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St. Elizabeth of Portugal – Advocate for Peace

Introduction

Our journey through the Medieval Era with stories of Christian women who served in the kingdom of God has covered much of the 1000 years of the Middle Ages, from 500 AD to 1500 AD. From Genovefa (423 – 502) through Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) we have told the stories of God’s humble servants. There were queens, abbesses, nuns, Beguines, Franciscan sisters, writers, godly wives, mothers, empresses, social reformers, and many other women who served Christ. 

In these last few posts, we have emphasized how Godly families pass the faith on to their descendants. We saw how a godly mother – Blanche of Castile – raised saintly children – St. Louis and St. Isabelle. In our last post we discovered a woman who had a long line of saintly relatives – Elizabeth of Hungary. That line of godly Christian women would continue for many centuries and include Elizabeth’s great niece – Elizabeth of Portugal.

Elizabeth of Portugal – Peacemaker

“Blessed are the poor who live in an age when almsgiving and wage-giving have lovely legends for their authentication. These popular legends are the unofficial canonization of a saint by the poor whose instinct for sanctity is seldom misplaced. Such legends never grew round Don Diniz. — nor Henry VIII, nor another Queen Elizabeth.”[1]

Elizabeth, or Isabel as she was known by her Spanish name, was born in 1271 at Saragossa, Spain. Elizabeth was named after her great aunt, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the sister of her grandmother, Yolande. Elizabeth followed in her namesake’s footsteps giving food to the hungry and seeing to it that they were paid fair wages for their work. 

The two Elizabeth’s had more in common – both were married young, and both desired to follow in Jesus’s footsteps as they shared the gospel. Though wealthy they each gave as much of their wealth to the poor as they could. Both would join the Third Order of St. Francis in their later lives.

Elizabeth’s father was Don Pedro, son of Jayme the Conqueror, King of Aragon. Her mother was Constance, daughter of Manfred, the illegitimate son of Emperor Frederic II. Though Elizabeth’s great aunt Elizabeth of Hungary and grandmother were known for their piety and saintliness, neither of her grandfathers would ever achieve a reputation for holiness. Elizabeath had the illegitimate grandfather on one side and King Jayme on the other side who was a man of war and known for cruelty on the battlefield. 

In spite of her less than stellar grandfathers, it is a miracle of the grace of God that this saintly girl showed her devotion to God even when very young. She fasted and prayed regularly. Her father, who was more spiritual than her grandfathers, spoke of her as his angel. Don Pedro praised her for her constant meditation, reading of the bible, and faithful worship. Elizabeth also gave away a large portion of her allowance to the poor. Others said that even at an early age she carried herself like a princess and showed much wisdom and good sense. 

Elizabeth was barely twelve years old when she was married. As was typical of European royalty her marriage was a political move. Of course, she was not asked about whether or not she would be happy with her future husband. Her reputation as a beautiful, astute, and pious princess was well-known. King Edward I of England asked for her hand for his eldest son. The King of Naples also sought to marry her to his heir, Robert. Don Pedro was reluctant to part with his daughter whom he loved very much. Finally, he agreed to the proposal by the Portuguese King, Don Diniz. This turned out to be tragic for Elizabeth.

Don Diniz was constantly quarreling with everyone including his family. What a sorry lot Elizabeth married into. Her father-in-law repudiated his lawful wife and married the illegitimate daughter of the King of Castile. Diniz’s brother Alfonso III had been excommunicated by the Pope for resisting the bishops. Though Alfonso had the better claim to the throne, Diniz ruled. Elizabeth had all she could do to keep her faith and patience. 

Don Diniz proved to be an unfaithful husband. Elizabeth and Diniz had two children, but Diniz also had seven children with other women. Elizabeth had a daughter, Constance, born on January 3, 1290, and a son Alfonso who was born February 8, 1291. Constance later married King Ferdinand of Castile. 

Elizabeth is remembered the most as a peacemaker. She served as peacemaker between adversarial opponents some 12 times. Her efforts were aimed mostly at her own family who caused her the most personal pain and in reality, even financial loss. She was able to bring to pass many truces between political enemies as well.

It was when her son Alfonso was born that the first of many occasions occurred which would eventually win her the title Patroness of Peace. After the birth of their son Alfonso, Diniz and his brother Alfonso quarreled to the point of a civil war. Elizabeth called for an arbitration council of clergy and laity. The royal brothers rejected the terms of reconciliation, but Elizabeth persevered in her efforts. Caring more for peace than for her own desires, Elizabeth effected the truce between the brothers by giving away a good portion of her own possessions to Alfonso’s daughter.

Years later on another occasion in 1323, Elizabeth’s son Alfonso became jealous of one of his father’s illegitimate sons. King Alfonso had been showing the illegitimate son too much favoritism. Rival armies were gathered, and war was imminent until Elizabeth stepped forward. She counted no personal sacrifice too great in order to bring about peace. She even rode alone on mule-back between the two armies who were shooting arrows at each other. She was so focused on her mission of peace that she did not stop to think of the possible cost to herself. She had trust and faith in God that she was doing right. The battle was averted much to the praise and acclamation of the people.

Most of the people at Diniz’s court were as immoral as he was. Elizabeth was not tempted by any of their enticements. She remained true to her faith in God and her purpose to follow Christ. She continually gave to the poor with a humble attitude. She could have taken advantage of her status to live a luxurious life, but instead she used all of her influence to help those in need. In fact, she insisted that all of her ladies in waiting care for the poor too. Later her bishop testified that Elizabeth invited the lepers into the castle where she would bathe and clothe them herself, even though it was against the law for lepers to come into the castle. 

King Diniz died on January 6, 1325. Two days later, Elizabeth began to wear the clothes of a Poor Clare. She declared that now that she was a widow, she could fulfill a long-standing dream of following Christ in this way. She was not officially joining the order, but just following like those in the Third Order of Franciscans. In this way she could continue to control her wealth, which to her meant the ability to give most of it away.

She went on two pilgrimages to Compostella. On the first visit she went as a Queen and gave many gifts to the monastery. On the second visit she went on foot with only two maids and kept her identity a secret. During the famine of 1333 the saintly queen gave away so much money that the court counselors were becoming worried about their finances. Elizabeth merely called on them to trust Him Who feeds the birds of the air. 

It was during the end of her life that Elizabeth encountered the only unsuccessful quarrel that she had to deal with.  At the age of 65 this widowed, dying Queen left her bed to try and save two kings from their foolish quarrels. In 1336 war broke out between the Portuguese and the Castilians. The “Advocate of Peace” had failed to convince the two kings to reconcile. She was bitterly disappointed.

The next day, Monday the queen’s illness began to advance rapidly. She called for her chaplain and made her last confession. Three days later, with only her daughter-in-law in attendance, Elizabeth spoke her last words.

                        Maria Mater Gratiae,

                        Mater Misericordiae,

                        Tu nos ab hoste protégé

                        Et hora mortis suspice.

(Mary, Mother of Grace, Mother of Mercy, From the foe shield us, in the hour of death take us.)

On Thursday, July 4, 1336 Elizabeth went to meet her Savior – the Supreme Peacemaker. She was buried in the Convent Church at Santa Clara at Coimbra with her sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Elizabeth was canonized on May 25, 1625. Her feast day is celebrated on the day of her death – July 4. 


[1] Fr. Vincent Mcnabb, O.P. St. Elizabeth of Portugal (Mediatrix Press, MMXV, reprinted in 2015 in the Kindle edition.) Location 101.

 

Introduction

We have been travelling through the Middle Ages with stories of the many Christian women who served in God’s kingdom. Our journey through history so far has covered much of the 1000 years of the Middle Ages, from 500 AD to 1500 AD. From Genovefa (423 – 502) through Isabelle of France (1224-1270) as we have told the stories of God’s humble servants. There were queens, abbesses, nuns, Beguines, writers, godly wives, mothers, empresses, social reformers, and many other women who served Christ. 

One important aspect of history that we have stressed is the importance of family. Godly families pass the faith on to their progeny. In our last post we noted how a godly mother – Blanche of Castile – raised saintly children – St. Louis and St. Isabelle. The story this week is of a woman who had a long line of saintly relatives – Elizabeth of Hungary.

 

Elizabeth of Hungary – Friend of the Poor

Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82:3,4)

Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) is remembered as the “Patroness of the Poor”. Born into wealth and luxury, Elizabeth spent most of her life giving it all away.

Elizabeth came from a long line of Christian saints. Her ancestor, King Stephen, the first king of Hungary was known to disguise himself as a peasant and give money away to the poor. Elizabeth’s father, Andrew was Stephen’s descendant. On her mother Gertrude’s German side, Elizabeth’s Aunt Hedwig was also declared a saint. A few months before Elizabeth was born a young man in Italy was receiving a task from God to rebuild the Church. The young man was Francis of Assisi. Elizabeth never met Francis, but she would imitate his life when she chose her spiritual path.

Elizabeth was betrothed to Ludwig of Hungary when she was just four years old in 1211 AD. As was the custom in those days she went to live with her future husband’s family to learn their ways and customs.  Her family took her to Eisenach and she lived in Wartburg castle which had originally been built in 1080 by Count Ludwig the Salian. It was built on top of a mountain where it would be easy to defend as a fortress. It is a beautiful castle surrounded by trees and has a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. 

The original castle (built in 1080) was small but was added onto in 1180. It became the family residence of the Landgraf’s (rulers of the territory). Landgraf Ludwig III made it into a beautiful Romanesque style castle with a drawbridge before the main entrance. The courtyard contained many more buildings – stables, kitchens, a chapel, and lodging for travelers. The main castle had lodging for knights and a large dining hall. The castle has survived these many centuries and you can visit it today. The following pictures were taken by this author in 2017.

