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Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader

by Hildegard of Bingen, Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Editor), Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Editor)

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I'm truly not just a Hildy Hater. I think her music is downright beautiful. I think it's neat that she knew about herbs and stuff. I think it's cool that she was a strong woman who used God to beat people into submission, because what other weapon did she have really, and I even think she meant well, most of the time. She's mendacious and she resorts to that smelling our wounds metaphor just a little too much, but on the other hand I like that her word for what God brings us and the feeling he leaves is "green."

It doesn't help that Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a condescending Christian lady who seems to think the whole point of Hildy is that she was just! like! us! and isn't! that! nice! only more godly and maybe we could learn a thing or two from the anchoress, ahem. Butcher really hammers that point home--like we won't care about the Middle Ages unless they're super-relevant to our lives, which just makes me super-suspicious that Butcher actually wouldn't care if she didn't think her God wanted her to and would be more excited about, like, her new washing machine. A more serious issue is that she can't write for shit--really kindergarteny stuff like when the devil vomits up some bad crud she can't use the noun vomit to describe it because she already just used the verb vomit, so we end up with a sentence that goes something like "the devil vomited up some evil throw up on them," which is so puerile it almost makes me feel bad for picking on her. But then when she writes things like "Hildegard's letters weren't like the emails we send today," or rattles on and on and on about her trip to Korea--no, not even the trip, the baggage claim, because her writing workshop told her she should write her experience and include sensory detail--I get over feeling bad, because man, stop wasting our time, Butcher (of the English language).

Enough of her. After a serviceable biography, we get excerpts from the songs and visions, and at the risk of a Carmeacevedobutcherian presentism I have to say that all this stuff about e.g. the Church being a woman with a demon's maw emerging from between her legs just seems really traumatized and sad to me. That's not a dig--it seems like Hildegard feels frozen and helpless and like a Jesus who will smite all the doubters and lazy Christians and basically everyone except Hildegard as long as she sucks up really good would be just the thing. I know how sneery that sounds, and let me stress that my attitude toward religious belief is calmer and less frothy-violent than I sound now. But I do sort of feel like whenever I encounter medieval Church literature it reminds me of that thing my internet acquaintance Lola said about the Middle Ages being a Christian thousand-year Reich. The poor people seem broken, and unequal to the task of living without a bunch of empty, sad threats about how their friend Mercy will stomp you and Humility will judge you and Chastity will fuck some more righteous dude. Hildegard doesn't seem to get that an endless parade of virtues that come on and pose and sneer and threaten and boast is comical or pathetic.

(oh, Butcher also took out all the "O!s". Like "O! Christ, you who are our shield," and "O! St. Disibod, right arm of the Church, O! exemplar," etc. Why would you take out the "O!"s?)

The parade of asshole virtues is repeated several times in several ways--sort of implicitly in the visions in the excerpts from Scivias, which were the foundation of Hildegard's spiritual authority, where she sees a woman whose body is covered with eyes, but she's not a demon, she's "Fixing-one's-eye-upon-God"--it takes a lot to tell the grotesque virtues from the grotesque vices sometimes, which is weird because the vices all gnash and gnarr and have beetle torsoes or, like, hair made of offal, so you wouldn't think telling the difference would be that hard)--then in musical form in Ordo Virtutum or the "Play of the Virtues," which is included in its entirety so I have spoken of it elsewhere, and finally, again, in the Book of Life's Merits in detail--this book is not included in toto, but good luck finding that out from Butcher, who takes an approach probably best described as ramshackle.

There is also the physick, which is all mad libs: "If you have (name of an ailment), that is because your (name of a bodily humour) is out of balance; do (name of a penance)." Also, everyone should eat more garlic. That's another place where we agree, and I'm being judgmental on the mores of a different time and probably coming across like a pretty repulsive person in this review. But you know why? Because Hildegard comes across pretty badly too--shallow, opinionated, given to histrionic threats--and I could forgive that on the grounds that she created tihngs of cool weird beauty (besides the music, her illustrations of her visions in the Scivias, not included here, are freaky-Christedelic) if not for the fact that she never, never stops judging and threatening and bludgeoning me, or my Bavarian peasant great-to-the-seventy-first power grandfather. Sheerest presentism, that. But like Hildegard reaching out and weaponizing a mythology, I'm only using the best tool--for me, mockery--available in my self-defence. ( )
9 vote MeditationesMartini | Nov 22, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hildegard of Bingenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Butcher, Carmen AcevedoEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Butcher, Carmen AcevedoEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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