Today is apparently the birthday of Hildegard of Bingen (September 16, 1098-September 17, 1179). I say “apparently,” because record keeping from the 11th century is notoriously unreliable. Though most accounts of her life that do include a date for her birth list it as September 16, so it at least seems somewhat agreed upon despite there being no specific source cited for that date’s accuracy. So I’ll go with that, it’s better to have some reason to celebrate her life that none at all. Anyway, Hildegard of Bingen “was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany,” and perhaps most importantly, from my point of view, is credited with one of the earliest mentions of hops in beer. As a result, she is generally considered to be the patron saint of hop-growers, although this designation appears to be largely unofficial. Her feast day is actually tomorrow, September 17 — the day of her death — which is fairly common with the Catholic Church and their saints’ feast days.
Although she was beatified in 1326 by Pope John XXII, she was not actually canonized until May of 2012. At that time, Pope Benedict XVI also named her a Doctor of the Church, only the fourth woman to receive that designation. None of the catholic sources I looked at online reveal any patronages for her, apart from the town of Eibingen, where her abbey was located, who made her their patron saint in 1900. And a few sources, though again all non-catholic, mention her as being a patron saint of gardeners, too, and a single source saying she was a patron of musicians, artists and even human potential. All of the sources for her being the patron of hop-growers appear to be from beer-related sources, so I have to conclude that like Gambrinus, her patronage is more symbolic than official.
She did mention hops in her writings, though not in 1079 (31 years before being born) as a well-known quote insists, despite being debunked as long ago as 1911. Here’s what she did say, best explained by Martyn Cornell in his article, A short history of hops:
About 1150, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), mystical philosopher and healer, published a book called Physica Sacra, which translates best as “The Natural World”. Book I, Chapter 61, “De Hoppho”, or “Concerning the hop”, says of the plant: “It is warm and dry, and has a moderate moisture, and is not very useful in benefiting man, because it makes melancholy grow in man and makes the soul of man sad, and weighs down his inner organs. But yet as a result of its own bitterness it keeps some putrefactions from drinks, to which it may be added, so that they may last so much longer.”
By itself this does not prove hops were used in beer, just “in drinks” (in potibus in Hildegard’s original Latin). But in a later chapter, on the ash tree, the abbess wrote: “If you also wish to make beer from oats without hops, but just with grusz [gruit], you should boil it after adding a very large number of ash leaves. That type of beer purges the stomach of the drinker, and renders his heart [literally ‘chest’ or ‘breast’] light and joyous.” Clearly Hildegard knew about brewing beer with hops. The passage also suggests that Hildegard knew about boiling wort, without which just adding hops is not much help in keeping away “putrefactions”.
Here’s her profile, from Catholic Saints:
At a time when few women wrote, Hildegard produced major works of theology and visionary writings. When few women were respected, she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, and wrote treatises about natural history and the medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones. She is the first musical composer whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were performed. Interest in this extraordinary woman was initiated by musicologists and historians of science and religion. Unfortunately, Hildegard’s visions and music have been hijacked by the New Age movement; New Age music bears some resemblance to Hildegard’s ethereal airs. Her story is important to students of medieval history and culture, and an inspirational account of an irresistible spirit and vibrant intellect overcoming social, physical, cultural, gender barriers to achieve timeless transcendence.
Hildegard was the tenth child born to a noble family. As was customary with the tenth child, which the family could not count on feeding, and who could be considered a tithe, she was dedicated at birth to the Church. The girl started to have visions of luminous objects at the age of three, but soon realized she was unique in this ability and hid this gift for many years.
At age eight her family sent Hildegard to an anchoress named Jutta to receive a religious education. Jutta was born into a wealthy and prominent family, and by all accounts was a young woman of great beauty who had spurned the world for a life decided to God as an anchoress. Hildegard’s education was very rudimentary, and she never escaped feelings of inadequacy over her lack of schooling. She learned to read Psalter in Latin, but her grasp of Latin grammar was never complete (she had secretaries help her write down her visions), but she had a good intuitive feel for the intricacies of the language, constructing complicated sentences with meanings on many levels and which are still a challenge to students of her writing. The proximity of the Jutta’s anchorage to the church of the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg exposed Hildegard to religious services which were the basis for her own musical compositions. After Jutta’s death, when Hildegard was 38 years of age, she was elected the head of the budding convent that had grown up around the anchorage.
During the years with Jutta, Hildegard confided of her visions only to Jutta and a monk named Volmar, who was to become her lifelong secretary. However, in 1141 a vision of God gave Hildegard instant understanding of the meaning of religious texts. He commanded her to write down everything she would observe in her visions.
And it came to pass…when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming…and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books…
Yet Hildegard was also overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and hesitated to act.
But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of god, I fell onto a bed of sickness.
Though she never doubted the divine origin of her visions, Hildegard wanted them to be approved by the Church. She wrote to Saint Bernard who took the matter to Pope Eugenius who exhorted Hildegard to finish her writings. With papal imprimatur, Hildegard finished her first visionary work Scivias (“Know the Ways of the Lord“) and her fame began to spread through Germany and beyond.
The 12th century was also the time of schisms and religious confusion when anyone preaching any outlandish doctrine could attract a large following. Hildegard was critical of schismatics, and preached against them her whole life, working especially against the Cathari.
