Jo Ann McNamara

title.none: Newman, ed, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World (McNamara)

identifier.other: baj9928.9904.002 99.04.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jo Ann McNamara, Hunter College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Newman, Barbara, ed. Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Berkeley: Un iversity of California Press, 1998. Pp. x, 278. $48.00 (HB) 0-520-20826-9. ISBN: $19.95 (PB) 0-520-21758-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.04.02

Newman, Barbara, ed. Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Berkeley: Un iversity of California Press, 1998. Pp. x, 278. $48.00 (HB) 0-520-20826-9. ISBN: $19.95 (PB) 0-520-21758-6.

Reviewed by:

Jo Ann McNamara
Hunter College

Twenty years ago, when Bernhard Scholz organized a panel in honor of Hildegard of Bingen's 900th anniversary, he found only two other American scholars to join him, Kent Kraft and Barbara Lachman. Asked to chair the panel on the slender basis of my association with women's history, I found myself hard-pressed to find enough material on Hildegard to put together a plausible introduction. Now recordings of her music are best sellers on the classical music charts. Ordo Virtutum has been produced for television. Virtually all her writings have been translated into English and their illustrations handsomely reproduced. She is the darling of New Age environmentalists and widely recognized as a universal genius whose like can hardly be found in any age or culture. A broad array of scholarship has been established and the field is clearly open for more to come. At its center stands Barbara Newman's 1987 book, Sister of Wisdom (University of California Press), built upon her 1981 dissertation for Yale University. With her further work on Hildegard's musical theories, Symphonia, (Cornell University Press, 1988), Newman is unquestionably the doyenne of Hildegard studies.

Having so effectively illuminated the originality of Hildegard's cosmic visions and restored her to the preeminent place she occupied in her own time, Newman has now turned to the task of placing her firmly in her twelfth century setting. She continues to recognize however that the staggering dimensions of her subject's genius require that she be approached from many different angles. Newman modestly disclaims the expertise to do her justice in her many facets. She has assembled an impressive coterie of experts to divide up the job. It is a credit to her authors and to her own editorial skills that they have all carried out their instructions.

The result is an exemplary book, a teacher's dream. Anyone teaching a course on women's history, on music, or art, or any other field where Hildegard makes an appearance will want to assign one or more of the chapters for classroom reading and anyone who needs material for general background purposes will fall joyfully upon this book. The essays are all designed with these readers in mind--they do not pursue eccentric theories and they are free of specialized jargon. At the same time, the authors are seasoned scholars. The essays are original in their assessment of Hildegard's contribution to many different fields.

Newman herself does double duty. She introduces the volume with an over-view of Hildegard's life and times and closes it with an essay on Hildegard as a poet. The first essay incorporates questions raised by the discovery of a life of Hildegard's original mentor, Jutta, in 1992. Thus she can provide insights about the social status of both women and their relationships with the monks of Disibodenberg not available when she wrote her earlier book. Similarly, she uses later scholarship to take another look at the visions. She notes the discrepancy between Hildegard's account and the categories of visions outlined by her contemporary Richard St. Victor. In contrast, the modern migraine hypothesis advanced by Sabina Flanagan ( Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, London, 1989) is shown to explain some but not all of their elements. Nevertheless, while Hildegard saw what no one else in her time saw, she was impeccably orthodox and much of her fame rested on her support of the very doctrines that the Cathars opposed: the divine origin of knowledge, the sanctity of the Eucharist, and the dignity of the priesthood. In contrast, Hildegard was highly unorthodox as a poet. Newman provides a brief summary of the standard practices of twelfth century liturgical poets who generally fitted tightly metered and rhymed verses to the demands of common melodies. She urges a new generation, accustomed to the free verse of modern times to look again at the long-neglected poems that Hildegard set to her own melodies. There is a powerful argument here for placing Hildegard back in a canon that includes Yeats and Eliot.

John van Engen surveys Hildegard's career as an abbess, a courtesy title only rarely granted her in her lifetime. He approaches the story developmentally, tracing her career from recluse to prioress to superior of two convents. Hildegard saw herself as a mother suckling her daughters, protecting their goods and keeping them together in charity. Appropriately, the process of cultivating noble patrons and fighting with the competing monks for their goods gets equal time with the more elevating concern with the spiritual welfare of the women under Hildegard's guardianship. Van Engen carefully attempts to define the exact life that Hildegard formulated for her community. He characterizes Hildegard as aiming for a middle ground between the indulgent life of the "social" canonesses and Jutta's "new model" of reclusive asceticism. Hildegard was publicly committed to the Benedictine rule. Van Engen draws a maternal and pastoral stance from her letters stressing moderation in applying the rule, care and comfort tempering the discipline to draw back rebellious sisters chafing under the regular discipline.

