“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.

Given the frequency, the complexity, and the scale of the implications of Hildegard’s visions, it is clear that, even by visionary standards, they were something out of the ordinary. This leaves Dr. Flanagan, having clarified their subject matter and the ground of their contemporary acceptance, with two central questions; what the nature of her experience was for Hildegard, and what it looks like now, to the historian. She deals with both in a manner that is at once perceptive and scholarly.

On the first matter we have the testimony of Hildegard herself, both in numerous asides and in answer to direct questioning, and Dr. Flanagan takes the reader carefully through the evidence. Her visions did not come to her in dreams, or in trance or ecstasy; and they were not in the usual sense hallucinatory. She was emphatic that there was no impairment of her ordinary senses during her experiences. There was no direct interaction between her and the figures that she saw, and her visions did not occupy the same space as that in which she stood or lay (they were often associated with her recurrent bouts of sickness).

The principal effect seems to have been one of light, and Hildegard refers to two levels of experience here; there was what she called “the shadow of the living light,” which “my soul does not lack at any time,” and what she called the “living light” itself, which she only saw occasionally and infrequently. This was associated with her more elaborate, climactic visions (which, with their descriptions of towers, rooms, and allegorical figures also obviously have a relation to a learned, literary background). In this “light” she recognized the ultimate source of her knowledge.

On the question, how far the experience was an external one (“I saw”), how far internal (“I saw in my soul”), Hildegard herself is ambiguous. Perhaps the nearest we can get to how contemporaries would have understood all this is, as Peter Dronke has suggested, through what Richard of Saint Victor defined as “symbolic vision,” when “the human spirit, led by the Holy Ghost, is led through the likeness of visible things, and through images presented as figures and signs, to the knowledge of invisible ones.”*

So Dr. Flanagan turns to the second question, what the historian should make of these visions, apparently so intensely experienced. Charles Singer, alerted by certain features of the miniatures in the Scivias and by the relation of Hildegard’s visions to her recurrent sicknesses, long ago suggested that she was a sufferer from “classical migraine,” and that the emphasis on light in her visions relates to the symptom medically termed “scintillating scotomata.” Dr. Flanagan, after very carefully comparing medical accounts of the symptoms and typical progress of an “attack” of classical migraine with Hildegard’s autobiographical texts, endorses this opinion.

But that, she vigorously emphasizes, is very far from being the whole story. Hildegard’s most important and decisive visions did not catch her, as it were, unawares. In 1141, for instance, she had clearly long been wrestling over whether to make her visions known, as in 1150 she had been wrestling with the problem of whether to move her convent from Disibodenberg; in both cases she was prostrated with sickness, and a vision resolved things for her (and resolved her sickness too; this looks like the “rebound phase” commonly associated with the termination of a migraine attack). In the context of her theology, it is clear that others of her visions came after she had been reading and pondering on great questions, about the Creation, the Incarnation, the role of the priesthood, and so on. Given such preceding preoccupation, it was natural, as Dr. Flanagan puts it, that Hildegard would “tend to interpret any particular migraine experience she had at the time” as related to it. Once satisfied that her visions were from a divine source, moreover, it was natural also that she should begin “to make more structured interpretations of them, literally, to see more in them.” Thus the migraine experience and her own mental processes coalesced to form the vision and its interpretation. At the same time, her conviction that her experience came from without, not from within, confirmed her ascription to herself of a prophetic role, which was the vital impetus behind her writing.

There was thus, it seems, absolutely no element of conscious self-deception in Hildegard’s visionary life; indeed her diffidence, her insistence that all came from the “living light” and nothing from her, prevented her from recognizing her own growing powers of thought and expression. Nevertheless, her recognition of herself as a prophet, and the official endorsement of it, did put her in a rather special position of which she could not but be conscious. It brought her a huge correspondence, and the counsel that she gave in her answering letters seems to be on the whole shrewd, balanced and perceptive, and fearlessly firm when it needed to be. In situations where she herself was involved the problem of her prophetic role could be more delicate, however, and it is clear that on occasion she could deploy her gift and the influence that it gave her in high places in a way that can only be called manipulative.

She used it to fine effect to secure from the unwilling Abbot Kuno acquiescence in the move of her nuns from Disibodenberg to Rupertsberg. She also used it, very freely and rather less creditably, in a tremendous effort to prevent her favorite protégé, Richardis of Stade, from leaving her convent to take up the position of abbess elsewhere, peppering the influential with her revelations in the matter—and failed to carry the day. Her conviction of her knowledge of the will of God became, as Dr. Flanagan explains it, at once a psychological necessity to her and a potent weapon that was used most often for the better and the worthier of ends, but not quite always.

