15 minutes of fame | Janina Ramirez chooses Hildegard of Bingen
As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, Emily Briffett interviews Dr Janina Ramirez about the life of Hildegard of Bingen
Who was Hildegard of Bingen?
Hildegard of Bingen was born in the Rhineland in 1098, a time when a cultural and artistic renaissance was happening in and around Germany. Brought up in a monastery in Disibodenberg, Hildegard went on to be a highly influential polymath during her long life, dying at the age of 81.
Her long life is of great importance to historians, explains Ramirez. If she had died at the average age for the 12th century (in her 40s or 50s), we would not have much work to look at, “because Hildegard created the majority of her key works in later life”.
Hildegard of Bingen’s life
From an early age, perhaps as young as four or five, Hildegard had told people of the visions she had. When one seemingly came true – a calf was born that fit a description Hildegard had given prior to its birth – she was sent to be trained by Jutta von Sponheim, who, according to Ramirez, was the thought to be the brightest female mind of her time. Under Jutta’s guidance, Hildegard became a nun. Ramirez points out that ‘nun’ had different connotations in the 12th century to what we might think of now: nuns were creatives, artists, intellectuals. Convents were “powerhouses of these incredibly important people that were changing the climate of the time”, so Hildegard grew up in a very powerful place.
Her reported visions were widely known, but Hildegard did not write about them until they became more intense later in her life. In the mid 12th century (c1151/1152) she published an illustrated work called Scivias, created with her confidante Richardis and a scribe, Volmar. This book detailed her visions, as she tried to describe what was considered indescribable.
Another surviving piece of material is the Riesencodex, a collection of Hildegard’s work, written towards the end of her life/after her death. It is a great source, explains Ramirez, for Hildegard’s thoughts and opinions of a variety of topics, from science to politics.
Hildegard of Bingen’s historical importance is not just based on her own achievements, but on those around her, says Ramirez. Surrounding Hildegard was a group of extraordinary women, including Elisabeth of Schönau and Herrad of Landsberg, who are not well-remembered due to lack of source material. Ramirez believes that Hildegard was a beacon for these women, showing the potential of others through her work. Hildegard and her female intellectual companions can help historians to challenge assumptions about the subjugation of women of this time, Janina explains, as they are examples of “women in the medieval period who have agency that is equivalent to, if not exceeding, those of their male counterparts”
Why does Hildegard of Bingen deserve her 15 minutes of fame?
“She is everything,” says Ramirez. “She is an intellectual. She is a musician, an artist, a scientist. Just a powerful human being.” Hildegard brought communities of women together, voiced her opinions about important scientific theories and political issues, and was responsible for the building, organising and running of two abbeys in her lifetime. “I cannot think of anyone now who could do any of the range that Hildegard did,” says Ramirez, and for this reason, she deserves to be celebrated.
Dr Janina Ramirez is a historian, author and broadcaster, who has hosted several history documentaries for television and radio. Her latest book is Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It, published in July 2022 by WH Allen
Article compiled by Isabel King