Primary Source Breakthrough! – Hildegard’s Letter to the Prelates of Mainz

Recently, I’ve been roaming through Hildegard’s letters in search of references to music, singing, rhythm, and the like.

Today, I hit the jackpot.

In 1178, Hildegard refused to exhume the body of a man who supposedly died an excommunicate.  The clergy of Mainz responded to this by placing an interdict on her Rupertsberg convent, preventing them from celebrating the Mass or singing at all.  This letter was sent to challenge that interdict, expanding upon the importance of communion in monastic life, preaching the extraordinary power of music, and generally stating that Mainz was withholding things it did not have the authority to withhold.

I won’t give you the whole letter, so you’ll have to trust that I’m not taking these passages out of context.  Most of them are consecutive, starting from about half-way through the letter.  The only major break occurs between the 3rd and 4th passages, in between which there is a paragraph about interference with the convent.

DISCLAIMER:  This is my English translation of a German translation of Hildegard’s original Latin.  I’ve done my best to make it readable, but there are some spots of awkward syntax.  Mistranslation is entirely possible.  Consider yourself warned.

The same spirit that had received them [the prophets] taught not only psalms and songs to sing, to inflame the devotion of the hearers, but also various musical instruments for sound-full [klangvollen] accompaniment. This happened with the intention that the hearer – both through the shape and nature of these instruments as well as through the meaning of the words presented with them – as already said, would be outwardly encouraged and stimulated about the subject they were taught.

This passage shows that Hildegard not only supports the use of instruments as accompaniment (!), but considers those instruments to be of the same divine inspiration as the music played upon them.  The ‘shape and nature’ of these instruments commonly served as a didactic metaphor in medieval times – Barbara Newman’s introduction to the Symphonia paraphrases Augustine’s explanation quite well: “the tambourine stands for asceticism, because the skin stretched over the wood must be taut and dry, like the body purified by fasting and continence.  The organ represents the community of saints united in charity… the trumpet recalls the voice of the prophets, and among stringed instruments, psaltery and lyre symbolize heaven and earth, because one is plucked from above and the other from below.”  Hildegard suggests here that the combination of visual and textual symbolism is a valuable one, and perhaps that the selection of accompaniment instruments should match the text.

In the imitation of those holy prophets, learned, wise, and skillful men invented several musical instruments themselves and could sing to their heart’s content.  They made the melody on the finger-joints of the hand, which bend like a bow, remembering that Adam received the Holy Spirit through God’s finger.  His [Adam’s] voice had a sweet sound before his error, full of harmony in all musical art.  If he had remained in his original condition, the weakness of his mortal body would not have been able to endure the power and sonority of his voice.

The Guidonian Hand

First of all, the picture you see here is the Guidonian Hand, a medieval mnemonic device for learning to read music.  Guido of Arezzo, responsible for recording this handy (heheh) tool, died approximately 30 years before Hildegard’s birth.  It seems that the Hand probably existed before his time, but good ol’ Guido is the first person is the first person to jot it down in a music theory treatise, and so it’s named after him.  It’s widely accepted that Hildegard would have been familiar with the Hand, and though I haven’t seen the material to prove it, I think it’s very likely – especially given her description in this letter.

I’d also like to bring attention to how incredibly powerful Hildegard says Adam’s pre-Fall voice was.  So powerful that his body wouldn’t be able to handle it.  I’m not sure if this means he would instantly combust or that over time he would disintegrate.  Either way, it shows both Hildegard’s belief in the sheer power of the voice and her belief that the voice is more than its physical production, i.e. the larynx.

But when his seducer, the Devil, heard that Man had begun to sing out of holy inspiration and through this was bypassing him and cultivating the lovely songs of the heavenly fatherland, he knew that his devious tricks wouldn’t work.  This terrified him – he was not just a little disquieted.  Since then, he has constantly concocted many inventions of his wickedness, not only into the hearts of men through evil flustering, impure thoughts, or distractions, but also into the mouth of the Church through quarreling, nuisances, unjust oppression, the banning of the beautiful, melodious praise of God and the spiritual chants, and incessant interference.  