Two of Hildegard’s surviving works, her Natural History and her Causes and Cures, are not concerned in any direct way with her visionary life, and Dr. Flanagan is particularly interesting in her discussion of these. They reveal the naturalistic side to her theological interest in cosmology, and a good deal of what contemporarily passed as authoritative cosmological learning has gone into them, though somewhat patchily, and her ideas are sometimes rather individualistic (for instance on the relations between the “humors” and the “elements”), as one might expect from one who had had no formal education. But it is clear that, especially in her prescriptions against diseases, she has incorporated much of folk knowledge and folk medicine. Sometimes too there seems to be an echo of sympathetic magic; the liver of a young male goat will help cure sterility in a man, the uterus of a sheep or cow in a woman.

Her accounts of sexual desire and intercourse are largely mechanistic: “When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act.” When it comes to conception, an astrological element appears; the phase of the moon, on the day of conception, is presented as having a determining effect on both the biological and the psychological makeup of the child engendered (“one who is engendered on the eighteenth day of the moon, if he is a boy, he will be a thief”). This kind of naturalistic determinism is hard to integrate with the theology of the Creation, Hildegard’s concern with which was clearly the impetus behind her exploration of the “subtleties of nature.”

Perhaps the answer here is that this is simply another sign of what Dr. Flanagan is so constantly and skillfully stressing, that Hildegard was a child of her times, of their conditions and culture, a woman whose education, because she was a woman, was necessarily incomplete, and whose ideas and beliefs were not all intellectually integrated with one another. Sympathetic to women and to their problems, and instinctively sensitive to what have been called the “feminine elements in the divine,” she was not a feminist; she accepted contemporary notions of the natural superiority of the male, stressing indeed her own frailty, and that she was “only a weak woman.” Her treatment of sex was more humane and optimistic than that of many of her contemporaries, but she was in no doubt about the superior value of the virginal life, for both men and women.

Her sympathies were Benedictine and conservative, rather than scholastic and radical; she saw nothing wrong or illogical in insisting that only high-born young women should be admitted to her convent—and found that the “living light” confirmed her practice. A woman of electrifying visionary power, fascinating, often enigmatic, and clearly of great presence, she was also a woman with a will and prejudices of her own that she was not incapable of confounding with the will of God. It is as such, wrinkles and all, that Sabina Flanagan presents her to us, and we must be grateful for the historical balance of her picture.

The three poems edited and translated in Three Medieval Views of Women take us into a world that is wholly different from that of Hildegard in tone, ambiance, and in time too; all three seem to have been written between c.1270 and c.1325, a hundred years and more after her death. All three belong to the genre known in French as dits, light verses, conversational in tone, designed for recitation, descriptive in content, and secular in their outlook. All three seem clearly to have been written by men. They have been chosen carefully, to illustrate different strands in attitudes toward women. Two belong to the strong medieval misogynic tradition; one, the Contenance des Fames (the Ways of Women) in a lighter mood, the other, the Blasme des Fames (the Vices of Women), more somber. The third, the Bien des Fames (the Virtues of Women), provides a contrast, illustrating a profeminine attitude. The three poems have been translated attractively and perceptively into English verse; if occasionally a rendering may seem strained (is “Now she’s proper as a crumpet” really a fair translation of “or se contient moult sagement“?), a literal version is always there in the notes for reference (“Now she behaves most properly”).

The theme of the first of the poems is woman’s mutability, and secondarily her vanity. Its tone is mocking, but indulgent:

A woman’s heart is just not able
To chart a course that’s firm or stable.

Its author has a nice eye for detail; here is a picture of the woman first laying out all her jewels, then locking them away, here she hesitates between a veil and an uncovered brow, here is a glimpse of her lifting the edge of her mantle to show what a good dress she has on beneath. For this writer womankind is “mad”; it is no good for a man to ask her for reasons, and he will waste his time—or worse—if he puts his trust in her. The Blasme des Fames is an altogether darker piece. Here the theme is not mutability but hypocrisy and fickleness, not vanity but deceit. On the outside a woman may be gentle as a dove, says this dit, but the inside is like a hedgehog’s hide; she is as lecherous as a sparrow, as tricky as a fox, as venomous as a serpent. Indeed, the Serpent made her in his image, as the Fall reminds us:

Ask: who first sinned—man or woman?
Who got us exiled from the Garden?
Who offered the apple to whom?

There is matter here calculated even at this distance of time to make any reasonable man squirm for his sex. Nevertheless, and unpleasing as its sentiments are, the Blasme des Fames, with its animal imagery and its invective which seems clearly fueled by fear as well as dislike, is probably the most powerful of the three poems. The more the pity that the Bien des Fames is probably, as a literary work, the least convincing. The opening argument is potent enough, even if the verse is insipid; remember that Christ was born of Mary, and that there is no man on earth but was born of woman. The main theme, though, turns out to be less powerful; it concerns woman’s role as man’s tutor in courtesy, in good manners and worthy aspirations:

…she makes the coward brave
And awakes the slumbering knave;
Such astounding powers has she
That she can (I tell you truly)
Make the miser give up greed.

