Today’s film is a small biopic, Vision: From the Life of Hildegarde von Bingen (2009, dir. Margarethe von Trotta; German with subtitles). As the title explains, the film focuses on the life of the 11th century German nun, Hildegarde of Bingen, one of the most important women of the Middle Ages. Von Trotta is an important feminist film-maker whose work has often focused on lesser-known female historical figures. While not overtly political, much of her work has focused on the complex relationships women have with other women, and that is certainly an important issue in this film.
The Historical Hildegarde
Hildegard of Bingen (c.1098-1179) was the daughter of a minor German noble in the German Rhineland. When she was a young girl, her parents offered to the nearby Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg as an oblate, a child-monk (or in this case, child-nun). She was enclosed under the guidance of an anchorite named Jutta von Sponheim. Anchorites were men or women who lived in a solitary room attached to a church, spending their lives in prayer and contemplation and offering spiritual guidance to visitors. Von Sponheim was somewhat unusual in that she was a well-educated woman, and she tutored Hildegard. Thanks to the help of Von Sponheim and Volmar, a monk of Disibodenberg, Hildegard became an extremely well-educated woman, arguably the most well-educated woman of her generation. Von Sponheim’s reputation for piety attracted a number of other women to seek admission to Disibodenberg, which was technically only a male house. When Hildegard was enclosed, there was another oblate living there, a young girl also named Jutta, who was to be a life-long sister nun of Hildegard.
After von Sponheim’s death, Hildegard was unanimously elected as the magistra of the nuns at Disibodenberg. Technically, a magistra was a teacher, but since Disibodenberg was a male house with a small group of nuns attached to it, the magistra was functionally like an abbess for the nuns. The abbot of Disibodenberg, Kuno, asked her to accept the post of prioress, which would have given him formal authority over her. Hildegard, however, requested that the nuns be permitted to leave Disibodenberg and found a new independent monastery. He refused, but Hildegard was able to persuade the archbishop of Mainz to authorize the move, and the result was that she became the abbess of Rupertsberg.
More interesting, Hildegard was, from a very young age, a visionary. She periodically received visions, both visual and auditory. She came to understand that these visions came from God. In 1141, when she was about 42, she received an instruction to write down her visions. She hesitated to do so until she fell gravely ill; at that point, with the assistance of Brother Volmar and a nun, Richardis of Stade, she began to transcribe her experiences, something she continued to do for the rest of her life, ultimately producing three volumes of theology based on her visions.
Initially she was hesitant to publicize her writings, but eventually in 1147, she wrote to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the leading clergyman of the period. Bernard responded favorably, and helped Abbot Kuno promote her work at the Synod of Trier in 1148, where Pope Eugenius III formally encouraged her to continue.
Hildegard’s visions gave her a great deal of spiritual influence. She began to speak out against heresy and the corruption of the Church. Ultimately, her circle of correspondents and advice-seekers came to include 4 popes, 10 archbishops, and 1 German emperor, her distant cousin Frederick I Barbarossa. On several occasions she debated the Old Testament with a leading Jewish scholar from Mainz.
In her later years, she undertook a preaching campaign on her own initiative. In some ways this is the most startling aspect of her career. Preaching was legally restricted to the bishop of a diocese and those he chose to specially license for the task. Only the clergy were granted this privilege, and it was unheard of for a woman to preach. Unlicensed preaching was a common problem with heretics. And yet, despite this, Hildegard mounted at least four preaching tours of parts of Germany, and was not condemned.
Late in life, she defied the archbishop of Mainz and buried an excommunicated man in the Rupertsberg cemetery. She refused to allow his body to be dug up, and was briefly excommunicated for her stand. Ultimately, though, the archbishop relented.
Hildegard didn’t just publish her visions. She wrote a number of pieces of liturgical music, two treatises on natural medicine, two lives of saints, a commentary on the Gospels, and other short works. She authored the Ordo Virtutum, a piece of musical liturgical drama that stands as one of the first pieces of drama written since the Roman period. She invented her own language and wrote at least one text in it. She produced 400 surviving letters. She is the first woman to write on female sexuality.
Hildegard’s visions enabled her to release the full force of her personality into a society in which women were normally expected to be submissive to men. She boldly asserted her views of right and wrong, and felt comfortable enough to even rebuke the Emperor on occasion.
In short, Hildegard of Bingen was one of the most important authors and fascinating women of the Middle Ages, and she more than deserves to be the subject of a film.
Vision does a good job of showing many of the major events in Hildegard’s life. It opens with her oblation as a young girl, and then jumps forward to the 1140s when Hildegard (Barbara Sukowa) begins to write down her visions and rise to fame. We see some of the opposition she encountered from male clergy who were suspicious of her claims. We see her struggle to achieve independence from Disibodenberg, and we watch the development of her relationship with Sister Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung). We see a performance of part of the Ordo Virtutum. The film frequently uses Hildegard’s own words, and much of the music is based on Hildegard’s liturgical compositions. Where possible, the film was shot in the ruins of several medieval monasteries.
The film does take some liberties with the facts. The Ordo Virtutum was written after Richardis’ death (indeed, one of the characters is thought to be based on Richardis), but in the film, Richardis plays a role in the first performance of it. The film depicts Kuno as at different times both supporting and opposing her, but I’m uncertain that he opposed her except when she sought to leave Disibodenberg. Hildegard’s election was unanimous, but in the film, Sister Jutta (Lena Stolz) votes against it out of envy.
