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The Visionary Works

Her Life › Visionary and theologian › The Visionary Works

Navigationsbaum: Her Life › Visionary and theologian › The Visionary Works

Hildegard of Bingen left behind three comprehensive visionary works that she wrote starting at the age of almost 43 up to 1173: Scivias (1141-1151), presumably a short name for „Know the Ways of the Lord“, Liber vitae meritorum (1158-1163), the „Book of the Rewards of Life“, and Liber divinorum operum (1163-1173), the „Book of Divine Works“. How this comprehensive legacy was developed, we learn from her writings and a letter to Guibert of Gembloux:

„Whatever I shall have seen or learned in this vision, I retain a memory of it for a long time, so that I recollect that I saw and heard it one time. (…) My soul never lacks at any time that light named above which is called the shadow of the Living Light, (…). And I see in it what I often say and what I reply to those asking about the splendour of the Living Light.“

When she found the time, she then scratched the visions stored in her memory onto wax tablets, as is shown in the pictures in the Rupertsberg Codex of the Liber Scivias, the Salem Codex or the Lucca Codex of the Liber divinorum operum. During the Middle Ages and further beyond, wax tablets were an affordable method of writing down ones thoughts without having to buy the more expensive parchment. If necessary, the text could easily be scraped off and the tablet was ready to be used another time.

Then, Hildegard’s supporters came into play. Primarily, the monk Volmar has to be mentioned who supported her with the work on her first work Scivias up to his death in 1173. He corrected the style and grammar of Hildegard’s drafts, but „without losing or adding meaning and changing her understanding“ and then transcribed them onto parchment. Her confidant Richardis also supported Hildegard as a secretary until she was called to Bassum, where she became Abbess. In the Lucca Codex, she is displayed next to Hildegard in a picture of the development process of the writings. Shortly after Hildegard’s last visionary work, Liber divinorum operum, was finished, Volmar died:

„Now I work – alone like an orphan – on the divine work, because my helper was taken away from me, as it pleased God. The book I wrote with his help through the grace of the Holy Spirit according to a true vision is not yet finished. As soon as it is completely written, I will offer it to you for correction“,

she wrote to Abbot Ludwig of St. Eucharius in Trier.

The researchers still have problems classifying this work into medieval visionary literature. It would stand there like an „erratic block“ says the historian Peter Dinzelbacher, thus like a boulder that does not really fit into the rest of the landscape, and avoids being interpreted. Hildegard seemed to have created something new, although she never questioned the dogmas of the Church. Fortunately, the statement was never satisfactory. Many historians tried to find the sources of her knowledge that she, apart from the Bible and the works of the Doctors of the Church, did not quote due to her self-conception as a prophet of God. The problems for the historians is summed up perfectly by Christel Meier when she says:

„According to this, Hildegard would have been familiar with the entire medieval tradition, but at the same time acted freely based on intuition (after all, she was a woman and a visionary).“

A characterization of her work is equally difficult. Terms such as „cosmology“, „history of salvation“ or „doctrine“ are barely able to resolve those problems. The variety of Hildegard’s theological subjects and pictures is difficult to seize and to characterize.

In order to interpret her works, knowledge of her aims is essential, because they result from her self-conception as a prophet: She saw herself in a line with prophets inspired by God, more precisely as a prophet at the beginning of the ending times in which a „specific prophetic admonition and enlightenment was necessary“, as Christel Meier describes it. According to that, it was Hildegard’s aim to provide a relevant and effective interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, which was absolutely essential at that time.