Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a major 12th-century German mystic and prophet, began having divinely inspired visions at the age of six.
These visions continued throughout her life and were the source of highly honored information on healing through a multidimensional approach to the body, mind, emotions, and spirit. She joined a Benedictine convent in Disibodenberg and became Abbess at the age of 35.
St. Hildegard, whose feast day is celebrated every September 17, was not only a brilliant visionary, she was also an herbalist, a talented poet and composer. Hildegard collected 77 of her lyric poems, each with a musical setting composed by her, in Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum.
Medicinal and Scientific Writing
Hildegard’s medicinal and scientific writings came from her experience helping in, and then leading, the monastery’s herbal garden and infirmary, as well as the theoretical information she likely gained through her wide-ranging reading in the monastery’s library. In addition to her hands-on experience, she also gained medical knowledge, including elements of her humoral theory, from traditional Latin texts. As she gained practical skills in diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, she combined physical treatment of physical diseases with holistic methods centered on “spiritual healing”. She became well known for her healing powers involving practical application of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones.
Scivias was the first of many works Hildegard composed during her lifetime. An encyclopedic work on natural history, her Physica (Liber Simplicis Medicinae) contains detailed descriptions of numerous plants, animals, and geological formations existing in the abbess’ native Europe, along with their German and Latin names.
She categorized her nine healing systems as Plants, Elements, Trees, Stones, Fish, Birds, Animals, Reptiles, and Metals, each group containing medicinal components. This work also includes information and medical applications for the many plants known by Hildegard to have healing powers, making the Physica useful to physicians advising poorer patients on the manufacture of simple home remedies.
After its widespread publication during the Renaissance, Hildegard’s Physica became a popular medical school text, making its author the first German medical writer to gain renown.
Her final book, Causae et curae, is a medical compendium that describes the causal relationship between the movement of the universe and the many diseases of the human body and provides medicinal cures.
The importance of boiling drinking water to prevent infection figured prominently in her remedies.
Like Physica, Hildegard’s Causae et curae remained an influential work into the 16th century. Her writings represent compilations of folkloric experience, ancient tradition, and Benedictine teaching that serve as a repository for much of the medical and nutritional knowledge gathered up to that time.
Her focus was to emphasize the vital connection between the “green” health of the natural world and the holistic health of the human person. Her belief in the “greening of man,” or viriditas as she called it, led her to trust that God had given mankind herbs, spices, and foods to serve our bodies and keep us not only healthy but full of joy and peace. Thus, when she approached medicine as a type of gardening, it was not just as an analogy. Rather, Hildegard understood the plants and elements of the garden as direct counterparts to the humors and elements within the human body, whose imbalance led to illness and disease.
Some of her ideas were a bit unorthodox, but were valuable and ahead of her time. For example, she encouraged regular detoxification through special “cures” particularly, with herbs such as wormwood wine cure (and many others), and fasting and purging therapies which are designed to strengthen the body.
Hildegard had many ideas on how to eat healthily, some of which helped shape German cuisine. Some people have decided to eat by Hildegard’s rules in the modern day and there are whole internet clubs devoted to her nutritional teachings.
Foods Divided According to Their “Healing” Capabilities
According to Hildegard, foods are divided according to their “healing” capabilities.
Healthy foods: beans, butter, spelt, sweet chestnuts, fennel, spice cakes, roasted spelt porridge, lettuce salad with dill or garlic or vinegar and oil, honey, carrots, garbanzo beans, squash and its oil, almonds, horseradish, radishes, raw sugar, red beets, cooked celeriac, sunflower seed oil, wine vinegar, cooked onions.
Healthy Meats: poultry, lamb, beef, venison, goat.
Healthy Fish: grayling, trout, bass, cod, pike, wels catfish, pike perch.
Healthy Fruits: apples, cooked pears, blackberries, raspberries, red currants, cornels, cherries, mulberries, medlar, quinces, sloe berries, grapes, citrus, dates.
