Three Medieval Views of Women
“It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me,…the men all so good for nothing and hardly any women at all, it is very tiresome.” That was the verdict on “real solemn history” of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. The two very interesting books here reviewed add to the tally of works that over the last twenty years or so have undermined the second part of Miss Morland’s proposition, which was once all too justified; women are without doubt winning their place in history.
That said, however, and apart from the fact that both books concern women in the Middle Ages, the two books are very different. Sabina Flanagan’s scholarly biography of Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century visionary, studies one of the most unusual women of her time, who was also a profound and original religious writer. Three Medieval Views of Women presents the texts of three short poems (dits) on the subject of woman, with attractive verse translations into English, together with two introductory essays, putting them and the attitudes expressed in them into a literary and historical context. Though all three are anonymous, they all seem clearly to have been written by men, and there is nothing original or profound about their manner or the view which any one of them expresses. Though there is I think a kind of way in which the two books may be said to complement each other, initially they demand entirely separate discussion.
In every way, the life and achievement of Saint Hildegard of Bingen were truly remarkable. She was born in 1098 at Bemersheim near Mainz, the tenth child of a local noble family. At the age of eight she was enclosed as a recluse in a hermitage attached to the monastery of Disibodenberg, under the care of the high-born anchoress Jutta of Spanheim. Further recruits were soon drawn to the anchorage, which grew into a convent attached to the monastery; and when Jutta died in 1136 Hildegard was chosen to succeed her as abbess. By this time, by means that are not entirely clear, she had acquired a considerable command of Latin together with a thorough knowledge of the Bible and an acquaintance with a wide range of religious literature. The real turning point in her life came in 1141. From her infancy on, as she herself makes clear, she had been subject to visions, but up to this point (though she had confided in Jutta) she had kept these to herself. In this year, as a result of an experience of unusual intensity, she felt compelled to make known and to publicize what had been revealed to her, and began writing the first and most famous of her three great visionary works, the Scivias (“make known the ways of God”). In 1147, at the Synod of Trier, Pope Eugenius III, after reading extracts from the still incomplete book, endorsed the divine nature of her revelations and gave her his apostolic permission to continue writing.
From then on until her death in 1179 Hildegard, in spite of repeated illnesses, led a life of strenuous and unceasing activity. In 1150, after overcoming considerable opposition from the Abbot of Disibodenberg, she moved her community to an independent site at Rupertsberg near Bingen on the Rhine; and in 1165 she founded a second convent across the river at Eibingen. She continued to experience visions and to write. The Scivias was finished in 1151, and it was followed by two other long works centered on her revelations, the Book of Life’s Merits (completed in 1163) and the Book of the Divine Works (completed ten years later). She also composed hymns and music to fit them, and put together two substantial books on the workings of nature, her Physica (or Natural History) and her Causes and Cures.
As her fame grew, so did her correspondence; King Conrad of Germany and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa were among those who sought her advice, together with a host of prominent churchmen, bishops, abbots and abbesses, and many humbler priests and monks besides. She undertook four extensive preaching tours, visiting in the process numerous monasteries and convents.
In virtually all these activities, in her preaching, in her counseling, in her command of Latin and of Latin learning, Hildegard was trespassing into territory normally reserved for the male sex. That she was able to overcome all the obstacles in the way of female education and of the acceptance, in matters of religion, of a woman’s words, and the embargoes on women preaching, is a measure of a very remarkable achievement for her time. It is also what puts her in danger, in our own time, of becoming almost a totem figure of women’s history. It is the great virtue of Sabina Flanagan’s cool, scholarly, and reflective biography that it sets her story so firmly in her own age, and in doing so—without in the least detracting from her accomplishment—reveals what an extraordinarily difficult person she is to evaluate.
Hildegard’s fame was based on her visionary writings, and in order to appreciate them, as Dr. Flanagan sees very clearly, their structure needs to be explained. Hildegard’s technique was first to describe what she had seen “in her soul,” then to proceed to the interpretation of the vision that had been simultaneously communicated to her; and so on from vision to vision. Thus the first book of the Scivias is constructed around six successive visions, the second around seven more, and the third around a further thirteen. Hildegard’s visions were complex and elaborate; thus, for example,
I saw, as it were, a huge round tower entirely built of white stone, having three windows at its summit, from which such brightness shone forth that even the conical roof of the tower appeared very clearly…. And this tower was placed as it were in the middle of the back of the image of the woman mentioned previously…. And I saw those infants who had gone forth from the belly of the woman, as mentioned earlier, shining with great brightness; some of them were decorated from head to toe with a golden colour, others had the same brightness but lacked the colour.
