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A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Vision: From the Life of Hildegarde von Bingen (2009, dir. Margarethe von Trotta; German with subtitles), a small German biopic about twelfth century German nun and author Hildegarde of Bingen. I want to come back to that film today because it offers a nice, if small, example of the difference between how an historian approaches the past and how a film-maker does.

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There is a scholarly debate about exactly when Hildegard was enclosed at Disibodenberg. Her Vita (saint’s biography) says that Hildegarde was enclosed as an oblate when she was 8, along with an unrelated older girl named Jutta, which would have been around 1106, since Hildegarde was born around 1098. But another source tells us that Jutta was enclosed in 1112. This would mean that Hildegarde was enclosed when she about 14. So our two sources provide conflicting information about this important event in Hildegarde’s life. Was she enclosed when she was 8, or when she was 14? We cannot say for certain.

These kinds of small problems of chronology (and sometimes quite large problems of chronology) are rather common in ancient and medieval history. We often do not know when an important figure was born, got married, or died, for example. There are important battles that we know happened, but we don’t know when, or sometimes where, they happened. We have many documents whose author is unknown, whose date of writing is unknown, whose entire historical context is uncertain. These are the sorts of issues that scholars can spend years debating and researching.

As an historian, if I were writing about Hildegard’s life, I would have to lay out the evidence that she was enclosed at age 8 and the evidence that she was enclosed at age 14. After I had weighed the evidence I would either have to settle on one scenario and then explain why I feel the evidence best supports that scenario, or I would have to say that the evidence is inconclusive and that we cannot currently say exactly when she was enclosed. As a historian, I am limited by the evidence available to me, and when I go beyond it through speculation, I have to be clear that I am doing so.

However director Margarethe von Trotta is not a historian, but a film-maker, and she has different concerns than I do. She cannot lay out both scenarios and let the viewers make up their own minds about which version is correct. To do so, she would have had to film a scene in which 8 year old Hildegard gets enclosed and has her first meeting with the two Juttas, and then she would have to film a second scene with a 14 year-old Hildegard being enclosed. Such a Rashomon-like approach would be deeply confusing to many viewers, and it would probably knock them out of the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for watching a film. Given that Hildegard’s complex relationship with Jutta is an important theme in the film, it would also confuse the viewer about how this important relationship got started.

Instead, von Trotta made the choice to show Hildegard being enclosed at age 8. She meets the young Jutta and has a childish quarrel that allows von Trotta to set up a recurring theme about the nature of envy. When Jutta dies much later in the film, we see Hildegard lose a woman who is literally her oldest friend and a surrogate sister. Had von Trotta opted to show Hildegard being enclosed at age 14, the relationship with Jutta would have played differently on screen.

While I as a scholar have the luxury of not having to commit to one set of events when the facts are unclear, von Trotta as a story-teller does not have that same option. She has to show Hildegard’s entry into monasticism; it establishes the terms on which Hildegarde lives her life. It explains her relationship with Jutta, who feels envious that their surrogate mother loved Hildegard better. And when Sister Richardis joins the monastery, Hildegard herself becomes a surrogate mother, and then has to wrestle with feelings of abandonment when Richardis accepts her family’s request to move to a different monastery. Hildegard’s enclosure is a key event in the film, and so von Trotta has to show it. And that means making a choice about when the event happened.

Richardis' mother and brother watching her veiling

Richardis’ mother and brother watching her veiling

But this has its own problems with it. I as a historian have to accept a certain degree of ambiguity when I write about the past. I frequently do not have enough evidence to answer all the questions I have, and often I have to qualify my narrative by saying “this is probably what happened, but I can’t completely exclude a different scenario.” To the average reader, this might get frustrating. My students hate it when I tell them that I don’t know what happened and that they will have to make up their own minds based on the evidence; they always want me to tell them what happened so they don’t have to think about it for themselves.

So from my perspective, von Trotta has gone beyond the available facts. She has taken an uncertain event and told her viewers that it happened at a time and in a way that we cannot actually know. She has crossed the line between history and fiction, and she has done so without even telling her viewers that she has done it. The average viewer will take away from this film the idea that we know when and how Hildegard of Bingen became a nun, and it will not even occur to most viewers that perhaps there is a scholarly debate or any uncertainty at all.

In taking this approach, von Trotta has made my work harder, because she is helping train audiences to think of history in terms of ‘what happened’ and not in terms of how historians carefully reconstruct the past out of judgments made about the uncertainties of the past. She has papered over my carefully constructed ambiguity with a simplistic made-up version of events.

Now obviously, it doesn’t matter too much to the world if people get a mistaken impression of how old Hildegard of Bingen was when she became an oblate. No wars will be fought and no social policies will be established based on this faulty knowledge. So von Trotta’s sin is a small one. The problem comes when film-maker after film-maker does the same thing von Trotta has done here. It trains viewers to expect narrative certainty from scholars and makes it harder for us to teach our students that history is sometimes ambiguous and that we need to understand the complex facts and scholarly debates before we can make an educated guess about what may have actually happened.

Was there any way for von Trotta to avoid doing what she did? I don’t know. I’m not a film-maker. Apart from not showing any scene that clearly shows when Hildegarde was enclosed, I can’t see any other option. But perhaps some film-maker wiser than me, more versed in cinematic story-telling techniques and willing to take directorial chances can find a solution. I don’t have any solutions here, but that’s why I’m an historian, not a film-maker.

Simplistic approaches to historical films encourage viewers to develop simplistic ideas about the past, and that’s not a good thing, because, as I recently argued to Sam Adams, historical accuracy in film matters.

Note: In an earlier edition of this post, I accidentally wrote that Hildegard could have been enclosed in 1006, instead of 1106. My apologies for the error.

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 Hildegarde’s life and works  and gives a sense of the enormous range of her work.

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