Miller: Hildegard von Bingen,12th-Century Feminist

photos-11-powerful-women-that-make-men-and-other-women-squirm-image1
Photos: Women Who Make Some People Squirm Jewel Samad / AFP-Getty Images

Lest one imagine that female achievement and ambition is a new phenomenon, the life of Hildegard von Bingen stands as a stark corrective. Hildegard lived in the 12th century. Born to a noble family, she was raised from childhood in a monastery. In adulthood she became the magistra (similar to an abbess) of a community of Benedictine nuns and made history. She was a mystic—she saw visions of God—and also an author and a composer. She read widely. A naturalist, she healed the sick through her knowledge of herbs and medicine. (Believers say she also performed miracles.) Though celibate, Hildegard was so in love with a young nun named Richardis that when she left the community, the magistra wallowed in public anguish.

At every step, Hildegard argued and pleaded with, disobeyed, and circumvented her male superiors on behalf of her sisters and herself. Through influence and connections, she acquired enough property to found a women’s cloister, apart from the men. And though she continually professed to be “a weak creature,” she reached out to Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian abbot who remains one of the most important theologians of his age, for support. She appealed to the pope himself when local decisions didn’t go her way, and she knew Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman emperor. As depicted in the German director Margarethe von Trotta’s new film, Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard was creative, passionate, fierce, dogged, manipulative, holy, learned, loyal—and obedient to her ideal of faith. She supported education and independence for women at a time when most women had neither. “To me, it’s a very convincing portrait,” says Barbara Newman, a noted Hildegard scholar at Northwestern University.

How infuriating, then, that Hildegard has not been formally canonized, though her feast day is celebrated in Benedictine communities and in Germany, the land of her birth. How doubly infuriating that when Pope Benedict XVI mentioned her in a speech last month, he made her an example of Christian submission. She showed “total obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities,” he said. The publication Catholic New York decided two weeks ago not to run an advertisement for the movie. “I just checked with the Archdiocesan Communications Office, which is our policy before advertising any film in Catholic New York,” a rep for CNY wrote in an e-mail to the agency that wanted to place the ad. After a screening, “the decision was the Archdiocese would not be able to help promote ‘Vision.’ Since we are the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, we would not be able to advertise the film.” A spokesman for the archdiocese says the e-mail is “simply not factual.” Advertising decisions in CNY are not made by the Archdiocesan Communications Office, he explains: “It is not the policy of CNY to run ads by us. We don’t endorse films.”

Two thousand years after a young Jewish girl named Mary said yes to an angel, according to the Gospels, the institutional Roman Catholic Church still has not learned how to appreciate the human heroines in its midst. This is a shame, for women are the spine of the church. They attend church more often than men—this is true across denominations—and they pass religious faith down to their children. In America, where a third of women outearn their husbands, it feels archaic to hold values of submission and obedience above conscience, independence, and achievement. What would Hildegard have thought of the long investigation of American nuns, expected to conclude this year? The Roman hierarchy launched the inquisition hoping to root out “a certain secular mentality” and “a certain feminist spirit,” as one cleric put it. God forbid that communities of women attempt to claim power for themselves.

Vision is a reminder that saints and sisters have refused to be docile in every era. Even the Virgin Mary, that most sublime of biblical women, was depicted in medieval stories and plays as a funny, lovable, potty-mouthed BFF—“a human, approachable, supremely adorable woman who stood by humanity like a mother but loved it like a mistress,” writes Marina Warner in her 1976 book Alone of All Her Sex. “The Virgin often swears in miracle plays.” The Roman Catholic Church says it loves its women; the church itself takes a feminine pronoun: “she.” But being female, the story of Hildegard shows, often means fighting for parity against men in charge.

Join the Discussion