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Paperback review: Hildegard of Bingen, By Fiona Maddocks

Every woman needs some turbot liver

Before I read this book, I knew Hildegard of Bingen mainly as a composer – and she is indeed credited with writing nearly 80 songs – and anyone who has not heard her haunting plainsong chants should find the time to do so. But Fiona Maddocks argues that this isn’t her only, or even her main, claim to fame.

In fact, she wasn’t even a composer in the modern sense of the word – they didn’t exist in the 12th century. How much music was written by her, and how much delegated to the monks and nuns who sang it, is impossible to ascertain – she may simply have overseen the music, as Walt Disney oversaw his animations without doing much drawing himself.

But Hildegard was also a poet and visionary, whose illuminated work Scivias is a series of 26 visions of the creation of the world, man’s redemption from evil, and ultimate salvation; she also wrote treatises on medicine and natural history, which contain some rather weird claims (rubbing turbot liver on your eyes will cure clouded sight) but also recognise the properties of many herbs such as calendula, camomile and aloe. Most remarkable of all is the way Hildegard succeeded in founding her own abbey, and in becoming a leading Christian intellectual, corresponding with popes and scholars all over Europe, in an age when women had very few opportunities for public achievement. This readable, scholarly book is subtitled “The Woman of her Age” – but in some ways it’s also a book about a woman who transcended her age.