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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SIXTY SEVEN The Patron Saint of Migraineurs

Strapping on the panniers this morning, I couldn't help feeling that Hildegard might be chuckling quietly at our modern world - certainly at the Race Marshal and me for having dined on lobster à la Romanoff in a restaurant just up the road from her Ruppertsberg convent.

She might also be chuckling at the music establishment. In her lifetime, Hildegard was famous as a preacher, prophetess and visionary but her music was not widely known. The recognised 'composers' were attached to cathedrals, their music heard by clerics and the lay congregation. Humility would have prevented Hildegard from promoting her compositions: the irony is that her place now in the musical pantheon is due mainly to the feminist movement of which she (in her time, probably not in ours) would have disapproved.

She might have wondered at the modern era's concern with authentic performance of the eighty or so songs attributed to her - collected as the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. Music was not written down in a definitive way then, so musicologists look to prevailing styles of music for clues: monophonic chant and perhaps the polyphony that was becoming pervasive. She travelled extensively on preaching tours and would have heard music in cathedrals and, possibly, secular music - folk song, of course, and the music of the Minnesingers.

Her books suggest that she knew about secular music and about instruments used in secular performances: The Book of Life 's Merits says "He would have ... made you ring like the sweet sound of a lyre" - the instrument of the secular Minnesingers.

But we cannot be sure how she directed performances of her compositions. The notation gives no clue as to metre or rhythm. She was essentially conservative – so did she insist on pure metric Gregorian chant with no rhythmic pulse? Was polyphony permitted? How many beats to a bar – the 6/8 or 9/8 as Jesuit priest J.W.A. Vollaerts has suggested?

Columba Aspexit (performance below)

I'm not sure how Hildegard would respond to a peer-reviewed article in Early Music summarising a conference on her music:

Untenable - that is, historically not provable - is the image of a composer writing music for the liturgy in her own convent. Untenable that around 1151, with the completion of her first important visionary text, Scivias, the main chunk of the music was already composed as well. Untenable the legend about the fame of her music during her lifetime; untenable the story of other abbots commissioning music from her. Untenable finally - and this seems to be the most important result of the congress - that her music can be read as symptomatic of the new and, in terms of music history, revolutionary 12th century, which has rightly been labelled 'the origin of modernity'.

She might say that our obsession with fact and authenticity obscures her purpose, which was worship: chant is intended to be meditative. It's rather like the very old man in church being asked to lead the prayers. As he muttered along, a voice from the congregation called out 'Can't hear!' - to which the old man replied 'I'm not talking to you'.

Hildegard was, of course, a physician and would probably be amused by the analysis of her modern day colleagues. Their focus has been to give a medical explanation for the visions that she experienced all through her life. These visions are recorded (supplemented with her illustrations) in three books: the first, Sci vias Domini (Know the Ways of the Lord) - a title commonly paraphrased as Scivias - was written in the 1140s and records twenty-six visions on themes of creation, redemption and salvation. This is the first paragraph of Vision 7, The Devil:

Then I saw a burning light, as large and as high as a mountain, divided at its summit as if into many tongues. And there stood in the presence of this light a multitude of white-clad people, before whom what seemed like a screen of translucent crystal had been placed, reaching from their breasts to their feet. And before that multitude, as if in a road, there lay on its back a monster shaped like a worm, wondrously large and long, which aroused an indescribable sense of horror and rage. On its left stood a kind of market-place, which displayed human wealth and worldly delights and various sorts of merchandise; and some people were running through it very fast and not buying anything, while others were walking slowly and stopping both to sell and to buy. Now that worm was black and bristly, covered with ulcers and pustules, and it was divided into five regions from the head down through the belly to its feet, like stripes. One was green, one white, one red, one yellow and one black; and they were full of deadly poison. But its head had been so crushed that the left side of its jawbone was dislocated. Its eyes were bloody on the surface and burning within; its ears were round and bristly; its nose and mouth were those of a viper; its hands human; its feet a viper's feet; and its tail short and horrible.

Vision Seven, Scivias

Six years into the writing of Scivias, the Pope sent emissaries to Disibodenberg to investigate Hildegard. In later centuries, who knows what her fate might have been – but then her visions were judged to be authentic and the emissaries took back part of the Scivias to read to the Pope at the Synod of Trier in 1148. Eugene III, the first Cistercian Pope, then wrote to Hildegard giving his blessing and (in her view) approving all her theological plans.

