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Hildegard von Bingen Dates: 1098 - 1179

A Brief Biography written by Aleksandra Kwiatkowska who overseas the herb garden

Hildegard von Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess, poet, composer, writer, author, activist and medical herbalist. Born the 10th child in a family of lower nobility, and per custom of the time, she was promised at birth to dedicate her life to the Catholic Church, which she did formally at the age of 14. She suffered from debilitating migraines and weakness throughout her life. As was customary for the time time, von Bingen’s medicinal knowledge was established on the humoural, holistic techniques - particularly the Galenic belief that harmony must be achieved, both within the body and in the environment/natural world, in order for a person to be in full health. Alongside this, von Bingen’s life within a nunnery and as a mystic (acknowledged and renowned for her visions and prophecies even by the then-Pope Eugenius - from a scientific angle, possibly caused by her lifelong recurrent migraines, or, speculatively, even the hallucinogenic properties of ergot fungi which has been observed to grow near the site of von Bingen’s nunneries, unknowingly consumed by von Bingen) influenced her medicine, as von Bingen’s overarching belief was that the natural earth exists in harmony with humans.

She was influenced from the analysis of the Bible book Genesis that all things in the natural world are there for the use of humans. ‘Care for the natural world and the natural world will care for you’. As an example, von Bingen considered galangal (Alphinia officinarum) used in Asia as a warming and nourishing spice for the digestive system - to be the “spice of life”, given by God to support health and protect against illness. Following on from this belief, which deviates slightly from the standard humoural technique, is von Bingen’s use of ‘viriditas’, (translated as freshness, vitality, fertility, fruitfulness or growth) as a metaphor for both the balance of spiritual and physical health. Homeostasis could be used in this context, without the theological connotations viriditas has. This word appears many times in von Bingen’s works - both in her herbals, and her religious and artistic literature. Hildegard von Bingen’s medicine is less about therapeutic correction, and more about conscious changes towards a moderated and healthier lifestyle. (Very Galenic!)

Hildegard von Bingen is widely considered to be the first woman to record and publish what had been up until then, oral knowledge on the medicinal uses of herbs. Her impact on the corpus of knowledge is preservative and foundational, as her books became part of the educational foundation of medieval university students. Von Bingen’s original work, first titled ‘Liber Subtilitatum Diversarum Naturarum Creaturarum’ (The Book of Secrets in Nature and Creatures) was split into two books: ‘Physica’ which compiled natural remedies for usage - recording over 280 plants and their healing capabilities. ‘Causae et Curae’ which describes healing and treatment methods using humoural techniques, alongside traditional creation teachings and mystic cosmologies. Just as morality kept the spirit (soul) clear from evil and temptation, living a simple, harmonious life kept the body healthy and free from toxic elements. The splitting of von Bingen’s book occurred after her death, which leaves speculation that there is room for reviews and edits by other unknown authors.

Sources: Andrew Chevallier’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, p. 22 Anne H. King-Lenzmeier’s Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press.

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