Remember, Hildegard is writing this letter to protest the interdict banning her convent from celebrating the Mass and from singing.  In the second half of this passage, she’s basically telling Mainz that they’ve fallen prey to the Devil’s tricks – an incredibly courageous move.  Returning to the first half, she also asserts that the act of singing brings Man closer to the original paradise, and in doing so, terrifies the Devil.  He was not just a little disquieted, he was seriously scared.  Hildegard here places song as the antithesis of wickedness, a sort of champion against devilish works.

Consider how the body of Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the untouched Virgin Mary.  So also is chant rooted in the church by the Holy Spirit as an echo of the heavenly harmony.  The body is the garment of the soul, which owns a loud voice – God comes through the body, the voice and the soul together, in singing.  Hence the prophetic spirit also knows to praise God with clanging and jubilant cymbals and the remaining musical instruments which the wise and learned have invented.  

Hildegard just linked singing to the birth of Christ, the bringer of salvation, both divine and human.

(takes deep breath)

That’s huge.  Really huge.  Cosmologically huge.  In doing so, she also links the act of singing to the perpetual act of creation.  The singer is the body which the spirit enlivens, and the resulting song – the song that’s both voice and soul – is an expression of divinity, possibly even divinity itself.  This parallel runs not only on the personal scale, but also on the larger community scale, with the church functioning essentially as one united body through which the song can be born.

(I don’t entirely follow her leap from singing to clanging cymbals, but I took this last sentence to reinforce the previous passage about the use of instruments.)

A person listening to a song often takes a deep breath and sighs because it reminds him of the original heavenly harmony.  The prophet therefore carefully ponders the nature and knowledge of the spirit, that the soul is full of harmony [symphonialis est anima], and encourages us to praise the Lord in psalm with zither and ten-stringed harp.  He [unsure whether this is the prophet or the Lord] likes the deep-sounding zither, akin to the body, with the bright-sounding harp, akin to the spirit, and with the ten-stringed harp points out the fruition of the Laws.  

The beginning of this passage suggests that we like music because of something innate within us, something that corresponds to something beyond ourselves.  I really want to read this in the original Latin because I get the sense that the German translation I’m working with is missing some of the subtleties and plays-on-words…. and it’s certainly missing the connections to her (Latin) song texts.  Nonetheless, her statement here that ‘the soul is full of harmony’ applies not only in musical terms, but to her philosophy on a larger scale.  I think this concept deserves a full post of its own, so I won’t go further into it here.

In the latter half of this passage, Hildegard returns to the instrumental metaphors.  I suspect that the Latin text indicates ‘lyre’ in place of this German translation’s bright-sounding ‘harp’, mostly because it would complete the heaven-and-earth metaphor more gracefully, but also because the harp, whose strings are plucked from either side (not above or below) would then function as an intercessor of sorts.  I think that the ‘ten-stringed’-ness of the harp is meant to correspond with the Ten Commandments, which would make this interpretation more plausible.


Thank you, Nora Beck, for getting me addicted to primary source material.  

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Mid-week Matins Musing: Medieval Musicology


“Historical artifacts are not entirely severed from the present, nor do they clearly underwrite it; the pleasure of history lies in both the resonance and the clashes.”  (Peraino 217)

“In order to make it [historical music] our own, we may have to reconstruct its history in full depth, for example by exploiting the meta-poetry of all those extant documents and messages that illustrate or transmit music in its cultural contexts.”  (Strohm 719)

“All history that relies on written sources alone is incomplete and of necessity misleading.”  (Sachs 49)


Research, research, and more research.  These three quotes illustrate the approach I’ve been taking so far, trying to contextualize Hildegard’s music not only within her extant work, but within her religion, life, and 12th century German world.  I’ve also been trying to contextualize my own research strategies into the broader realm of musicology – and have found that the musicology world is pretty conflicted when it comes to medieval scholarship.  On one end of the spectrum is the die-hard “primary musical sources only!” camp, on the other end is the “sociology and anthropology have feelings too!” commune.  There are many villages and solitary wanderers in between these two extremes, including the militant agnostic “we can’t really know anything!” guerrillas and the “I play it because it sounds cool!” neo-troubadours, whose musical eclecticism often matches their odd pairing of 16th century bodices with sheer, iridescent fabrics, tricorns, and ‘woad’ face paint.

