In "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf asks her readers to imagine that Shakespeare had a sister. Woolf contends that such a woman, regardless of how gifted she might have been, would have had no chance to be Shakespeare's equal;... [more]
In "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf asks her readers to imagine that Shakespeare had a sister. Woolf contends that such a woman, regardless of how gifted she might have been, would have had no chance to be Shakespeare's equal; she would have been denied the education afforded her brother and left without the tools to develop her craft. She probably would not have bothered to create, and would definitely not be remembered if she had. The argument is a sound one, but its truth allows for a few exceptions, like twelfth-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen, whose music was vaster than any room she was locked out of.
The twelfth-century mystic, herbalist, theologian, visual artist, composer, and poet was born at B'ckelheim on the Nahe to a noble family who promised her to the Church to serve God. As a 40-year-old abbess, Hildegard frequently experienced divine visions (though contemporary science ascribes them to migraines). Encouraged by the Church to record these visions, the Abbess began a prolific writing career. She consulted with important clergymen and statesmen, and became an influential figure within her political and spiritual communities.
Hildegard, as she is called by her many contemporary admirers, is most often recognized for her accomplishments as a composer of hymns, music honoring saints, and liturgical chants. Her music consists of a single, vocal, melodic line similar to the Gregorian chant. Influenced by her visions, the chants are devotional, reflecting her belief that "humans are the musical instrument of God."
Hildegard wrote down the new melodies she invented from well-known plain-chants, dictating how the separate vocalists should sing each piece. These written, detailed musical documents authorize her as one of the first composers.
The bulk of the manuscripts she wrote and illuminated describe her visions and acts; they are examples of God's relationship to humanity, humankind's fall from grace and redemption, and other canonical Christian issues. Her manuscripts include a history of the lives of the saints, letters to Pope Eugene III and other clergymen, and a spiritual contemplation of the natural world entitled "Liber Divinorum Operum." Hildegard's study of the natural world was sometimes more scientific than religious; "Liber Simplicis Medicinae," "Liber Compositae Medicinae," and "Hildegardis Curae et Causae," reveal her empirical observations of the elements and the animal and plant kingdoms. Hildegard was a master herbalist and prescribed natural remedies for a myriad of indispositions.
Her naturalist investigations include studies in female sexuality. She writes, "When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sexual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man's seed." To Hildegard's already impressive list of credentials, we can add proto-feminist.
Hildegard von Bingen's life with the Church gave her the liberty, the resources, and the audience she needed in order to pursue her intellectual and artistic concerns. A hero for feminists 900 years after her birth, Hildegard did not suffer the fate of Shakespeare's imagined sister. [show less]