Doctor Hildegard

Co-president of WIT, Mary Whittingdale, explains why this 12th century female mystic continues to be an inspirational Womxn in Theology.


We have all likely studied Aristotle, Aquinas, and the numerous patriarchs of our past and present. When entering into such rich theological discourses, it is easy to overlook the searing silence of our absent sisters. Indeed, until 1970 no female Doctor of the Catholic Church existed for contemplation, study, or guidance. Since then only four women have attained such sacred status. But, in the same vein as Shakespeare’s Hermia, though they be but little in number, they are FIERCE in spirit.


Of these four beacons of light and glimmers of gynergy, the most recent addition is Hildegard of Bingen. An artist, composer, mystic, theologian, philosopher, poet, and physician, it is difficult to think of a sphere this incredible woman didn’t influence. A 12th century Benedictine powerhouse and polymath, Hildegard was unafraid to speak and be heard. She is often called the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. There is also something beautifully symmetric in her being at once the first European female doctor and our most recent female ‘Doctor’ of the Church. Whether we find wisdom in her writings, her melodies, or her invented language(!), Hildegard’s spirited voice is an inspiration. Unlike the Disney archetypes of a silenced Ariel or sleeping Arora, Hildegard is an example of an audible woman: someone who used her voice and is celebrated for her many talents. 


Unfortunately, Hildegard did live within potent androcentrism. Within her work vestiges of this remain: her self-depreciations and sometimes misogynistic tones are relics of the world she inhabited. At first, her comments may seem to uphold the patriarchy she faced. However, perhaps this dalliance with the dark side can be taken more positively: as a product of her craft and wit. Many argue that Hildegard used the patriarchal structures she was given, not to uphold an oppressive system, but to legitimatise her own voice above it. 


Thus, when Pope John Paul II stated that this fierce saint was a ‘light for her people and time’, he did not go far enough. Hildegard speaks to our people and our times just as pervasively. Hildegard teaches that women can fulfil any role they have the courage to imagine. Each woman has within herself the capacity to be creative, wise, scientific, but most importantly heard.


Writer and illustrator: Mary Whittingdale of Mansfield College