Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was not only a visionary Benedictine abbess, composer, and Powerfrau extraordinaire. She was also a physician and healer who developed her own highly original system of medical treatment and holistic dietary philosophy.
Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-543), the founder of her order, expressly forbade the study of medicine, which in his era derived solely from texts written by Pagans such as Hippocrates and Galen. Benedict believed that prayer alone must suffice in healing Christians.
But by Hildegard’s time, monasteries had become centers of healing that embraced the medical knowledge of both the Classical Pagan world and the pioneering work of Arab and Persian physicians. Nearly every monastic house had its own infirmary, hospice, apothecary, and medicinal garden. Hildegard would have had ample opportunity to train as a physician and apothecarer at Disibodenberg Monastery, a double monastery housing both monks and nuns, where she lived for most of the first half of her life.
In his essay, “Hildegard’s Medicine: A Systematic Science of Medieval Europe,” Kevin Anthony Hay suggests that Hildegard trained as an infirmarer at Disibodenberg under the guidance of a senior monk before she later took charge of the infirmary. After she and her nuns left Disibodenberg to found their own community at Rupertsberg, she wrote Causae et Curae, her main medical text, possibly so that the new infirmarer at Disibodenberg could benefit from her knowledge and expertise. When designing the new abbey at Rupertsberg, Hildegard made sure to include a medicinal steambath. People throughout her region came to Rupertsberg to receive healing from her and her sisters.
In the Middle Ages, women freely practiced the medical arts. The School of Salerno, the first medieval European medical school and the epicenter of Western medical science, included both women instructors and students. One such instructor was the 11th century Trotula whose treatise on women’s health that bears her name, de Trotula, was used for centuries after her death. It was not until the mid-16th century that European women were formally forbidden to study and practice as physicians.
Hay believes Hildegard was unique among female practitioners of her time because her medicine didn’t focus solely on female complaints and also because she developed a systematic, scientific, and holistic understanding of medicine that rivaled what was coming out of Salerno, even though she had never received any formal university training.
For Hildegard, medicine was an integral part of her religious vocation. Her medicine mirrored her theology—she believed that the human body was the microcosm within the sacred macrocosm of the universe and, as such, mirrored the splendor of creation. But if one fell into disharmony with the innate wholeness of creation, illness resulted. This could be treated through rest, herbal cures, steam baths, a proper diet, and by making one’s peace with the divine order.
She identified pre-cancerous states and developed herbal remedies to treat them before the cancer could develop. Naturopathic doctors in modern Germany still practice “Hildegard Medizin” and work with her dietary philosophy. She was a big fan of spelt bread.
If you are visiting Hildegard sites in Germany, be sure to stop at the Hildegard Forum, just across the Rhine from the Saint Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen. The Forum is run by religious sisters who offer outreach to the public to learn more about Hildegard, particularly her philosophy of holistic healing and nutrition. They manage a café and restaurant; offer seminars and retreats; and maintain an orchard and a medieval-style herb garden.
Mary Sharratt’s book Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen won the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award: Better Books for a Better World and was a 2012 Kirkus Book of the Year. Her forthcoming novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask, will be published by Houghton MIfflin Harcourt in Spring 2016. Visit her website.