Hildegard of Bingen – Lesbian Saint

Posted by Censor Librorum on Oct 31, 2006 | Categories: Lesbian in a Catholic Sort of Way

Hildegard of Bingen, mystic and poet, prophet and playwright, composer and scientist, lived all but the first few years of her life in the company of women.

Born in 1098 in the Rhineland, Hildegard, the tenth child of a noble family, was offered by her parents at the age of eight to the community of Benedictine nuns in Disobodenberg, where she became abbess in 1136.

In 1141, Hildegard experienced a remarkable series of visions, accompanied by a heavenly command to write what she was seeing. Although she initially refused the command, a devastating illness (sent, she believed, from God) persuaded her to begin writing her first visionary text, the Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord). Her corpus eventually included two other visionary works, a song collection, a musical drama and several scientific treatises.

In 1148, anxious to win spiritual and economic independence for her communiy from the monks of Disobodenberg, Hildegard entered into what was to be a difficult battle to relocate her nuns to the Rupertsberg, on the Rhine near Bingen.

It was about this time, as well, that Hildegard’s most difficult personal struggle began. As a spiritual leader and writer, Hildegard necessarily supported the Church’s teachings on same-sex desire; nevertheless, her Vita and her surviving letters demonstrate a remarkable emotional intensity for the women with whom she came in contact.

In particular, her affection for her disciple and assistant, Richardis von Stade, and the betrayal she felt when Richardis left her, threatened Hildegard’s professional credibility and inner calm.

In 1151, Richardis was offered a position as an abbess in a distant convent. Although Hildegard refused permission for her to leave, Richardis did go, and the depth of Hildegard’s feeling is revealed in the letters she wrote imploring her young friend to return: “I loved the nobility of your conduct, your wisdom and your chastity, your soul and the whole of your life, so much that many said, What are you doing?”

Hildegard’s efforts to force Richardis to return to her included an intense and far-reaching letter campaign, but it was unsuccessful. However, after Richardis’ sudden early death in 1152, her brother revealed in a letter to Hildegard his sister’s tears at their separation. He told the abbess, “if death had not prevented her, she would have come to you.”

Modern readers of Hildegard’s works and her life have delighted in the images of female desire and the positive representations of female sexuality that survive in all aspects of her writing, from her medical texts to her letters. Particularly noteworthy is the homoeroticism of her liturgical cycle, the Symphoniae, which expresses physical and spiritual desire for the Virgin Mary.

Note: this bio was written by Jacqueline Jenkins, who teaches Medieval Literature and Culture as well as Film and Gender Studies at the University of Calgary. www.english.ucalgary.ca

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One Response to “Hildegard of Bingen – Lesbian Saint”

  1. stantoro Says:

    Those interested in this subject should check out Susan Schibanoff, “Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis of Stade: The Discourse of Desire,” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, ed. Francesca Canade Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 49-83.

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