I can’t say I side with any of these factions.

I think that music speaks for itself.  I also think that having a holistic picture to place that music within is important, especially when it comes to ancient and medieval music.  We simply don’t have the abundance of musical sources and information about performance that’s available to scholars of later periods, and we can use all the insight we can find.  It’s not that medieval music doesn’t speak for itself, it’s that the lack of primary sources is easily filled in by our own 21st century imaginations, creating a dangerous possibility for the music to essentially become a puppet with which we manufacture our own Middle Ages.

I don’t want to build my own St. Hildegard.

She is too incredible a human being for me to misrepresent.  There’s been an unfortunate trend, specifically within the New Age movement, to use her works out of context.  Quite often her religious faith is taken out of the picture altogether because it supposedly makes her medical treatises on healing with plants and stones less appealing to today’s would-be naturopaths.  Her chants are recorded in a wide variety of wishy-washy ‘transcendent’ forms, often with some sort of synthesized abomination adding to the mood.  I find this injust and disrespectful.  She was a nun and an abbess, most of her writings are deeply religious, and her music was liturgy for singing.  She helped reform her Church in a time where it was straying from its own convictions.

Religion, faith, and spirituality were central and powerfully positive in her life.  Recognizing that doesn’t devalue her work, nor does it make it irrelevant, somehow unsavory, or impossible for non-Christians to be deeply moved by.

Amidst all this talk of scholarship and authenticity, it is easy to ignore the personal altogether.  I am not trying to claim that the musicologist should be distant and disconnected from their subject – to do so would take away the passion that makes long, often tedious hours of reading and searching for references that may or may not exist bearable, enjoyable, even exciting.  I am here because I am passionate about my subject.  I identify with her in many ways.  Though I may not share her religion, I connect with her music, poetry, and the centrality of her spirituality to her words, actions, and worldview.

However, this personal connection is in addition to my scholarly work, not in place of it.

In the end, performance practice is essentially a personal choice.  I find it hard to believe that medieval performance practices were so homogeneous that there is a definitive ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to make this music – but there are certainly some ways that are more historically informed than others, and some which really shouldn’t be called ‘medieval’ at all.  I think it’s the musicologist’s role to draw from all the sources available to synthesize a picture as close to authenticity as possible – and the performer’s responsibility to use that picture to help the music speak through them.  My chant interpretations will be unique to me, but they will grow out of the stones of Rupertsberg.

And yes, I also study/perform medieval music because it sounds cool.  🙂


Extra bonus points for anyone who can guess where the ‘self-portrait’ image is from.

If it interests you, here is my bibliography up to this point.

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An Anthropologist’s Field Guide to Catholic Liturgy – Part 2, the Divine Office and the Liturgical Year

The Divine Office

As you may remember from Part 1, the Mass is essentially a ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection in a (very) condensed period of time.  The Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, and the Liturgical Year also do this, but on slightly larger scales.  The Divine Office aligns this central story with the movement of the sun in one day, the Liturgical Year extends it over the course of (surprise…) a whole year, combined with other significant events such as Christmas and saints’ feast days.  These two cycles are interconnected; though the format of the Divine Office is stable, the content varies depending on the specific day of the Liturgical Year.

First, the Divine Office.

(note: times are approximate and vary between locations and traditions, i.e. Benedictine, Cisternian, Franciscan, etc.)

Night/Midnight/Pre-dawn – Matins

  • Also known as Vigils, Matins developed out of the night services of early Christianity.

6:00 am – Lauds / Morning

  • This Hour, which draws its name from its finishing psalms (148-150, the Laudate psalms), happens just after dawn.  Its timing with the sunrise corresponds with the Resurrection and brings to mind many divine light metaphors.

