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The German Benedictine nun Hildegard (1098-1179) has become much wider known in recent years for two main reasons: first, the recording industry, ever searching for fresh pastures, has discovered and promoted her music for a vast audience, and second, Pope Emeritus Benedict XXVI, shortly before his retirement, finally managed to confer on her officially the ultimate gong of sainthood. The first might have surprised her, and possibly annoyed her, since, as this excellently readable biography makes clear, she considered her importance as resting on a much broader basis. The second she might just possibly have considered only her due.

More or less in the shade for her first 40 years, on becoming abbess Hildegard really got into her stride and, like some medieval Margaret (Hilda!) Thatcher, entered the male fray, lecturing everyone from popes to Holy Roman emperors on how they should conduct themselves. (There are many of her letters quoted here, some at length.) Her authority to behave in this way was founded mainly on her visions (related in commendably po-faced manner by Maddocks) and ever-increasing expertise in many fields, only one of which was music.

Maddocks makes clear that there is no firm evidence that Hildegard actually composed all the music attributed to her, as in many creative fields at that time, specific authorship was not considered relevant, therefore much of the music, although composed in her convent, could have come from various hands.

We have here a clear picture of the society in which Hildegard played her extraordinary part, and the many areas, such as her forays into medical cures, which often sound more like recipes cooked up by Macbeth’s witches, are presented without any superior sniggering. One of the few modern lights shone into her life is reference to neurologist Oliver Sacks’ studies suggesting the saint’s visions could have been triggered by migraine.

There is an annotated list of Hildegard’s writings, a bibliography and list of recordings. This is a paperback, updated edition of a book first published in 2001.

DELLA COULING Read the full review on Agora Classica


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