 Here is a picture of the author in front of the drawbridge.

Another photograph showing the town in the distance below features the author’s husband engaged in a very modern activity! These pictures show how beautiful and protected the setting is. You can get an idea how high above Eisenach the castle was.  It would have been very difficult for the enemy to come up the hill against those cannons. You can also get an idea of how strenuous the trek was for Elizabeth to sneak out of the castle and go down to the town with the food she was giving away to the poor. 

Elizabeth and Ludwig grew very affectionate towards each other. The children referred to themselves as “brother” and “sister’ in court. Both were pious and pure even as children. The young prince and princess pledged fidelity to each other and both maintained it until their deaths.

Her father Andrew had sent Elizabeth to Hungary with attendants and an annual income, but whatever money she had at her disposal went to the poor. For this reason, she was despised by everyone else in the household – everyone that is except Ludwig. He loved her for her virtues. Elizabeth was able to put up with the persecution from spiteful courtiers because Ludwig would always console her privately. He also proved his constancy by bringing her gifts from wherever he traveled. The mostly irreligious courtiers would try hard to separate them because they didn’t like Elizabeth’s pious influence on the heir to the throne. They would have preferred someone as profligate as themselves. But Ludwig loved God and the people in his country and he would do what was right.

Elizabeth and Ludwig were wed in 1221. Their marriage was very happy. Ludwig was a good ruler, magnanimous, cheerful, wise, gentle, and with one passion – justice. He encouraged Elizabeth in the distribution of food during famines.

Once when Ludwig was away, Elizabeth used up all of the money in the treasury to feed the destitute in their country. Upon Ludwig’s return his stewards ran to meet him, accusing Elizabeth of bankrupting the kingdom. Ludwig’s reply showed where his heart was, “I wish you to let my good little Elizabeth give away as much as she likes; you must help and not thwart her; alms will never ruin us.” Later that day, as he was reunited with his beloved Elizabeth, he asked her about the famine and how the poor were doing. She replied, “I gave to God what belonged to him, and God has kept for us what was yours and mine.” Others may have criticized Elizabeth, but Ludwig just loved her all the more.

Elizabeth and Ludwig had three children: Hermann II (1222-41), Sophia (1224-84), and Gertrude (1227-97). Hermann died young. Sophia married Henry II, Duke of Brabant. She was the ancestress of many of the branches of the house of Hesse. Gertrude eventually became the abbess of the convent of Altenberg.

Before she was even twenty years old, Elizabeth had built two hospitals in Eisenach and personally attended the sick with tenderness and love. She cared for many lepers when no one else would go near them. She also cared for many orphans in one of the hospitals. The little children would run to meet her when she came and sit around her. She would caress them, no matter how ragged or dirty, and give them toys.

Because Wartburg castle was built on a steep hill, the roads were difficult for weak or infirm to climb. Therefore, Elizabeth built a hospital at the base of the hill. She would walk down to care for the poor herself. Besides the patients at the hospital, it is said that Elizabeth cared for over 900 poor persons daily.

Elizabeth cared for prisoners as well. She visited them frequently and prayed with them. Sometimes she even purchased their freedom. One year when famine touched the land Elizabeth gathered all the poor together and gave them work helping with the harvest. She bought them decent clothes and new shoes so their feet wouldn’t hurt in the stubbly fields. She sold her own beautiful clothes to raise the money for these things.

When Elizabeth was barely twenty years old her beloved Ludwig died. He had gone on a crusade with Emperor Frederick II and died at Otranto from an illness. Elizabeth was devastated. Ludwig was everything to her. She mourned deeply, but rose to the task of caring for their children even though her cruel in-laws tried to take away her inheritance. They expelled her and the children from their home.

Elizabeth’s own relatives came to hear of her calamity and took care of her. Eventually she was reinstated. The bishop in the area felt that she was too young to live alone and kept trying to find a husband for her. Even Emperor Frederick II wished for her hand, but Elizabeth kept refusing for she had promised Ludwig that there would never be another man in her life.

While Elizabeth was staying at a castle in Bottenstein, the remains of her husband were finally brought home by his faithful followers. It is said that she asked for the casket to be opened so she could look on Ludwig one last time. She kissed him and then saw to it that he was buried in the family vault of the landgraves of Thuringia in the monastery of Reinhartsbrunn.

Ludwig’s relatives took over control of the castles and lands. They very grudgingly returned her rightful dower money – 2000 marks – but Elizabeth immediately gave 500 marks to the poor. Her brother-in-law, Henry, began to oversee the government as regent to her oldest son, Hermann. Henry gave Elizabeth the town of Marburg and its revenues. In the summer of 1228 Elizabeth built a Franciscan hospital in Marburg.

Elizabeth renounced the world and went to live at a Franciscan house in Eisenach. Elizabeth became the first tertiary in Germany. A tertiary is like a nun, but does not take all of the vows. Elizabeth of course lived a life of chastity and obedience, but kept her great wealth to help the poor. She admired Francis and Clare of Assisi greatly. She tried to fill the third vow of poverty by living like a poor person even though she was very wealthy. She stayed in a very small house and wore plain clothes. She never purchased any luxuries. She labored at spinning wool to earn extra income to give to the poor. It was said that no one would have ever known that she was a princess. In fact, during the canonization process a friar recalled that “she commonly went about in a shabby tunic, patched, especially in the sleeves, girded with a quite rough cord, covered with a mantle that was patched in many places and lengthened with cloth of another color, like another abbess Clare of the cloistered sisters.”[1]

Elizabeth literally wore herself out working among the poor. She died of exhaustion in 1231. She was only twenty-four years old. She was buried in the chapel attached to the hospice that she had founded. Many lepers, blind, lame, and poor came to her funeral.

The hospital that Elizabeth built at Wartburg no longer exists, but the little fountain that was attached to it is still there. At this fountain Elizabeth was known to have washed the clothes of the poor with her own hands. It is still called “the Fountain of Elizabeth”.

If we would only learn to love others as Elizabeth and Ludwig did, we could make the world a happier place. Elizabeth left us a legacy for secular people to follow as they strive to make the world a better place. She gave us an example of what a spirituality looks like that seeks a more peaceful and just world. She placed God at the center of her life and dedicated herself to helping the poor. Love was the basis of her whole life. She taught us how to love everyone, old or young, family or stranger, rich or poor. My prayer is that more people would learn from Elizabeth and imitate her. 


[1] Lori Pieper. The Greatest of These is Love: The Life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. (New York: Tau Cross Books and Media, 2013). P. 83. 

Introduction:

It’s hard to believe but it’s been over a year now since we started our series on Medieval Christian women. Our journey through history so far has covered much of the 1000 years of the Middle Ages, from 500 AD to 1500 AD. From Genovefa (423 – 502) through Gertrude the Great of Helfta (1256-1302) we have told the stories of God’s humble servants. There were queens, abbesses, nuns, Beguines, writers, godly wives, mothers, empresses, social reformers, and many other women who served Christ. 

In our series on Medieval Christian women, we have found that each of these women did her part in transforming the culture around her by following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus who cared for the poor and neglected. They accomplished countless acts of piety and charity in many ways using the gifts that God gave them for service. We will get to talk to all of these amazing women when we get to Heaven!

The period between 500 to 1500 AD, sometimes called the “Dark Ages” was really a time of cultural growth and exciting life for most people. There were advances in all areas of culture taking place including agriculture, religion, politics, economics, and science. It is sad that we don’t study the stories of the women in this period if for no other reason than to see the interconnectedness we have with these saints. In our last post on Blanche of Castile we saw that Christianity passed down from generation to generation in the Middle Ages through the wise teaching of godly mothers. This week we will talk about a very godly daughter, Isabelle of France.

Isabelle of France – Saintly Sister

Isabelle was born in March of 1224, the daughter of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile. Blanche had 13 children but only 5 of them survived until adulthood, Isabelle and 4 brothers. One of her brothers was the future King Louis IX, also known to us today as Saint Louis.

Her father Louis VIII died when Isabelle was only 2 years old. Louis entrusted the regency of the throne to Queen Blanche. Blanche had proven to be a wise and godly ruler. She raised her children to honor God and two of them would go on to become saints – Isabelle and Louis. Blanche also gave her children a good education. Isabelle could read Latin expertly as well as French. She not only read Scripture but also the classics. She enjoyed the tales of knights and chivalry that were very popular in her day.[1]

As a well-bred daughter in an aristocratic home, Isabelle also learned to embroider. She took great pleasure in embroidering priestly vestments. She was intensely interested in religious subjects and sought spiritual guidance. She was drawn to the Franciscan way of life. Royalty usually remained within the church hierarchy, but Isabelle’s piety and spirituality were obvious to all. Thanks to a papal bull from Pope Innocent IV on May 26, 1254 she received permission to have as her personal confessor a Franciscan friar.

Isabelle loved her brother Louis and was loyal to him as his royal sister, but she remained more devoted to the Franciscan order for the rest of her life. Isabelle refused offers of marriage in order to continue a life of virginity. She was promised to Hugh XI the son of Hugh X of Lusignan with the Treaty of Vendome in March 1227. The marriage was fixed for June 1230, but Isabelle broke off the engagement because she was determined to keep her vow of chastity. Later she turned down Conrad IV of Germany, the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. Everyone including Pope Innocent IV tried to convince her to marry Conrad, but Isabelle stayed true to her vow. 

