15.04.11, Hildegard, trans. Kienzle, Solutions to Thirty-Eight Questions

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Barbara Newman

The Medieval Review 15.04.11

Hildegard of Bingen. trans. Beverly Mayne Kienzle, with Jenny C. Bledsoe and Stephen H. Behnke. Solutions to Thirty-Eight Questions. Cistercian Studies, 253. Athens, OH and Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications and Liturgical Press, 2014. pp. xiii, 114. ISBN: 9780879072537 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Barbara Newman
Northwestern University

A revised version of this review can be found at .


These thirty-eight solutiones--Hildegard's shortest and least-known work, and one of her last--offer a fascinating glimpse into medieval and modern pedagogy.

Sets of exegetical quaestiones or problemata were not rare in twelfth-century monastic culture. A few sets reveal the potential for collaboration between learned nuns and clerics: Heloise and the Paraclete nuns sent a batch to Abelard, while the nuns of Admont contacted Gerhoch of Reichersberg. But rarely did a male community turn to a magistra for enlightenment. [1] In 1176, the Walloon monk Guibert of Gembloux, spiritually smitten with Hildegard, wrote to her on behalf of the monks of Villers, with whom he had shared his enthusiasm. The brothers had responded with a list of thirty-five quaestiones (later expanded to 38), which they asked the German seer to resolve by divine illumination. Forwarding their questions in a prolix letter, Guibert specified several conditions. Hildegard should pay special attention to the more difficult questions, e.g. about the nature of the soul and the intra-Trinitarian processions, yet make her expositions accessible to "even the simplest soul." She should "knock at the door of the Lord with untiring prayer for the solution of each" until, returning "with radiant face" like Moses, she could illumine their darkness. [2] Cross-references to her earlier works were acceptable, but she should not dare to answer any question according to her own lights. Only new revelations from God would suffice.

If this request was a stunning compliment to Hildegard's authority, it was also a vexed nuisance. Nearing eighty and never robust, the seer was seriously ill. Her beloved secretary Volmar had died three years earlier; his successor Gottfried had just followed suit. Left without support, Hildegard was swamped with administrative duties, as she told Guibert. Nevertheless, the monk pestered her with many more entreaties, once even troubling her daughters with a (greatly exaggerated) rumor of her death. "But if indeed the blessed mother is still alive," he added, "please urge and beseech her...to give full consideration to the questions." [3] He now added a further demand that they return all his previous letters for a collection he was editing.

Hildegard did eventually complete the solutions, though it is not clear that the monks of Villers ever received them. The questions themselves are intelligent, revealing a cross-section of the monks' theological interests. They worry about contradictions in Scripture, e.g. if God created the world in six days, how then could he have created all things at once (Sir. 18:1)? Distinctions between the physical and spiritual planes often arise: will we see God in heaven with our corporeal eyes? What kind of bodies did the angels have when they appeared to Abraham--and with what bodies do the saints appear in dreams? Was the fire that Moses saw in the burning bush material or spiritual? What about hellfire? Wiser than today's fundamentalists, the monks wondered if Christ's parables were literally true or merely exempla. Some of their questions are ferociously difficult. For instance, how does the generation of the Son differ from the procession of the Holy Spirit? What do grace and free will have in common? If every new soul is created by the hand of God, how does it contract original sin? How can we tell our own evil thoughts from those provoked by demons?