The precision with which the elaborate visual detail is described is what made it possible for a miniaturist to illustrate Hildegard’s visions, beautifully and with faithful attention to her text, in the Rupertsberg manuscript of the Scivias. Having outlined a vision, Hildegard would then go on to explain its meaning. Thus, in the above (fairly simple) example that Dr. Flanagan offers, the three windows represent the Trinity; the image of the woman signifies the Church (Ecclesia), and the children in shining gold are those that have been both confirmed and baptized, distinguished from those who have been baptized only by their golden color (“others had the same brightness but lacked the colour”).
The complexity of Hildegard’s visions reflects the very ambitious ultimate object that emerges from her explicatory chapters commenting on them, which is nothing less than to give an account of the nature of God’s Creation and of man’s relation to God within it—to integrate a conception of the working of the Cosmos with Christian doctrine and with the salvation history recounted in Scripture. It is in the third of Hildegard’s visionary works, the Book of the Divine Works, to which she came to see her two earlier works as preparatory, that this purpose becomes finally and fully apparent. It is the most striking and the most coherent of her books, though it was not, it would seem, as widely read as the Scivias in her time and after.
A feature that runs through all three visionary books and that has been stressed by all commentators (though perhaps less sharply by Dr. Flanagan than by most) is the significance attached to figures whose names are feminine in Latin—Caritas, Ecclesia, and the virtues—and who appear in female guise, as lovely women, richly clothed; above all Sapientia (wisdom), the beautiful womanly divine emanation celebrated in the “sapiential” books of the Old Testament—Proverbs, The Song of Solomon, the Book of Wisdom—whom Hildegard felt to be speaking through her. A second common theme of the three visionary books is the complementary significance of the roles in salvation history of Eve, of whose flesh was formed all the future generations of mankind, and Mary, from whose womb the Saviour took the robe of humanity.
The scope of purpose of Hildegard’s writings and their theological range are what make so remarkable the acceptance of the authority of the visions on which they are based. Cosmology and Scripture history were subjects for the learned (and male), and so was doctrine; how come that such children of a learned world as Saint Bernard and Pope Eugenius could endorse in these matters the pronouncements of a woman, one who was by her own confession uneducated in any formal way? The answer, in so far as the historian can give one to such a question, must lie, as Dr. Flanagan stresses, in the role that Hildegard, from the moment that she first bowed to the impulsion to write down her visions, ascribed to herself, that of a “prophetess.”
The gift of prophecy, in twelfth-century understanding, did not simply mean, as it does now, a capacity to forsee the future; it implied, as Dr. Flanagan puts it, “the revelation of divine secrets concerning the past, the present and the future.” Because this “privileged knowledge” came not from human understanding but directly from God,
a woman could be a prophet without upsetting the perceived natural order [which regarded the male as inherently superior in strength and intellect], since no particular attributes of her own were required, except, possibly, humility.
Priesthood, the power to make the Mass, and the authority to expound a human insight into Scripture, were confined to males, but there could be no confining the Holy Spirit’s choice of the vessel through which He might speak. Scripture indeed confirmed that He might prefer to speak through the weak and scorned in order to confound the strong.
There remained for Hildegard, of course, the problem of gaining acceptance from a suspicious, male-dominated world that her prophetic, visionary insight did come from God. All that can be said here is that, aided by her own unshakable conviction of the divine origin of her illumination, she succeeded in winning that acceptance. “When these things were brought to the attention of the church of Mainz and discussed, all agreed that they came from God and from the gift of prophecy by which the prophets spoke forth in former times,” she says, and as Dr. Flanagan has explained the view of the Church of Mainz was endorsed by the papacy and by Saint Bernard. With these endorsements in her favor, Hildegard’s right to make her revelations known was established, and it became natural also that many and sundry should thenceforward turn to her, for the guidance of her light on all or any aspects of their affairs, spiritual, practical, political, or even medical.