A Chorus of Virgins: Hildegard’s Symphonia

  • Maud Burnett McInerney
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Sometime around 1150, Abbess Tengswich of Andernach wrote a letter to a much more celebrated woman of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen. Tengswich professed to be impressed by Hildegard’s remarkable prophetic gifts, but she questioned the way in which Hildegard directed her convent on two grounds. For one thing, she had heard that Hildegard only admitted well-born nuns to her sisterhood, a practice that Tengswich considers to be at odds with Christ’s choice of fishermen and other members of the lower classes as his disciples; equally disturbing, evidently, was the rumor that Hildegard and her nuns wore elaborate costumes and jewelry on holy days:

It seems that your virgins on feast days stand up in church singing with unbound hair, and that they wear as ornaments some kind of silk veils long enough to touch the ground and even elegantly wrought crowns on their heads with crosses worked in on either side and in the back; and in the front they have the figure of the Lamb elegantly attached. And on top of this, their fingers are decorated with golden rings; the first shepherd of the Church forbade such things in his letter with this warning: women should comport themselves with modesty, not wearing their hair in curls, or gold, or pearls, or precious clothing. (Letter 52: 126)1

The “first Shepherd of the Church” was Peter, whose instructions in his first epistle were explicit: “Likewise, you wives should be subordinate to your husbands…Your adornment should not be an external one: braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry, or dressing in fine clothes” (I Peter 3:1–3); Tengswich’s allusion includes a reminiscence of a Pauline passage as well: [“Women should adorn themselves with proper conduct, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hairstyles and gold ornaments, or pearls or expensive clothing” (I Tim 2:9)].


Female Body Human Race Twelfth Century Fine Clothes Holy Ghost 
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  1. 1.
    References to Hildegard’s works are abbreviated as follows, and are to the editions cited here. Letter: Epistolarium Hildegardis, ed. L. Van Acker, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Medievalis 91–91a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991, 1993). Scivias: Hildegardis Scivias, ed. Adelgund Fuhrkotter and Angela Carlevaris, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Medievalis 43, 43a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978). Symphonia: Symphonia armonie celestium, ed. and trans. Barbara Newman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988); I have used Newman’s numbering of the songs but translations are my own. Life: Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, PL 197. Causes and Cures: Causae et Curae, ed. P. Kaiser (Lipsia: Teubner, 1903). Ordo: Ordo Virtutum, ed. Peter Dronke, Nine Medieval Latin Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    On this kind of translation see Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 222. There appears to be no distinction, for Hildegard, between the magical operation of symbolic language, its devotional function, and its literary function.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    On viriditas as the energy of nature, linked to female fertility, see Heinrich Schipperges, Hildegard of Bingen: Healing and the Nature of the Cosmos, trans. John A. Broadwin (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1998), pp. 66–68. For viriditas as a “transcendental attribute of being” see Helen J. John, “Hildegard of Bingen: A New Medieval Philosopher?” in Cecile J. Tougas and Sara Ebenreck, Presenting Women Philosophers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), p. 34.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    The Acta Inquisitionis, prepared for the never completed canonization procedure, tells the story of Hildegard’s encounter with a young woman who had “turned herself into a scholar” [in scholarem se transmutaverat], presumably by wearing the clothes of a clerk. Hildegard instructs her to “return to the better state” [convertere ad statum meliorem] since her days are numbered. The girl confesses her deception and dies (with a clear conscience, one hopes) within the year. Acta III, PL 197:133. Anna Silvas points out (Jutta and Hildegard: The Biographical Sources (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), p. 262n23) that Hildegard’s disapproval is directed at scholasticism as much as it is at cross-dressing. For her, the contemplative, monastic life was the better part, especially for women, whose natural gifts lay in this area. See Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life (Routledge: London, 1989), p. 217n8.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    According to Patrick Diehl in The Medieval European Religious Lyric: An Ars Poetica (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), by the twelfth century, the Virgin “threatens to eclipse her son” (p. 59) as a subject. In Hildegard’s poetry the eclipse is complete, except for two of the miscellaneous compositions Newman edits as “songs without music” at the end of the Symphonia; one of these, “O fili dilectissime,” is in the voice of the Virgin addressing her Son.Google Scholar
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    See e.g., Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 160–86; Penny Schine Gold, The Lady and the Virgin: Image, Attitude and Experience in Twelfth Century France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 68–75.Google Scholar
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    Theresa Coletti, “Purity and Danger: The Paradox of Mary’s Body and the Engendering of the Infancy Narrative in the English Mystery Cycles,” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, ed. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 85.Google Scholar
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    Charles T. Wood, “The Doctors’ Dilemma: Sin, Salvation and the Menstrual Cycle in Medieval Thought,” Speculum 56 (1981): 726.Google Scholar
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    Bruce W. Holsinger, “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homo-erotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen,” Signs 19:I (1993): 101. See also Holsinger, “Sine tactu viri: The Musical Somatics of Hildegard of Bingen,” Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 87–136.Google Scholar
  10. 27.
    Newman, Symphonia, p. 310; Dronke, Poetic Individuality, p. 152. See also Kathryn L. Bumpass, “A Musical Reading of Hildegard’s Responsory ‘Spiritui Sancto,’” Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), pp. 155–73.Google Scholar
  11. 34.
    Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, “Prophet and Reformer: Smoke in the Vineyard,” in Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her Word, ed. Barbara Newman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 70–90. See also chapter 2 of Kerby-Fulton’s Reformist Apocalypticism and Piers Plowman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), which argues for a much more extended nachsleben for Hildegard’s prophecies than has generally been acknowledged.Google Scholar
  12. 35.
    Gustav Sommerfeldt, “Die Prophetien der hl. Hildegard von Bingen in einem Schrieben des Magisters Heinrich v. Langenstein (1383),” Historische Jahrbuch 30 (1909): 47.Google Scholar
  13. 39.
    Origen, Contra Celsum 7.3, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953).Google Scholar
  14. 40.
    John Chrysostom, Homily 29.2 on First Corinthians, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, ser. 2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1952), v. 12.Google Scholar
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    Constantine, Ad Sanctum Coetum 19. See H. W. Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity (New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 164–66.Google Scholar
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    Augustine, De Civ. Dei 18.23. See Dronke, Hermes and the Sibyls: Continuations and Creations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 9–11.Google Scholar
  18. 47.
    Vergil, Aeneid, ed. R. D. Williams (London: Macmillan, 1972), n. 465.Google Scholar
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    Bernard McGinn, “Teste David cum Sibylla: The significance of the Sibylline Tradition in the Middle Ages,” Women of the Medieval World (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), p. 18.Google Scholar
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    Dronke, Hermes and the Sibyls, p. 11. The Latin text of the homily is reproduced in Karl Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1933), pp. 125–31.Google Scholar

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© Maud Burnett McInerney 2003

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  • Maud Burnett McInerney

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