Hildegard von Bingen: Mystic, Poet, Scientist, Visionary, Composer, Feminist, Author, Philosopher, Abbess, Naturalist, Counselor, Linguist, Physician, Herbalist…..Witch?
Hildegard von Bingen left humanity a treasury in her written works on many various topics. Instead of repeating what can already be found about von Bingen through any search engine or library, I thought it interesting to look more toward her teachings found in her book Physica. As a 12th Century Woman, von Bingen combined Mystical Christianity with Natural Folk Remedies, her own personal herbal experience, and Divine Visions. Science is now catching up and verifying what von Bingen had already written:
• She promoted a balanced diet and tooth-brushing with aloe and myrrh, both of which have been found to have antibacterial, decay-preventing properties.
• She was the first to recommend bilberries for respiratory complaints.
• She prescribed burdock to treat cancerous tumors. Centuries after von Bingen prescribed burdock, the herb’s reputation as a tumor treatment spread to Russia, China, India and the Americas. Burdock was used as ingredient in alternative cancer treatments until the late 1950s.
• She recommended valerian as a tranquilizer and to aid in sleep
• She prescribed celery seed to treat gout. Gout is formed by a buildup of crystal-forming uric acids; celery was found to reduce uric acid levels and to have anti-inflammatory qualities.
• She prescribed horehound for coughs. Centuries later Russian and German studies proved that horehound contains a compound called marrubiin, which is an expectorant. It was used in over-the-counter cough remedies in North America until 1989.
• She prescribed licorice for stomach and heart problems. Contemporary herbalists still prescribe licorice to treat indigestion.
Having lived in the 12th Century, Hildegard von Bingen escaped the Burning Times. If she had lived after the 1300s, she most likely would have been put to death for being a Witch. After 1300, the image of the herbalist changed from helpful wise woman to evil witch. Popular medieval, theological and social tradition was dominated by beliefs that held women responsible for sin. Also, it was generally the women who took responsibility for their families’ healthcare, and many were highly skilled in effective, natural remedies. These wise women served as nurses, midwives, herbalists, and counselors to the women, children, and poverty-stricken of their communities. They made home visits and traveled from village to village, sharing their expertise with neighbors and succeeding generations. Healing arts were thought to be influenced by magic and astrology, and working with herbs and potions often fell under official suspicion in times of plague and disorder. Another factor was that these authorities realized that the women posed a threat to the budding medical profession and to some Christian beliefs, as they gained economic power. At this time physicians received university training under the control of the church, and only males were admitted to study. Their training included the rite of exorcism, the use of holy water, and blessings. Many wise women’s remedies were more effective. This was proof enough, for most authorities, that the women consorted with the devil. Some scholars conclude that women who lived alone, were old, ugly, vocal, or who owned property independently, were especially vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. An herbalist in a monastery usually passed muster as a Christian, but a wise woman in a village who drew customers away from the monastery might be condemned as a “witch,” in league with the devil, and strangled or burned by church and state authorities looking for a scapegoat. After the Burning Times, herbalists like von Bingen were nearly forgotten. Herbalists were replaced by the “witches” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who threw poisonous herbs into their bubbling cauldron. The Burning Times failed to eradicate herbalism; they only succeeded in driving it underground.
In Physica, Hildegard von Bingen expounded in nine areas of healing: Plants, Elements, Trees, Stones, Fish, Birds, Animals, Reptiles, and Metals. She spoke of both the medicinal and the magickal properties of these items. Many descriptions read like something one would find in a witch’s book of spells. The follwing are excerpts from Physica:
Lady’s-thistle has a coolness in it and is very useful. Anyone who has a stitch in his heart, or pain in any other part of his body, should take lady’s-thistle and a little less sage, and reduce them to a juice in a little water. When he is tormented by the stitch, he should immediately drink this, and he will be better.
A woman who suffers inordinately with great menstruation at the wrong time should place betony in wine, so that its flavor passes into the wine. She should drink it often, and she will be cured.
A person who is unwillingly forgetful should pound stinging nettle to a juice, and add a bit of olive oil. When he goes to bed, he should thoroughly anoint his chest and temples with it. If he does this often, forgetfulness will diminish.
The person should take mugwort and express the juice. To the juice he should add a smaller amount of honey. He should spread this on the afflicted area, then cover it with egg white, and tie it with a cloth. He should do this until he is better.
The air situated near the moon and stars wets the heavenly bodies, just as terrestrial air enlivens and sets in motion the earth.
Water is from a living source. One who wishes to have hard, healthy teeth should take pure, cold water into his mouth in the morning, when he gets out of bed. He should hold it for a little while in his mouth so that the mucus around his teeth becomes soft, and so this water might wash his teeth.
If someone is overwhelmed by numbness, another person should take a bit of the earth from the right and left side of the bed where the sick person’s head is, and in the same way take earth from near the person’s right and left foot. While he is digging it he should say, “You, earth, are sleeping in the person _____.” And he should place the earth which had been taken from both sides of the patient’s head under his head, until it grows warm there. In a similar manner, he should place the other earth under his feet, so that it might receive heat from them. When the earth is placed under his head and feet, this should be said, “You, earth, grow and be useful in this person _____, so that he may receive your vital greenness, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who is the all-powerful, living God.” This should be done for three days.
When in springtime the first shoots of the apple tree burst forth, tear off one little branch without cutting it with iron, and draw a strap of deer hide back and forth over the break in the tree and the branch, so that it becomes damp with sap. When you sense that there is no more moisture, then hack, with very tiny blows, this broken spot with a small knife, so that more of the moisture flows out. By drawing the deer hide strap over the same place and on the same branch, drench it with as much sap as you can. Then put it in a damp place, so that it may absorb even more sap. Anyone who has pain in his kidneys or has trouble urinating should gird himself with this strap, over his naked flesh, so that the sap which it drew in from the apple tree might pass into his flesh, and he will be better.
When the cedar is green and has sap, a splenetic person should pound some of the branches and wood of this tree, breaking it down into a powder. With cooked honey, he should make an electuary from it. He should eat it in moderation with a meal, and his spleen with recover its health.
A person who desires to have good understanding and knowledge should place a sapphire in his mouth every morning, upon getting out of bed and while fasting. He should hold it in his mouth long enough for it to absorb the saliva which moistens it. He should take it from his mouth, then warm a bit of wine in a metallic vessel over the fire. He should hold the stone in the vapor of that wine so that, by sweating, it becomes damp. Then he should lick off some of that moisture and the saliva, which had heated the stone, and swallow it, and he will have pure understanding and knowledge.
For a person possessed by the devil, pour water over chrysoprase, and say, “O water, I pour you over this stone in that power by which God made the sun as well as the hastening moon.” Give that water as a drink to the one possessed, in whatever way you are able, since he will be unwilling to drink it. For the whole day the devil will be tortured within him, will become weaker, and will not be able to manifest his powers in him, as he had done before. Do this for five days. On the fifth day prepare a bit of bread, with the same water poured over it, and give it to him to eat in whatever way you can. If the demon is not fierce, he will depart from that person.
If a person carries an agate with him, he should place it next to his bare skin, this warming it. Its nature will make this person capable, judicious, and prudent in speech, because it is born from fire and air and water.
If blood flows from someone’s nose, one should heat wine, place carnelian in it, and give it to him to drink. The blood will cease to flow.