Franciscan Media has yet another account:
Abbess, artist, author, composer, mystic, pharmacist, poet, preacher, theologian—where to begin describing this remarkable woman?
Born into a noble family, she was instructed for ten years by the holy woman Blessed Jutta. When Hildegard was 18, she became a Benedictine nun at the Monastery of Saint Disibodenberg. Ordered by her confessor to write down the visions that she had received since the age of three, Hildegard took ten years to write her Scivias (Know the Ways). Pope Eugene III read it and in 1147 encouraged her to continue writing. Her Book of the Merits of Life and Book of Divine Works followed. She wrote over 300 letters to people who sought her advice; she also composed short works on medicine and physiology, and sought advice from contemporaries such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
Hildegard’s visions caused her to see humans as “living sparks” of God’s love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun. Sin destroyed the original harmony of creation; Christ’s redeeming death and resurrection opened up new possibilities. Virtuous living reduces the estrangement from God and others that sin causes.
Like all mystics, she saw the harmony of God’s creation and the place of women and men in that. This unity was not apparent to many of her contemporaries.
Hildegard was no stranger to controversy. The monks near her original foundation protested vigorously when she moved her monastery to Bingen, overlooking the Rhine River. She confronted Emperor Frederick Barbarossa for supporting at least three antipopes. Hildegard challenged the Cathars, who rejected the Catholic Church claiming to follow a more pure Christianity.
Between 1152 and 1162, Hildegard often preached in the Rhineland. Her monastery was placed under interdict because she had permitted the burial of a young man who had been excommunicated. She insisted that he had been reconciled with the Church and had received its sacraments before dying. Hildegard protested bitterly when the local bishop forbade the celebration of or reception of the Eucharist at the Bingen monastery, a sanction that was lifted only a few months before her death.
In 2012, Hildegard was canonized and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Emeritus Benedict spoke about Hildegard of Bingen during two of his general audiences in September 2010. He praised the humility with which she received God’s gifts and the obedience she gave Church authorities. He praised the “rich theological content” of her mystical visions that sum up the history of salvation from creation to the end of time.
During his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women like Saint Hildegard of Bingen, who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.”
And finally, Women’s History Month chose her as their woman of Day 29, with this irreverent take on her life:
Hildegard was born to middle-class German parents somewhere around 1098, and was the youngest of many children. Despite the fact that she was a sickly child, she claimed to have visions from God. Due to this (and probably also for political reasons), her family put her into a monastery as a child and she became a nun. There, she learned to read, write, and transcribe music, and quickly became a respected member of the nuns’ community.
When the Magistra of the nuns died, Hildegard was unanimously elected to replace her. The Abbott of the monastery asked her to be Prioress, but she knew this would mean she would be directly under his jurisdiction and control. So, she told him she would, if the women could branch off and have their own monastery in the nearby town of Rupertsberg. She told him this idea came to her in one of her visions from God. He refused, so she went into a state of paralysis, and it was determined that paralysis was a sign of anger from God because of the Abbott’s refusal. Only when the Abbott himself tried and failed to move Hildegard’s frozen body did he grant her request. Hildegard ran her monastery like a boss and was soon able to open a second monastery in Eibingen.
As Hildegard became more and more educated, she began writing pretty much everything you can think of. Illuminated texts, historical chronicles, two volumes on medicine, scientific texts, plays, anthologies of songs, and more. She also kept all of her correspondence, which is now one of the largest sets of letters still in existence in the middle ages, and wrote detailed accounts of her divine visions that were approved by Pope Eugenius.
Most importantly, around 1151 she wrote the first known morality play (with music!): Ordo Virtutum. It tells the story of a Soul, and the Soul’s struggle between accepting the 17 Virtues and going to heaven, or being tempted by the Devil and going to hell. It’s the only Medieval musical manuscript to survive history with both its text and music intact. The Soul (strong female lead, am I right?) and 17 Virtues are all played by women, and the only male role is the Devil, who can only communicate in grunts and screams. Hildegard says that he’s not capable of divine harmony. Coincidence, or early feminism?
As if that wasn’t enough, she then invented her own alphabet and language for her nuns to use with each other. Just because she’s awesome.
All the while, she claimed that she was unlearned and unintelligent. That way, men would take her interactions with divine spirit seriously, because they believed her to be too dumb to make them up on her own. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.
When she died in 1179, her sisters swore that two beams of light shot down from the sky.
Her Sainthood status was debated for hundreds of years, but in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI made it official. Out of 35 Saints, only 4 women have ever been granted the title “Doctor of the Church” by the Pope.
Oh, and she has a plant genus named after her, thanks to her contributions to herbal medicine – Hildegardia. And a planet. A fucking planet. See you all on Planet 898 Hildegard where we start our new feminist colony.
She was an amazing artist as well, and her books were all illustrated with drawings and art that looks a lot like Indian mandalas, like this one about “the Cycle of the Seaons” from the Scivas, a book describing 26 religious visions she experienced.
If you made it through all of the accounts of her life, including her Wikipedia page, one thing you’ll notice is that none of them mention her contribution to the brewing sciences, or indeed anything about her mention of hops. That appears to be a more modern interpretation, though I’m not sure of its origin. One thing seems clear, however, and that it’s an association that here to stay.
In addition to her writing on many subjects, she also wrote liturgical music. Here is one of the works she composed, “Antiphon; O quam mirabilis est,” which is essential a hymn entitled “Oh, how wonderful.”