12.08.02, Kienzle, ed., Hildegard of Bingen, Homilies on the Gospels

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Anne Clark

The Medieval Review 12.08.02

Kienzle, Beverly Mayne. Hildegard of Bingen, Homilies on the Gospels. Cistercian Studies Series. Trappist, KY: Cisterican Publications, 2011. Pp. 224. ISBN: 978-0-87907-241-4.

Reviewed by:
Anne Clark
University of Vermont

The works of Hildegard of Bingen have benefitted from the labors of editors and translators who have made most of her astonishing oeuvre now available to scholars, students, and general readers. Beverly Mayne Kienzle has contributed to both of these tasks: as co-editor of Hildegard's Expositiones evangeliorum in Volume 226 of Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis and as translator of the same text, the book under review here. Kienzle's work on the critical edition, her authorship of a monographic study of the text, Hildegard of Bingen and her Gospel Homilies: Speaking New Mysteries (Brepols, 2009), and her extensive expertise on medieval sermons and preaching, position her to be the ideal translator of Hildegard's biblical homilies.

Now known as one of Hildegard's "minor works," the Expositiones evangeliorum is comprised of fifty-eight homilies on Gospel texts. Kienzle's indispensible introduction to the text, which condenses the deep scholarship in her monographic study, sketches the place of the text in Hildegard's career. With the Scivias and the Symphonia complete, Hildegard probably would have worked on the Expositiones in tandem with completing her other major works. Although the Expositiones share many themes with her visionary works, and also evoke the style of visionary commentary of her last major work, the Liber Divinorum Operum, the sermon collection bears no claim to visionary experience or authority. Kienzle suggests that the collection presumes Hildegard's visionary authority, which is supported by its inclusion in the so-called Riesenkodex (Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek 2), which transmits all Hildegard's writings considered inspired. On the other hand, Hildegard's authority was rooted in her role as magistra, in which she would have been expected to teach the nuns of Rupertsberg. Although the first four sermons may have been preached to the monks of Disibodenberg, the main collection is treated as part of Hildegard's program of educating the nuns in her charge, a responsibility that did not require visionary authority. But even in this role as magistra, Hildegard does not foreground her own voice in the text.

Drawing on her expertise on medieval sermons, Kienzle provides a concise picture of monastic exegesis to fill out the picture of Hildegard's education and to provide the intellectual context for her exegetical work. Central to this picture is the Benedictine liturgical life, especially the inclusion of patristic readings in the ritual of nocturns, which served as the means of teaching generations of monks and nuns basic contours of biblical interpretation. As in her visionary works, Hildegard does not name her sources, but the apparatus in the critical edition identifies many echoes of works by Gregory the Great, Bede, and others. Kienzle also argues for Hildegard's familiarity with Origen, perhaps mediated by other exegetes such as Ambrose or Augustine. Most importantly, Hildegard continued the practice of spiritual exegesis, of expounding the spiritual meanings of the biblical texts, usually relegating the literal stories of the Gospel to scaffolding for her own complex dramas about salvation history or the interior struggle of the soul.

Kienzle also illuminates the distinctive style of Hildegard's work. It falls within the broad category of progressive exegesis, that is, phrase-by-phrase commentary on the biblical text, with some comments focusing even on individual words. This progressive style stands in contrast to more thematically structured sermons. But even though the progressive style is traditional in monastic commentaries, Hildegard's practice is more extreme than, for example, that of Bede or Gregory the Great, who comment on larger sense units, such as whole verses or even longer passages. Hildegard's progressive commentary goes hand in hand with her spiritual exegesis: on the one hand, the Gospel text remains the foundation for her development of her ideas, yet on the other hand, its extreme fragmentation contributes to the larger disappearance of its literal meaning.

