By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Unit
Once upon a time, about 1098 to 1179, there was a little girl named Hildegard. She was the tenth of ten children. Her parents were “minor nobility,” but ten kids are a lot of kids. When she was eight years old, Hildegard’s parents gifted her to a convent.
Later, when she wrote her autobiography, she would say that she had started having visions from the time she was six. In these visions, Hildegard witnessed “the fiery life of divine essence,” a living light. This light spoke to Hildegard (in Latin) and explained…everything. Some modern commentators speculate that Hildegard might have suffered from migraines. The visions tended to leave her drained and exhausted.
The care and education of little Hildegard was entrusted to a remarkable woman named Jutta. They lived together in a cottage on the grounds of the Abbey of Saint Disibode, founded by an Irish monk at Disibodenberg. Hildegard became a literate and accomplished woman, took vows as a nun, and continued to have visions. She wrote her first book, Scivias, which means “Know the Ways”, between 1141 and 1151, in which she talked about her visions. She herself painted the image that became the front of the book and portrayed her repeated vision of receiving light. This is the image. She’s writing down things on a wax tablet, discussing things with her secretary. (My children claim the image reminds them of various sci-fi alien visitations.)
The book was a great success. The Bishop of Mainz, (now in Germany), read it, and passed it on to Pope Eugenius III, who became a fan. The literal “enlightenment” that Hildegard received from her visions was examined by the Pope and a special committee. They concluded that her visions were divine. The Pope told her to go on and write whatever the Spirit told her to write. Can you imagine what a big deal that was?
The book was a big hit with women who wanted to join Hildegard, in her rather austere monastic life. The community of women at Disodenberg outgrew its quarters. So she moved to Rupertsberg, near Bingen. Although she traveled widely, she lived mostly at Bingen for the rest of her life, writing other books…and a play…and music. Hildegard wrote about everything. Theology, natural science and medicine were, for her, all part of the same spectrum of knowledge. Just for fun, she made up her own language. She corresponded with four popes and the crowned heads of Europe, giving them personal advice.
This was, as her painting suggests, a woman on fire.
Hildegard’s book, Physica, or Liber Simplicis Medicinae, begins with the study of plants. She goes on, in her delightfully methodical way, to discuss elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles, and metals. But the section on plants contains entries on more than two hundred plants with medicinal uses. Mostly these were plants that could probably be found in the monastery garden or the nearby woods and fields. Some were exotic but could be purchased. This was, after all, the time of the Crusades. People were traveling, and when they got back from all that bloodletting, they brought back cosmopolitan tastes.
Hildegard organized her observations about each plant in accordance with the understanding of the time: the division of all matter into combinations of the four elements of hot, cold, wet, and dry. It was all a matter of balance. This understanding of the universe sounds strange to modern ears. But Hildegard was a renaissance woman before the Renaissance. She may have made up her own language, but she expressed her understanding of plants in the language of the time.
Hildegard, while aware of the hand of God in all things, was essentially a pragmatist. All things were created by God to serve man. Good plants nourish, and restore elemental balance. Bad plants may be used by the devil to bring ruin to those foolish enough to be deceived by them.
Here are some of Hildegard’s thoughts – from Physica — about herbs you may have in your herb garden or pantry right now:
- LAVENDER (Lavendula) is warm and dry since it has just a little moisture. It is not worth a person to eat it, but it does have a strong smell. If a person has many lice, let the person smell lavender frequently; the lice will die. And its smell clears the eyes since it contains the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the bitterest one. Therefore, it constrains many evil things, and evil spirits are driven out by it.
- NUTMEG (Nux muscata) has great warmth and good temperament in its strength. If a person eats nutmeg, it opens the heart and purifies the senses and brings a good disposition. Take some nutmeg, an equal weight of cinnamon, and a little cloves. Grind these to a powder, add a similar amount of whole wheat flour and a little water, and make a paste from this. Then eat it often. It will calm all the bitterness of heart and mind, open the heart and clouded senses and diminish all the noxious humors; it will contribute good liquid to the blood and make one strong.
- ROSE (Rosa) is cold and this same coldness has a useful temperament in it. At daybreak of in the morning, take a rose leaf and place it over your eye; this draws out the humor and makes it clear. Let whoever has a weeping ulcer on his or her body, place a rose leaf over it and draw out the pus. But rose also strengthens any potion or ointment or other medication when it is added to it. And these are so much better if only a little rose has been added to them. This is from the good strength of the rose, as previously mentioned.
Cloves will help a stuffy nose, gout, and dropsy. Hellebore is good for a fever. Wild thyme is curative for those suffering from “a sick brain.” And there are a lot of things that will foster sexual desire, with or without a corresponding increase in fertility.
This is a very small sample. For more, see Bruce W. Hozesli’s translation in Hildegard’s Healing Plants (2001). It’s terrific fun.
Hildegard was obviously a woman of substantial importance in her own time. A Jesuit friend of mine says she used to terrorize her local bishops. I love that. While the process of recognizing her as a saint of the Roman Catholic church began with her beatification in 1326, Hildegard wasn’t canonized until 2012, when she became a Doctor of the Church. Hildegard’s influence was there, quietly waiting for the world to catch up with her. It’s time to share, with delight, her extraordinary divine alchemy.