9:00 am – Terce

  • The first of the daytime hours, Terce is so named because it is the third hour after dawn.  Medieval liturgists connect this Hour with the time of Christ’s condemnation to death.

12:00 noon – Sext

  • The sixth hour after dawn, Sext is highly significant as the midpoint in the day and when the sun is at its highest.  In addition to an abundance of solar-powered metaphors, this Hour is connected to quite a variety of stories and imagery – most notably the time when Adam and Eve ate that forbidden apple and the time at which Jesus was nailed to the cross.

3:00 pm – None

  • The ninth hour after dawn and the third and last of the daytime hours, None corresponds with the death of Christ.  Various medieval liturgists wrote that it was the time at which the soul was most vulnerable to temptation, demons, and such.

6:00 pm – Vespers / Evening

  • Also known as Lucernalis or Lucernaria hora, early and medieval Vespers services included the lighting of many candles – which this anthropologist connects with the preservation of (divine) light as the sun sets.  The Anglican tradition of Evensong parallels this Hour.

9:00 pm – Compline / Night

  • This last Hour draws parallels between sleep, death, and night-time.  It always ends with a devotional to Mary.
Lauds, Vespers, and Compline, considered to be the Major Hours, follow this format:

Convenient chart from an extremely helpful leaflet.

Terce, Sext, and None, the Minor Hours, are far less elaborate, consisting only of an opening versicle, a hymn, three short psalms, a scripture/responsory, and a concluding prayer/verse.


This wonderful circular calendar sums up the Liturgical Year, and I’m not sure I need to expand more upon it here.  The little numbers on the middle ring correspond to Sundays.  If you’d like a more detailed theological explanation, click here.

The Liturgical Year

If you are so inclined, this website has all the different prayers/readings/hymns for every day of the Liturgical Year, complete with podcasts.

And yes, there’s even an app for it.

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Musicologist Goes on Safari, Ends Up in Ancient Rome

It’s a dangerous business, going out your front door…

Today was Römertag, or Roman Day in the Rhein Valley.  Essentially, a number of towns and parks got together and decided it would be a brilliant idea to have a day where they all put on events dedicated to the region’s Roman history.  They were right.  Bingen’s contributions were free admission to the Museum am Strom, lots of children’s activities, and a reconstructed villa in the Binger Wald (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to make it to).  Upon opening the predictably red-and-black leaflet describing all the exciting events I could attend, it didn’t take me long to figure out where I needed to go.

Konzert des Ensembles ‘Cornu et Hydraulis’; Musik mit Instrumenten aus römischer Zeit…”

And off I went to Heidesheim, about 17 kilometres eastward.

Despite the chapel location not being on any map anywhere in Heidesheim itself, I eventually made it to St. Georgskapelle thanks to some friendly locals.  At first I wondered why a small outbuilding in the middle of an apple orchard seemed to be the best place for a concert, but then I learned it was built in the year 40 AD by a family of Romanized Celts [romanisierte Keltenfamilie] as part of a small villa.  Yes, 40 AD as in the year Caligula supposedly appointed his horse as a senator.  The 40 AD that happened almost two millennia ago.  Whoa.  During the Migration Period, the Franks came in and transformed this particular hall into a chapel, and it’s been incredibly well-preserved since then – apart from an unfortunate encounter with the 30 Years War and general neglect until 1980.  I say ‘incredibly well-preserved’ because large chunks of the original Roman (Romanized Celtic?) frescoes remain visible on the inside walls, and though they may not be pristine, they are unmistakable.

In other words, of course it was the perfect place to perform Roman music.

First up came the Hydraulis, or water organ.  These things are a pretty outstanding invention.  They use raising water levels to push air through the organ pipes.  Here’s a nifty diagram:

Hydraulis - Water Organ - Wasserorgel

It takes three people to play; two handle the pumps on either side while the third plays the keyboard.  Additionally, there are a set of levers to one side (not shown in this diagram) that adjust the timbre of the pipes and also which set of pipes is being played.  The model these heroic musicologists were performing on had two sets that were a half-step apart, allowing them to modulate (!) between two sets of tetrachords.  (That’s really exciting.)