Admirers of the newest doctrix Ecclesiae may at first be disappointed by Hildegard's answers. Working piecemeal under unremitting stress, she evades some questions and gives short shrift to others. Taken as a whole, however, her solutions are revealing. With virtually no interest in the literal sense of Scripture, she privileges tropological exegesis. Carnal and spiritual realms are sharply distinguished; neither hell nor the burning bush involves material fire. On original sin, she takes a straight Augustinian line: souls are created pure, but contaminated by the fallen flesh of Adam until they can be redeemed in baptism. Strongly affirming free will, Hildegard states that after any moral choice, the soul is assisted by either demons or the grace of God to accomplish its desire. Dodging the monks' question about the immanent Trinity, she reverts instead to her favorite topic, the Incarnation, in one of the few passages where she speaks in the divine "I." Strikingly, she remarks in Solution 33 that "many" have been astonished by their ecstatic visions of purgatorial fire. This passage, obscured in the present translation, sheds new light on Hildegard's own visionary book on purgatory, the Liber vitae meritorum (1158-63). As we know from Jacques LeGoff, this was a hot topic in her lifetime, and not only among schoolmen.

This slender volume, the first complete English translation of the Solutiones, will call some welcome attention to this neglected text. [4] The introduction rightly points out parallels with the seer's other works, especially her Homilies on the Gospels--another exegetical genre rarely essayed by women. [5] Refreshingly, Beverly Mayne Kienzle, who has taught medieval Latin at Harvard Divinity School for almost thirty years, incorporates these difficult works into her pedagogy. In her preface she obliquely identifies with the aged, ailing seer, acknowledging like Hildegard that she could never have finished this project without the help of collaborators. What she does not quite say is that the resulting translation is student work.

Jenny Bledsoe and Stephen Behnke (masters' students at the time) generously contributed their labor. But their versions, like most student translations, suffer from a painful literalism. As any reader of Hildegard knows, her Latin is idiosyncratic, her thought frequently opaque; hence literal translations tend to produce impenetrable results. In this case, the problem is compounded by awkward attempts at inclusive language, such as avoiding masculine pronouns and translating homo, whether singular or collective, as "the human." In consequence, we find passages like this from Solution 7:

"He will also demand the blood of souls from the hand of the human being; clearly a human being who kills a neighbor and causes that neighbor's soul to depart will always cry out to God the Creator with the grief of a wailing voice in penitence through the mortification of flesh and blood. For by the wounds of death, that one forced the departure of the soul of one whom God had created. If anyone has poured forth human blood, considering it as nothing, without exuding toilsome sweat over this judgment of God, that one will be judged by either sword or poverty or the loss of riches. If judgment is not brought against such a one, it will be brought against the children and grandchildren" (48-49).

One could perhaps argue that, since Hildegard did not write idiomatic Latin, she should not be translated into idiomatic English. But in that case, why translate her at all?

While it is a pity that the students' valiant effort went to press in so rough a form, the parallel with Hildegard's own unrevised work gives it a certain poignancy. Meanwhile, these Solutions can still serve the cause of Latin pedagogy. Precisely because of their literalism, advanced students could use them for valuable English-to-Latin exercises, attempting to reconstruct Hildegard's original text, then correcting their mistakes. In the process they could learn much about her idiom. Only then, by striving to produce cleaner, more fluent translations, would they confront the ultimate question: what was the magistra really trying to say?



1. For a similar case of monks deferring to a female prophet, see Elisabeth of Schönau, The Complete Works, trans. Anne L. Clark (New York: Paulist Press, 2000). Elisabeth was a protégée of Hildegard.

2. Guibert of Gembloux, Letter 105 in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. II, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 35.

3. Ibid., Letter 108a, p. 45.

4. Christopher Evans, who is preparing a critical edition for the Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaeualis, kindly allowed the translators to consult his draft. For a better translation of the questions, see Baird and Ehrman, Letter 105, pp. 36-39. A few solutions are translated in Anne Clark Bartlett, "Commentary, Polemic, and Prophecy in Hildegard of Bingen's Solutiones Triginta Octo Quaestionum," Viator 23 (1992): 153-165.

5. Hildegard of Bingen, Homilies on the Gospels, trans. Beverly Mayne Kienzle (Trappist, KY and Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications and Liturgical Press, 2011); Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Hildegard of Bingen and Her Gospel Homilies: Speaking New Mysteries (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009).

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