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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Monday, July 22, 2013

St. Hildegard of Bingen: Prologue to Liber Divinorum Operum

Portrait of Hildegard of Bingen
recording her visions in the
Liber Divinorum Operum (I.1).
Lucca MS 1942, fol. 1. (From Wikipedia)

St. Hildegard of Bingen prefaced each of her three visionary-theological works—the Scivias, the Liber Vitae Meritorum (“Book of the Rewards of Life” / “Book of Life’s Merits”), and the Liber Divinorum Operum (“Book of Divine Works”)—with a brief description of the chronological and visionary genesis of the work. Although a little longer than the opening of the Liber Vitae Meritorum—whose structure it nevertheless parallels—the Prologue to the Liber Divinorum Operum is only half the length of the Protestifactio that opens Scivias. Because that first declaration came at the beginning of Hildegard’s writing career, at a time when she was still quite unsure of herself, it went to great lengths to establish both Hildegard’s frail humility in the service of God and the legitimate, divine authority for her prophetic messages, as well as the dynamic of the visionary experience relating the two. The openings of the latter two works also take up those three themes that are central to Hildegard's visionary, prophetic, and theological vocation, but with greater concision.

The Prologue below consists of three sections: a chronological account that places the work’s composition in the context, first of Hildegard’s own writings (e.g. the composition of the Liber Vitae Meritorum in 1158-1163), and second of the larger ecclesiastical-political scene; then the words of the “voice from heaven”, commissioning the work and briefly alluding to its themes; and finally, Hildegard’s attestation of the writing of the work and the assistance of her secretary, Volmar, and an anonymous nun. I have expanded on the historical and chronological implications of the Prologue’s text in the footnotes; the words of “the voice from heaven”, meanwhile, reveal three key themes that undergird much of the Liber Divinorum Operum:

  • Its message about the works of God is to be useful or advantageous to humankind (ad utilitatem hominum).
  • Humans have a fundamental vocation to understand the work of God (of which they are the pinnacle), for only through such understanding can they know their creator and properly fulfill the work for which they were created.
  • Both the entire work of God and the Liber Divinorum Operum’s own explication of that work is entirely held within the foreknowledge of God from eternity.

Liber Divinorum Operum: Prologue[1]

And it happened in the sixth year after the wonderful and true visions, on which I had labored for five years when a true vision of the unfailing light had shown to me, a human being, the diversity of various morals, of which I had been quite ignorant: that was the first year and the beginning of the present visions.[2] When I was sixty-five years old, I saw a vision of such mystery and power that I trembled through and through and then fell ill because of the weakness of my body.[3] After seven years, I have finally brought this vision almost to completion by writing it down.[4]

And so, in the 1163rd year of the Lord’s Incarnation, when the oppression of the Apostolic See had not yet slackened under the reign of Frederick, the Emperor of the Roman majesty, there happened a voice from heaven, saying to me:[5]

“O poor little form, you are the daughter of many labors, tempered by grave infirmities of the body, yet also flooded by the depth of God’s mysteries. Commit to fixed writing these things that you see with the inner eyes and perceive with the inner ears of the soul, for they are useful and advantageous to humankind; so that through them, humans might understand their creator and not flee from worshiping him with worthy honor. Write them not according to your own heart, but according to my will, for I am life without beginning and end. You did not invent them, nor did any other human consider them in advance; rather, they were preordained through me before the beginning of the world. For as I foreknew humankind before ever they were created, so also I foresaw those things that would be necessary for their existence.”

Therefore, I, a poor and feeble form worn down by many infirmities, have at last turned my trembling hands to writing. This is witnessed by that person whom I had sought and found in secret, as I have related in my previous visions; it is also witnessed by that girl of whom I made mention in my most recent visions.[6] As I have done this, I have looked to the true and living light to see what it is I ought to write—for I came to know everything that I had written of my visions from start to finish as I kept watch upon the heavenly mysteries in both body and mind. I saw everything with the inner eyes of my spirit and I heard everything with the inner ears, and not in dreams or ecstasies, just as I affirmed in my previous visions. With truth as my witness, I have not offered anything of human sentiment, but only those things that I perceived in the heavenly mysteries.

And again I heard a voice from heaven, teaching me thus. And it said: “Write, therefore, according to me and in this way.”

[1] Translated from the critical edition of Hildegard’s Liber Divinorum Operum, ed. A. Derolez and P. Dronke (Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis [CCCM] 92; Turnhout: Brepols, 1996). 
[2] This refers to Hildegard’s second visionary work, the Liber Vitae Meritorum, which chronicled the battle between vice and virtue in the human soul; she labored on its writing from 1158 to 1163. 
[3] According to her description of it in one of the autobiographical passages included in Hildegard’s Vita (II.16), the initial experience that formed the genesis of the Liber Divinorum Operum was one of the few in which she experienced an actual loss of consciousness. It can be dated to either 1163 or 1164. 
[4] As Dronke explains (“Introduction” to CCCM 92, pp. ix-xii), it is likely that Hildegard composed this prologue in 1170, when the Liber Divinorum Operum was substantially but not wholly (“almost”: vix) complete. Other evidence indicates that the final touches to the initial text were made by 1173, and that the Ghent manuscript, which was likely the first fair copy made for editing, dates to 1174. It is also possible that this prologue is meant to indicate that, although Hildegard had been experiencing and thinking upon the visionary experiences of the LDO since 1163, she did not begin writing it down until later—perhaps even as late as 1170. 
[5] This refers to the papal schism that erupted in 1159 and lasted until 1178, perpetuated by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s continued support of the antipopes Victor IV (r. 1159-1164), Paschal III (r. 1164-1168), and Callixtus III (r. 1168-1178), all against Pope Alexander III (r. 1159-1181). After Frederick’s defeat at the Battle of Legnano in 1176, he switched his support back to Alexander in 1177/78, and Callixtus capitulated. The phrase that Hildegard uses here (pressura apostolica sedis) is nearly identical to that in the opening of the Liber Vitae Meritorum, where it also refers to this schism; Bruce Hozeski’s translation errs in interpreting its appearance there to suggest that Hildegard herself was “under pressure from the Apostolic See” (Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of the Rewards of Life, trans. Bruce W. Hozeski [Oxford University Press, 1994], p. 9). 
[6] The first of these witnesses is certainly Volmar, Hildegard’s longtime secretary and later provost of her abbey at the Rupertsberg—she mentions his aid in the prefatory materials of all three of her major works, while also mourning his death in the Epilogue of the Liber Divinorum Operum. He appears on the left in the illumination above, taking down dictation. The second witness—the girl—is to be identified as the anonymous girl who also aided her in the writing of the Liber Vitae Meritorum, as indicated at the beginning of that work; she appears on the right in the illumination, standing behind the seated Hildegard. This girl cannot, however, be the “noble and well-mannered girl” whose assistance Hildegard mentions in the Protestificatio of the Scivias, as this has been securely identified as her early confidant, Richardis of Stade, who died in 1152 (see Dronke, “Introduction” to CCCM 92, pp. xxxvi-xxxvii).