Constant Mews follows up on this commitment in his view of Hildegard as a religious thinker fitting her into the Benedictine tradition of Anselm who was much studied at Disibodenberg and Rupert of Deutz who was very popular in reformed Rhineland monasteries. Thus her attempt to work from nature and natural reason rather than authority and her respect for the sexual act and the complementarity of male and female were not as radically unique as they have sometimes appeared to be. At the same time, her view of creation as originally calm and beneficent, made hostile by the Devil's seduction earns her an outstanding place among her contemporaries. Mews also fits the development of Hildegard's thought into her biographical experience. Thus Scivias, produced while she still lived with the monks of Disibodenberg, contains most of her thoughts on the sacraments and her justification for the male monopoly of the priesthood, a concession that left her free to criticize impure priests. After she moved to Rupertusberg, the hostile relationship between Ecclesia and her ravagers is more in evidence. She lamented the loss of music more than loss of the sacraments in her letter on her excommunication. Mews is very subtle in showing that her consistent support of the hierarchy both masks and justifies a powerful claim for the role of woman as balance and critic.

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, on the other hand, sees her prophetic and reformist role as radical in comparison to her conservative theology. She characterizes her as a "meliorist" in the school of German symbolism (Rupert of Deutz, Gerhoh of Reichersberg, Anselm of Havelberg) employing Old Testament typologies to predict events of their own (New Testament) times. Her approach belonged to the meditative world of the monastery, not the discipline of the schools. Kerby-Fulton places the Sibyl of the Rhine politically in the center of the reform controversies, chastising lax clergy as energetically as laity. She evades the more authoritarian aspects of Gregory VII and his supporters while making plenty of room for the aristocratic patrons of monasteries like hers, even Barbarossa. Her originality is demonstrated by the skill with which she brings forward this centrist position which she prophesies will survive the antithetical extremists of both Empire and Papacy. Ecclesia gives birth to the anti-Christ. The new age will belong to an enlightened lay nobility which will protect her from new ravages.

Joan Ferrante reviews Hildegard's enormous output as a correspondent. Her letters range over the entire social hierarchy of her age and Ferrante stresses both their prophetic and didactic stance as God's logothetes and her expression of personal emotions as in the letter expressing her sense of loss at the death of her former protegee Richardis von Stade. Ferrante concentrates on her pastoral advice to other monastics and some clergy urging perseverance in their reform despite discouragement and moderation in personal piety and discipline of the flock. She examines her network among monastic men and the reverence with which they sought advice from one whom they understood to be familiar with their problems. But her affectionate maternal ties to sister abbesses and other women show her at her best. A letter to the nuns of Zwiefalten sounds almost like a Feminist consciousness-raising session: "a woman ought to remain as Eve was before God presented her to Adam, when she looked not to Adam but to God."

In approaching the question of Hildegard as an artist, Madeline Caviness explores two major problems. Scholarship on the development of western art centers on France, marginalizing the German tradition. Caviness places HIldegard's paintings among others of the period, notably Herrad of Hohenberg, to show that they share a deliberately archaic style. Her architecture is intervisual with other drawings, yet her hybrid portrait of Ecclesia is highly original. Caviness relates the visions to events in Hildegard's life like the rebuilding of Rupertusberg and to her fight against heresy. Her second problem is how to credit Hildegard as her own artist in an age when few artists were known by name and few writers produced their own illuminations. She must be placed with Suger and Herrad who visualized their work and directed others to its realization. She cannot be considered an artistic genius in the Renaissance sense, a sense that no medieval person would recognize. But she should be credited with the "idea" that others executed.

Florence Eliza Glaze sets Hildegard the medical writer in the tradition of the monastic infirmary and the new emphasis on scholastic medicine which were not divorced until the Lateran Council of 1139 shortly before Hildegard began to write. Glaze describes the medical treatises available to Hildegard demonstrating that she falls well within the tradition derived from the Greeks but is original in describing the human body in relationship to natural creation. In this respect her medical writing fits the body into the divinely appointed hierarchy of her theology, the body's composition uniting the four elements which bind its parts into a living whole mirroring the cosmos. The body hierarchy of humors represents health: disease is in the disturbance of the hierarchy as is disease in the cosmos. The restricted circulation of her work may have been due to her own reluctance to publicize it, particularly in the light of William of Conches expulsion from teaching because of his attempt to combine philosophy and medicine. Hildegard was more vulnerable in this area than in her visionary writings where she could claim divine inspiration.