The Hydraulis in action!

Next up, the Cornu.  As the name suggests, it’s a horn.  This horn has a number of notable features; first and perhaps most noticeably, it has a large vertical beam and a crossbar for holding/marching with the instrument.  This suggests that, unlike the hydraulis, its function was military.  Mosaics, frescoes, and other depictions of the time frequently show armies with cornu players.  Second, its shape (long, thin, very slightly conical) allows the player to manipulate the overtone sequence so that scalar passages (not just bugle-call-like arpeggios) can be played by adjusting the embouchure for each note.  This is very similar to natural horn technique, still used today.  It appeared to have a cup-shaped mouthpiece, but I’m not completely sure.

This is a replica of a cornu found in Pompeii.

Perhaps the most instantly recognizable of the ancient instruments is the Cithara, or lyre.  Due to  its soft sound, it was most likely used to accompany singing.  In this picture, the cornu is playing a sustained drone note – notice how his hand is over the bell, muting the sound.

A hymn to Helios

Next came some more brass instruments, two Tubae.  These aren’t tubas in the modern oom-pah sense, they are literally ‘tubes’.  One is bronze, the other came from a very large bovine.

Tuba #1

Tuba #2

Cornu and tuba play some fanfares!

Next, the Aulos.  I love the aulos.  (A lot.)  It consists of two double-reeded pipes usually of the same length that the player plays simultaneously.  One pipe has finger-holes on the bottom half, the other on the top-half, allowing a whole scale to be played between the two but also allowing the possibility for a drone or harmonization.  For some reason I’d always imagined the tone to be quite strident – like two mediocre oboists with hard reeds – but it’s actually very warm and round, somewhat like an extra-reedy clarinet.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to look at the reeds up close, but from a distance they appeared to be rather squat and wide.

Aulos are thought to have been used mainly for dance and ceremonial music.

After about an hour and a half of Roman musical bliss, the concert ended and I lingered to talk to the musicians.  We ended up having a fairly lengthy discussion about musical notation (in German, I’m pretty proud of myself), specifically how rhythm was recorded.  With songs/hymns/vocal music, it wasn’t.  Rhythm was based entirely on the rhythm of the text, which the performer was expected to have an innate sense of.  Instrumental music, on the other hand, did notate rhythm – just not in the same structured way we do today.  The last note in each small rhythmic chunk had a dot over it, while the end of a rhythmic phrase (made up of multiple chunks) had a line over it – indicating it was to be lengthened.  Here’s the example of notation they showed during their presentation:

Roman musical notation. Only a handful of samples survive

Which would come out to something like:

[DA da DA da DA da da daaa / DA da da da DA da da daaa / DA da DA da DA da da daa / DA da da da da DA da daa]

 We may not be able to know each note’s exact duration, but at least we know where the accents and stress patterns fall.

Another thing we talked about is the importance of multi-disciplinary scholarship when it comes to ancient and early music.  The vast majority of information we have about these times isn’t in musical notation, it’s in contemporary literature and art as well as archaeological findings.  To assemble all these sources into a musical picture requires knowledge of the languages and cultures at hand, and in the case of historic instruments, the craftsmanship to reproduce a working instrument from partial findings and artistic depictions.  Musicianship is also critical, but it needs all of the scholarly support to bring this music to life.

I went home a very happy camper.

Here’s a link to their website!  (It’s in German.)

Things to listen for:  the beginning has both tubae and corni – 0:32 hydraulis and various percussion – 2:27 cornu and hydraulis.

Things to listen for:  multiple notes sounding at once… and how beautiful the aulos is.

Things to listen for: the cithara and percussion, and how they interact with the voice.  This recording uses quite a variety of instruments, some of which may or may not be historically accurate.  Also, it’s Greek…. but still relevant.