Moreover, she spins that men may be clad. That is why men should cherish her, hold tourneys in her honor, dance and serenade at midnight for her sake. The opening hints of profundity in this poem do not turn out to be sufficiently sustained to offer in literary quality an effective counter to either the jibes of the Contenance or the venom of the Blasme.

The three collaborative editors of these dits, Gloria Fiero, Wendy Pfeffer, and Mathé Allain, have provided a historical introduction to the poems that is at once erudite and light in touch. There is an excellent section on female costume (of which the Contenance makes much play); and the remarkable silence of all three poems about woman’s role in marriage is noted. The editors intelligently outline the position of women, both in courtly, noble society (which the author of the Bien seems to know best) and in bourgeois circles (which it looks as if the Contenance author knew well), with due emphasis on the new social prominence that the cult of courtly love gave to women in the one milieu, and that enlarged opportunities in work and commerce gave them in the other. The editors suggest that some of the misogyny of the Contenance and the Blasme may reflect a defensive reaction to the latter in particular.

The editors deal more effectively with the cultural and intellectual background of the misogynic tradition than with the counterbalancing tradition, represented by the Bien des Fames. They give a clear account of the view of the female as biologically inferior to the male, even defectively begotten, that derives ultimately from Aristotle, and the hostile interpretation of Eve’s role in the Fall. Here they cite Tertullian’s “You are the one who opened the door to the Devil”; Augustine’s interpretation of the male as signifying the mind and the female the body, “the concupiscential part, over which the mind bears rule”; and Aquinas’ limitation of woman’s role as man’s help-meet to the narrow field of generation, “since man can be more effectively helped by another man in other works.” On the other side they sensitively examine the cult of Mary; but one looks in vain for the medieval counter-authorities to those quoted above. Rupert of Deutz, after all, was not alone in taking the stand summed up in his plain statement, “God made woman no less than man in his own image.” Perhaps, though, the balance of the treatment here simply reflects the balance—or rather the bias—of the poems that the editors are introducing.

Far apart as are the worlds of Sabina Flanagan’s Hildegard of Bingen and of the Three Medieval Views of Women, the two books can be seen as complementary in at least one respect. The misogynic poems in the latter book, and the stock attitudes that they reflect, offer some indication of the scale of the obstacles that stood in the way of Hildegard, simply because she was a woman, in making her voice heard, let alone heeded. Woman is incurably illogical, child-witted, no good will come to men formed in God’s image from listening to her prating, the poems tell us, repeating what in their day were views worn into a groove by endless iteration. To break through such a curtain wall of prejudice as this, even armed with a claim to the gift of prophecy, was a feat indeed. To do so and to achieve the position of a revered counselor to kings, counts, bishops, and so many others in the way that Hildegard did was truly startling, testimony to a personality of very unusual power.

On the other side too there are complementary touches. The Bien des Fames, with its tribute to Mary, whom Christ raised above the angels, and to woman-kind for her motherhood of all men, offers a pale echo, from a trite male pen, of what Hildegard looked on as the glory of womanhood in the divine scheme of things. That is, that she “gives birth to God’s image in every child she bears” (I quote here from Barbara Newman’s eloquent Sister of Wisdom), and that in Mary she was the chosen vessel that gave God’s own seed the robe of human flesh.

One final thought remains with me. Hildegard, in her own time, was by no means the only writer to seek out the feminine aspects of the divine, though she did so more strikingly than most. Saint Bernard’s invocation of Mother Charity “whose caresses are without guile,” who “brings God to man and reconciles men with God” is a famous passage in the same mode (his treatment of charity indeed seems to have had a direct influence on hers). There is no accident here. The need to improve the accommodation for woman in the religious life, and for a reconsideration of her place in the divine scheme of things, was real and felt in the twelfth century. The prominence of women among the heretical Cathars (against whom both Hildegard and her protégé Elisabeth of Schönau spoke), and the attraction to women of their teachings were warning signs that there were problems that the unthinking assumption of male primacy had overlooked perilously. So, in a different way, was the intransigent Cathar hostility toward sex and all that came of sexual union, which hinted at how an overemphasis on the mastery of the flesh could threaten the Christian conception of marriage.

It was not just the Cathars, either; the spread of their heresy was a symptom rather than a cause of the way in which things had been going awry. The Blasme des Fames may be interpreted as part of a reaction to social trends; in a more important way the emphasis in Hildegard’s writing on the feminine aspects of the divine and on woman’s part in God’s plan for his Creation responded to the conditions, sensed needs, and sensitivities of her times. It also did so in a way that was better founded in Scripture.

This Issue

December 7, 1989