Born at Böckelheim on the Nahe, 1098; died on the Rupertsberg near Bingen, 1179; feast 17 September. The family name is unknown of this great seeress and prophetess, called the Sibyl of the Rhine.
The early biographers give the first names of her parents as Hildebert and Mechtildis (or Mathilda), speak of their nobility and riches, but give no particulars of their lives. Later writers call the saint Hildegard of Böckelheim, of Rupertsberg, or of Bingen. Legends would make her a Countess of Spanheim. J. May (Katholik. XXXVII, 143) shows from letters and other documents that she probably belonged to the illustrious family of Stein, whose descendants are the present Princes of Salm.
Her father was a soldier in the service of Meginhard, Count of Spanheim. Hildegard was a weak and sickly child, and in consequence received but little education at home. Her parents, though much engaged in worldly pursuits, had a religious disposition and had promised the child to the service of God. At the age of eight she was placed under the care of Jutta, sister of Count Meginhard, who lived as a recluse on the Disenberg (or Disibodenberg, Mount of St. Disibod) in the Diocese of Speyer.
Here also Hildegard was given but little instruction since she was much afflicted with sickness, being frequently scarcely able to walk and often deprived even of the use of her eyes. She was taught to read and sing the Latin psalms, sufficient for the chanting of the Divine Office, but never learned to write. Eventually she was invested with the habit of St. Benedict and made her religious profession. Jutta died in 1136, and Hildegard was appointed superior. Numbers of aspirants flocked to the community and she decided to go to another locality, impelled also, as she says, by a Divine command. She chose Rupertsberg near Bingen on the left bank of the Rhine, about fifteen miles from Disenberg. After overcoming many difficulties and obtaining the permission of the lord of the place, Count Bernard of Hildesheim, she settled in her new home with eighteen sisters in 1147 or 1148 (1149 or 1150 according to Delehaye). Probably in 1165 she founded another convent at Eibingen on the right side of the Rhine, where a community had already been established in 1148, which, however, had no success.
The life of Hildegard as child, religious, and superioress was an extraordinary one. Left much to herself on account of her ill health, she led an interior life, trying to make use of everything for her own sanctification. From her earliest years she was favoured with visions. She says of herself:
Up to my fifteenth year I saw much, and related some of the things seen to others, who would inquire with astonishment, whence such things might come. I also wondered and during my sickness I asked one of my nurses whether she also saw similar things. When she answered no, a great fear befell me. Frequently, in my conversation, I would relate future things, which I saw as if present, but, noting the amazement of my listeners, I became more reticent.
This condition continued to the end of her life. Jutta had noticed her gifts and made them known to a monk of the neighbouring abbey, but, it seems, nothing was done at the time. When about forty years of age Hildegard received a command to publish to the world what she saw and heard. She hesitated, dreading what people might think or say, though she herself was fully convinced of the Divine character of the revelations. But, continually urged, rebuked, and threatened by the inner voice, she manifested all to her spiritual director, and through him to the abbot under whose jurisdiction her community was placed. Then a monk was ordered to put in writing whatever she related; some of her nuns also frequently assisted her.
The writings were submitted to the bishop (Henry, 1145-53) and clergy of Mainz, who pronounced them as coming from God. The matter was also brought to the notice of Eugene II (1145-53) who was at Trier in 1147. Albero of Chiny, Bishop of Verdun, was commissioned to investigate and made a favourable report. Hildegard continued her writings. Crowds of people flocked to her from the neighbourhood and from all parts of Germany and Gaul, to hear words of wisdom from her lips, and to receive advice and help in corporal and spiritual ailments. These were not only from the common people, but men and women of note in Church and State were drawn by the report of her wisdom and sanctity.
Thus we read that Archbishop Heinrich of Mainz, Archbishop Eberhard of Salzburg and Abbot Ludwig of St. Eucharius at Trier, paid her visits. St. Elizabeth of Schönau was an intimate friend and frequent visitor. Trithemius in his "Chronicle" speaks of a visit of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, but this probably was not correct. Not only at home did she give counsel, but also abroad. Many persons of all stations of life wrote to her and received answers, so that her correspondence is quite extensive.
Her great love for the Church and its interests caused her to make many journeys; she visited at intervals the houses of Disenberg and Eibingen; on invitation she came to Ingelheim to see Emperor Frederick; she travelled to Würzburg, Bamberg, and the vicinity of Ulm, Cologne, Werden, Trier, and Metz. It is not true, however, that she saw Paris or the grave of St. Martin at Tours. In the last year of her life Hildegard had to undergo a very severe trial. In the cemetery adjoining her convent a young man was buried who had once been under excommunication. The ecclesiastical authorities of Mainz demanded that she have the body removed. She did not consider herself bound to obey since the young man had received the last sacraments and was therefore supposed to have been reconciled to the Church. Sentence of interdict was placed on her convent by the chapter of Mainz, and the sentence was confirmed by the bishop, Christian (V) Buch, then in Italy. After much worry and correspondence she succeeded in having the interdict removed. She died a holy death and was buried in the church of Rupertsberg.
Hildegard was greatly venerated in life and after death. Her biographer, Theodoric, calls her saint, and many miracles are said to have been wrought through her intercession. Gregory IX (1227-41) and Innocent IV (1243-54) ordered a process of information which was repeated by Clement V (1305-14) and John XXII (1316-34). No formal canonization has ever taken place, but her name is in the Roman Martyrology and her feast is celebrated in the Dioceses of Speyer, Mainz, Trier, and Limburg, also in the Abbey of Solesmes, where a proper office is said (Brev. Monast. Tornac., 18 Sept.).
