Re-posted and updated from September 16, 2005.
Hildegard was born in the year 1098 at Bermersheim, in Germany’s Archdiocese of Mainz. Her parents were from the free nobility. From her birth, she was promised to the service of God as a tithe of her father’s children.
From the age of five or six, Hildegard reported seeing visions which she believed were from God. Her illnesses, beginning in childhood, caused pain, paralysis, bright light and occasional blindness, associated with her visions. Many people, including Dr. Oliver Sacks and theologian Matthew Fox, have considered her physical ailments and visions to be symptomatic of severe migraines brought on, at least in part, by her attempt to confront unsolvable problems.
When Hildegard was 8 years old, her parents enclosed her, apparently for life, with an anchoress named Jutta, in a one-room cell adjacent to a Benedictine monastery. Jutta was also nobility, the daughter of Count Stephan of Spanheim. She gave Hildegard a small amount of education, teaching her to read Latin well enough to read the Psalms and the Opus Dei. As time passed, others joined Jutta, until her cell became a small nunnery, in a double monastery shared with Benedictine monks. At the age of 15, Hildegard became a Benedictine nun. A monk named Volmar, provost of the monastery, became her teacher. All her life, Hildegard strove to improve her Latin, and her writings were in Latin, supported by allusions to scripture from a wide breadth of Bible passages.
Jutta died when Hildegard was 38 years old, and Hildegard became her successor. As the number of nuns increased, she added two new houses, eventually settling in a Benedictine monastery in Rupertsberg near Bingen, a small town on the river near Mainz. She later formed a second monastery across the river in Eibingen, above Rudesheim.
At the age of 42, Hildegard saw a vision which she said gave her a miraculous understanding of the Bible, including both Old and New Testaments. She said that God, during the vision, commanded her to write down everything she would observe in her visions. She soon began to write her first book in wax (called Scivias), which Volmar then transcribed for her onto parchment. The abbot, Conon, brought Hildegard’s visions to the attention of the archbishop of Mainz, who in turn brought them to Pope Eugenius III. The pope appointed a commission to examine them, discussed them with his advisers including St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and authorized her to write.
As the first major German mystic, Hildegard passed muster as a prophet. The role of prophet had been available to women in the Bible and the Church Fathers. She was recognized at the Synod of Trier in 1147-8. The visions of Scivias bring together ideas from different parts of the Bible in a vivid depiction of Christian symbols with unique emotional impact.
She later wrote two more books of visions, applying her reading of scripture to interpret them. Two books on science and health are sometimes ascribed to her.
Her thinking about the second coming, Heaven and Hell, and much of her theology, may have been influenced by St. Bernard. During the time she was occupied with writing Scivias, Bernard toured the Rhineland to win support for the Second Crusade. His effort ended in failure in 1149, before she finished her book, but would have brought attention to his ideas. She admired the abbot Bernard and carried on a correspondence with him.
Hildegard also wrote music based upon Gregorian chant roots. She is the first composer, either male or female, whose full biography is known. Her musical play, "Ordo Virutum," may have been the first morality play. Her writing made her a celebrity and one of the most influential people of her century. Archbishops and nobility sought her advice. She traveled along the Main and Rhine Rivers giving sermons, and she corresponded by letters challenging the clergy to reform. Her efforts to reform the church have led some people to view her as an early precursor of the Reformation, while others see her simply as a more typical twelfth century reformer.
Hildegard died on September 17, 1179 at her monastery in Rupertsburg. She was called a saint in the Middle Ages, and she continued to be called “St. Hildegard” in some places, especially in Germany, while she was called "Blessed Hildegard" in others.
In 1983, a recording of Hildegard's chants won a Gramophone Record Award as the best of the year in the Early Music (Medieval and Renaissance) category ("A Feather on the Breath of God" recorded by Gothic Voices with Emma Kirkby, directed by Christopher Page, Hyperion Records, Ltd., London).
On October 7, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI issued an apostolic letter declaring St. Hildegard of Bingen to be a Doctor of the Universal Church.