Barbara Newman

title.none: Baird and Ehrman, eds./trans., The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol II (Newman)

identifier.other: baj9928.9904.015 99.04.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Barbara Newman, Northwestern University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Baird, Joseph and Radd Ehrman. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 215. $45.00. ISBN: 0-195-12010-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.04.15

Baird, Joseph and Radd Ehrman. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 215. $45.00. ISBN: 0-195-12010-8.

Reviewed by:

Barbara Newman
Northwestern University

The book under review is the second of four projected volumes which, when complete, will offer anglophone readers the full set of nearly four hundred letters sent and received by the famed visionary abbess. In its sheer volume as well as its scope, this correspondence ranks among the most important twelfth-century collections that we have. It deserves to be studied not only by Hildegard specialists, but by every medievalist interested in the cultural history of her age. For the collection's ultimate value may lie not so much in what it reveals about Hildegard herself as in the cross-section of twelfth-century religious life exposed by her fan mail.

Since the correspondence raises some thorny editorial issues, I will explain as clearly as possible what the present volume does and does not contain. Lieven Van Acker, the critical editor of Hildegard's correspondence, was able to complete the first two volumes of a projected three before his death in 1994. Because so many of the letters are not only undated, but undatable, Van Acker chose to follow the most important manuscript in arranging the letters hierarchically rather than chronologically. Thus his first volume (Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaeualis, Vol. 91 [Turnhout: Brepols, 1991]) includes all of Hildegard's correspondence with popes, archbishops, and bishops ("Class 1") as well as the first portion of her correspondence with monasteries, arranged in alphabetical order from Albon through Ebrach ("Class 2"). Van Acker's second volume ( Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaeualis, Vol. 91A [Turnhout: Brepols, 1993]) contains the remaining letters in Class 2, with monastic correspondents from Ellwangen through Zwiefalten. Hildegard's exchanges with unidentified religious, her letters to lay correspondents, and a few of her occasional writings are to appear in a third volume, now in the hands of Monika Klaes.

When Joseph Baird and Radd Ehrman published their first English volume in 1994, it included all ninety letters in Van Acker's first volume. For Volume II, the match is less tidy. Baird and Ehrman now offer Letters 91-217, with monastic correspondents from Ellwangen through Trier. This discrepancy between the Latin and English editions occurs because, regrettably, Van Acker's second volume offered only Hildegard's side of the exchange with two of her most important correspondents, Guibert of Gembloux and Elisabeth of Schoenau. Baird and Ehrman, using separate editions of Guibert and Elisabeth, have happily reunited Hildegard's incoming with her outgoing mail, thus sparing the reader much vexation. But Guibert's letters, while fascinating, tend to be prolix, so the space they occupy has displaced the final batch of monastic epistles (218-250, Trier through Zwiefalten) to the third volume of the English edition, which in turn awaits the final volume of the Latin.

Hildegard's correspondents in Volume II include eighteen abbesses and thirty-eight heads of male communities (abbots, provosts, and deans). Many of these colleagues express a degree of reverence for the visionary that surpasses even the effusive conventions of epistolary style then in vogue. Hildegard is "the refulgent glory of sacred religion," writes an abbot of Pfalzel (p. 144); to her friend Sophia, abbess of Kitzingen, she is "the instrument of the Holy Spirit foreordained for the chimes of so many virtues, mystically embossed with so many miracles" (p. 95). Some of these correspondents had never met Hildegard, yet begged her plaintively for an "admonition" or "consolation" straight from the mouth of God. A sizable number -- twelve abbots, four abbesses -- sought permission to resign their burden of leadership, but instead received exhortations to remain in office and weed the Lord's garden or chastise his erring sheep. Hildegard advised abbots to discipline their monks with maternal solicitude, and warned abbesses to moderate the rigor of their fasting. Her language is as steeped in biblical rhetoric as any monk's, yet, in striking contrast to the letters she received, the ones she wrote display only superficial traces of epistolary form. Omitting conventional salutations, she plunged directly into her message or, when a higher style was needed, began by identifying her voice as that of Wisdom, the Serene Light, "He Who Is," or some other sobriquet for God.

Often the letters tantalize by their vagueness, since prudence required that juicy particulars be entrusted to the bearer rather than the parchment. Reading between the lines, however, we can surmise that a provost in Mainz, apparently homosexual, had almost despaired of salvation because of his "abominable iniquity" (p. 118), while an abbot in Cologne, tempted to atheism, thought his doubts "so unusual and unbelievable" that no mortal could credit them. If Hildegard answered the provost, her reply has not survived. But she consoled the abbot with a proto-Cartesian argument: "whoever says in his heart that God does not exist is also saying that heaven and earth, and all things living in God and with God, do not exist, and is, moreover, denying his own existence. How very foolish it is for a person who sees himself and knows himself to say in his doubt, 'I do not exist'" (p. 101).

