Tuesday was International Women’s Day so I thought I’d mark the occasion by paying homage to a woman who I have always found to be a great inspiration, medieval polymath Hidegard Von Bingen.
Hildegard von Bingen was born in 1098, the tenth child of a noble family. She was sickly from birth and was offered to the church as a tithe when she was eight years old. She experienced visions from a young age and remains one of the most notable figures of the Medieval period for her work as a healer, herbalist, philosopher, author, counselor, visionary, linguist, naturalist, poet and composer. She wrote numerous works including two on health and healing and even invented her own alphabet. She became an abbess and founded two nunneries and, despite her continued ill health, lived to be 81 years old.
She never formally studied the healing arts so it is likely that much of her knowledge came from the traditional folk wisdom of the monastery and the local people as well as from her divine visions. She possessed an acute sense of observation that enabled her to study and understand the natural world which she wrote about in detail in her book Physica, an exploration of the healing properties of different plants, elements, minerals, animals and birds as well as in Causae et Curae, causes and cures, which looks more closely at different illnesses and treatments, mainly involving plant remedies. Much of her advice is practical and down to earth, counseling people to lead a better life, eat a balanced diet and get sufficient rest and many of her plant remedies have been validated by years of use and the rigors of modern medicine. She does include some more exotic remedies including precious stones or animals such as whales, lions and vultures which I can’t imagine would have been accessible to the average German citizen!
Her system was based on the humoral medicine of Ancient Greece and she spoke of the four qualities, heat, dryness, moistness and cold and their corresponding elements fire, air, water and earth. These gave rise to the four humours and their corresponding personality types. The aim of healing was to balance the four elements which had become disturbed through inherited factors or lifestyle.
In Causes and Cures she wrote of the elements, “They consist of two kinds, upper and lower. The upper are celestial and the lower terrestrial. The things that live in the upper ones are impalpable and are made of fire and air; those that are more in the lower are palpable, formed bodies and consist of water and mud. For spirits are fiery and airy but man is watery and muddy. When God created man, the mud from which he was formed was stuck together with water and God put a fiery and airy breath of life into that form.” The herbs themselves also have elemental correspondences and will benefit certain personalities accordingly. Herbs that, ‘grow from air’ are considered easy to digest and full of happiness, provoking cheerful states of mind in all who eat them.
Some of her recommended plant remedies are very familiar to us today as she speaks of the soothing and healing properties of calendula, chamomile and aloe vera. Others however are quite different, she recommends St John’s Wort as being useful only for animal fodder and uses primrose, rue and fennel as anti-depressants. This may be because the forms of depression suffered in medieval times were quite different from those of today. She also discouraged the use of Arnica believing it caused a person to ‘burn lustily with love’ for the next person touched by the herb. In Physica Hildegard writes of the importance of balancing the body with the use of hot and cold herbs. “If all herbs were hot and none cold they would cause difficulty to the user. If all were cold and none hot they would provide an imbalance in people since hot things oppose cold and cold things resist hot. Certain herbs have within them either the power of the strongest aromas or the harshest of the most bitter aromas. Whence they suppress and hold in contempt many ills which evil spirits make.”
She encourages the use of herbs in one’s daily diet as well as medicinally to strengthen the system and gives advice on how to achieve a balanced diet. She encourages the use of oats, which are hot in nature, for those who are already well, stating that they bring a ‘cheerful mind and a pure, clear intellect.’ She also recommends hemp believing it to be easy to digest and able to diminish bad humours. However she goes on to warn that “if one who is weak in the head, and has a vacant brain eats hemp it easily affects his head. It does no harm in one who has a healthy head and full brain.” Her favourite grain is spelt but interestingly she cautions against the refining of wheat saying, “Whosoever cooks wheat without the entire grain, or wheat not ground in the mill, it is as if he eats another food, for this wheat furnishes neither correct blood nor healthy flesh but more mucus, it is scarcely digested.” I wonder then, what she would make of baking practices in today’s world!
I’d love to hear who are your most inspiring women are too.
Ed: Bowie, Fiona and Davies, Oliver – Hildegard of Bingen: An Anthology – SPCK 1995
Maddocks, Fiona – Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age - Review 2002
Hildegard von Bingen, and Throop, Priscilla – Physica – Inner Traditions Bear and Co 1998
Picture courtesy of Wikipedia