THE WOLF AND THE LION: Hildegard of Bingen and Ave Generosa

Two years before the end of the eleventh century, a sickly girl was born to a noble family in the village of Böckelheim, Germany. The girl would go on to become one of the most influential women of the Middle Ages.

Hildegard of Bingen – nun, mystic, composer, writer, prophet and saint – is perhaps most renowned for her spiritual visions, or divine inspirations. The tenth child of a knight, she was dedicated to a life in the Church, as was the common practice of the day. At the age of eight she was taken to a Benedictine monastery where she was to spend most of her life, eventually becoming the abbess. She left at the age of 52 to establish her own monastery at Rupertsberg near Bingen, where she died at the age of 81. She was officially declared a Saint and named Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, the fourth woman in 2,000 years to receive that designation.

Hildegard began having visions at the age of three, possibly associated with migraines. For much of her life she was reluctant to acknowledge them, but at the age of 43 she had a blinding vision to “tell and write” what was being revealed to her by God. Though she had received only a rudimentary education, Hildegard went on to write nine books, including texts on natural healing, medicine, and theology, and invented her own language, which she called Lingua Ignota, literally meaning “Unknown Language”. She also wrote plays, poems, and numerous letters to kings and religious leaders including Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, Pope Eugenius III, and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Hildegard of Bingen self portrait, Awakening, from her first book Scivias, 1151

Hildegard of Bingen self portrait, Awakening, from her first book Scivias, 1151

Hildegard of Bingen is considered to be one of the most important female composers of all time, despite having no formal education in music. She composed over 70 songs, known as plainchants or Gregorian chants.

THE WOLF AND THE LION begins ten years after Hildegard’s death, at a time when her writings and music would have been popular, particularly among crusading knights. Tucked away in my cabin with the winter wind whistling through the leafless aspens and the green pine crackling in the wood stove, I would listen to Hildegard’s music as I wrote. One of her songs was particularly transportive for me; a haunting, ethereal composition about the Virgin Mary called Ave GenerosaAve Generosa carried me off with my lost crusaders, winging me from the valleys of twelfth century France to the white-capped waters of the Black Sea to the windswept rock of the Caucasus mountains, and becoming part of THE WOLF AND THE LION along the way.

“Sometimes when we hear a song we breathe deeply and sigh…the soul has something in itself of this music.”                                                                               Hildegard of Bingen