Isabelle spent her time ministering to the poor and the sick. After her mother died, she had a strong desire to found a monastery of the Order of the Poor Ladies of St. Clare of Assisi.[2] How special for Isabelle to be alive at this time while Clare was ministering in Italy. Isabelle’s brother, King Louis acquired the land for her not far from the Seine. In June 1256 the first stone of the new monastery at Longchamp was laid. Like Francis and Clare, Isabelle needed permission for the Rule which she would write for her monastery. She received the sanction of Pope Alexander IV in 1259. Isabelle wrote the Rule which was created for this monastery, which was named the Monastery of the Humility of the Blessed Virgin. The sisters who lived there were called “Sisters of the Humble Order of Servants of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary”. Some of the first sisters came from the Poor Clare Monastery in Reims. 

In spite of all of her hard work and her “right” to be the abbess, Isabelle refused to accept the position. She wanted to spend all of her time helping the poor and sick. The Rule that she had drawn up was not everything she hoped it would be. There were some minor adjustments that she felt were important for outward observances so she revised it and submitted it to Pope Urban IV. Pope Urban approved the new Rule in 1263. As part of the new Rule, the sisters were to be subject to the Franciscan Friars Minor. This Rule was adopted by other French and Italian monasteries of the Order of St. Clare. However, as we will see in a later post on Clare of Assisi there were some differences in Isabelle’s Rule from many others. For example, Francis and Clare did not believe that the brothers and sisters should own property. But this monastery at Longchamp would belong to the community of Sisters of the Humble Order of Servants of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. The monastery would remain as such until it was closed during the French Revolution. Later it was destroyed.

Isabelle never became a nun, but she followed the rules of poverty and chastity for the rest of her life. For the next seven years she worked tirelessly to follow in Christ’s footsteps ministering to the poor and helpless. She died in her house at Longchamp on February 23, 1270 and was buried in the church at the monastery. She was beatified by Pope Leo X in 1521 and canonized by Pope Innocent XII in 1696. Today Isabelle is still remembered as the patron saint of sick people.  

History does not have to be dry as dust. It especially interesting when we study the biographies of the people who lived long ago. We can learn much from their examples. Their lives can be an encouragement to us as we have many of the same struggles. One fascinating aspect that I want to point out in this post is the interconnectedness of the saints. Looking back through the posts for the last year you will note the many mother/daughter or mother/son relationships. The importance of mothers teaching their children to love God and love their fellow man cannot be stressed too much. How blessed we are to have the stories of Blanche and Isabelle.  


[1] Mostly popularized by her great-grandmother, Queen Eleanor of England. See post on September 22, 2020.  https://mylordkatie.wordpress.com/2020/09/22/christian-women-in-the-medieval-era-part-28/

[2] There will be a post on Clare of Assisi in a few weeks!

Introduction:

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Christmas! My prayer now is for a Happier New Year! We paused for the holidays from our series on the amazing lives of the Christian women who lived during the Middle Ages with a story about the origination of one of the most beautiful Christmas carols – “Silent Night”. I hope you were blessed by the story and that the hymn will have new meaning and richness for you.

In our series on Medieval Christian women, we have found that each of these women did her part in transforming the culture around her by following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus who cared for the poor and neglected. They accomplished countless acts of piety and charity in many ways using the gifts that God gave them for service. The women were queens, abbesses, sisters, influential citizens, writers, godly wives and mothers, and leaders in many other ways. 

The period between 500 to 1500 AD, sometimes called the “Dark Ages” was actually a time of cultural growth and exciting life for most people. It is sad that we don’t study the stories of the saints in this period if for no other reason than to see the interconnectedness we have with these saints. Our story this week will show how Christianity passed down from generation to generation in the Middle Ages through the wise teaching of godly mothers.

A Godly Queen and Mother – Blanche of Castile 

One of the interesting things about the Medieval societies in Europe is that they were Christian. I am not saying that every person or community behaved in a way that was honoring to Jesus, but the governments, religious authorities, and social conventions were Christian. It was their “political correctness” for the time. We must keep this in mind as we study the Middle Ages. They would no more think of not going to church than we would think of not having a choice about going. It just wasn’t part of their worldview or psyche to think that they would ever not worship God.

In our day people insist that government be separate from religion.[1] We live in a secular society and have gotten comfortable with it. People are distressed or angry when believers talk about God in public. “Keep that to yourself!” secular people shout. But in the Medieval Era God was the central topic of every subject. It was assumed by everyone that He is our creator and provider and no one questioned that He is to be worshipped by all. Medieval people were thought less of if they did not go to church just as people today who talk about church out loud are thought less of.

It should not be surprising then to see that there was a line of rulers in the Middle Ages that were Christians. No, not every ruler behaved like the Christian he claimed to be. Many were hypocrites taking advantage of their power and position to enrich themselves, but they still lived in a time when popes, other rulers, and society had certain expectations. In our story this week we will see that a godly wife and mother could also be a good influence towards Christian behavior.

Blanche of Castile was born in 1188 in Palencia, Castile to King Alphonso VIII of Castile and Princess Eleanor Plantagenet of England. Her grandfather was Henry II of England and her grandmother was Queen Eleanor of England and Aquitaine.[2]

Grandmother Queen Elanor lived a long and successful life as a ruler. When her youngest son, John (known in the Robin Hood movies as “bad king John”) became king he signed the Treaty of Le Goulet with French King Philip Augustus in 1199. Part of the agreement was that one of John’s nieces should be joined by marriage to Philip’s son the future Louis VIII. John turned to his mother Queen Eleanor for help with this decision. One of Eleanor’s granddaughters, Blanche had already shown remarkable intelligence and strength of character even as a young girl. For this reason, grandmother Eleanor chose her from among many granddaughters to be the bride of King Louis VIII of France. 

Queen Eleanor went to Castile to get Blanche in 1199 when Blanche was only eleven years old. Eleanor took her to France where there was an official betrothal to Louis VIII and then there was a marriage ceremony completed on May 23, 1200 at Portsmouth. Since the bride and groom were very young, (Blanche was around 11 and Louis around 12) actual consummation did not take place for a number of years. However, Blanche and Louis were close as they grew up and maintained their mutual desire for unison in their actions until Louis’s death in 1126. In 1205 Blanche gave birth to a son, the first of 13 children. Only five of them, four sons and one daughter, survived to adulthood. Two of her children are saints – Louis IX, known as Saint Louis, and Saint Isabelle (She will be in the next post).

Louis VIII trusted his childhood friend and confidante Blanche more than anyone else all through his reign. At the end of his life, he contracted dysentery during a battle and eventually died from it. Before dying on November 8, 1226 Louis made a will naming Blanche as the guardian of their many children. This included Blanche’s regency for Louis IX who was only twelve years old. Knowing that Blanche might not get the respect that he desired for her, Louis VIII summoned the church and civil authorities to his bedside and made them swear to have Louis crowned as soon as possible after his death. But many of the barons saw a chance to get rid of their “Spanish” queen and take over the control of the throne. Neither did they feel a woman could handle rulership. They were so wrong. Blanche is remembered to this day as one of the strongest and most able rulers France ever had.

The barons completely misjudged Blanche. Blanche, though Castilian by birth remained loyal to her new French home. She sought for the rest of her life to maintain unity among the people. Knowing that the barons were seeking an opportunity for a chance to seize power which would only contribute to chaos and disruption Blanche took Louis IX to Rheims on November 29, 1226 only three weeks after the death of Louis VIII, to be crowned king. During this journey mother and son made a stop at Soissons where Louis was knighted.

When Louis was crowned king, Blanche returned to her efforts to put a check on the rebellious barons and maintain the rightful rule of the royal family. Throughout the remaining 26 years of her life Blanche worked to achieve and maintain peace in France. 

All was not easy. There were many obstacles for Blanche to deal with. First of all, as we noted, she had to put down the revolt of the barons who wanted to challenge the young king. The disgruntled barons tried to rally around an illegitimate son of King Philip II Augustus, Philip Hurepel. When the insurrectionists put Philip Hurepel’s claims forward, Henry III of England joined their side. Blanche knew that she must take action immediately and joined in the battle at the Ile de France against Henry III and the barons. She won a victory over the rebellious barons. It was also the first of several victories over the English Henry III. 

Blanche proved herself to be a strong leader. She had great respect for the common man and formed local militias when necessary who came to her aid in battles. Blanche gradually put down all of the revolts. She was a successful diplomat, clever negotiator, and wise administrator. She made peace with England. In 1229 she arranged the Treaty of Paris to make peace with the nobles. France was than in a position to enter a period of tranquility and economic stability. 

During the remainder of her life Blanche took advantage of her reign to make laws that would care for the poor in Paris. Blanche was also careful to not overtax the people. She made the court live within their means. Now able to enjoy the benefits of her efforts Blanche witnessed the building of many cathedrals throughout the country. 

As part of her effort to maintain peace among the various factions in France, Blanche arranged for her son Louis to marry Margaret of Provence. Louis and Margaret had a happy marriage. The one weakness in Blanche’s life that scholars have pointed out though, was that Blanche was a jealous and bossy mother-in-law. She did not make Margaret’s life easy, but this flaw was outweighed by the many wise counsels that Blanche tried to give Louis. Bossy or not, Louis really needed her help.

Blanche had raised Louis to be a devout Christian. She saw to it that he prayed every day and listened to the sermons of the monks on all feast days. But later Louis showed that he could be fanatical. For example, When Pope Gregory IX wanted Louis to move against Jewish communities, Louis was all set to obey the pope. Blanche insisted that the Jews be given a chance to counter the accusations made against them. Louis revered his mother so much that he arranged for the Disputation of Paris in 1240. At this event Rabbi Yechiel of Paris defended the Talmud. Afterwards, though Louis obeyed the pope and burned the Talmud and other Jewish books, he did not harm Rabbi Yechiel who had been taken into the protection of Blanche. Blanche helped her son to set a more reasonable course of action and prevented a pogrom. 

