The most accomplished abbess of the Middle Ages, the Sibyl of the Rhine, the first German woman physician, the mother of German botany, Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a woman of high energy and noted achievement. Poet, prophet, mystic, composer, moralist, counselor to kings and church leaders, author, scholar, scientist, and herbalist, she is best known today for her visionary religious and philosophical works, as well as for her music. During her lifetime, Hildegard was also highly acclaimed as a healer.
Cultivating the Cosmic Tree
Hildegard was born near Mainz, the tenth child of a noble family. Promised to the church by her parents, she began instruction at age eight with Jutta of Spanheim, who later became abbess of the Benedictine convent at Disibodenberg. She took her vows at eleven and succeeded Jutta as abbess on the latter’s death in 1136. Five years later, Hildegard began publicizing the visions that she had experienced since childhood and that she believed came directly from God. In 1150, she moved her monastery to Rupertsberg, near Bingen, and continued writing about her visions and her interpretations of them.
Hildegard wrote her two treatises on medicine and natural history, known in English as Book of Simple Medicine and Book of Composed Medicine, between 1151 and 1161. (In some manuscripts the two are combined as The Subtleties of the Diverse Natures of Created Things.) They are often referred to by their Latin titles, Physica and Causae et Curae, respectively. The number of manuscript copies of these works still in existence indicates that these works were widely read and influential.
Physica is an encyclopedic work describing the characteristics of elements, mammals, reptiles, fish, birds, trees, plants, metals, and precious stones and jewels. The longest and most comprehensive section contains information concerning the medicinal uses and harvesting of more than 200 herbs and other plants. Unlike many other medieval herbals, this one contains little description of the plants for identification purposes.
Causae et Curae catalogs forty-seven diseases according to causes, symptoms, and treatments. Hildegard lists more than 300 plants here, emphasizing medical and physiological theory as well as herbal treatments.
Hildegard’s sources are not known, but it is likely that she used medieval herbals and older texts by Pliny, Galen, Soranus, and St. Isidore of Seville, augmenting published information about illnesses and treatments with local folk- and medical lore, observation, and experimentation. The monastery at Rupertsberg had a large herb garden, from which medicines were prepared to treat members of her order as well as people from the surrounding countryside. Hildegard knew these plants by both their Latin botanical names and their common German names. Whether she actually practiced medicine or only studied it is not certain, but she was known for her cures, both supernatural and natural.
Hildegard gave physical events, moral truths, and spiritual experiences equal weight. Healing was both medical and miraculous, and God’s will was an important element in her remedies. “These remedies come from God and will either heal people or they must die, for God does not wish them to be healed,” she wrote.
Like other medieval healers, Hildegard adopted from the ancient world the concept that the world is composed of four elements—fire, air, water, and earth—and that these are represented in the human body by the four cardinal humors—choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm, and melancholy (black bile). Harmony among the elements resulted in health; disharmony or imbalance was illness. As Hildegard noted, “As long as the flow of the humors in a person functions properly and maintains warmth, moisture, blood and flesh, then the person enjoys good health. But as soon as they flow all at once in excess and without caution, they create sickness and cause death.”
The Six Days of Creation Renewed
Medieval monastic healers looked to plants for cures. Each plant was believed to be hot, cold, moist, or dry, and these attributes determined its suitability as a treatment for a given illness. Of tansy, for example, Hildegard wrote,
Reynfan [tansy] is hot and a little damp and is good against all superfluous and flowing humours. And whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat tansy, either in . . . cakes, or with meat or any other way. It will bind the humours so they do not overflow and thus will lessen.
Hildegard also recommended tansy for a dry cough and stomach complaints.
Herbal medicines were frequently prepared from a single herb. These were called simples. Complex illnesses might call for a number of herbs, even those with apparently opposite attributes, such as hot and cold or moist and dry. Thus, Hildegard’s cure for migraine was a mixture of aloe (hot), myrrh (dry), and poppy oil (cold) mixed with flour. (Hildegard’s own migraines are believed to have been the source of her visions, which she recorded in detail and had illustrated.)
One principle in Hildegard’s works is viriditas, usually translated as “greenness” or “greening power” and interpreted as meaning growth or life. Hildegard wrote that God transmits life into plants, animals, and gems. People eat plants and animals and acquire gems, thus obtaining viriditas. They, in turn, give that life out by practicing virtue, becoming an important link in the chain of being. Hildegard considered the emerald the chief of jewels because of its green color, and one of her favorite herbs was fennel, which in ancient rites was used to honor Adonis, the Greek god of vegetation.
Hildegard considered fennel an all-purpose herb that promoted general good health.
Eaten daily on an empty stomach, [fennel seeds] reduce mucus and all rottenness, take away halitosis and clear the eyes. Whoever eats fried meat, fried fish, or anything else fried, and suffers pain from it should eat fennel or fennel seeds and will have less pain.
Fennel, which is still eaten today as a digestive aid, was also used by Hildegard in combination with other herbs to treat respiratory ailments. “Those who cough should take fennel and dill in equal parts, add one-third of a part of horehound and boil the herbs in wine, strain through a linen cloth, drink and the cough will disappear.” A liquid made by cooking equal quantities of mullein and fennel in wine would cure laryngitis.
To Hildegard, bright eyes were the sign of life, dull eyes, of death. She is credited with introducing the use of eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) as an eye remedy; it has since been shown to be astringent and anti-inflammatory. Medieval herbal remedies for eye problems sometimes depended on eye color, which also determined personality traits. Fennel was a remedy for afflicted blue eyes. The sufferer
should take fennel or fennel seeds when the pain is fresh, pulverize them, press the juice from them, and take the dew which is found on grass blades standing upright, add a little fine wheat flour, and knead this into a little cake. This she should place over her eyes for the night, tie it in place, and she will feel better. The mild warmth of fennel, tempered by dew and the strength of the flour, removes these pains.
Rue was the herb of choice for brown eyes that were hurting. “Take rue juice, and twice as much pure liquid honey, and add a little pure good wine. Lay a piece of wheat bread in this mixture, and then tie it on the eyes with the bread overnight.”
Herbs often had powers beyond mere symptomatic relief of irritations. Take lavender, for example. “Whoever cooks lavender with wine, or if the person has no wine, with honey and water, and drinks it often lukewarm, it will alleviate the pain in the liver and in the lungs and the steam in his chest. Lavender wine will provide the person with pure knowledge and a clear understanding.”
Hildegard, who was strikingly modern in delving into dreams and psychology, recommended herbs to alter dream patterns. For dreams induced by illness, she wrote, “Whoever is plagued by wrong dreams should have betony leaves close by when going to sleep and this person will see and feel fewer bad dreams.”
A woman of her time, Hildegard sometimes combined ordinary herbal medicine with magical procedures, rituals, or incantations, some of which showed a Christian influence. She believed that the mandrake root was composed of the earth from which Adam was created. A sad man might obtain a mandrake root that had been purified in a fountain for a day and night immediately after being dug from the earth. He would take the root to bed with him, warm it next to his body, and recite these words: “God, who madest man from the dust of the earth without grief, I now place next me that earth which has never transgressed in order that my clay may feel that peace just as Thou didst create it.”
To counteract bad magic, one plucked roots and leaves of a geranium, two mallow plants, and seven shoots of the plantagenet (broom) at midday in the middle of April. The plants were laid on moist ground and kept wet and green for a while, then allowed to dry until the third hour of the rising sun. They were sprinkled with water until noon, then removed and placed facing south in full sun until the ninth hour. They were wrapped in a cloth with a stick on top to hold them in place and left until a little before midnight, when the evils of darkness began to flee. The plants were moved to a high window or to a garden where cool air could flow around them, then pulverized with the middle finger and put in a new pillbox. This powder could be used to ward off magic by holding it over wine, which was then drunk with saffron. This ritual illustrates the importance of the sun, moon, and air in Hildegard’s world.
Hildegard’s use of herbs, diet, and natural remedies to achieve health resembles today’s holistic approaches, and she prescribed small doses, foreshadowing those of homeopathic medicine. In her medical works as well as in some of her other writings, she deals with diabetes, gynecological and obstetrical concerns, and psychological causes of illness.
While most people today view Hildegard’s medicine as folkloric, a few take her theories seriously. Dr. Gottfried Hertzka of Germany has practiced “Hildegard medicine” for thirty years, using Causae et Curae as his guide. In the 1980s, he was joined by Dr. Wighard Strehlow, a research chemist, at the St. Hildegard Center on Richenau Island in Lake Constance. In 1993, he moved his practice to the Hildegard House in Allensbach, a small town in southern Germany. Diet, diagnosis, and herbal remedies based on Hildegard’s writings are available there.
The International Society for Hildegard von Bingen Studies, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, brings together scholars and other people interested in Hildegard and her place in history. The August 1994 issue of its newsletter, Qualelibet, is devoted to Hildegard’s medical works and her relevance to holistic medicine. For further information, contact Professor Pozzi Escot, 24 Avon Hill, Cambridge, MA 02140.
Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098–1179: A Visionary Life. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Fox, Matthew. The Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear and Company, 1985.
Strehlow, Wighard, and Gottfried Hertzka. Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear and Company, 1987.
Joyce Suellentrop is a history professor at Kansas Newman College in Wichita, specializing in medieval and women’s history. She grows herbs for fun.