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Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age

by Fiona Maddock

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This is a fascinating biography of a female religious leader in the 12th century. Hildegard of Bingen entered monastic life as a child, experienced visions, and eventually assumed a leadership role and founded her own abbey. She operated within a highly patriarchal society in which nuns were cloistered and lived in quiet solitude. Yet Hildegard overcame those barriers, corresponding frequently with political and religious leaders of her day, and even preaching outside the abbey for a period of time. Her writings were widely read and she was well-known for providing spiritual guidance. She is perhaps best known today for her music, having been one of the earliest female composers.

I approached this book knowing very little about Hildegard of Bingen. Her views were conservative, even reactionary; she and I would not see eye to eye. I was astounded at the way religious women were treated in those days, and at the prohibitions on manner of dress and friendships. Male clergy had much greater privilege and freedom. Yet Hildegard did not let this stand in the way of sharing her inspiration and divine messages. She enjoys a cult-like following to this day.

Not only did I learn a great deal about this historic figure, I also was constantly surprised by things I "knew," but wasn't initially conscious of. For example, while Hildegard composed music, this was done before the advent of the fixed pitch system (i.e.; a note called "C" which has an associated sound). Music also had to be committed to memory, since musical notation was in its early stages, and very few people would have been able to read it, anyway. Understanding more about the world in which Hildegard lived further enhanced this very interesting book. ( )
5 vote lauralkeet | Jul 10, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385498683, Paperback)

Among Catholic saints, the 12th-century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen perhaps best fits the description of wild womanhood offered by Cole Porter's "The Lady Is a Tramp." That is, Hildegard did it all, she did it her way, and everyone who hears about her is amazed. Such is a fair summary of the evidence offered in Hildegard of Bingen, a biography by Fiona Maddocks (the chief music critic for London's The Observer). Hildegard is today best known for her haunting musical compositions. She was also, in Maddocks's description, "a polymath: a visionary, a theologian, a preacher; an early scientist and physician; a prodigious letter writer who numbered emperors and popes among her correspondents ... Her boldness, courage, and tenacity made her at once enthralling and haughty, intrepid, and irksome." This is a straightforward, chronologically organized biography, beginning with Hildegard's girlhood (she entered a male monastery when she was 8 years old) and ending with the story of her canonization and a contemporary account of the procession that occurs annually on her feast day in Eibingen, the site of the second convent she founded. Throughout, Maddocks reminds readers of the rich historical background of Hildegard's life (the Crusades, the rise of monasticism, the beginnings of the Renaissance), offering not only an account of one extraordinary woman but of an era whose influence on our own is still being felt. --Michael Joseph Gross

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:39 -0400)

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