Blanche also tried to prevent what she saw as another huge mistake by her son Louis when he had decided to join the Seventh Crusade in 1248. Not only did Blanche fear for her son, but she knew that the cost would be great and she was unhappy about taxing the people for it. Blanche turned out to be right. Louis was captured by the Muslims on April 6, 1250 at the Battle of Al Mansurah. Like her grandmother Eleanor who overtaxed England to free Richard The Lionheart, Blanche now had to heavily tax the people to get the money for her son’s ransom. She called on friends, family, political allies and the pope for funds but interest in the crusades was waning. It was a difficult task but eventually Louis returned home after suffering only defeat. 

Meanwhile back in Paris while Louis was absent, Blanche had once again been entrusted with the regency. While Louis was away Blanche was presiding over council meetings and overseeing the care of the people. Because of her personal involvement with commoners, Blanche was much-loved and respected by the people. She was able to hold the kingdom together while Louis was on the crusade. Still unafraid to take action herself in spite of a heart ailment, Blanche rode to the aid of some poor prisoners who were being mistreated.

In 1252, Blanche suffered an attack of her heart ailment on the way to an abbey. She was taken to the palace of the Louvre to be cared for. She died a few days later in Paris. Louis IX was in Jaffa when the news reached him. He had lost his beloved mother and the best defender of his rulership. Blanche was admired throughout her life as a woman of integrity who ruled ably and graciously. Blanche was truly a loss to the whole nation of France. 


[1] We could have quite a philosophical discussion about why I don’t think this is ever possible. Every person has a religion even if its atheism. Maybe another time.

[2] See posts on August 4, 2020, August 18, 2020, September 8, 2020, and September 22, 2020 – “Christian Women in the Medieval Era – Parts 25, 26, 27, and 28” Yes, Queen Eleanor’s life took 4 posts!

 




Silent night, holy night,
Stille nacht, heilige nacht.

Millions of Christians around the world will sing this beloved hymn “Silent Night” during the Christmas season. This favorite Christmas carol has been translated into just about every language in the world. What a joyous thought to know that so many people will be remembering the day of Jesus’ birth in spite of the challenges of the year.

One Christmas Eve 1818 in Oberndorf, north of Salzburg, Father Joseph Mohr knew that St. Nicholas Church would be completely full of people. Father Mohr had a sermon in mind, a message for his flock on this sacred night, but he wanted a carol, something special this Christmas Eve service.

“Silent night, holy night” was the first line from a poem that the young Austrian priest had written two years before. Now he can’t get the phrase out of his mind. “Silent night, holy night.”[1]

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright…

“Silent night, holy night” was the first line from a poem that the young Austrian priest had written two years before. Now he couldn’t get the phrase out of his mind. “Silent night, holy night.”

The words won’t go away. “I need a tune!” he said out loud, shaking his head. “I wonder if Franz can help me. I hope it’s not too late.” Franz Gruber was the schoolteacher in the nearby village of Arnsdorf — a gifted musician, organist at the Arnsdorf church, and occasional substitute organist at St. Nicholas. “Franz will help me!” he said to himself. “He can’t resist a musical challenge.”[2]

Quickly Father Mohr put on his heavy coat, donned a fur cap and gloves, and ventured into the brisk December morning. The snow was crunchy underfoot as he made his way across the churchyard towards Arnsdorf, just a 20-minute walk. “Silent night, holy night … silent night, holy night.” The rhythm of the words echoed with each step.

Elizabeth opened the door at his knock. “Father Mohr, how nice of you to stop by. Franz will be glad to see you.” She took his coat and ushered him in. Franz was picking something out on his guitar.

“Franz, remember that poem I told you about: ‘Silent Night’?” said Mohr. “I know it’s too late to ask, but could you help put a tune to it? I want to sing it tonight for Christmas Eve.”

Gruber’s face lit up. A challenge. A song. He took the lyrics from the priest and began to say them over and over, looking for a cadence. Then he hummed a line and wrote it down.

Mohr soon tired of the process and began to play with the children. But within an hour or so, Gruber seemed to have a melody and was working out the chords on his guitar. “Father, how does this sound?” he called and began to sing the words:

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm all is bright…

He stopped to make a correction in the manuscript, and then continued:

…’Round yon virgin, Mother and Child,
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Father Mohr was ecstatic. On the second verse Gruber’s deep voice was joined by Mohr’s rich tenor. Elizabeth, baby on her hip, who had been humming along, now joined them on the last verse. The song filled their home with its gentle words and memorable melody.

Christmas Eve at St. Nicholas Church, Oberndorf, 1818

That night, December 24, 1818, the song filled St. Nicholas Church at Midnight Mass. Mohr sang tenor, Gruber bass, and the church choir joined the refrain of each verse, while Mohr accompanied on the guitar. By the time the last notes died away, the worshipers were a-buzz with joy and wonder at the song. On Christmas Day, the song was being hummed and sung in dozens of homes around Oberndorf. “Silent night, holy night.”

And in Oberndorf, they would sing their beloved carol again and again each Christmas. The song might have stayed right there had it not been for an organ builder named Karl Mauracher, who came to repair the pipe organ at Arnsdorf in 1819 and made several trips to Oberndorf over the next few years, finally building a new organ for St. Nicholas in 1825.

The Song Finds Its Way to Emperors and Kings — and to America

Whether Mauracher found the music and lyrics on the organ or they were given to him by Gruber, we don’t know. But he carried the song to the Ziller Valley east of Innsbruk, where he shared it with two local families of travelling folk singers, the Rainers and the Strassers, who began to sing it as part of their regular repertoire. The following Christmas of 1819, the Rainer Family Singers sang “Stille Nacht” in the village church of Fügen (Zillertal).

Three years later they sang it for royalty. Emperor Francis I of Austria and his ally Czar Alexander I of Russia were staying in the nearby castle of Count Dönhoff (now Bubenberg Castle). The Rainer Family performed the carol and were invited to Russia for a series of concerts.

In 1834 the Strasser Family Singers sang “Silent Night” for King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He was so taken with what the Strassers called their “Song of Heaven,” that he commanded it to be sung by his cathedral choir every Christmas Eve. It spread through Europe and in 1839 the Raniers brought the song to America as the “Tyrolean Folk Song.” Since then it has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects.

Various English translations blossomed, but the definitive English version of the song was penned by Rev. John Freeman Young and first published in The Sunday-School Service and Tune Book (1863).

Why Is “Silent Night” So Popular?

Why has “Silent Night” become our most beloved carol? Is it the words — tender, intimate, gentle? Or the tune — so peaceful, so memorable, so easy to play or pick out with one hand on the piano?

It is not a joyous, fast-paced carol like Handel’s “Joy to the World.” Nor theologically-rich like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” by Charles Wesley. Nor does it have a complex tune like “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

Rather, “Silent Night” is quiet and reflective, calling us to meditate on the scene. It is the ambience conveyed by both the gentle words and melody that create from this carol an oasis of peace.

“All is calm, all is bright.”

It calls us to dwell on the Madonna and Child —

“‘Round yon Virgin, mother and Child,

Holy Infant, so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace.”

You feel as the shepherds do who “quake at the sight.” You can imagine as “heavenly hosts sing Alleluia.” And you begin to sing “Alleluia to the King” right along with them.

Rays of backlit brilliance highlight many a religious painting, but here the picture of light is painted in words:

“Glories stream from heaven afar….”

“Son of God, love’s pure light,

Radiant beams from Thy holy face….”

Just Who is in this manger? What is the significance of this birth? What is Christmas about — really? Perhaps most of all, “Silent Night” is beloved because it reminds us in its simple, but exceedingly clear way, the truth behind it all — the truth that changes everything:

“Christ, the Savior is born!”

Sing it again this Christmas and let its gentle peace wash over you and its bold assertion renew your soul.

“Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!

“Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!”

In spite of the fact that there were many unusual challenges in 2020 and that it looks as though they will continue into 2021, may we all take comfort in the fact that Jesus is Lord, Savior, Redeemer and coming King! Alleluia!

God bless you all this Christmas!!


[1] The rest of this story is reprinted from: Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries authored by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson. You can go to his website and see this and many more heartwarming stories at: joyfulheart.com

 

[2] This was of course, Franz Gruber, Schoolteacher and Organist and the now famous composer of the music. —– While the first few paragraphs of this story have been fictionalized, the historical events are true. Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) wrote the words to “Silent Night” in 1816 while priest at Mariapharr. On Christmas Eve 1818, he asked his friend Franz Gruber (1787-1863) to write the tune for Mass that evening at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf where Mohr had been assigned in 1817. The author was careful to rely on recent historical research into the origin of the carol, much of it gathered since 1995, when a manuscript of the carol in Mohr’s hand was found, dated 1820-1825. Some of the most helpful (and accurate) information sources are: Bill Egan’s Silent Night Museum, Egan’s article “Silent Night: The Song Heard ‘Round The World,” “Silent Night, Holy Night — Notes,” Hyde Flippo’s “Silent Night and Christmas,” the Stille Nacht Gesellschaft by Manfred Fischer, director of the Silent Night Museum and Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria.

 

Christian Women in the 13th Century – Part 3

Introduction:

These last few months we have looked at some amazing lives of the Christian women who lived during the Middle Ages. These women all sought to grow closer to God and to follow in the footsteps of the Savior by serving the poor. There were a number of ways they accomplished their goals of piety and charity.

The period between 500 to 1500 AD, sometimes called the “Dark Ages” was really a time of vibrant life for most cultures. Historians have often given the idea that there wasn’t anything important that happened, or even worse that the times were backward. The truth is that there were advances in all areas of culture taking place including agriculture, religion, politics, economics, and science. 