These changes, however, do not feel like serious errors to me. However, two other changes seem more egregious. In the mid-1140s, Hildegard was examined by a group of clergymen about her visions. They accepted her visions as genuine communications for God, but in the film they denounce her as inspired by the Devil, forcing her to seek validation from St. Bernard. This feels clichéd to me, and it’s really the low point of the whole film. The film also includes a sexual scandal to explain why Hildegard wanted her nuns to leave Disibodenberg; I’m highly suspicious that this was a made up detail, but it does allow the cinematic Hildegard to demonstrate the force of her personality.
A scholar who specializes in studying Hildegard or who knows more than I do about the technical details of monasticism may well spot other errors, but this is far from the worst depiction of monasticism I’ve seen on the screen. Rather than treating monasticism as something exotic or bizarre to gawk at, the film tries to normalize monasticism and explore what it meant to these women.
In fact, I think the film does a good job of trying to convey what life in a monastery was like. We see scenes of Hildegard teaching her students, using her medical knowledge to treat the sick, and leading the nuns in the liturgy. The film captures some of the challenge that medieval monks had in getting access to books; in one scene, when a traveling bishop stops at Disibodenberg, Hildegard is excited to be allowed to borrow one of his books. In another scene, she talks about a story that the Caliph of Cordoba has a library of 400,000 books, and laments that the best Western libraries have only 400. We get one scene that shows a monastic election, and another scene in which Hildegard, probably leading a chapter meeting, seeks advice from her sisters about how to discipline rebellious nuns.
The film captures some of the way that medieval monks and nuns thought about their environment. Sister Jutta is reluctant to leave Disibodenberg, because that is where her surrogate mother Jutta is buried, and the physical connection with Jutta’s grave, and therefore her spirit, is very important to her. She objects that Hildegard swore a vow to not leave Disibodenberg. So for Sister Jutta, the move to Rupertsberg is more than just changing homes; it is uprooting herself from the place that has powerfully defined her entire life. To modern Americans, who are so willing to move to other parts of the country for work or marriage, this deep connection to a place is quite alien, and Vision does a good job of making it understandable.
The movie also captures the emotional intensity that was a feature of some monastic writing in this period. Monks and nuns lived in a literally cloistered world, partly isolated from outside society, but intimately, inescapably, in contact with the other residents of their house. They were encouraged to confess their sins to each other, and an abbess was expected to treat her nuns as her daughters. Her relationships with Sister Jutta and Sister Richardis are defined by the theological principle of love. Jutta struggles to love Hildegard despite the intense feelings of envy she feels; she resents that Hildegard received more affection from their surrogate mother Jutta, and later, she resents Hildegard’s affection for Richardis. When Richardis chooses to leave Rupertsberg to become abbess of another house, Hildegard is furious with her over what feels like a profound betrayal.
The film makes an interesting choice to focus on the emotional impact of events rather than on simply relating a narrative of events. It doesn’t always show the viewer the outcome of an event. For example, during the move to Rupertsberg, some of the nuns rebel at the hard work that Hildegard is demanding of them. Hildegard seeks advice from the other nuns on how to handle this rebellion, but instead of showing how Hildegard finally dealt with the rebels, the film jumps ahead to another incident. For von Trotta, the important thing is not what Hildegard decided to do, but rather how Hildegard and the other nuns came to a group decision.
Most biopics do one of two things at the end. Either the film follows the main character to the end of his or her life (often opening with the protagonist’s death and then jumping back, as in Evita), or they cut the action and then offer epilogue text telling us what happened to the main characters later on. Vision does neither of these things. It simply ends after Hildegard takes her decision to start her first preaching tour. The effect of this choice is to focus the viewer’s attention on Hildegard as a person, not as an historical figure. Unlike Evita, which presents Eva Peron’s life in explicitly historical terms and asks the viewer to pass judgment on what her life meant, Vision takes a historical figure and asks us to understand her as a human being. It de-emphasizes the political and social context of Hildegard’s life and instead concentrates on trying to help us understand who she was as a woman (or rather, who von Trotta thinks she was).
It’s a really refreshing change of pace to see a film in which women are the main characters and their discussions are about their relationships with each other and not their relationships with men. This film doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test; it aces it so well it sets a much higher standard for how women’s relationships can be depicted. In this sense, von Trotta’s feminist approach is readily apparent. Although the film is not always true to events, it strives to present a historically plausible personality in her own terms. I hope it brings a greater level of awareness to this intriguing woman.
Want to Know More?
Vision – From the Life of Hildegard von Bingenis available on DVD through Amazon, although it’s a little pricey. In my opinion, it’s worth it.
If you want to know more about Hildegard, I’d suggest starting with Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Lifeby Sabina Flanagan. She does a good job of recounting Hildegard’s life and works and gives a sense of the enormous range of her work. If you want to delve into her writings, an easy option would be Selected Writings: Hildegard of Bingen (Penguin Classics), which is organized by themes rather than individual works. Or you could look at Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias (Classics of Western Spirituality), which is her account of her visions. For a slightly different approach to her work, take a look at Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. These only scratch the surface of Hildegard’s writings.