Jane Austen hated the slave trade and dropped large hints in her novels to that effect. Emma is probably her second most famous novel, and in it she introduces the awful Mrs Elton whose voluble ignorance, insensitivity and vanity make her one of Austen’s best comic creations. Emma Wodehouse’ disdain for her has usually been interpreted as being driven significantly by snobbery. The ex Miss Hawkins from Maple Grove having a family fortune of new money amassed from ‘Trade’. More recently the penny has dropped that this Trade was the slave trade.
Some people get very anxious when they think history is being re-written, but usually it is more accurate to say history is being re-discovered and restored.
Which brings me to St Hildegard of Bingen, who was born in 1098 and died in 1179, and who is remembered in the Church of England next Thursday. Who if old fashioned notions of history were always accurate would have no right to exist.
Because if you remember history lessons in school you will recall that the past was conventionally divided into periods beginning with the Classical world of Greece and Rome, followed by the Middle Ages, with a long sub section called the Dark Ages at the beginning, until the Modern World hoved into view at the end of the C15th, sometime around the death of Richard the Third.
Those scholars who came up with those terms ‘dark’ and ‘ middle’ for a thousand year long stretch of time were making a critical judgement.
They saw civilization as being on pause between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.
The so called revision of history is just that; a fresh look.
Hildegard is now seen as a remarkable Christian woman.
Here are just a few of her contributions to her own time and posterity.
She is best known for her musical compositions, created to accompany her own literary works, which have come to the attention of the musical world over the last 40 years- our friend June Boyce Tillman being one of her great advocates. They have since been recorded by hundreds of artists who have seen them as perfect and original examples of medieval religious music.
Her writings have rightly been called mystical visions. She read the bible and other religious writings in a way that involved her mind, body, memory and emotions. Much of their beauty from our modern viewpoint resides in the strangeness of this, who are more used to our religious reflections being straightforward and explanatory.
She put it this way herself.
I am not taught in this vision to write as the philosophers write, and the words in this vision are not like those which sound from the mouth of man, but like a trembling flame, or like a cloud stirred in the clear air.
Another reason that she has gained attention is because she has shed light on the role of women in an age when they were frequently silenced.
She was unknown and in her late forties , being abbess of a tiny convent attached to a monastery, when she wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the great and universally known figures in the mediaeval European church. She approached him humbly about her visions and religious writings, seeking advice as to whether she should even be producing them.
Just a few years later her wisdom was being sought by Popes and kings. In old age Hildegard was known for her preaching tours across the Rhineland. She was known and respected across the whole continent. Scholars, inspired by her achievements have begun to notice that she was far from alone and that other holy women of great influence who had been overlooked by previous generations of scholars.
And finally some of her ideas have resonated with contemporary concerns about our disconnect from nature and creation. She was orthodox in her theology but because she was free and daring in her thought and imagination she found words to express truths which we, as Christians and humans, constantly need to rediscover.
She wrote of love as a life sustaining force, indwelling in everything.
In one of her visions Love speaks.
‘I am the fiery life of divine substance, I blaze above the beauty of the fields, I shine in the waters, I burn in sun moon and, stars.’
But it is important to remember that Hildegard was in many ways not exceptional for her time. Most of her ideas were commonplace and expressive of the way that Christians thought and lived then. She wasn’t a person with a modern take on things trapped in a benighted past, but an original and gifted woman who absorbed and re-shaped what was around her.
And she helps to remind us that the so called Middle Ages were not an in-between time but a time when ground-breaking and inspirational religious expressions occurred.
It is a whole other story, but it was the time of great achievements, such as the building of majestic cathedrals and the poetry of Dante, to stand alongside such movements as the crusades, with their trouble legacy. And for which St Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard’s illustrious correspondent, was a prominent advocate.