There were many changes taking place in the Church. Though historians often neglect the facts, women took part in all areas of ministry during the Medieval Ages.

For the last year we have looked at only a few of the many stories of women from the Medieval period. We covered Early Middle Ages with woman such as Brigid of Ireland. Then we moved on with stories of abbesses and queens such as Gertrude, Frideswide, and Lioba. We continued with the stories from the Middle Middle Ages of women such as Dhuoda (writer and Theologian), and Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora who were Byzantine empresses. We presented the story of the amazingly gifted Hrotsvitha, a poet and a playwright whose works are still influential today. We then moved into the High Middle Ages with the stories of strong, passionate, and gifted women like Anna Komnene and empresses, queens and princesses including Empress Adelheid, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Queen Eleanor of England and Duchess of Aquitaine. 

We discovered that many different groups of women served the Lord Jesus in unique ways. The Beguines were in communities but not as formal as church convents. This enabled them to go into the places where the poor and needy were in order to serve them better. Last week we related the stories of three incredible women who were all Beguines – Hadewijch, the martyr Marguerite of Porete, and Elizabeth of Spalbeek.

This week we turn to the stories of women, several Beguines, who followed their calling by serving Christ in monasteries – Mechthild of Magdeburg, Mechthild of Hackeborn, and Gertrude of Helfta.

Christian Women in the 13th Century – Part 3

Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 4:8-11)

Many women sought the safety and protection of a cloister to serve Christ. The monastic movement had begun centuries earlier. It went through many changes. In the Middle Ages many monasteries followed the order of St. Benedict. They took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The nuns who lived in the monasteries sought to live a Gospel life. There was a loose style of democracy. The nuns often voted for their own abbess. Usually, the cloister was under the authority of a priest or bishop.

Women sought a life of service in the church for various reasons. Some were widowed. Some had not found a marriage partner. Some were orphaned. Many just wanted to follow in Christ’s footsteps as their calling. Some joined a convent because they could get an education there. In the monastery/cloister women had access to the Scriptures and many other books. Art, drama, and music flourished in the cloisters.

One very famous cloister was the Helfta Convent. Three famous women lived at this convent – Mechthild of Magdeburg, Mechthild of Hackeborn, and Gertude (The Great) of Helfta. This convent was located near Eiselben in Saxony. It became famous as an intellectual and spiritual center for women. The women were known for their scientific work, art, and music. It was a center of mysticism as well. 

Young girls and orphans were accepted at Helfta for schooling. The sisters also were skilled in craftwork, especially the making of books. Their choir was also renowned. 

Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-c.1280)

Mechthild was born into a noble family and most likely grew up at a small court. At the age of twelve she received the first of a series of “greetings” from the Holy Spirit. These divine encounters had a great effect on her and when she was nineteen, she decided to devote her life to God. Mechthild became a Beguine and eventually became the abbess of her group. She was highly educated and had great writing abilities.

She continued to have visions but did not reveal them to anyone until she was in her forties. She had a friend and confessor, the Dominican Heinrich of Halle, who persuaded her to document them. Mechthild spent years writing down her love songs and visionary experiences, carefully shaping her words as God directed her. Her writings were quickly copied and circulated. 

Mechthild wrote in a Low German dialect. Her masterpiece, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, was comprised of seven books that contain beautiful prose, poetry, visions, letters, parables, reflections, allegories, prayers, criticism, and advice. These books give a picture of Mechthild’s journey toward God. They are still widely read today. Mechthild wrote these books as a message to both lay believers and the clergy. She was concerned about the laxity in the church. 

As an older woman, Mechthild’s life was fraught with difficulties. The church began to persecute the Beguines. She, as well as others, had been critical of the immorality of the local priests. In retaliation, the church tried to place restrictions on the Beguines. Mechthild may have decided to join a cloister rather than submit to a parish priest.  Around 1270 Mechthild joined the monastery at Helfta. The abbess, Gertrude was happy to welcome Mechthild into the Cistertian community of gifted and pious nuns. 

At Helfta Mechthild continued to write until her death. 

Mechthild of Hackeborn (1241-c.1298)

Mechthild joined the convent when she was seven years old. She was very gifted musically. She became the choir director and the chantress and was called “the nightingale of Christ”. 

Mechthild had experienced mystical visions since childhood but like our other Mechthild (of Magdeburg) she was reluctant to reveal them to anyone until she was nearly fifty years old. Even then she shied away from writing. Two members of the community (one of whom might possibly have been Gertrude, see below) compiled them, at first without her knowledge, into a work composed of five books – the Book of Special Grace. After her death another book was composed telling of her life and death. These books became very influential in their day. 

Gertrude the Great of Helfta (1256-1302)

Gertrude joined the convent when she was only five years old. Unlike the two Mechthild’s she was not nobly born and was probably an orphan. At a very young age she showed great intellectually ability. She was educated by the gifted Mechthild of Hackeborn. Gertrude studied science, art, and theology. She spoke and wrote Latin and Greek fluently. She translated parts of the Bible into German. 

Gertrude experienced her first vision when she was twenty-six years old. She later said that it was the most important day of her life. Gertrude had been living a life of pretense. When she had her vision, she turned her life over to Christ, finding a new joy in her Christian life. 

In her book, “The Herald of Divine Love” she says, “My God, you who are all truth, clearer than all light, yet hidden deeper in our heart than any secret, when you yourself resolved to disperse the darkness of my night, you began gently and tenderly by first calming my mind, which had been troubled for more than a month past. This trouble it seems to me served your purpose. You were striving to destroy the tower of vanity and worldliness which I had set up in my pride, although, alas, I was – in vain – bearing the name and wearing the habit of a religious. … From that hour, in a new spirit of joyful serenity I began to follow the way of the sweet odor of your perfumes (Song 1:3) and I found your yoke sweet and your burden light (Matt. 11:30) which a short time before I had thought to be unbearable.” 

Gertrude’s important books are – “The Herald of Divine Love” and ‘The Spiritual Exercises”. These books teach the priority of service to the poor over the pleasure of private prayer. Glimpses of pious community life come through these writings. 

The Helfta Convent was an outstanding place for women especially during the Medieval age. Founded in 1229 in the grounds of Mansfeld castle, it moved to the village of Helfta in 1258. The buildings were destroyed and rebuilt many times. In 1542 the land was secularized and fell into disrepair. In 1950 the land was returned to the people of the GDR (German Democratic Republic, now part of unified Germany)Hackeborn and became a community fruit farm. In 1994 the “Friends of Helfta”, German Catholics, collected funds to purchase all of the buildings and 30 acres. In 1998 restoration work began. In 1999 Cistercian Nuns from Seligenthal, Bavaria moved into the convent. 

Today the convent remains a place for women to live, pray, and work. The convent is considered a center of spirituality. You can actually visit. They host seminars, retreats, and spiritual exercises, short-stays, and guided tours. 

Christian Women in the Thirteenth Century

 It only takes a little study and reflection to see that the period between 500 to 1500 AD, sometimes called the “Dark Ages” was really a time of vibrant life for most cultures. Historians have often given the idea that there wasn’t anything important that happened, or even worse that the times were backward. The truth is that there were advances in all areas of culture taking place including agriculture, religion, politics, economics, and science.

There were many changes taking place in the Church. Though historians often neglect the facts, women took part in all areas of ministry during the Medieval Ages.

For the last year we have looked at only a few of the many stories of women from the Medieval period. We covered Early Middle Ages with woman such as Brigid of Ireland. Then we moved on with stories of abbesses and queens such as Gertrude, Frideswide, and Lioba. We continued with the stories from the Middle Middle Ages of women such as Dhuoda (writer and Theologian), and Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora who were Byzantine empresses. We presented the story of the amazingly gifted Hrotsvitha, a poet and a playwright whose works are still influential today. We then moved into the High Middle Ages with the stories of strong, passionate, and gifted women like Anna Komnene and empresses, queens and princesses including Empress Adelheid, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Queen Eleanor of England and Duchess of Aquitaine.

In the 12th and 13th centuries many women sought to grow in their faith by joining some form of spiritual community.

We discovered that many different groups of women served the Lord Jesus in unique ways. The Beguines were in communities but not as formal as church convents. This enabled them to go into the places where the poor and needy were in order to serve them better. This week we will relate the stories of three incredible women who were all Beguines.

 

Christian Women in the 13th Century – Part 2

  I urge you again and again to practice true love and to aspire to truth and perfection, that you may satisfy God, please Him, and do Him honor and justice, first in Himself (God’s Presence) and then in the good people He loves and who love Him, and may you give them all they need whatever their state may be. This I urge you to do unceasingly, and this I have done since I came among you, for it is the best and most becoming way to serve God.                   Hadewijch, 13th Century Beguine

 

Hadewijch – (13th Century)

Historians have been unable to discover exact dates for Hadewijch’s birth and death. We do know that her writings were circulating between 1220 and 1240 so it seems reasonable to place her in mid-thirteenth century. Most of what we know has been deduced from Hadewijch’s writings.

Hadewijch wrote in Middle Dutch, so perhaps she came from somewhere around Antwerp. She knew French, Latin, and Provençal, in addition to Dutch. Her knowledge of the Scriptures was formidable. She was also familiar with writers such as Saint Augustine, William of Saint Thierry, Richard of St. Victor, Bernard of Clairvaux and others of the mystical tradition. This education suggests that Hadewijch came from an aristocratic background.

She appears to have been a Beguine and was perhaps the head mistress in a beguinage. She wrote extensively producing at least thirty-one letters, forty-five poems in stanzas, fourteen visions, and sixteen poems in couplets. Hadewijch is considered one of the most exquisite crafters of poems of “courtly love”. The “courtly love” literature was popular in the Middle Ages. One of the themes involved placing one’s love on a pedestal and striving to obtain the seemingly unreachable. Hadewijch used the themes but wrote hers as an expression of her longing for God.

Besides writing, Hadewijch spent most of her life helping the poor, the elderly, the ill and the neglected. Her writings exhort her sister Beguines to follow her example by engaging in prayer, contemplation and charitable works. (See quote at top.) Her writing also reveals her strong belief in the importance of community and relationships in the community. Through it all is expressed a belief in the Trinity and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Scholars surmise that toward the end of her life Hadewijch was evicted from her beguinage and forced into exile. Reasons are unclear, but in one of her letters she expresses her longing to be with her sisters again. It is sad, but we do not know any more of Hadewijch’s life or death. I look forward to finding out more in Heaven!

Today, Hadewijch’s writings are considered to be among the masterpieces of literature from the Low Countries. You can find many of her beautiful poems online.

 

Marguerite Porete (1250-1310)

Like Hadewijch, most of what we know of Marguerite of Porete comes from her writing. It seems that she was a Beguine and was either a solitary itinerant or belonged to a small community.

By the late thirteenth century the church was persecuting the Beguines because of their independent attitude. Unfortunately for Marguerite, the church made an extreme example of her, condemning her and burning her at the stake.

Marguerite had written a book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, that the church banned and burned. Some of Marguerite’s mystical views seem very deep for twentieth-century Christians (such as her ‘mystical union of our will with the will of God’). We should all seek to know and follow God’s will; there is nothing unscriptural about seeking God’s will. Western Christians have a little more difficulty with feelings even though they are part of the whole human being. Theologians tend to stress the intellect. But how can a believer have full assurance that she is in God’s will? Scripture informs us but the Holy Spirit also gives inner confirmation.

We have seen that the mystics had a wide range of views. Yes, some of Marguerite’s views seem strange to us, but other mystics were even stranger and they did not get burned at the stake. Why did Marguerite get treated so severely?

There were several reasons. For one thing, Marguerite was the victim of politics. It seems that Marguerite was an easy target for Philip IV who was busy trying to prove to the pope that he was a defender of the Catholic faith. The French king Philip the “Fair” held an inquisition against heretics and Marguerite was the first one to be condemned to death by burning at the stake.

Secondly, it seems that Marguerite’s real crime was in writing The Mirror of Simple Souls in the vernacular rather than in Latin, and it had a popular following. Religious authorities did not like it when someone claimed that their authority to write or teach came directly from God and not the church hierarchy; the theological elite wanted control over all teaching and told Marguerite to stop. Marguerite continued to teach so she was arrested in 1309, put on trial and burned at the stake on June 1, 1310.

Though church officials tried to destroy every copy, The Mirror of Simple Souls did not get completely incinerated at the hands of Marguerite’s inquisitors. It is hard to see why a mystical story written in a popular literary style should be such a threat to the church. The book is an allegory in which characters have conversations about love and theology. Marguerite ‘s surrender to Christ and her piety are clearly in evidence in her book. Thankfully, seven hundred years later Christians can still read this poetical masterpiece.

 

Elizabeth of Spalbeek (1246-1304)

During the Middle Ages dramatic performances were used to educate and to entertain. Miracle plays, morality plays, and stories from the Bible were very popular. One favorite was a re-enactment of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion.

Since women were forbidden to preach from a pulpit, they looked for other ways to share the Gospel. Many turned to drama as the medium to share the story of Jesus. One of the most well-known was Elizabeth of Spalbeek.

Some of what is known about Elizabeth comes from her “vitae” or “life story” written by one Philip of Clairvaux, an abbot at a Cistercian monastery. Philip wrote a report on Elizabeth’s reported miracles and her stigmata. Hers was the first documented case of a stigmata after Francis of Assisi.

Elizabeth was born into a noble family in the village of Spalbeek in Belgium. She lived most of her life in a cell in a local chapel with a large window looking out to the altar. Her performances of the Passion of Christ became very popular. She attracted audiences from far and wide. Besides her gift of performing, Elizabeth was also known for her ability to discern people’s problems and give spiritual counsel.

The goal of Elizabeth’s teaching was the reform of the clergy. The clergy in the 13th century had become lazy and indulgent. Elizabeth challenged her audience, especially the priests, to try and understand what Jesus suffered for them. She advocated for more gratitude in the priests’ preaching. Abbot Philip understood her. He said, “she teaches faith in the Passion; in her joy and cheerfulness after pain, she teaches faith in the Resurrection; … faith in the mission of the Holy Ghost… her desire for the salvation of all and … her sorrow over humanity’s ingratitude and loss of absolution.” The audience should be moved to “strength of faith and to love of charity and to practice of devotion!”

These three women, Hadewijch, Marguerite, and Elizabeth were Beguines and lived their lives in service to Christ and to those around them. They all strived to communicate Christ’s love, two by writing and one by performing plays. They all taught in the language of the people so many thousands were touched by their ministries. How wonderful it will be to sit in their circle in Heaven and hear more of their stories and praise and sing to God together.

 

Christian Mystics of the Twelfth Century

Introduction:

 It is a tragedy that students have been taught to call the period between 500 to 1500 AD the “Dark Ages”. They have been given the idea that there wasn’t anything important that happened, or even worse that the times were backward.  

The truth is that there were advances in all areas of culture taking place including agriculture, religion, politics, economics, and science. There were many changes taking place in the Church. Though historians often neglect the facts, women took part in all areas of ministry during the Medieval Ages.

We have looked at only a few of the many stories of women from the Medieval period. We covered Early Middle Ages with woman such as Brigid of Ireland. Then we moved on with stories of abbesses and queens such as Gertrude, Frideswide, and Lioba. We continued with the stories from the Middle Middle Ages of women such as Dhuoda (writer and Theologian), and Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora who were Byzantine empresses. We presented the story of the amazingly gifted Hrotsvitha, a poet and a playwright whose works are still influential today. We then moved into the High Middle Ages with the stories of strong, passionate, and gifted women like Anna Komnene and empresses, queens and princesses including Empress Adelheid, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Queen Eleanor of England and Duchess of Aquitaine.

In the 12th and 13th centuries many women sought to grow in their faith by joining some form of spiritual community. We discovered that many different groups of women served the Lord Jesus in unique ways. The Beguines were in communities but not as formal as church convents. This enabled them to go into the places where the poor and needy were in order to serve them better. Many other women such as Hildegard of Bingen, a doctor of the church, served in cloisters (convents). There were scores of women who served in God’s kingdom in the High Middle Ages. We can only cover the stories of a few.

 

Christian Women Mystics in the 12th Century

 

 ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17,18)

 

Many single Christian women who lived during the Middle Ages served Christ in cloisters or other religious communities. Due to wars, crusades, or explorations to the New World there was a shortage of men. Devout women then turned to a life of service to the poor. In the next several posts I will tell the stories of some of these amazing women. If you are unfamiliar with Mysticism, you might enjoy the information in a previous post on this blog site.[1] I would recommend reading it first or coming back to it after you read some of the women’s biographies.

This controversial topic was explored since so many religious men and women during the Middle Ages claimed to have supernatural dreams as part of their religious experience. There are differing opinions about the validity of supernatural dreams and visions. No matter what our view might be, it was part of Medieval Christianity and we should at least try to understand it.

In our last two posts we recounted the story of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard was one of the most influential women of the Medieval period. Composer, writer, artist, poet, prophet, theologian, healer, teacher, and monastery abbess, Hildegard is one of the most amazing women in church history. She was able to integrate her thinking about theology, music, and teaching in a way that gives us a holistic picture of life.

Because Hildegard has been taken so seriously by the Church[2] we cannot just discount her visions. Her visions helped her to understand and appreciate God. Hildegard was very “low key” about her visions. Some of the other women we will look at placed a lot of importance on their visionary experiences. It is unclear whether the visions were just “dreams” or “daydreams”. The women themselves believed they came from God.

That is why I took time out to write about visions in a previous post. It gives us a place to start our thinking. The women whose stories I will present over the next few weeks will be more or less controversial depending on your opinion about dreams and visions.

In spite of the debatable experiences for these devout women, I hope that we can lay aside some of our squeamishness and learn something from their lives of service to Christ. These religious women truly loved the Lord and helped countless sick and poor people. I believe that I will get a chance to share stories with them in Heaven!

 

Elizabeth of Schonau (1129 – 1165)


After Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth of Schonau is our next early Christian mystic. Elizabeth was born into a very religious family, probably of the minor nobility around 1129 AD. Many other members of her family served in the Church – an uncle who was a bishop, two brothers and a nephew who were abbots or priors, and several female relatives at convents.

Elizabeth entered the Benedictine monastery at Schonau at around age 12. She took her vows at age 17. Eventually she would rise to the position of “magistra”. That is the head prioress at a dual monastery (men and women) which is ruled by an abbot. She was a zealous observer of the Rule of St. Benedict. She was known for her piety from her youth and her practice of “mortification”. During the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for religious people to do penance in the form of bodily suffering, mostly severe fasting.

In 1152 at age 23, Elizabeth began to have ecstasies and visions. This was one year after Hildegard of Bingen had published her book of visions, the Scivias. Hildegard’s work probably influenced Elizabeth. The two women exchanged letters of which we have about 15 surviving in which Elizabeth confided her visions to Hildegard. Elizabeth visited Hildegard at Rupertsberg in 1156.

Ekbert, Elizabeth’s brother joined the monastery as her secretary in 1155. Elizabeth had written down her visions on six wax tablets. Ekbert collected her visions, transcribed them into Latin and put them into six books. You can obtain a copy to read today.[3]

At first Elizabeth was shy about relating her visions in public but, as she explained in a letter to Hildegard, an angel visited her and insisted that she reveal her visions. The angel told Elizabeth to preach about penance. This she did. Many people began to seek her out to hear her advice. She received affirmation from several important abbots at the time who confirmed that her wisdom helped them to lead a more devout life.

Elizabeth’s visions are subject to much controversy. Many of them seem genuinely concerned with repentance and piety. Other visions are full of fantastic exaggerations and things that are quite frankly not Biblical. 

The Church has declined to pass official judgment on Elizabeth’s visions. She has never been canonized, however in 1584 her name was entered in the Roman Martyrology.

Elizabeth died around 1165. Her brother Ekbert became the abbot of Schonau in 1167.

What can we learn from Elizabeth? She lived during a time when emphasis was on penance and good works. Though we may wonder at some of her visions, there is no question of her love for the Lord and for the poor that she served.

 

Mary of Oignies (1177-1213)

 

Marie D’Oignies has been held in very high regard by the Church and she is honored as the first Beguine. The Beguines (See post 10/19/20) were laywomen, not nuns, who lived independently but practiced many of the same things as nuns – works of piety and charity. These sisters felt it was important to be able to leave the confines of the cloister and to go out into the world where the poor were.

Marie was born to wealthy parents in 1177 AD. She was pious at an early age, praying and fasting often. At age 14 Marie married Jean de Nivelle, the son of another wealthy family.

John and Marie moved to a religious community where they spent their time feeding and bathing lepers, and caring for other sick and destitute people. Marie studied, prayed, and gave children religious instruction. She became known as a “saint” with a reputation for efficacious prayer. People came from far and wide to meet her and speak with her. John and Marie lived as “brother and sister”. This was not an uncommon practice in the Middle Ages for couples who thought that refraining from marital relations was a more pious way of life.

Marie had many visions that she believed were from God. Her visions were focused on Christ and the cross. Marie, like some other Christian mystics had the “gift of tears”.  She would be emotionally overcome by sorrow at the thought of Christ’s suffering and dying for sins. At these times she felt compelled to preach penance to the community.

Some of Marie’s visions were about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Marie valued a gift of the Spirit called the Spirit of Wisdom because it enabled her to understand God more. 

Marie continued to teach and serve among the poor until 1213. Like so many other religious during the Middle Ages, she had practiced severe fasting. She was terribly emaciated by the time she was thirty-six years old.

When it was evident that Marie was dying her companions moved her outdoors to fresh air. The theologian, Jacques de Vitry was a devoted follower of hers. While she was dying, he recorded her deathbed sermon. This was commonly only done for prominent men. It was her life story. It was Jacques’ way of honoring Marie to compose a book for her, “Life of Marie d’Oignies”. In it he argued for the support of the Beguines. During his travels he had met many Beguines and regarded their way of life as the ideal example of the holy Christian life. He wanted others to be encouraged to follow their example of piety and charity.

Marie d’Oignies died in 1213. After her death many followers, friends, students, and other admirers spread the story of her holy life and teachings all over Europe. Even Francis of Assisi was one of her followers. He had reportedly hoped to travel across the Alps and meet this woman that he greatly admired, but was unable to fulfill this desire.

The story of Marie’s life, spread by word of mouth and Jacques de Vitry’s book inspired many other women to become Beguines. One generation later, in the town of Nivelles there were two thousand Beguines. Marie is still loved and honored.

Though some of the activities of the Christian women mystics seem strange to us today, we can learn from their examples of love for God and others. We must decide whether or not their visions were from God or an overactive imagination. We believe that fasting and praying are helpful, but we stop short of starving ourselves. Yet, we can certainly relate to the fact that a true life of faith involves both words and actions. Prayer, worship, giving, study of God’s Word, fellowship, and acts of charity are the elements of a godly Christian life in any century.

 

 

 

[1] Christian Women in the Medieval Era – Part 29 – https://mylordkatie.wordpress.com/2020/10/06/christian-women-in-the-medieval-era-part-29/

 

[2] Hildegard was named a Doctor of the Church on October 7, 2012 by Pope Benedict.

[3] One place is: https://www.amazon.com/Elisabeth-Schonau-Complete-Classics-Spirituality/dp/0809139596

 

 

Hildegard of Bingen – Part 2

Introduction:

Many historians pay little attention to the Medieval Era. Calling the period between 500 to 1500 AD the “Dark Ages” they give readers the idea that there wasn’t anything important that happened, some even writing as though the times were backward.  

The truth is that there were advances in all areas of culture taking place including agriculture, religion, politics, economics, and science. There were many changes taking place in the Church. Though historians often neglect the facts, women took part in all areas of ministry during the Medieval Ages.

We have looked at only a few of the many stories of women from the Medieval period. We covered early Middle Ages with woman such as Genovefa and Brigid of Ireland (5th and 6th centuries). Then we moved on to the 7th and 8th centuries with stories of abbesses and queens such as Gertrude, Frideswide, and Lioba. We continued with the stories of 9th and 10th century women such as Dhuoda (writer and Theologian), and Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora who were Byzantine empresses. Then we presented the story of the amazingly gifted Hrotsvitha, a poet and a playwright whose works are still influential today. We then moved into the 11thand 12th centuries with the stories of strong, passionate, and gifted women like Anna Komnene and empresses, queens and princesses including Empress Adelheid, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Queen Eleanor of England and Duchess of Aquitaine. 

In the 12th and 13th centuries many women sought to grow in their faith by joining a some form of spiritual community. We discovered that many different groups of women served the Lord Jesus in unique ways. The Beguines were in communities but not as formal as church convents. This enabled them to go into the places where the poor and needy were in order to serve them better. Many other women served in cloisters (convents). A stellar example of a woman who was totally focused on God and helped to contribute to the many changes in society in all areas of culture is Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) – Part 2

Hildegard is remembered as one of the most brilliant and gifted women who ever lived. In our last post we recounted mainly one of her many abilities – her gift of music. During her lifetime, Hildegard composed seventy vocal works. In the 1980’s they were rediscovered and many have now been recorded. Hildegard composed the music and the lyrics. Her works show her love and her longing for Christ. I hope that you went online to the link I left in the previous post and listened to her music being performed.[1]

There is much more to relate about Hildegard including the books and plays she wrote, her contributions to theology, her love of science and medicine, her prophecies, her preaching and teaching activities, and her love and care for God, her sisters, and the poor. 

One of Hildegard’s many talents was writing. Around 1141, she had begun to write a book, Scivias, (or Sciens Vias, “Know the Way”), which eventually took her ten years to complete. Hildegard felt it was important to record her visions from God. She claimed that her visions helped her to understand the Old and New Testaments. Men and women of her day, including the well-known Bernard of Clairvaux, endorsed her visions. Many believed that she could understand the past, present, and future. She astonished people by claiming things which later came true. In 1147, after only a few parts of the Scivias were finished, Pope Eugenius III declared Hildegard’s prophetic writings to be authentic.

Another way in which Hildegard expressed her faith was in her art. Her book included 26 drawings of things that she had seen in her visions. This picture below is called the “Choirs of Angels” and is found in her book Scivias. The drawings that represent her visions are beautiful and intriguing. It has not been proven that she drew all of the pictures herself, but it is very probable given her immense imaginative and creative abilities. This example below is a beautiful representation of angels in a wheel. (From: Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias I.6: The Choirs of Angels, 1151. From the Rupertsberg manuscript.) 

After Scivias, Hildegard wrote other books, including the Book of Life’s Merits, and the Book of the Divine Works

Many people sought Hildegard’s wisdom. Pilgrims came from far and wide to hear her speak. She also traveled throughout Germany preaching and writing. Many others came because she was an herbalist and had a reputation as a healer. Archbishop Philip of Cologne was repeating what many Christians thought when he said that Hildegard had divine gifts including the gift of prophecy. 

Hildegard wrote hundreds of letters to both lowborn and highborn. Some of the leading lights to whom she wrote included the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and King Henry II of England, (who you might recall was the husband of the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine – mother of King Richard the Lionhearted.)[2] Hildegard’s letters covered many subjects including spiritual advice, prophecies and even warnings. One example comes from a letter she wrote to the church community at Mainz. They were tolerating heretics and her advice was, “The church mourns and wails over their wickedness while her sons are polluted by their iniquity. Therefore, cast them from yourselves lest your community and city perish.”

Hildegard was at least two centuries ahead of her time. Effectively acting like a true Renaissance woman, Hildegard was interested in every subject of study including science and medicine. She collected medical lore and compiled it into a book, Causae et Curae, which contained many descriptions of illnesses and their cures. Sounding more like modern times, she also identified mental illnesses such as despair, dread, insanity, and obsession. Because of her love of nature, Hildegard also studied physical phenomena and she gathered many details into an encyclopedia, Physica (“Natural History”). According to historians, what she wrote was on par with the top naturalists of her day.

Besides an amazing scientific mind, Hildegard also possessed a very creative side. In the twelfth century, Bibles were rare. The Church used visual and musical aids to help people memorize Scripture. Hildegard knew that it would be easier to teach her students about the Christian life with imaginative and interesting oral instruction. She set about creating her own teaching aids. She wrote hymns and responses to be used in worship services.

Sometime around 1150 in honor of the dedication of the new abbey, Hildegard wrote the first morality play, Play of the Virtues, in which people are given the names of the virtues and then they contend with the devil. In Hildegard’s play the usual order of assigning parts for that day were reversed – women played the parts of the virtues and a man played the part of the devil. That may not seem so astounding in the twenty-first century, but in the twelfth century it was considered scandalous by many, especially the male hierarchy in the church. However, the play was well-received as a valuable teaching tool.

