Saint Hildegard: from medieval cult to New Age cool

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THE young people with perforated nostrils who are drawn up the steep hills by Hildegard's scent seem disappointed.

Apart from the sacred bones of the 12th century mystic, composer, healer and - latterly - pop star, Bingen has little to offer in the line of shrines. The nuns on Rochusberg run a small centre on the summit for quiet contemplation, where visitors can attend seminars and partake of a healthy meal, prepared in accordance with Hildegard's views on nutrition. The records, herbs and paraphernalia of the global Hildegard industry, you must seek elsewhere.

New Age people are rocking to Hildegard's chants, healing themselves with the natural products she prescribed almost a millennium ago, and consuming ratatouille and rice in her memory. Hundreds of books have been written about her in the last few years, a feature film is being made, and pilgrimages planned to the town by the Rhine where she spent the 27 most fruitful years of her life.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Bingen is oblivious. Many schools, hospitals and 10 churches in the region bear the name of St Hildegard, even though the medieval abbess was never canonised. But, perhaps fearing an invasion of New Age travellers, it has not gone out of its way to encourage a local cult, and milk it in the way Salzburg has done with Mozart.

This year, however, marks the 900th anniversary of Hildegard's birth, and there are stirrings of local pride in Bingen chests. The town is planning dignified celebrations with a series of concerts, and, at last, there will be a museum.

A disused power plant is being hurriedly converted. Hopefully, it will be ready before the end of this auspicious year. However, the most important question preoccupying the people of Bingen is whether the real Hildegard can be saved from commercialism. "I don't think the message she wanted to bring to people can be conveyed any more," laments Josef Krasenbrink, a Hildegard scholar and president of the Hildegard von Bingen Society. From his monastery atop the hill, Father Krasenbrink surveys the goings-on in the world below with foreboding.

Hildegard's spirituality, he says, has been hijacked. "The alternative medicine people have discovered Hildegard, and want to make money out of her." Bookstore shelves are groaning with Hildegard cookery books, even though the abbess left no recipes behind.

And however modern the contemporary world wants Hildegard to be, Father Krasenbrink says feminists today would shudder at their icon's reactionary opinions.

"She propagated the equal role of man and woman in sexuality; that is right," he concedes. And Hildegard is credited with the first written description of the female orgasm in the Western world.

But, Father Krasenbrink says, "in certain questions she was very conservative. She made a clear class distinction; allowed only noblewomen like herself into her cloister. I think it's very questionable that she can be described as a feminist in contemporary terms."

That would be, in any case, too much to expect of someone who died in 1179, but that is the pedestal upon which Hildegard has been placed by the marketing men.