite differently from the established Church. I also discovered that she had invented a new language – an alphabet and some words – though no-one knows why she did this or what her intention was.

Let me be frank. I don’t read Latin, the texts I had access to were not complete, were selected by others and some at least had been translated into English via German. So I came to Hildegard through several veils, so to speak. And mainly I read what others thought about her. Feminists love her as do musicians, religious environmentalists, a whole host of people. Why?

Well, she was a woman who spoke up at a time when women weren’t encouraged to do so. She told popes and kings what she thought of them and their actions. She wrote (though she had a male scribe for much of the time), she composed religious music, she studied the healing properties of plants and she wrote about spirituality and humans’ relationship with God and with the planet.

Her unknown language fascinated me. The list of words is eclectic ranging from the hierarchies of the church to plants to body parts – including genitalia, which upset later generations of scholars - ‘not something a virgin should be writing about’ (as though nuns aren’t allowed to know basic anatomy) - and possibly one of the reasons the Catholic Church didn’t make her a saint till 2012.

Some examples:

Pusinzia, “snot” Baiezinzia, “southernwood”

Gulzia, “palate” Ruzia, “rose”

Gruzia, “esophagus” Fulzia, “marigold”

There is only one example of her actually using the language – in a chant – otherwise it remains a list of words and a collection of letters. I was reminded of Katie Holten’s tree alphabets – but these were used to engage people and to draw attention to trees.

And then there is Hildegard’s concept of ‘viriditas’ - greenness, which Sarah L Higley describes as ‘all that is spiritually creative and filled with the sap of divine life’. She uses flowers and plants to describe her spiritual experiences and the visions she had – yes, should have mentioned those, possibly caused by migraines according to Oliver Sacks – and she had them illustrated (some people think she painted them herself) in wild illustrations of her works. For her, humans, in order to be in right relationship with God need to reconnect and be in right relationship with nature. Humans had become sinful or arid.

Let’s be frank. All her writing is based on the premise that God created the world and humans have a special place in it. On the other hand, she is also clear that humans (she sometimes hints that she thinks men in particular) have made a mess of it. The answer for her is to return to our essential greenness which we share with other living things:

‘know that you are a plant and know, furthermore, that your knowledge, hued with a fading green, is the afterglow of vegetal growth’

Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias – translated by Michael Marder

The idea of reconnecting with my greenness appealed to me. Not just communing with trees but actually experiencing my own greenness. I wanted to express this or experience it artistically so I started drawing only in green. I am not artist but I thought that by exploring greenness in this way I would gain some insight into what it means to be nature. Lacking a natural capacity to see visions, I had to find some other way in. I also listened to Hildegard’s music – even 12th century nuns have playlists on Spotify these days.

And, even though my greens were made of chemicals, oil and other evil substances and the music was mediated through modern interpretations and a computer, it did its work. Maybe my experience would have been more authentic if I’d squeezed natural dyes from the plants in my windowbox and hired a musician specialising in medieval instruments (no-one actually knows what instruments were played as Hildegard’s nuns chanted) but time and money were tight. I did commit to only using greens and paper that I already had or were given to me.

For a while, she had me in her grip. She was the woman who had done everything – well, apart from have children which might explain why she had time to do everything in the first place.

Then, as I kept reading about her, some doubt crept in. Hildegard only admitted the daughters of wealthy families into her convent. It made financial sense – as brides of Christ they brought dowries with them – but I suspected something else might be going on there. On feast days she dressed them in virginal white with much ornamentation – even at the time this was felt to be a bit ‘off’. On the other hand, why should the bishops get all the fancy outfits? In her letters she could be crabby and sometimes frankly rude. Again, granted, she was dealing with some pretty unpleasant men who thought nothing of having the people they didn’t like murdered and three of whom were competing to be seen as ‘the one true pope’ at the same time.

And all this time the women at the convent could only worship if there was a priest to officiate. So in the last years of her life when Hildegard allowed someone who had been excommunicated to be buried within the convent, the local bishop denied the convent the services of a priest. Hildegard was forbidden to perform her music or hold religious services. Why didn’t the women just go ahead and do it themselves you might ask? I’m sure they knew all the words. But Hildegard never challenged the hierarchy of the church. Even as she was castigating the men for their failings, she never suggested that women might be able to do a better job.


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