[Hildegard and Volmar, Scivias, Rupertsberg Codex, Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Hildegard was born in to a family of the lower nobility in what is now southwestern Germany. She was enclosed with Jutta of Sponheim as an anchoress at the monastery of Disibodenberg at the age of fourteen.* When Jutta died in 1136, the community of nuns that had collected around them elected her magistra.**
Relations between the nuns and their abbot were not peaceful, and in 1150 Hildegard moved herself and her nuns out of Disibodenberg to build their own monastery at Rupertsberg, near modern-day Bingen. The monks were not pleased, in large part because they lost the income derived from the nuns’ dowries that had previously come to Disibodenberg.
Hildegard had visions all of her life, but kept them mostly secret until 1141, when one of them caused her to feel she had to write them down. She began seeking, and soon got, the approval of the Church authorities. She ended up writing three visionary works which found readers all over Europe, usually dictating them to her confessor Volmar or her assistant Richardis, both of whom were close friends. Her fame as a visionary spread and she became known as the Sybil on the Rhine.
She didn’t restrict herself only to visionary works though. She also produced two medical texts, a wide variety of songs, two saints’ lives, and a gospel commentary. She invented both the genre of the morality play and her own language. She is one of the few saints from this period whose Vita includes autobiographical passages. She gave homilies on biblical texts within her own monastery and went on four preaching tours where she preached to mixed audiences of men and women, religious and lay. This was something women in this time simply did not do. But she did it. She also wrote and received letters, almost 400 of which survive. She corresponded with a wide variety of people, from popes and emperors, to bishops, lords, and abbots, to ordinary lay people, answering questions and berating people in power for actions she felt went against God’s will.
After her death, attempts were made to declare her a saint, but due to some bureaucratic mix-ups, the process took long enough that it was eventually dropped. It was only in 2012, 850 years after her death that she was finally officially named Saint and Doctor of the Church.
*A lot of sources imply that she was much younger, around eight, at this point. However, the only two sources to give a definitive date say this happened in 1112, when Hildegard was fourteen. The general assumption now is that she was put under Jutta’s care at age eight and the two were enclosed together six years later.
**Not abbess. As part of a female community attached to an older male community, she could not hold that post since it was already taken by the monks’ abbot. Hildegard never held that title despite presiding over two independent monasteries. This would be used against her several times in her life.
-Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen: a Visionary Life. 1989. (Parts of this book can be found here.)
-Newman, Barbara, ed. Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. 1998. (Parts of this book can be found here.)
-The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) - Internet History Soucebooks Project
-Saint Hildegard of Bingen (Note: this site has a whole bunch of links to other good sources)