Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Hildegard von Bingen

A medieval visionary

Name: Hildegard von Bingen
Nationality: German
Lived: 1098-1179
Fields: Medicine, philosophy, nature, rhetoric and theology
Claim to fame: One of the first women to write about science and scripture in the Middle Ages

Although the science she practised would be unrecognisable as such in the modern world, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a leading light of medieval learning. The  multifaceted abbess was a physician, philosopher, naturalist, composer, poet, author and linguist. She was a mystic in the medieval tradition. Although she was only ever beatifi ed,  she is still referred to as a saint.

Divine intervention

Hildegard von Bingen was born into a noble German family in 1098. She was the tenth child and was sickly for much of her childhood. Being pious, Hildegard’s parents gave her up to the Church as a tithe when she was eight years old.
Although this kind of abandonment seems harsh by modern standards, it was a sign of the times – her birth coincided with the First Crusade which reached Jerusalem in 1099 – and it appears to have suited the earnest young child’s disposition. In later life, Hildegard expressed gratitude that she had been given to the Church at a time when “the religious began to grow sluggish and turn to vacillation”.

Like a dream

The abbess claimed to have had visions from a very early age, which continued throughout her life. Her role as a conduit for the divine partly explains how she was able to get around the medieval Church’s restrictions on women preaching and getting involved in philosophy and the sciences.
In fact, most of Hildegard’s works are presented in the form of visions. In 1141, at the age of 42, she received a vision – which she believed to be a direct instruction from God – to “write down that which you see and hear”.

Second to nun

Hildegard rose rapidly through the ranks of the Church. In 1136, she was unanimously elected a magistra (Latin for female ‘teacher’ or ‘mistress’) by her fellow nuns and went so far as to convince the Church to take the unusual step of allowing her to found two monasteries in 1150 and 1165.
The abbess was also an accomplished composer. Still popular today, between 70 and 80 of her musical compositions have survived, which is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers. One of her works, the Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is an early example of liturgical drama.
In addition, Hildegard wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, as well as letters and poems, and supervised brilliant miniature illuminations.

Natural writing talents

In contrast to her other writings which are presented in the form of visions, Hildegard’s scientific works are not written as prophecies. Hildegard wrote Physica, a text on the natural sciences, as well as the medical treatise Causae et Curae. In both texts, she describes the natural world and displays particular interest in the healing properties of plants, animals, and stones.
The Physica is a bulky nine-volume work which mainly deals with the medicinal uses of plants, the elements (earth, water and air but not fi re), trees, jewels and precious stones, fi sh, birds, animals, reptiles and metals. As an example, the entry on the plant Dornella (tormentil) describes it as “cold, and that coldness is good and healthy and useful against fever that arises from bad food”.
The fi ve-volume Causae et Curae is also essentially a treatise on medicine, mixing Greek and Christian influences. Alongside the far-fetched remedies – such as dunking a bitch in water and using the water to wipe your forehead as a hangover cure – there are some that appear quite sensible. These include the rudimentary advice on how to keep your teeth healthy and fi rm, or the strengthening of diet for women who fail to menstruate – which at the time was often caused by malnutrition.

Scientific achievements

To the modern eye, Hildegard’s science appears more like superstition, but almost a millennium ago, her views were considered wise and she possessed a true curiosity to understand the natural world around her.
In addition, at a time when women were generally banned from social participation and interpreting scripture, she communicated with popes, including Eugene III and Anastasius IV; statesmen; German emperors, such as Frederick I Barbarossa; and other notable figures, such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
Although she was very much a product of her age and entertained some dim views on sex, she was well ahead of her time in her appreciation and recognition of the importance of sexual gratifi cation for women. Despite presuambly being a virgin herself, she may well be the first European to describe the female orgasm.