Amid the anxieties and longings of these religious, so hungry for the direct access to God that they believed Hildegard could offer, we detect an occasional whiff of polemic. Her beloved secretary Volmar, in his only surviving letter (ca. 1170), excoriates the vanity of students who "undertake difficult journeys into remote parts of the world to seek out the teachings of various men . . . [and] sweat over the profundity, or, rather, the enigma, of sententiae" (p. 168). These scholastics "extinguish the spark of God's Spirit by their contempt for it," Volmar inveighs -- but, to confound their arrogance, the Spirit has poured divine wisdom abundantly into Hildegard's "fragile vessel." The abbess herself takes a similar line with an abbot of Heilsbronn, complaining about "certain men" who wish to know all things in their intellectual pride, yet "hate the success of those who walk in the straight path" (p. 62). In this case Hildegard's language, reminiscent of the Cistercians' ferocious attacks on Abelard, has been toned down by the translators. They let her refer to the schoolmen metaphorically as a "diabolical crowd" and a "generation of malignant spirits," whereas her Latin text accuses them of acting on the instigation of literal demons. Such exchanges shed a revealing light on Hildegard's reputation. One reason she attracted such devotion was that Benedictines and Cistercians alike saw her as their shining bulwark against scholasticism, with its spiritual emptiness and professional puffery.

The apogee of this fervor is represented by Guibert of Gembloux, the Belgian monk who became Hildegard's confidant, secretary, and publicist at the end of her life. Guibert's enthusiasm for the seer knew no bounds. Before he ever set eyes on her, he was already praising her as "unique among women," second only to Mary, and when she finally graced him with the now-celebrated letter describing her visions, he laid it on the altar and prayed before presuming to read it. Nor was this youthful ebullience: Guibert was about fifty at the time, while Hildegard was seventy-seven. If we can posit a twelfth-century brand of New Age spirituality, Guibert's florid prose is its medium: he was overcome with joy to encounter a real, live mystic. The monk's letters also have a historic significance, for it was his network of epistolary connections that linked Hildegard with the hagiographically-minded monks of Villers and, through them, the beguines of the next generation. A highlight of this volume is letter 105, which includes thirty-five difficult scriptural queries addressed by the Villers monks to Hildegard. Despite their relentless nagging, the monks never received the ailing seer's replies, so it is fitting that we too must await a later volume to peruse them.

Among other points of interest, Volume II contains Hildegard's correspondence with some of her closest friends, including Manegold, abbot of Hirsau; Philip, abbot of Park; Elisabeth of Schoenau; and Ludwig, abbot of St. Eucharius in Trier. A few texts in this volume are not letters at all, but sermons or treatises, including the apocalyptic "Kirchheim prophecy" (letter 149r); a set of homilies and liturgical texts directed to the Rupertsberg nuns (letters 192-194); and an anti-Cathar screed (letter 169r) written in July 1163, only weeks before several heretics were burnt alive at Cologne. The collection also includes Elisabeth's even more strident anti-Cathar sermon (letter 202/203), evidence of the two women's active participation, along with Elisabeth's brother Ekbert, in a well-orchestrated campaign against heresy.

Finally, a word on the translators' achievement. Hildegard's odd Latin has brought many a translator to grief, and her idiom in these letters is as demanding as ever. Baird and Ehrman strive for, and generally attain, a clear English that irons out the grammatical awkwardness of the Latin while retaining the mixed metaphors so endemic to Hildegard's style. Of course one might argue with particular choices. In an especially dense letter to Dieter of Maulbronn, Hildegard -- speaking as "the Wise Man of the bold light" (prudens uir audacis lucis) -- apostrophizes the abbot in a long series of figures, including this one: "O fortis ligatura, torque mammas uoluptatum pullulantium uitiorum." Baird and Ehrman render this as, "O strong bond, turn aside the breasts of burgeoning desire for vice" (p. 130). But the image Hildegard had in mind seems to have been a medieval analogue of the sports bra: "Like a tight breastband, flatten the breasts of pleasures that nurse infant vices." Having masculinized her own voice, in short, she proceeds to feminize the abbot. Quibbles aside, however, this translation is a fine piece of work, as lucid as any Hildegard is likely to get. In their endnotes, Baird and Ehrman have thoughtfully supplied the Latin for more than sixty passages of special difficulty, and they have provided both a scriptural and a topical index.