I’m not sure when I first became captivated by Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century German Benedictine magistra, visionary, composer, spiritual counselor, author, physician. I just remember back in the late ’80s, when I worked as a library specialist at Stanford University, standing in the Stanford University Bookstore at the Gregorian chant section, holding a book on Hildegard’s chants, Symphonia by Barbara Newman. As a former student of medieval and Renaissance music, this book represented a marvel. Here was not only a collection of plainchant by someone other than “anon.,” but this individual was a woman.
And when I listened to her music I found that her compositions held both the qualities of Gregorian chant that moved me so deeply, and also soared, dipped, and swept into unexpected realms. Her music is often described as “angelic.” But to me her music carries none of the New Age connotation of that word. Her music speak to me of Heaven indeed, angelic realms of power and cosmic reality, and also of her understanding of the element of Air, and Air’s qualities and physical life, Air’s own nature as part of a universal whole.
The lyrics of this antiphon are as follows:
Aer enim volat,
et cum omnibus creaturis,
officia sua exercet et firmamentum eum sustinet
aer in viribus istius pascitur.
As air flies,
attending to all creatures,
the structure of heaven sustains it,
and the air is nourished through this enfolding.
If you enfold yourself in the music and attend to the words, feeling Air move around you, and also flowing in and out of your own body and moving with your breath, perhaps you too will feel the enfolding structure of Heaven sustaining and nourishing Air. And perhaps you’ll feel yourself sustained and nourished in turn, both by way of Air and other forces both unseen and physically perceived. What is your experience?
Two decades after meeting Hildegard by way of her music, I engaged in herbal study with clinical herbalist Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir. One of my first assignments was to read a text by an ancient herbalist. Included in the list of possibilities was Hildegard of Bingen and her two works Physica and Causae et Curae. Hildegard! The chant composer and visionary! I had no idea she had been an herbal physician as well.
I managed to locate a book that contained a section of Physica, and read it. The very different understanding than mine that Hildegard’s words seemed to present of the plants and other natural substances blew my mind. Different understandings and perceptions — and yet, at times, the soar and dip and sweep of her language — like her settings of sacred text to melody — made her meaning enticingly clear. In some earth of my being I knew what she was talking about. At least to some degree.
Here then is my “herbal review,” written almost a decade ago. I see how my upcoming workshop, Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine, is a continuation of a quest begun with this brief report, a quest in which I now have amassed enough experience and practice as an herbalist to have both more answers and more questions. I’ve added two quotes, drawn from the book Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica – translated from the Latin by Priscilla Throop (as that is the edition I own now) so that you can better understand my discussion in the review, plus a couple of notes from me in brown. In my next blog post, I’ll take more time with one or two of Hildegard’s entries, unfolding more fully the world that her words may contain.
I’m curious to hear what thoughts arise for you as you read this herbal review and glimpse something of Hildegard’s medieval and singular world. Feel free to comment below!
I was and am delighted and intrigued by this text. From the very beginning (the introduction) I’m plunged into a whole world of perception and understanding about plants that is different from my own 21st century America point of view. Certain phrases and word choices point to an understanding of the nature of the world that I can’t really grasp (or don’t right now!), such as “The moistness of the stones is comparable to the marrow of the bones because when a stone is moist, it is also warm.”
I’m tantalized that as I strive to decipher these metaphors — translate them
to or connect them with my own understanding, I might deepen my sense of the world in general and various plants in particular.
Hildegard’s advocacy of certain herbs, and thoughts upon them — their nature, what they are good for, and how they might be used — are invariably of an ‘alternate reality’ from my own. In some cases, I recognize that we’re talking about the same plant, and my perceptions are widened and deepened, or satisfied in some way. In other cases, I just to observe the words and wonder: her experience of the plant is not mine at all! … Or at least not on the surface. But then it’s that “common name” syndrome: are we indeed talking about the same plant? Examples of the former (deepened or complementary understandings of a plant and its uses): Lavender, Garlic, Nutmeg, Cumin, Violet, Yarrow ….
Lavender (lavendula) is hot and dry, having very little moisture. It is not effective for a person to eat, but it does have a strong odor. If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die. Its odor clears the eyes [since it possesses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones. It curbs very many evil things and, because of it, malign spirits are terrified]. [from Hildegard von Bingen’s Phyisica, trans Priscilla Throop]. –(Note from Jane, 2/19/19: I’ll unpack this entry more in the next blog post, but if you’re familiar with lavender you may sense how your experience with lavender may correspond with the words here).
I’m intrigued by her negative descriptions of various herbs and foods that I consider “good” and “nourishing”, such as eggs, and various grains like millet, and leeks and Welsh onions (why are leeks a national symbol of an entire country — Wales — if they have “swift and useless heat in it”?). On the other hand, closer reading of preparations of, say, leeks, bring the writings into clearer sense for me.
But if one who wishes to eat a leek raw should first temper it in wine, with salt added, or in vinegar. It should line in the wine or salt long enough for it to be so tempered that the evil powers in it are destroyed: from morning till midday, or from noon till evening. So tempered, it is good or healthy people to eat. [from Hildegard von Bingen’s Phyisica, trans Priscilla Throop]
In reading all the entries I grow enamored of the idea of warming the herb in some wine, and/or cooking various herbs in a little vinegar and honey, and/or making them into a paste to spread on bread. Mmm! The writings here definitely open my world to alternate possibilities and understandings. I suppose the big ‘ah ha’ for me is that sense of enlarged possibility for having different perceptions of the same reality, and a musing about how a different culture, climate, soil, land might cause a person or people to experience herbs differently than I might, due to living in another climate, place, and time — that some herbs might have negative effects to a people because of their living conditions, while the same herbs might be healthful to another group of people.
I am also intrigued by the many comments on herbs being useful for helping heal a broad spectrum of mental and spiritual ailments. (as noted in the quote on lavender above)
Ah, the next time we have wine, I’m going to set aside some to warm an herb within and try it out for myself …..!