Healthy Drinks: beer, spelt coffee, fruit juice thinned with mountain spring water, fennel, rose hip or sage teas, wine, goat milk.
Healthy Spices: water mint, mugwort, Spanish chamomile root, nettles, watercress, burning bush root, gentian root, fennel, psyllium, galangal root, raw garlic, spearmint, cubeb, lavender, lovage, fruit of the bay tree, saltbush, poppy, nutmeg, cumin, clove, parsley, polemize, wild thyme, tansy, sage, yarrow, licorice root, rue, hyssop, cinnamon.
Stay away from “Kitchen Poisons” – eel, duck, peas, strawberries, fatty meat, cucumbers, domestic goose, blueberries, elderberries, cabbage, crabs, leeks, lentils, nightshades (like potatoes), olive oil, mushrooms, peaches, plums, refined sugar, millet, raw food, tench (a fish), plaice (a fish), pork, white wheat flour, sausage.
In case of disease such as cancer, no animal protein should be eaten at all.
When to eat according to Hildegard
Your first meal should be a warm one, to warm the stomach. This meal helps the stomach function well over the rest of the day. A good meal is toasted spelt bread, spelt coffee or fennel tea, and warm, roasted spelt porridge with dried fruit.
The first meal should be taken late in the morning, shortly before midday or around midday. Only the sick and weak should eat earlier, to gain strength.
Chew fennel seeds before eating to aid digestion and freshen the breath.
Drink in moderation. Drink with your meals but not too much, or you can thin out the good juices in your body too much. Water alone is not a healthy drink, but water mixed with fruit juice or made into herbal tea can be healthy.
Raw food can hurt the body. Hildegard warns against incorrectly made dishes which are not cooked.
St. Hildegard’s highest rated foods are spelt, chestnuts, fennel and chickpeas (garbanzo beans).
Meat should be from animals which eat grass and hay and don’t have too many offspring. Butter and cream from the cow are good, but milk and cheese are better from the goat. Sunflower seed and pumpkin seed oils are good; olive oil is reserved for medicinal purposes.
Truly a Renaissance woman, Hildegard of Bingen died in 1179 at the age of 81, and her biography was begun the following year by Benedictine monks Theodor and Godefrid, who had worked under the famed abbess at Mount St. Rupert.
She quickly became known as Saint Hildegard. In 2012 the Roman Catholic church formally named her as a saint by Pope Benedict XV I. In addition, she has been honored with the “Doctor of the Church” designation, a rare designation within the Roman Catholic Church.
Today, there is a revivalist culture around her teachings, especially her teachings on how to eat to stay healthy, as well as many of her medicinal and herbal remedies.
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Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings, Fiona Bowie (Editor), Oliver Davies (Editor) Crossroads Press, 1990.
Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Maddocks, by Fiona Maddocks, Doubleday, 2001.
Hildegard of Bingen, a Visionary Life, by Sabina Flanagan. (Routledge, London, 1989).
Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, text by Hildegard of Bingen with commentary by Matthew Fox. (Santa Fe, N.M. : Bear & Co., 1985).
Hildegard of Bingen : the Book of the rewards of life (Liber vitae meritorum), translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. (New York : Garland Pub., 1994).
The letters of Hildegard of Bingen, translated by Joseph L. Baird, Radd K. Ehrman. (New York : Oxford University Press, 1994).
Sister of Wisdom : St. Hildegard’s theology of the feminine, by Barbara Newman. (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1987).
The “Ordo virtutum” of Hildegard of Bingen : critical studies edited by Audrey Ekdahl Davidson. (Kalamazoo, Mich. : Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1992).
Hildegard von Bingen : Mystikerin, Heilerin, Gefährtin der Engel, by Ingeborg Ulrich. (Munchen : Kosel, 1990).
German mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein : a literary and intellectual history, by Andrew Weeks. (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1993).