Why read a book about Hildegard of Bingen? And why write one? One answer is enough: she was an extraordinarily gifted individual who, for all her apparent remoteness in time and place, illuminates our own times and shines a light on the past. We can ask little more of history. This German abbess’s power and influence seeped into every crevice of twelfth-century life. That she also happened to be a woman who only found her voice in mid-life merely adds to the richness of her story, though for others with a more directly feminist preoccupation that fact would be of critical importance.
Today she is best known for her music. Yet her compositions form only a small part of her story. She was a polymath: a visionary, a theologian, a preacher; an early scientist and physician; a prodigious letter writer who numbered kings, emperors and popes among her correspondents. She was an artist not only in the musical and literary sense but in painting and, it would seem, architecture. She even invented her own coded language. Her boldness, courage and tenacity made her at once enthralling and haughty, intrepid and irksome.