This adventure wasn’t directly related to my current project.  This adventure was related to what I want to do in the field of musicology – to research and reconstruct ancient-to-early music, using performance as a means of education and bringing light to otherwise forgotten/lost traditions.  I’d never encountered an ensemble in person before which specialized in pre-Renaissance music, let alone one that dared to venture into the great unknown of Classical Antiquity.  These badasses brilliant individuals are living my musicology dream, and that’s pretty inspiring.

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Spring in Bingen – a pictorial update

Bingen flag waving at Burg Klopp

The Pilgerweg, or Pilgrim's Way - a footpath heading eastward toward Rochuskapelle lined with shrines to major saints.

A Marian shrine on the Pilgerweg

A handy sign along the footpath.

A wonderful old oak tree with very young, recently opened leaves in the woods on the way to Rochuskapelle.

Rochuskapelle, first built in 1417 and subsequently rebuilt and reworked for several centuries. Due to its placement on the bluff of a hill and a wedding party, I couldn't really get a picture that captured it well.

Vineyard on a hillside covered with dandelions.

Looking west towards Bingen and the Rhein.


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Ein kluge spise – A clever food

Wilt du ein kluge spise machen. slahe einen dünnen teic von eyern und von schoenem melwe. mache daz dicke mit schoenem brote und ribe daz. schele sur epfele. scharbe sie grober denne spec uf hüenre. di menge dar zu. nim einen leufel und fülle den teyc und teilez. und brat den in smaltze oder in butern ab ez niht fleischtac ist. und gibz hin.

[This is how you want to make a clever food. Beat a thin dough (or batter) of eggs and of fine meal. Make that thick with fine bread and grate that. Peel sour apples. Cut them larger than fat on hens. Mix them together. Take a spoon and fill the dough (or batter) and divide it. And bake it in fat or in butter if it is not a meat day. And give it out.  (trans. Alia Atlas)]

When I moved in, the previous inhabitants of this apartment left me all sorts of surprises.  Surprises like eggs that had expired in February, a fridge blanketed in mold, and terrifying mysterious bathroom scum, but also surprises like a variety of spices, nearly full bags of flour and sugar, cooking oil, and a bag of half-sprouted onions.  (Fun fact:  spring onions are the sprouted plant bits of normal onions and they’re supposedly high in protein and other nutrients.)  Unfortunately, I don’t have an oven and I haven’t been bold enough to attempt to bake bread in a pot yet, but I have become quite proficient at making a variety of flatbreads thanks to my abundance of flour.

This most excellent recipe is one of 101 found in the mid-14th century German cookbook Daz buoch von guoter spise.  

When it comes to historical authenticity, I am torn in several directions.  One part of me strives to be as accurate as possible based on primary sources of the time and archaeological evidence, but another part of me tempers the aforementioned historicist with practicality – for example, it just isn’t feasible for every orchestra to have historical reproduction instruments from every period of music they perform, let alone be able to play them.  There are ways to get a Baroque sound out of a modern orchestra that don’t involve gut strings and wind players completely relearning how to play their instruments.  My recent adventures in medieval cooking have followed the same trends – a desire for authenticity within the constraints of what I have available.

Medieval cooking for the modern peasant, if you will.

My own ‘clever food’ recipe substituted a mixture of vegetable oil, honey, and water as the binder in place of eggs and dash of nutmeg for taste.  I used the resulting dough to make little flat dumplings filled with chopped apples (I believe that’s what’s meant by “take a spoon and fill the dough”), which I then pan-fried.

Sadly, my camera charger-cable is currently MIA, so you’ll have to trust me that they looked (and were!) delicious.

For even more exciting medieval cookery, here’s the whole translation of daz buoch von guoter spise.  Enjoy!

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SPQR, or Living in the Wake of the Roman Empire

Before I came to the Old World, I knew the Romans were a big deal.  I studied their history, their mythology, even started to learn their language.  I knew that their empire basically engulfed Europe, that their culture commingled with every other culture it touched, and that it was a generally awe-inspiring entity.  I thought the Romans were pretty excellent.  I didn’t, however, have any sort of experiential context to really understand the full extent of the Roman Empire’s influence.

It’s been a bit like going outside for the very first time after reading field guides and natural history books for years.  No matter how detailed a description of an eagle’s wingspan you are given, no matter how accurate the drawing on the page, until you have seen one in person you have very little tangible understanding of the bird’s sheer size and how that relates to you.

London/Londinium was crammed with Roman history – but it was also crammed with everything else imaginable and frequently managed to overshadow itself, losing sight of the details of its own history in the process (exceptions – the British Museum and the Museum of London).  It was in the smaller places that I first started to get a grasp on the monumentality of the Roman Empire – places like Bath/Aquae Sulis, built on the site of a preexisting settlement centered around a hearty mineral spring.  Conveniently enough, the Roman goddess Minerva lined up particularly well with the native Brythonic Sulis (to whom the waters were already dedicated), so the Romans and Britons combined the two into Sulis Minerva and continued to use the mineral spring as a temple and generally holy place.

Hail Brittania.  Tangible history, the kind that links the Celts and the Britons and the Romans firsthand.  All of a sudden, the linked mythologies, the Celtic names for Roman deities and the Roman names for Celtic deities, the bits of writing where Roman authors document druidic practices, everything made sense.  The cultural fusion was there, preserved in stone, behind glass cases, and tied to the present by the waters that still run up from the earth through the original Roman plumbing.

I’d never really thought about Roman influence in Germany.  It must have been somewhere in the back of my mind that Germany is clearly between Rome and Britain and that I’d read plenty of Roman accounts of Germanic tribes, but for whatever reason I’d just never made the connection that the Roman Empire once occupied Germany.  Again, the eagle’s wings.

Bingen was once known as Bingium.  The first fortress on the hill where Burg Klopp now stands was built by the Roman general Drusus in 38 B.C.E.  There are still aqueducts running under the city, the hills are still smattered with Roman gravestones, parts of the road layout haven’t changed since they were built by Roman troops.  A large strip of the original road still remains in a forested bit of a nearby hillside.  Archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of ceramics, medical tools, and other wares from the area.  The town’s main church, the Basilika St. Martin, was built on the site of a temple to either Mercury or Mithras.

Senatus Populusque Romanus – The Senate and People of Rome.  They were everywhere, and they still are.

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Museum am Strom – field day!

The past couple days I’ve been fairly cloistered with reading research, beginning to digest a vast amount of secondary sources, bibliograph them (yes, it can be a verb), and in the process cobble together some thoughts.  I’ve got some great leads and a smattering of as-of-yet unsubstantiated theories… as well as some serious eye and mind strain.

Today, I needed to get out.

Right on the bank of the Rhein, Bingen has a lovely museum dedicated to regional history with a large exhibit on Hildegard.  It’s wonderfully laid out; the exhibit takes you on a timeline of Hildegard’s life and history augmented by all sorts of goodies such as scale models of the monasteries she lived in, bits of the stonework from these places, facsimile texts, replica instruments, and even a case of gemstones/minerals to which she ascribed healing properties – complete with an explanation of each specimen’s significance.

This is a bit of stonework from Disbodenberg.

This is the corner dedicated to Rupertsberg, complete with scale model, stonework, and a facsimile of the original document signing the land over to Hildegard.

This is the first and only contemporary document to reference Hildegard as an abbess.

This is a bit of restored stained glass that was once part of Rochuskapelle, just east of Bingen.

And this is the Hildegarden, containing a large number of the plants she discusses in her medical treatise Physica – complete with nametags (hooray for Latin names, I know those) and signs with her illustrations and writings about the most prominent plants.

Pretty sure that once my primary sources arrive, I will be doing quite a bit of reading here.

This museum also had extensive information about Hildegard’s relics, which probably deserve an entire post of their own.  Upstairs, they had a balcony with large, backlit copies of her visionary illuminations alongside the passages in the Scivias they correspond to.  (Unfortunately the lighting and my camera did not cooperate.)  As if the whole setup wasn’t great enough, her music also permeated the building via hidden speakers.

And then there was a room with Roman artifacts from the area, including an altar to Mithras which was found very close to where I live.


