Our curated three-part virtual lecture series from historian and broadcaster Janina Ramirez offers a fresh look at the medieval world through the women usually written out of it. This second session considers how our modern understanding of terms such as ‘nun’ and ‘convent’ have shaped our understanding of the intellectual and creative capacities of medieval women. By focusing on the individual Hildegard of Bingen, uncover an environment in which men and women could become talented polymaths and change the world around them through education, writing and political activism.


Who was Hildegard of Bingen?

Janina Ramirez introduces the ultimate Renaissance woman, Hildegard of Bingen

It’s often assumed that medieval women were denied education from childhood and kept from the resources they would need to match their male counterparts. Yet the achievements of Hildegard of Bingen – a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic and visionary who inspired a cultural renaissance from her Rhineland home in the 12th century – have long challenged that assumption.

High on a hilltop in a remote part of the German countryside, the abandoned medieval monastery of Disibodenberg is where we come closest to Hildegard of Bingen. In these evocative ruins 900 years ago she quietly and patiently grew her knowledge and range of talents to become one of the medieval world’s great polymaths.

Medieval monasteries were distinctly gendered sites. At Disibodenberg, the monks dominated the buildings, from the church to the refectory. But on the northern edge was another small community who were separated out, yet able to benefit from this rich cultural environment – a group of young nuns. It was here, in a cell attached to a tiny church, that Hildegard came as a child and lived enclosed until she was in her forties.

When her mentor and abbess, Jutta, died in 1136 Hildegard came into her own. Fortunately, she would live a long life to the age of 81 and it was this longevity that has helped sear her name onto the pages of history. But it was also her charisma, passion and intelligence that got Hildegard recognised as the Sibyl of the Rhine and advisor to popes and emperors.

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Even today it is remarkable for an author to have their collected works compiled in one volume. But that is what has survived in the Riesencodex, which was written around the time of her death. Nearly lost after the Second World War and only rescued due to the daring exploits of two women (Margarete Kühn and Caroline Walsh, who stole the Risencodex from postwar Soviet authorities and took it back to the nuns at Eibingen), this enormous manuscript shows the full scale of Hildegard’s achievements.

A 13th-century depiction of Hildegard of Bingen (centre) receiving a vision in the presence of her secretary and confidante (Photo by Fine Art Images)
A 13th-century depiction of Hildegard of Bingen (centre) receiving a vision in the presence of her secretary and confidante (Photo by Fine Art Images)

Building a female-centric world

Hildegard excelled in every area she turned her hand to. She wrote theological texts of huge mystical originality, based on the visions she had experienced since childhood. Her letters to the good and the great of the medieval world display her ability to influence the politics and opinions of her time at the highest level. Yet the intimacy of her personal correspondence with her adoring followers shows she could connect passionately with people on a human level. “Your divine absence has made me drunk on the wine of sorrow,” wrote one such follower, a nun called Gertrud, lamenting the fact that she was yet to meet Hildegard in person.

Hildegard’s scientific works, which range from natural history to the first description of a female orgasm, are based on decades of working in hospitals and tending to the particular needs of women. Her artistic abilities were showcased in the psychedelic illuminations of her texts, while her contributions to music were extraordinary. Unlike other composers of her time, Hildegard’s songs and style of singing leap across octaves in an attempt to capture the celestial through sound. She even invented her own language.

The female-centric world she built, particularly in the spiritual realm, showed the church as a nurturing mother and Love and Wisdom symbolically as women. But in the temporal realm, too, she ruled a powerful community of influential nuns at her convent in Bingen. Here art, music and education empowered the women around her to become ever more ambitious and play increasingly important roles in 12th-century Europe.

Janina Ramirez is a cultural historian, broadcaster and author based at the University of Oxford. Her latest book is Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It (WH Allen, 2022)


This text first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine


Dr Janina RamirezHistorian and author

Janina Ramirez is an Oxford lecturer, BBC broadcaster, author and researcher. She has presented and written more than 30 hours of BBC history documentaries on TV and radio. Her books include Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of it (WH Allen, 2022)

Rachel Dinning, Premium Content Editor at HistoryExtra
Rachel DinningPremium Content Editor

Rachel Dinning is the Premium Content Editor at HistoryExtra, website of BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed.