Hildegard of Bingen: Medieval Healer of the Rhine

How healers used herbal remedies during Medieval times.

| June/July 1995

  • The valley of the Rhine spreads out around the Benedictine monastery that Hildegard started in Eibingen, Germany. Swedish invaders destroyed the original building in the seventeenth century; it was rebuilt in the nineteenth century.
    Photograph used by permission of the Monastery of St. Hildegard

  • Photograph courtesy of Scala/Art Resource, New York


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.

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12/9/2012 10:56:11 PM

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