In her reply, she wrote: "Resplendent Father, you came to our land in your official capacity, as God willed it, and you saw something of the true visions which the Living Light has taught me, and you heard them in the embrace of your heart ... my soul desires that the Light from the Light will shine within you and pour over your eyes and awaken your spirit to these writings so that your soul may be crowned by them, as God wishes".

It's hard not to see in her rise the hand of Bernard of Clairvaux, the French Benedictine who had himself experienced a vision directing his path. Before she started to write Scivias, she had written to ask him to "reveal to me through your word whether you want me to say these things openly or whether I should keep quiet". Eugene III had been one of Bernard's monks at Clairvaux and his validation, coupled with Bernard's own support, made Hildegard a powerful engine of the Benedictine Rule driving along tracks that suited Bernard.

Influential supporters and the independence that came with setting up her own convent at Ruppertsberg released Hildegard into a final three decades of extraordinary activity. Other abbots sought her advice, and she maintained a correspondence with an illustrious range of people, including the Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. She wrote two more books of visions and made four journeys "to travel to communities in other places and reveal there words which God ordered me", which included preaching against corruption in the church and heresies such as the Cathars, a particular target of Bernard of Clairvaux. Four Cathar men and a girl were burnt at the stake in 1163, in Cologne, after Hildegard had preached there.

In twelfth-century Germany, Hildegard was a beacon of Christianity; people flocked to hear her preach. They accepted the truth of her visions - the umbra viventis lucis, as she called it, the reflection of the Living Light. Almost at the end of her life she wrote a letter describing how she encountered this Light:

From my early childhood, before my bones, nerves and veins were fully strengthened, I have always seen this vision in my soul, even to the present time when I am more than seventy years old. In this vision my soul, as God would have it, rises up high into the vault of heaven and into the changing sky and spreads itself out among different peoples, although they are far away from me in distant lands and places. And because I see them this way in my soul, I observe them in accord with the shifting of clouds and other created things. I do not hear them with my outward ears, nor do I perceive them by the thoughts of my own heart or by any combination of my five senses, but in my soul alone, while my outward eyes are open. So I have never fallen prey to ecstasy in the visions, but I see them wide awake, day and night. And I am constantly fettered by sickness, and often in the grip of pain so intense that it threatens to kill me, but God has sustained me until now.

Given the significance in her time of the visions to her, to the religious establishment, to the people of Germany and to her, she would have been distressed by the reductionist conclusions reached by her fellow physicians - another peer-reviewed article, this time in Medical History (2014):

In 1913, a young scientist and historian named Charles Singer was in Germany researching precursors to modern theories of contagion. In Wiesbaden, he consulted the twelfth-century illuminated Scivias manuscript (c.1165) which described 26 religious visions experienced by the celebrated St Ruppertsberg abbess, Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179).

In the stars, shimmering points of light and crenellated figures of some of the illuminations in Scivias, Singer thought that he recognised depictions of ‘scintillating scotoma’. Noting that Hildegard had admitted to long periods of illness, Singer diagnosed a functional nervous disorder, specifically migraine.

Nearly a century later, medical ideas about migraine have changed a great deal. Nevertheless, Singer’s retrospective diagnosis of Hildegard’s migraine has persisted, gaining popularity in the late twentieth century as the abbess’ reputation has grown. Hildegard’s migraine has appeared in some significant places, including Oliver Sacks’ Migraine (1970), scholarly publications in medieval history and a pharmaceutical marketing campaign. More recently, on the internet, contributors to blogs and websites have freely proposed Hildegard as a ‘patron saint’ of migraine and migraineurs.

Perhaps Hildegard would respond with words she spoke in the twelfth century: "We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others." Or, perhaps, as she wrote to Odo of Soissons in 1148:" Now, O man, listen to the poor little form of a woman speaking to you in the Spirit .... God cannot be shaken through a sieve by human thinking".

So into Karlsruhe, where the Race Marshal has booked us a table at My Heart Beats Vegan. Hildegard might manage a smile at that.

A feather on the breath of God Emma Kirkby from Hildegard's 1982 breakthough CD -

The two most performed of her works are:

- O virga ac diadema: (the chant starts at 58 seconds)

- Columba aspexit per cancellos fenestre explained and sung by academics:

An explanation of migraine auras -

Vocal music written by Bernard of Clairvaux:

Melvyn Bragg In Our Time (audio only) discussing Hildegard -

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