As for the translation itself, the text presents unavoidable pitfalls and difficult decisions about how best to present the translation. Hildegard's Latin is difficult and often idiosyncratic in any case, and the progressive style of homily seems to have encouraged her untrammeled associative thinking. In order to facilitate comprehension, Kienzle introduces each homily with the relevant selection from the Gospel that is the basis of Hildegard's homily. These Gospel pericopes are not found in the Latin text but without them, the reader would have had to constantly resort to a New Testament to have any sense of what Hildegard was referring to. Kienzle also prints the glossed words or phrases together in larger sense units of partial or full biblical verses. The initial full Gospel story, the Gospel words being glossed, and words or phrases from any biblical passage within the paragraphs are printed in italic type to distinguish them from Hildegard's own words that are commenting on them. The liturgical context, that is, the day on which the particular Gospel passage would have been read, is also given. Very helpful footnotes also clarify some of the ambiguities in Hildegard's thinking, and sometimes offer comparisons to relevant patristic exegesis. And finally, Kienzle carefully explains her complicated use of quotation marks to distinguish the various voices within the text. All of these aspects of the presentation of the translation make the text more accessible for an otherwise unaided reading.

But the undeniable flow enabled by Kienzle's translation does have its tradeoffs, as there must be with any translation. Hildegard rarely comments on more than two or three words at a time, and so in the Latin text, the biblical words are embedded in homily. Keinzle's regrouping of the Gospel words (and in effect extracting them from the commentary) not only makes Hildegard's expository style less obvious, but it also makes it more difficult to appreciate the levels of meaning that she is holding together in tension in the homily. At some points Kienzle does offer more direct rendering of Hildegard's progressive style (the beginning of Homily 55 is one of the most consistent examples), presumably because the interweaving of literal and spiritual meanings was more comprehensible or more easily translatable in these sections. In general, I think that it takes more work for the reader to understand Hildegard's ideas when the biblical prop or scaffold of the ideas is set apart from the interpretation, with the effect that the symbolic meaning is even more abstracted from the story. This response, however, may be due to my experience of consistently comparing the translation to the Latin text, which is not how the translation will usually be read.

The question of how best to present this complex text raises questions about Hildegard's larger enterprise. Hildegard's extreme fragmentation of the literal text might suggest its near irrelevance to the more important spiritual meanings she lays over it, and also, her greater freedom in interpreting the text. For example, Gregory the Great comments on the parable about a powerful man sending out his servant to invite many to his banquet (Luke 14:16-24) by explaining the man as the Lord who sends out his preachers to call everyone to the final banquet of heavenly refreshment. In the first of her two expositions of this parable, Hildegard explains the man as Adam who foresees the recalcitrance of his descendants and calls upon them to toil to cultivate the earth (Homily 39). In her second exposition, the powerful man is the person "full of the desire for pleasures," who sends out his servant Vanity who calls those like himself to enjoy their desires (Homily 40), a far cry from Gregory's more predictable equation of the powerful man with God. And yet, clearly the story does pose some constraints, and Hildegard finally takes into account the moral threat implicit in the parable: even Vanity becomes part of a larger moral economy that will enforce bitterness and sorrow upon the concupiscent.

Hildegard's spiritual interpretation also points to a paradoxical element in her text. Many of the homilies are about the Incarnation. A celebration of the uniting of divinity and flesh is a central theme, often elaborated by emphasizing the inability of the Old Testament (seemingly personified) to articulate such a possibility. Yet for all Hildegard's interest in Incarnation, she shows very little interest in the stories about Jesus as the incarnated one. The Gospel pericopes are mostly about scenes from the life of Jesus, but in her commentary, Jesus is usually a symbol for something else. So for example, in homilies on Luke 5:1-11, where Jesus instructs Peter to take a boat out into deep water where they then gather a great abundance of fish, Jesus is glossed as God or as Fortitude (Homilies 43-45). So although incarnational theology is often generally associated with an interest in the historical Jesus, Hildegard's incarnational focus in the homilies is much more theoretical, much more about the idea of Incarnation and its overcoming of dichotomies (human/divine; spirit/flesh) than about Incarnation as part of an historical life.

Other intriguing Hildegardian ideas can be traced in these homilies: her concern with the nature of creation and her focus on God as creator; her interest in characterizing the nature of true prophecy, vision, revelations, and dreams; her use of gendered imagery to express her understanding of both psychological and cosmic verities; her concept of the animating force of viriditas or "greenness." In bringing her extensive learning to this translation, Kienzle has provided an important tool for scholars and students in the continuing study of Hildegard of Bingen. Although "preacher" has been one of the many roles associated with Hildegard, this book enables a much more nuanced understanding of Hildegard as an exegete, as a creator of biblical interpretation, the only medieval woman known to have engaged in systematic biblical commentary.

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Anne Clark

University of Vermont