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Healer with natural remedies
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Hildegard of Bingen’s book about natural history and medicine is certainly seen as the most popular work from the significant Abbess today. However, it is unfortunately also the one whose authenticity is least validated. In other words, nobody can say how much of „Hildegard“ is really in the so called „Hildegard Medicine“ which has long since been extensively commercially marketed and adapted.
We know that Hildegard composed one (or maybe two, as later tradition suggests?) book(s) about natural history and medicine between 1151 and 1158 – such a book from her time, the 12th century, however, was not handed down. Only more than one hundred years after her death, the most known and oldest comprehensive copy that is still known today was created (Florentine Manuscript), which under the name „Physica“ hands down Hildegard’s knowledge of natural history and healing in nine books. It is certain that this text does not entirely correspond to the unknown „original version“. This is even more the case for the total of eleven further (partial ) copies of „Physica“ from the 14th and 15th century and the magnificent first print of the work of 1533, which can be admired in original in the Museum on the River. All these texts refer to Hildegard of Bingen, but the contents deviate from each other to a large extent. Obviously falsification, as normally results from copies (copies of copies?) of a text over several centuries, changed our view on the „Hildegard Original“ that was not handed down. This is no wonder, because the work of Hildegard about natural history, which in its description entirely refrains from the visionary style, had obviously already been classified by the author herself as a pure „practical text“ and not included in the great „final complete works“ („Wiesbaden Giant Codex“) towards the end of her life. Thus, the book would have been seen even less as an untouchable scripture of revelation to later copiers; and this is why each personal copy was – as usual for collections of recipes – adapted to changed needs and requirements.
That this results in major problems for the reconstruction of the original text, is obvious: The important chapter „About the Vine“, for example, is different in each of the six older complete versions of „Physica“. All versions name a certain healing effect of wine in the case of periodontitis, but only four manuscripts recommend wine for eye problems, for instance – and the oldest and certainly most correct text („Florentine Manuscript“) also recommends mulled wine for treating an infected bladder. In addition to the textual problems, there is the fact that some of the plants named by Hildegard cannot be exactly identified today. This can be shown by the example of a plant that Hildegard recommends as a treatment for chest pains and digestion problems and is named „Sunnewerbel“. In the Middle Ages this term was used for chicory, rock rose or dandelion – three plant types that reveal their flowers or flower heads only in sunlight. As Hildegard, apart from the name, gives no further characteristics of identification of the plant discussed by her, each of the three could be meant. And finally, with regard to the comments on poisonous plants – which were sometimes quite problematic – and the lack of applicable statements about the doses in the texts that were handed down in Hildegard’s name, it can only be warned against an application of the so called „Hildegard herbs“ without being critical and an expert.
„Physica“ still reveals a fascinating world view and conception of man which is also significant for the present day. Botany and medicine are always included in the theological concept as Hildegard develops it with fascinating unity in her main visionary works. All manifestations of nature, including plants and people, are closely related with each other as part of the world as a whole, formed and organized by God. A key term of this cosmology is the „greening power“ (viriditas). For Hildegard, the green of the leaves symbolizes that divine principle that gives all earthly lives the power and strength to thrive – the living bond between Creator and creation. Thus, the healing vitality of plants is also transferred to the people, if their „green is useful and mellow“. For Hildegard, medicine and doctrine of salvation are inseparably connected with each other. Thus, healing of illnesses can never be described purely „with natural science“ by the effect of herbs, but health is always the result of a life pleasing to God in accordance with entire creation. In the end, the recovery from a severe illness only lies in the hands of God.
Moreover, modern herbal medicine practice has confirmed the healing power of many herbs described by Hildegard. Yarrow and blackwort, for example, whose „special and subtle powers in case of injury“ are praised by Hildegard and are still valued as wound healing medicine today. Her medicinal tea for colds made from vitamin-rich rose hip can still be found in the modern medicine cabinet. That spurge (Wolfsmilchkraut) „burns the skin of people“ was also known to Hildegard – the juice of the plant contains active substances that can cause skin irritations. Even the recommended use for dispelling bad fluids from the human body seems like a description of the real laxative effect of the plant transferred to the imaginative world of humoral pathology. Surprisingly, a therapeutic value of lungwort, which is apparently only associated with bronchial diseases due to its appearance, can be proved. The silicic acid and mucilage contained in the plant can facilitate the clearing of thick mucus.
It can be assumed that Hildegard knew the effects of this and other plants primarily because of her own observations and long experience of nursing in the monastery. As a matter of course, the Abbess and healer did not refer to scientific correlations that are known to us only nowadays when explaining her symptomatic observations. The causes of the healing process are described within the context of her perception of the work of God and the inner-worldly principles of effect.