Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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Feminist doctor of the Middle Ages

Hildegard von Bingen was ahead of her time — and ours too

Twelfth century German mystic, composer, theologian and natural scientist, Hildegard von Bingen was, by some accounts, also the first female physician to practice in Europe. She is credited with authoring volumes of detailed treatments for various illnesses, drawn from a vast body of knowledge about herbalism and disease. How did she pull this off eight centuries before modern feminists began to use her as an argument that women should be admitted to medical school? To the modern eye, her spiritual purity seems to have been matched by a keenly strategic approach to the male-dominated universe she inhabited.

A recipient of visions of God’s eternal light throughout her often bed-ridden childhood, Hildegard kept her mouth shut about her dialogue with the Divine until she was 42, likely aware of the dangers that might befall her if she were to be disbelieved. Given by her wealthy parents as a gift to the church at age eight, she was placed in the care of a nun named Jutta who ran a Benedictine monastery which focused on the virtues of prayer and silent meditation. Then, a few years after Jutta’s death, Hildegard received divine instructions that it was time to break the silence about her secret affair with the holy spirit and, “Write down that which you see and hear.”

What followed was years of radical words and deeds that no other woman dared broach until many centuries later. She wrote about the anatomical details of the female orgasm. She claimed that men and women were of equal and inseparable importance to each other, and that Eve was not to be blamed for succumbing to the Serpent’s guile. She shook her finger at the corruption of the church and went on preaching tours even though it was illegal for women to do so. A hundred years before the church admitted that housing nuns and monks together might not serve the best interests of the vulnerable nuns who couldn’t hide the effects of unwilling trysts, von Bingen insisted on moving her nuns to their own monastery in Ruperstberg, Her excuse for all this misbehavin’? The “Voice of the Living Light” made her do it.

Once she ‘came out’ as an instrument of God’s visions — a delicate and lengthy process that involved the approval of Pope Eugenius — she gained a widespread following of devotees and much more heft when it came to getting her (ahem, God’s) way. But just to make sure no one got the wrong idea about her rise to eminence, she often repeated what a feeble, unlearned woman she was “completely incapable of Biblical exegesis,” and referred to herself as a member of the “weaker sex" -- wise woman that she was.

Technically speaking, she was, in fact, unlearned — she never learned to write though she probably could read. This wasn’t much of an impediment, however, as with the help of scribe-monks, she produced three volumes of visionary theology, dozens of musical compositions for use in liturgy, the musical morality play Ordo Virtutum, which is credited by some as the first opera ever written, two volumes of material on natural medicine and cures, and nearly 400 letters addressed to popes, emperors, abbots and abbesses which make up one of the largest surviving body of letters from the Middle Ages.

In 2012, after 833 years of fence-siting, the Roman Catholic Church finally saw fit to name her a Doctor of the Church, making her one of only four women to receive the honor, ever. Pope Benedict XVI called Hildegarde “perennially relevant,” and it is this relevance that continues, remarkably, to keep her diverse and wide-ranging ideas popular to this day — particularly her ideas about healing.

The monastery’s herb garden and infirmary were the basis of Hildegard's medicinal writings, which she did not ascribe to divine dictation. She had a wealth of practical skills in diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, and is thought to have gained much of her medicinal knowledge from the monastery’s extensive medical library. Her first medical text, Physica, describes the medicinal properties of a variety of plants, stones, animals, fish and reptiles, while the second volume, Causae et Curae, explores the human body and how its various conditions can be healed through empathy with the natural world.

An impassioned belief in the connections between humans and all life sets the works of Hildegard apart from the usual medieval compendium of odd-sounding herbs and animal parts. She writes, “Everything that is in the heavens, on earth and under the earth is penetrated with relatedness.” Then, sounding positively 21st century, she declares: “The earth which sustains humanity must not be injured. It must not be destroyed!”

Statements like these have made her something somewhat of a darling of the New Age movement, the field of naturopathy in particular. Sadly, though, many things done in her name have been accompanied by overpriced products for under-proven treatments.

There are aspects of Medieval medicine that just don’t translate to the modern age — injunctions to avoid so-called poisonous foods like strawberries and plums while embracing a diet of spelt, chestnuts and fennel seed tea, not to mention the fondness for bloodletting. But there is one focus in Hildegard’s writing that is taken increasingly seriously today: the idea that emotional trauma may be the root of chronic illness.

Working within the medieval four-humors system — blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm — Hildegard categorizes emotional disturbance as melanche, or black bile. Rather than regarding the body as a broken machine and asking the question — “What’s wrong and how do I fix it?” — Hildegard likens the body to a plant, filled with an electric life force she calls “veriditas” or “the greening,” and asks, “What’s in the way of veriditas, and what can I do to strengthen it?

Dr Victoria Sweet, a California physician and scholar who has been inspired by the works of Hildegard, has written several books on the subject. She sees this acknowledgement of the psychological history of one’s patients as an intriguing component of Hildegard ’s viewpoint, drawing an analogy of a doctor as a gardener instead of a mechanic.

‘Slow Medicine’ is the term Dr Sweet has coined for this approach, which she says is a much-needed companion for the ‘Fast Medicine’ that is the focus of medicine today. Fast Medicine, she says, is essential for responding to emergencies, such as heart attacks and road accidents. Chronic illnesses, however, may respond better to a more drawn-out treatment where doctors take the time to make personal connections with patients and ‘tend’ to them as though they were plants. She calls this the "efficiency of Inefficiency," pointing to studies which show that spending extra time with patients saves significant costs in the long run and often leads to improved outcomes.

Hildegard von Bingen was so far ahead of her time that the current catalog of her influences continues to grow. Think of her next time you read about the benefits of chlorophyll, the healing power of music, the urgent need for a healthy planet, or cancer treatment centers with herb gardens. While some proponents of retrospective medicine claim that her visions were merely the product of severe hallucinatory migraines, she seems to have gleaned crucial and unlikely wisdom from her monastic existence, be that wisdom divinely inspired or just plain genius.

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