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The Letters

Her Life › Advisor and admonisher › The Letters

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Hildegard considered her prophetic mission to convince people to change their lives in order to please God. This demand can also consistently be read in her extensive exchange of letters with clerics, lay people, noble people and non-nobles, women and men. More than 300 letters written by Hildegard from the time between 1146/47 and her death in 1179 have been handed down. The responses of the prophet to the questions of the requesting people were always included in visionary reports: „And in it (the shadow of the Living Light) I see what I normally say and what I respond to the inquisitive people according to the flashing of the Living Light“. While her books were only known to a small group of people, it was her letters that made Hildegard a public person who was not only known in her region, but also far beyond the borders of the Empire. As it was common in the Middle Ages to read letters in public, they were an important medium for forming an opinion. Hildegard certainly was aware of the significance of her letters for her image in public and used this to fulfil her prophetic mission.

The problem of preserving and the handing down of these letters is one of the major dilemmas for the Hildegard researchers of today. Hildegard herself most likely wrote her texts on wax tablets, of which they then were transcribed onto parchment and sent off. Before sending them, a duplicate was made of each letter which remained in the monastery. Copies of these copies were handed down in different manuscripts, so there are versions of the letters of an older tradition (1154-1170) and newer traditions (1170 and later). The comparisons of letters that existed in several numbers showed that they partly differed from another to a large extent, which is why the authenticity of these letters was doubted for a long time. It is also problematic that details such as place and time as well as the names of the addressees were often missing. Today, it is no longer assumed that these letters are not authentic or were secretly falsified by Hildegard’s secretaries.

So what is behind the obviously manipulated letters? Investigations showed that the older versions of the letters were changed only to a small extent and primarily reported of the reputation of Hildegard as a prophet of divine secrets. The newer versions go back to a book of letters that Volmar started to compile around 1170. Hildegard was then more than 70 years old and knew that her life was slowly coming to an end. The book of letters was intended to serve another purpose – to serve the posthumous fame of the honoured Abbess of the Rupertsberg. This is why the letters were organized according to the significance of the authors, Hildegard was always displayed as the advisor, significant people were assigned letters of other senders and criticism was edited to sound more positive. The changes that Volmar and his successors made were never done without Hildegard’s knowledge! It may be difficult to imagine today that a pious woman and Abbess could have let such an alteration happen, but in the Middle Ages people thought differently in this point than we do today. She did not want to betray the readers, but to record existing realities in a written from: Hildegard was a prophet who was in contact with powerful people of her time beyond the borders of the Empire and who gave these people advice and admonition to the great honour of God. The consistent basic tone of the enquiring people, however, could not be manipulated: They described their fears, their thoughts and sought consolation, guidance and advice and received responses which showed that the divine world was connected as one with the people.