Hildegard of Bingen, Medieval Herbalist
By Shanon Sterringer
The works of Hildegard of Bingen have become quite popular in the last few decades after they were unearthed by musicians and scholars following centuries of dormancy. Who was this 12th century German Benedictine nun and why is she emerging as one of history’s most interesting and brilliant women?
The extent of her genius stretches beyond her skills as an herbalist to include musician, artist, preacher, healer, politician, philosopher, theologian, storyteller, and creative leader, to name a few of her gifts. She was deeply rooted in the Benedictine tradition of ora et labora (prayer and work) which included working in the monastery gardens and infirmary.
Hildegard of Bingen has been credited with creating the term, “viriditas” which translated from the Latin means, “greening power” because of the way she used it in her writings to describe the primordial energy that not only created this earth but sustains and enlivens it. The term actually predated Hildegard (she picked it up from earlier writers), but she gave it a much deeper and profound meaning. The sacred greenness referred to by Hildegard exists not only in the material form, but spiritually and intellectually. It is the very essence of life and the energy that draws so many to find peace and healing in nature, especially in our gardens.
Hildegard’s two works on herbs and healing include Physica and Causae et Curae, but her use of natural images including gardens, bees/honey, and viriditas permeate many of her other writings. She used natural images as metaphors, at times even parables, to teach and preach. For example, she wrote the following in a letter to Philip, Archbishop of Cologne, offering what we would refer to today as spiritual direction:
In a vision, I saw as it were, the sun shining with excessive heat upon mud filled with worms, and these creatures stretched themselves out in joy of the heat, but, eventually, not being able to bear the excessive heat, they hid themselves away, and the mud sent forth a noisome stench. I saw also that the sun shone in a garden, in which roses and lilies and all kinds of herbs grew, and the flowers grew abundantly by the heat of the sun, and the herbs sent forth innumerable roots and gave forth an exceedingly delightful odor, so that many people, suffused with this lovely fragrance, rejoiced in the garden as if it were paradise. And I heard a voice from above saying to you: Make your decision, O human, whether you wish to remain in this garden of delights or to lie with the worms in their stinking excrement.
As gardeners, we have all experienced the beautiful fragrance, as well as the noisome stench, of our gardens, so this image resonates. Hildegard lived close to the earth, and therefore, was able to weave into her spiritual, political, and theological writings these powerful and relevant metaphors that speak to us on a soul level.
Her work, Physica, is a practical guide to using herbs for holistic health. It consists of nine books describing the benefits and cautions of certain herbs, trees, precious gemstones, and so on. The work has been translated into English by Priscilla Throop (1998) and is available at most online bookstores. There is an abbreviated version of it, which includes only the chapter on plants published by Beacon Press (2001).
Today, many are finding creative ways to bring Hildegard’s work on herbs and the natural world back into use. Hildegardens (Hildegard-inspired herb gardens) are sprouting up across Germany, and even in the U.S., for example, we are developing one here at the Hildegard Haus in Fairport Harbor!
The works of Hildegard of Bingen, including her love for the natural world, blossomed in her day. For centuries, the seeds of her genius lay dormant, buried deep within the earth, until the conditions were right for new sprouts to emerge. Today, these seeds are blowing far and wide producing rich and abundant fruit as her charism and wisdom speak boldly to our contemporary context.
How can you bring a bit of Hildegard into your daily experience? Of course, you can plant some of the herbs she refers to in her works, thus creating a Hildegarden of your own! You can also bring her into your life in simpler ways. For example, you could keep a jar of her “Spices of Joy” (equal parts cinnamon and nutmeg, with clove to taste) on your counter to mix into your oatmeal, coffee, or maybe even into your next apple cake! You could mix up a batch of her “Cookies of Joy” (recipe to follow) or simply brew a cup of fennel tea (fennel for Hildegard is a super-herb) to sip while listening to one of her mesmerizing chants. Personally, I love to create beeswax balms and salves infused with the herbs she grew.
Hildegard died in 1179 at the age of 81 years old. Her sisters recorded a vision of a brilliant cross-shaped light in the sky as her soul departed her physical body. Almost nine-hundred years later, she continues to invite us into her garden. I believe she would rejoice at being invited into ours!
Recipe from the Healthy Hildegard website:
- 12 Tablespoon Butter for mixture
- + 1 T Butter to grease cookie sheet
- ¾ cup brown sugar
- 1/3 cup honey
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 ½ cups spelt flour
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 2 rounded T Spices of Joy
Melt butter under low heat, add sugar, honey, egg yolks, beating lightly. Add flour, salt, and combine gently. Refrigerate dough after mixing for 1 hour. Remove, roll out on floured surface, cut with cookie cutter. Bake on sheet 400 degrees F for 10-15 minutes.
You might enjoy scrolling through the Healthy Hildegard website (www.healthyhildegard.com) based in Colorado and founded by Josh Cashman. It is filled with information on Hildegard’s use of herbs and recipes.
Join Shanon on Tuesday, May 16, at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Hildegard of Bingen: Medieval Herbalist. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $7.50 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. The information in this presentation is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author.
Shanon Sterringer holds a PhD in Ethical and Creative Leadership (focused on the model of St. Hildegard of Bingen); a DMin, two master’s degrees (MA in theology and MA in ministry), and a BA in Medieval History. She is the founding pastor of the Hildegard Haus in Fairport Harbor, OH, and the owner of The Green Shepherdess Fair-Trade shop and local art studio, also in Fairport Harbor. She has traveled to the Rhine Valley several times since 2015 (most recently in January 2023) to walk in the footsteps of St. Hildegard. She has dedicated the last ten years of her life to studying Hildegard’s charism, most particularly as it relates to holistic health and spirituality. While on sabbatical in 2019, Shanon spent most of the year learning about herbs while working for a local herbalist, Lynn Abbey, at Blue Lake Botanicals in Willoughby, Ohio. Shanon is married and the mother of three adult daughters and has published two books on the topic of Hildegard (Forbidden Grace and 30 Day Journey with St. Hildegard). A third book (focused on the material recorded in Physica) is in process. Shanon has offered many retreats and educational presentations on the topic of Hildegard and Herbs, including a variety of online classes/seminars and a presentation at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens for the Western Reserve Herb Society.