Hildegard of Bingen and Monastic Life in the Early Twelfth Century
Ben Corry, Dickson College 1992

Hildegard of Bingen was born in AD 1098 near Mainz, in Germany, and was canonised after her death in 1179. During her lifetime she wrote many works, mostly on theology and music. Her writings, and the writings of her biographers, provide evidence for the nature of monasticism as a social institution in the medieval centuries.
Godfrey, one of her secretaries and a monk from the monastery at Disinbodenberg (where Hildegard spent the years 1106-1150), wrote this of her:
"When Henry, fourth of that name, ruled the holy Roman Empire, there lived in Gaul a virgin famed equally for the nobility of her birth and her sanctity. Her name was Hildegard. Her parents, Hildebert and Mechthilde, although wealthy and engaged in worldly affairs, were not unmindful of the gifts of the Creator and dedicated their daughter to the service of God. For when she was yet a child she seemed far removed from worldly concerns, distanced by a precocious purity."
Godfrey makes mention of Hildegard being of noble birth, which is interesting in itself because it seems likely that a favouring of noble birth was common in the selection of novices. According to Bowie and Davies (1990), Hildegard herself only allowed people of noble birth into her convent. . It is also possible that monasteries could only afford to have nobles join. A monastery might have trouble supporting someone unless they brought some money with them. At one stage in Hildegard's career, when she wanted to separate her convent from the monastery at Disinbodenberg and move to Rupertsberg (near Bingen), much opposition was raised by the monks at Disinbodenberg because "the property which the nuns brought with them when they entered the convent contributed to the wealth of the monastery as a whole." (Flanagan, p5). The only other way of gaining money would have been from the offering of spiritual services, medicine, or burials in the cemetery. A policy of recruiting from the noble class may also have acted as a deterrent to those poor families who sent their unwanted children to the monastery because they could not themselves afford to keep them. According to Flanagan, however, the status of saints and their families were often exaggerated by Christian writers due to the high regard in which nobles were held.
Having decided at her birth to dedicate their child to God, Hildegard's parents would have been faced with the question, when she turned eight, of where to send her. According to Flanagan, the most common practice was that of oblation. This involved the child being sent to a nearby monastery, so contact could still be made with the child's family. Such contact was of course in conflict with the idea of total seclusion. Hildegard's fate was not to be this, however. At the time of the decision, a monastery was being refounded at Disinbodenberg which was to include the foundation of an anchorage. It was here that Hildegard was sent.
Entering an anchorage involved being locked away from the world and living as a total recluse for the rest of your life. Flanagan writes that an anchorite was "buried with God so that one day you might rise with him to heaven" In fact, the rites performed at the enclosure of Hildegard are described by another of her secretaries, Guibert of Gembloux, as those of the burial of the dead. He writes: "They were buried by the Abbot of the place and the brothers, as if truly dead to the world" , and later they were "placing the deceased on the bier" (Vita, book 2)
We are told by Guibert that the anchorites could hear the monks in their daily singing, so the anchorage must have been located inside the monastery and alongside the church. He also describes the extraordinary lengths that were taken to maintain the seclusion of the anchorites - large walls, ditches, barred windows, and a revolving hatch to prevent contact when provisions were passed in to the nuns. The anchorage seems to have been supported by the community.
Hildegard was not secluded from other anchorites, although there were initially only two nuns in the anchorage - Hildegard and an older nun, Jutta, who was the founder. Hildegard was taught the religious lifestyle, to read and write Latin, and to sing Psalms. There is also likely to have been some communication between the anchorage and the monastery, since Flanagan argues that some spiritual direction would have been given by the monks. However, in a Rule written by Aelred of Rievaulx for a different anchorage, any contact at all, either with the outside world or with fellow anchorites, is condemned.
We can be fairly sure of Hildegard's daily routine because, since she was part of the Disinbodenberg monastery, she would have followed the Benedictine rule. Her life would therefore have revolved around the eight offices of the Opus Dei (The Work of God). Her day would begin at 2 am, with the service of Matins, the longest office of the day. This was followed by Lauds at first light, Primes at sunrise, and then Terce, Sext and None during the day, Vespers in the evening and Compline at sunset. Thus, church worship would have taken up most of her time. As to how the rest of the day was spent is not clear. It would not have included much manual labour, since the monastery supplied their food and there was no doubt limited space within the anchorage. The day may have been taken up by copying scripture or making mats, cups and other useful items, and dining once a day during winter and twice a day in summer. Amidst this there would have been a little exercise although, according to Flanagan "there would have been little scope for walking there; such places are called 'prisons' for good reasons" (Flanagan, p35)
As time went on, the fame of Jutta and her pupil attracted other people to join the anchorage, and due to the larger numbers it was transformed from an anchorage into a nunnery. Flanagan claims "all the sources say this" but she names none. She also fails to give any definition of the difference between the two institutions, only hinting that the change in title was due to the number of people inside. The practical difference between the new convent and its predecessor would have been the increase in social activity between the inhabitants and a little more administrative power transferred from the monastery to the convent.
These changes happened when Hildegard was about fifteen, since she writes at this stage that she took the veil as a Benedictine nun. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard became the head of the convent.
Hildegard was hardly locked in solitude for the rest of her life, as she may have thought in her early years as an anchorite. During the first decade after her Rupertsberg move, in 1150, she began to be noticed outside her convent. She corresponded with many people in the outside world, including Henry II of England, as well as many monks, abbots popes, kings and officials. She even corresponded with the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, congratulating him at an earlier date when he was elected king of Germany in 1152. In fact, she corresponded with Barbarossa for some time, giving advice and receiving a charter of protection from him. Copies of all these letters still exist.
Starting around 1160, Hildegard also ventured on many preaching tours. Originally, these were merely visits to other monasteries. However, during her second tour she began preaching to the public. This was presumably quite an unusual step for a woman and a nun. Here she seems to have flung aside the usual idea of monasticism, seclusion from society, and to have become involved in the affairs of the world. She was not simply worried about maintaining a strict religious life and gaining salvation and redemption for herself; she also wanted to help and teach others. This is a significant and interesting part of her career, since it is not only a departure from the notion of a monastic life but it was presumably also an unusual achievement for a woman.
Hildegard's whole life shows us that it was possible for a woman to win intellectual fame and advancement in the twelfth century, but we are probably right in believing that it was only possible within the structure of the church. Women seem to have had little real participation in civil or secular public life. The monasteries were really the only avenues for a woman to gain an education, and even then it seems to have been unusual for a nun to be educated. Hildegard no doubt represents a unique exception, not only in gaining an education in the first place but also being influential enough to preach and teach in public.
Many aspects of monasticism can be seen in the life of St Hildegard, especially the fragility of the so-called "truly universal characteristic" of seclusion. (Bowie & Davies, p336) It is difficult to be dogmatic about the practices of monasticism, one of the most important social features of the medieval period, since there are so many exceptions to the general rule.
Bowie, Fiona & Davies, Oliver, 1990, Hildegard of Bingen. An Anthology SPCK, London.
Dronke, Peter, 1984, Women Writers of the Middle Ages, CUP, Cambridge.
Flanagan, Sabrina, 1989, Hildegard of Bingen, A Visionary Life Routledge, London.