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isibodenberg, a nine-hundred-year-old Benedictine monastery in the Rhineland region of western Germany, is a majestically dismal ruin, its roofless buildings overrun by ivy and interspersed with stands of oak, ash, and beech. When I searched out the site, last May, I was the only visitor. I half expected to come across Caspar David Friedrich painting at an easel. One sector, consisting of scattered blocks and fragments of walls, is marked with a sign, in German: “Area of the Hildegard Convent (12th Cent.).” This, according to one guess, is where the nun, theologian, poet, and composer Hildegard of Bingen spent about forty years of her eight-decade life. In her teens, she was enclosed with two other nuns at the monastery, seemingly destined for a life of anonymous devotion. Something of the ambience of the place seeps into Hildegard’s hymn to St. Disibod, the Irish bishop for whom the monastery is named: “You hid yourself out of sight / drunk with the smell of flowers in the windows of the saints / reaching towards God.”

Hildegard did not stay out of sight. In 1146 or 1147, when she was in her late forties, she wrote a letter to the French cleric Bernard of Clairvaux—a leading figure in the Cistercian Order, an architect of the Knights Templar, a propagandist of the Crusades—in which she disclosed that she had been experiencing religious visions. The letter begins with protestations of humility, seeking recognition for her newfound calling, but by the end it radiates the fearsome certitude of a prophet in the pulpit:

And so I beseech you, through the serenity of the Father, through his wondrous Word, through the sweet fluid of remorse, through the spirit of truth, through the sacred sound to which all creation resounds, through the Word that gave birth to the world, through the sublimity of the Father whose sweet viriditas [viridity, verdancy] released the Word in the Virgin’s womb, where it took on flesh like a honeycomb built out from honey: may this same sound, the power of the Father, descend on your heart and elevate your soul so that you do not remain idly numb to this person’s words.

Bernard must have been taken aback by this letter from an unknown nun. In his reply, he cloaks himself in the timeless condescension of the bigwig: “The press of business forces me to respond more briefly than I would have liked.” Still, Hildegard’s conviction impresses him: “When the learning and the anointing (which reveals all things to you) are within, what advice could we possibly give?” As it turned out, Bernard’s approval was superfluous, for Hildegard also secured the blessing of Pope Eugene III. For the remainder of her life—she died in 1179—she held sway as a seer, her teachings heeded by Popes and emperors alike.

Hildegard’s letter to Bernard, incantatory in rhythm and poetic in imagery, encapsulates several of her preoccupations. It emphasizes the interdependence of spirituality and nature. It trains attention on the body of the Virgin Mary, not merely as a vessel of divinity but as a holy domain unto itself. Most strikingly, it casts the Word as “sacred sound.” In Hildegard’s telling, Paradise was a place of pure, many-voiced music, and it falls to the prophets to revive the lost angelic concert, through a fusion of word and melody. Hildegard herself devised such music—a cycle of seventy-seven liturgical songs, which she called “Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum,” or “Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations.” They are pieces of spectacular length and breadth, dissolving syllables into endless melismatic flights.

Around 1150, Hildegard left Disibodenberg and founded a new abbey in the area of Bingen, about fifteen miles to the northeast. While Disibodenberg was and remains a secluded place, Rupertsberg, as the new institution was called, had a conspicuous perch on the banks of the Rhine. Hildegard later opened a secondary convent across the river, in Eibingen. Few traces of the original buildings remain, but high on a hill above Eibingen stands the Hildegard Abbey, a suitably imposing neo-Romanesque complex that dates from 1904. In the course of the twentieth century, the abbey’s nuns helped to bring about a surge of interest in Hildegard, preparing editions of her writings and recording her music. She had never been forgotten, but modern Catholicism has embraced her as a symbol of piety and creativity intertwined. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI announced Hildegard’s canonization and named her a Doctor of the Church—a title that has been bestowed on only thirty-six other figures.

Hildegard’s fame has also crossed over into zones of New Age spirituality, environmental discourse, and feminist thought. In the gift shop at the Hildegard Abbey, you can find self-help texts along the lines of “Strengthen the Immune System with Hildegard of Bingen.” Fiction about Hildegard is a genre unto itself: there have been at least twenty novels in various languages, including two crime stories. The growth of the phenomenon had much to do with the serene allure of Hildegard’s music. In 1982, the British group Gothic Voices released a rapt album titled “A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen,” which became a cult item. The Sequentia ensemble followed with a nine-CD survey of Hildegard’s output. These and other releases have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Long overlooked in music history, Hildegard now possesses immense stature. Staff notation, which enabled the preservation of musical creations, had arisen less than a century before she was born; most early notations are anonymous in origin, and the concept of a professional composer would not take hold for several centuries. Still, musical personalities began to emerge in this period, and Hildegard was one of the first to exhibit a recognizable voice. The contradiction that she represents—a woman presiding over the earliest stages of the male-dominated Western canon—has had a galvanic effect on contemporary female composers, who see in her the shape of sound to come.

The turbulence of Hildegard’s century justified some of her more apocalyptic utterances. The Holy Roman Empire and the papacy were locked in conflict; the Crusades cut deathly swaths across the Middle East; a rising urban culture challenged the clerical and monarchical order. Hildegard held fast to the papal line, going so far as to send admonitory messages to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who assumed the Italian throne in 1155 and vainly tried to subdue Rome. In one such letter, Hildegard compares the Emperor to “a little boy or some madman”; in another, she channels the voice of God and warns that “my sword will pierce you.”

She was born into a wealthy, estate-owning family, probably in Bermersheim, east of Disibodenberg. According to one account, she was promised to the Church as a human tithe, because she was her parents’ tenth child. Disibodenberg had been established just a few years before Hildegard was consigned there, and Jutta, the resident nun, at first had only her niece and Hildegard in her charge. The enclosure ceremony followed the format of a funeral rite: the women were, in essence, being buried alive, in service to the Lord. They communicated with the outside world through a single aperture, which, when not in use, was blocked with stones. Or so claimed a monk who knew Hildegard in her final years; the task of separating fact from myth in her biography is arduous.

When Jutta died, in 1136, Hildegard assumed leadership of the Disibodenberg convent, which eventually grew to include about twenty women. A few years later, she had her first full-scale visions, which were usually accompanied by spells of trancelike immobility and racking pain. Recounting these incidents in the third person, Hildegard says that she “suffers in her inmost being and in the veins of her flesh”—that she is “distressed in mind and sense and endures great pain of body.” Various attempts have been made to attribute these spells to illness; one theory, popularized by Oliver Sacks, holds that she experienced severe migraines. The music historian Margot Fassler, in her new book, “Cosmos, Liturgy, and the Arts in the Twelfth Century,” points out an obvious problem with such speculation: many people have migraines, but “to have the kinds of visions Hildegard underwent does not follow as a matter of course.”

Despite these periods of incapacitation, Hildegard was no self-scouring ascetic, as Jutta had been. On the contrary, she preferred rather lavish trappings, especially after she moved her community to Rupertsberg. The literature contains a letter from a woman named Tengswich, who complains to Hildegard about “strange and irregular practices” that have been observed at Rupertsberg, such as the following: “They say that on feast days your virgins stand in the church with unbound hair when singing the psalms and that as part of their dress they wear white, silk veils, so long that they touch the floor. Moreover, it is said that they wear crowns of gold filigree.” Tengswich further comments that the convent excludes those of “lower birth and less wealth.” Hildegard, in reply, argues that whereas married women are wintry husks and comport themselves accordingly, virgins are like blooming flowers, representin

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