[Hildegard and her secretary and close friend Volmar, , Scivias, Rupertsberg Codex, source: Wikimedia Commons]
Most of her letters we know of come from a manuscript known as the Riesencodex** and were organized not by date, but by the status of the correspondent.*** Her letter to Bernard of Clairvaux comes first, followed by letters to popes and archbishops, kings and queens, bishops, nobles, and abbots/abbesses, and finally ordinary monks, nuns, and members of the laity. The majority of the letters involve people writing to her for advice and her responses to them. The higher status the person, the sharper she is with them, while abbots, abbesses, ordinary monks and nuns, and non-noble laypeople saw the more compassionate side of her. The ones concerning the major crises of her life (see *) show more personal investment and give a clearer indication of her own strong feelings.
Most of these letters follow a general format: a description of a vision followed by its interpretation. But it’s not actually that simple. First of all, it’s not always clear whose voice she is using. Many of her visions are spoken with the voice of the Living Light,**** but sometimes she switches back to her own words. More often it’s uncertain precisely who the speaker is. Second, it’s also unclear where vision ends and interpretation begins. Vision bleeds into interpretation and interpretation into vision. This was probably purposeful. By obscuring the distinction, Hildegard was able to say things she wouldn’t have been able to get away with without divine backing.
*The election of the nun Richardis as Abbess of Bassum and the interdict placed on her community resulting from Hildegard’s dispute with Church authorities over a nobleman’s burial. We have almost no letters concerning the third crisis (first chronologically), the dispute with her superiors at Disibodenberg, but the bad feelings resulting from it left their mark on subsequent letters exchanged between them.
**A collection of all her works except her medical texts, put together primarily by her last secretary, Guibert of Gembloux. Hildegard herself seems to have had significant influence over any editing done.
***Which makes dating some of them kinda dicey at best.
****Her term for the divine speaking through her.
Baird, Joseph L. and Radd K. Ehrman, trans. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 1998, 2004.
Ferrante, Joan. "Correspondent: 'Blessed Is the Speech of Your Mouth.'" In Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, edited by Barbara Newman, 91-109. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: a Visionary Life. London: Routledge, 1989.