When the convent on the Rupertsberg was destroyed in 1632 the relics of the saint were brought to Cologne and then to Eibingen. At the secularization of this convent they were placed in the parish church of the place. In 1857 an official recognition was made by the Bishop of Limburg and the relics were placed on an altar specially built. At this occasion the town of Eibingen chose her as patron. On 2 July, 1900, the cornerstone was here laid for a new convent of St. Hildegard. The work was begun and completed through the munificence of Prince Karl of Löwenstein and Benedictine nuns from St. Gabriel's at Prague entered the new home (17 Sept., 1904).
All the manuscripts found in the convent at Eibingen were in 1814 transferred to the state library at Wiesbaden. Of this collection the first and greatest work of St. Hildegard is called "Scivias" (Scire or vias Domini, or vias lucis), parts of which had been shown to the Archbishop of Mainz. She began it in 1141 and worked at it for ten years. It is an extraordinary production and hard to understand, prophetic throughout and admonitory after the manner of Ezechiel and the Apocalypse. In the introduction she speaks of herself and describes the nature of her visions.
Then follow three books, the first containing six visions, the second giving seven visions, and about double the size of the first; the third, equal in size to both the others, has thirteen visions. The "Scivias" represents God on His Holy Mountain with mankind at its base; tells of the original condition of man, his fall and redemption, the human soul and its struggles, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the times to come, the son of perdition and the end of the world. The visions are interspersed with salutary admonitions to live in the fear of the Lord.
Manuscripts of the "Scivias" are also at Cues and Oxford. It was printed for the first time at Paris (1513) in a book which contains also the writings of several other persons. It was again printed at Cologne in 1628, and reproduced in Migne, PL 197. The "Liber vitae meritorum" written between 1158 and 1163, is a picturesque description of a Christian's life of virtue and its opposite. It was printed for the first time in Pitra, "Analecta Sacra", VIII (Monte Cassino, 1882).
The "Liber divinorum operum" (1163-70) is a contemplation of all nature in the light of faith. Sun, moon, and stars, the planets, the winds, animals, and man, are in her visions expressive of something supernatural and spiritual, and as they come from God should lead back to Him (Migne, loc. cit.). Mansi, in "Baluzii Missell." (Lucca, 1761), II, 337, gives it from a manuscript lost since then. Her "Letter to the Prelates of Mainz" in regard to the interdict placed upon her convent is placed here among her works by the Wiesbaden manuscript; in others it is bound among her letters.
To it the Wiesbaden manuscript annexes nine small essays: on the Creation and fall of man; God's treatment of the renegade; on the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist; on the covenant between Christ and the Church; on the Creation and Redemption; on the duties of secular judges; on the praises of God with intermingled prayers. "Liber Epistolarum et Orationum"; the Wiesbaden manuscript contains letters to and from Eugene III, Anastasius IV, Adrian IV, and Alexander III, King Conrad III, Emperor Frederick, St. Bernard, ten archbishops, nine bishops, forty-nine abbots and provosts of monasteries or chapters, twenty-three abbesses, many priests, teachers, monks, nuns, and religious communities (P. L., loc. cit.). Pitra has many additions; L. Clarus edited them in a German translation (Ratisbon, 1854). "Vita S. Disibodi" and "Vita S. Ruperti"; these "Vitae", which Hildegard claims also to be revelations, were probably made up from local traditions and, especially for St. Rupert, the sources being very meagre, have only legendary value. "Expositio Evangeliorum" fifty homilies in allegory (Pitra, loc. cit.). "Lingua Ignota"; the manuscript, in eleven folios ves a list of nine hundred words of an unknown language, mostly nouns and only a few adjectives, a Latin, and in a few cases a German, explanation, together with an unknown alphabet of twenty-three letters printed in Pitra, a collection of seventy hymns and their melodies. A manuscript of this is also at Afflighem, printed in Roth (Wiesbaden, 1880) and in Pitra.
Not only in this work, but elsewhere Hildegard exhibits high poetical gifts, transfigured by her intimate persuasion of a Divine mission. "Liber Simplicis Medicinae" and "Liber Compositae Medicinae"; the first was edited in 1533 by Schott at Strasburg as "Physica S Hildegardis", Dr. Jessen (1858) found a manuscript of it in the library of Wolfenbuttel. It consists of nine books treating of plants, elements, trees, stones, fishes, birds, quadrupeds, reptiles, metals, printed in Migne as "Subtilitatum Diversarum Naturarum Libri Novem". In I859, Jessen succeeded in obtaining from Copenhagen a manuscript entitled "Hildegardis Curae et Causae", and on examination felt satisfied that it was the second medical work of the saint. It is in five books and treats of the general divisions of created things, of the human body and its ailments, of the causes, symptoms, and treatment of diseases. "38 Solutiones Quaestionum" are answers to questions proposed by the monks of Villars through Gilbert of Gembloux on several texts of Scripture (P. L., loc. cit.). "Explanatio Regulae S. Benedicti", also called a revelation, exhibits the rule as understood and applied in those days by an intelligent and mild superior. "Explanatio Symboli S. Athanasii", an exhortation addressed to her sisters in religion. The "Revelatio Hildegardis de Fratribus Quatuor Ordinum Mendicantium", and the other prophecies against the Mendicants, etc., are forgeries. The "Speculum futurorum temporum" is a free adaptation of texts culled from her writings by Gebeno, prior of Eberbach (Pentachronicon, 1220). Some would impugn the genuineness of her writings, among others Preger in his "Gesch. der deutchen Mystik", 1874, but without sufficient reason. (See Hauck in "Kirchengesch. Deutschl.", IV,398 sqq.). Her correspondence is to be read with caution; three letters from popes have been proved spurious by Von Winterfeld in "Neue Archiv", XXVII, 297.
The first biography of St. Hildegard was written by the contemporary monks Gottfried and Theodoric. Guibert of Gembloux commenced another.