In our last post we saw that Hildegard contributed to the study of theology especially in her music. Hildegard was concerned that believers honored the Holy Spirit. For Hildegard the Holy Spirit is associated with abundant life. The Holy Spirit is also the One Who brings understanding of the Scriptures (John 16:13). Hildegard gave honor to the Holy Spirit as the one who helps believers in their search for knowledge and wisdom.

When she was about sixty years old, retirement age for many people today, Hildegard undertook several preaching tours. As she traveled around, she even preached to men, a fact which shows how much respect she had gained by this time. Her sermons sound much like many we hear today; she taught on the corruption of the Church and how it needed cleansing.[3] She gave a tongue lashing to those who were “lukewarm and sluggish” in living the Christian life. She berated those who were slow in justice for the poor. Hildegard and the nuns in her abbey led by example always working among the poor and destitute bringing the light of the gospel along with food, medicine, clothing, and comfort.

Hildegard continued to minister even in her eighties. Though Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugenius III recognized her spiritual credibility and authority, other church leaders had been angered when she justly renounced them for their excesses. They opposed Hildegard right up until her death. Nevertheless, Hildegard faithfully went about her tasks as God called her. 

Hildegard’s life produced much fruit. Certainly, many scholars, religious leaders, historians, and devout believers consider Hildegard an extraordinary woman. Her writings inspired many then and now to deepen their spiritual lives in prayer and service. No matter what century Hildegard had lived in, she would have been considered a devout Christian with amazing gifts. She died on September 17, 1079 in Bingen at age eighty-one. Pope John XXII beatified Hildegard on August 26, 1326. 

On October 7, 2012 Hildegard of Bingen was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict. Pope Benedict’s sermon sums up Hildegard’s life honestly. He alludes to Hildegard’s prophetic spirit and certainly Hildegard’s visions were the basis for her authority as a teacher in the church. 

In his address to the Synod of Bishops he said:

Saint Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the twelfth century, offered her precious contribution to the growth of the Church of her time, employing the gifts received from God and showing herself to be a woman of brilliant intelligence, deep sensitivity and recognized spiritual authority. The Lord granted her a prophetic spirit and fervent capacity to discern the signs of the times. Hildegard nurtured an evident love of creation, and was learned in medicine, poetry and music. Above all, she maintained a great and faithful love for Christ and the Church.

Truly, the Lord greeted Hildegard when she arrived in heaven with this praise:

Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share you master’s happiness! 

(Matthew 25:21)


[1] Here is the link again. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YTOiJ-zjP0&list=RD0YTOiJ-zjP0&index=1

[2] See post September 22, 2020 “Queen Eleanor of England”. https://mylordkatie.wordpress.com/2020/09/

[3] Here again, Hildegard was way ahead of her time. It would be almost two centuries before Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena would advocate for church reform. These posts coming in the next few weeks. 

Hildegard of Bingen

 Introduction:

 The Medieval Era – roughly the thousand or so years from 500 AD to 1500 AD – was truly a more event-filled time than most historians have led you to believe. What a shame that historians skim over this millennium and write it off as the “Dark Ages”. Advances in all areas of culture were taking place including agriculture, religion, politics, economics, and science. There were many changes taking place in the Church. Though historians often neglect the facts, women took part in all areas of ministry during the Medieval Ages.

We have looked at only a few of the many stories of women from the Medieval period. We covered early Middle Ages with woman such as Genovefa and Brigid of Ireland (5th and 6th centuries). Then we moved on to the 7th and 8th centuries with stories of abbesses and queens such as Gertrude, Frideswide, and Lioba. We continued with the stories of 9th and 10th century women such as Dhuoda (writer and Theologian), and Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora who were Byzantine empresses. Then we presented the story of the amazingly gifted Hrotsvitha, a poet and a playwright whose works are still influential today. We then moved into the 11thand 12th centuries with the stories of strong, passionate, and gifted women like Anna Komnene and empresses, queens and princesses including Empress Adelheid, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Queen Eleanor of England and Duchess of Aquitaine.

In the 12th and 13th centuries many women sought to grow in their faith by joining a convent or some other form of spiritual community. In our last post we discovered that many different groups of women served the Lord Jesus in unique ways. The Beguines were in communities but not as formal as church convents. This enabled them to go into the places where the poor and needy were in order to serve them better. Many other women served in cloisters (convents). A stellar example of a woman who was totally focused on God and helped to contribute to the many changes in society in all areas of culture is Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) – Part 1

Composer, writer, artist, poet, prophet, theologian, healer, teacher, and monastery abbess, Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most amazing women in church history. She was able to integrate her thinking about theology, music, and teaching in a way that gives us a holistic picture of life. She truly believed that she was in communion with God. Her visions helped her to understand and appreciate God. And as a true blessing form God, she remained humble throughout her life.

 “On humility: Thus beware lest you attribute to yourself alone those good qualities which are yours in both your spirit and your works. Rather, attribute them to God, from whom all virtues proceed like sparks from a fire. . . For whoever is aware that he has good qualities, but ascribes them to himself alone, that person is like an infidel who worships only the works of his own hands.” Hildegard of Bingen.

These wise words are taken from a letter written by Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard is best known as a twelfth-century abbess with an extraordinary mind but especially she is known for her music and her visions. Whatever one thinks about the subject of visions and dreams, certainly Hildegard was a wise, talented, intelligent, dedicated, and devout Christian woman who rose above her circumstances to serve God in extraordinary ways.[1]

Hildegard was born around 1098 in Bemersheim, Germany, the daughter of a nobleman. She was a frail child and displayed a mystical disposition from early childhood. She perhaps had the first of her famous visions before the age of five. It may have been this ability to see visions that led her parents to “tithe” her to God. Sometimes when parents were blessed with many children, they gave one back to God. This was Hildegard’s case and when she was only eight years old, she went to a convent to stay with her Aunt Jutta. Jutta was living as an anchoress, walled up in a cell, for she had dedicated her whole life to Christ.

Many recluses expected to stay solitary for life, but Jutta attracted other women to join her. When the cell became too small, a Benedictine convent was built for them at Disibodenberg. When Hildegard was fourteen years old, she became one of the nuns. We do not know much about her next few years, except that she must have been a good assistant to Jutta. When her aunt died in 1136, Hildegard was chosen to be the abbess in her place. Hildegard was thirty-eight years old.

Now that Hildegard was the superior at the convent, she began to make decisions of her own. She had many talents and it was not until this time that she had an opportunity to start putting them to use.

She began by recruiting many nuns. When their numbers were too large for their present convent, she asked to have a bigger facility in a different location built. This was a significant accomplishment because at the convent where she was, she had to get permission from male supervisors before she could do anything. She personally oversaw the construction of the new convent at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, Germany. The nuns moved into the new convent in 1150, and she became known as Hildegard of Bingen.

Today, Hildegard is most remembered as a composer. In the next post, we will look at Hildegard’s contributions to literature, science, theology, and medicine. For now, let’s take a look at  Hildegard’s musical compositions which were considered as excelling above others even in her own day.

Hildegard’s music followed the traditional incantations of Church music. Her compositions consisted of a single, chant-like melodic line called “antiphons”. Antiphons are single lines of music sung before and after a psalm.

Hildegarde combined all of her music into a cycle called Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum (The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations), around 1151. It is easy to see how her music reflects her belief that music was the highest praise to God. Her works, including In Evangelium and O Viridissima Virga, were rediscovered in the 1980’s and have been recorded and released today.[2]

Hildegard was intensely concerned with the praise of the entire Trinity including the Holy Spirit. For Hildegard the Holy Spirit is associated with abundant life. The Holy Spirit is also the One Who brings understanding of the Scriptures (John 16:13). He helps believers in their search for knowledge and wisdom. The following work illustrates Hildegard’s faith in the Holy Spirit.

O ignis spiritus paracliti, written to honor the Holy Spirit, begins with the following text:

O spirit of fire, bringer of comfort,
Life of the life of every creature,
You are holy, giving life to forms.
You are holy,
anointing those perilously broken;
you are holy,
cleansing foul wounds.
O breath of holiness,
O fire of love,
O sweet savor in our breasts,
infusing hearts with the scent of virtue.

I don’t know about you but my spirit soars as I read these words. Hildegard’s theology of the Holy Spirit speaks to us today. It is all too common to hear sermons on the Father or the Savior without mentioning the Spirit. Hildegard emphasized the One-ness of God – the complete Triune God.

Hildegard calls us today to pay more attention to the third person of the Trinity. Her life was an ongoing conversation with the Holy Spirit. We need that message in our twenty-first century materialistic society. Is the Holy Spirit real in our lives? Is He there helping us daily in our walk with the Lord? If we really believe that, then like Hildegard we are practicing a form of mysticism. We should not be afraid of it but embrace it as an aspect of a holistic life – body, soul, and spirit.

With her lifelong learning and perseverance, Hildegard overcame many obstacles for women in her day. Hildegarde of Bingen remains a most extraordinary figure in women’s history, not only as a gifted musician but also because she seized the opportunities placed before her and worked to her limits. She is a fine example to women to not give up. In our day, women complain of not having the same rights as men, but we have way more than Hildegard did. She did not let that stop her; she was an over-comer.

 

[1] For more information on visions and mysticism in the Middle Ages see the post from October 6, 2020 – “Christian Women in the Medieval Era – Part 29”.

[2] You can listen to her works performed here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YTOiJ-zjP0&list=RD0YTOiJ-zjP0&index=1