It was extremely difficult to not put an obscene amount of exclamation points at the end of every sentence.  Just in case you couldn’t tell, I’m pretty excited about all of this.


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Heraldry, or Saints and Wheels

One of the coolest things about being in a place with so much history is, well, that it has so much history – and that much of that history is still very present, relevant, and alive in local iconography.  These images are everywhere.

The Bingen Arms

The central figure on horseback is St. Martin of Tours.  St. Martin was, for a time, a soldier in the Roman army stationed in Gaul.  This depiction recalls a story in which St. Martin sees a beggar outside a city wall during an intense snowstorm and cuts his cloak in half to share it with him.  St. Martin was wildly popular in the Middle Ages, and his supposed miracles include curing paralysis, raising the dead, casting out various devils, healing with shreds of his garments, and deflecting the path of a felled sacred pine.  His feast day, Martinmas or Martinstag on the 11th of November, continues to be a prominent holiday involving baked goods and children parading around at night with paper lanterns.  Fun fact: his feast day also lines up with Armistice Day, which is particularly noteworthy because St. Martin is the patron saint of soldiers.

In the upper left corner, you’ll see a smaller red shield with a six-spoked white wheel in it.  This is the arms of the former bishopric of Mainz, which Bingen fell under.  There a few stories as to the origins of this wheel:

  • According to the Brothers Grimm, it first belonged to the 10th century Archbishop of Mainz, a fellow named Willigis whose ancestors had been wheelwrights.  Some of his fellow clergymen sneered at these humble origins and took to drawing wheels all over his walls and doors.  Willigis, instead of being disheartened, then took the wheel as his heraldry with the motto “Willigis, remember where you came from”.
  • It could spring from imagery of St. Martin of Tours, who is the patron saint of Mainz and Mainz Cathedral.  Archbishops of Mainz were often referred to as “currum dei aurigantes” – drivers of God’s chariot – or currum ecclesiae Mogutinae aurigantes – “charioteers of the Church of Mainz”.
  • ….. or is it a pagan solar symbol from Roman times?  That would be somewhat ironic given St. Martin’s reputation for fervorously destroying local pagan things, but isn’t entirely out of the question.
I suspect the wheel is really a combination of these bits of lore, a symbol which has been reinterpreted constantly to fit the climate of the time.

St. Martin’s connection to the Rhein region probably comes from his association with wine-making.  He is attributed with spreading grape vines across much of France and his feast day falls conveniently after the end of the harvest and when the first newly-made wine is ready to be drunk.

This is, after all, Germany’s wine capital.

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Antiphons, sequences, hymns, oh my!

For the most part, Hildegard’s music fits into four categories: antiphons, sequences, responsories, and hymns.

Antiphon – a relatively short chant which can be sung before, after, and/or between verses of Psalms in both the Mass and the Divine Office (more on the Divine Office coming in a later post).  Hildegard wrote a whopping 43 of these on a variety of topics.  (Some historically questionable things happen during the last part of this recording, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.)

[Charity / abounds toward all, / most exalted from the depths / above the stars, / and most loving / toward all, / for she has given / the High King the kiss of peace. (trans. Barbara Newman)]

Sequence – these relatively long chants appear between the Alleluia and the Gospel in the Mass.  Their texts are generally new (not directly from scripture), and for the most part made up of couplets expanding on one story or idea.  Hildegard wrote seven.  This is perhaps my favorite, and I just finished transcribing it earlier today.

[O fire of the Spirit, the Comforter, / life of the life of all creation, / holy are you, giving life to the Forms. / Holy are you, anointing / the dangerously broken; / holy are you, cleansing / the fetid wounds. / O breath of sanctity, / O fire of charity, / O sweet savor in the breast / and balm flooding hearts / with the fragrance of virtues. / O limpid fountain, / in which it is seen / how God gathers the strays / and seeks out the lost: / O breastplate of life / and hope of the bodily frame, / O sword-belt of honor: / save the blessed! / Guard those imprisoned / by the foe, / free those in fetters / whom divine force wishes to save. / O mighty course / that penetrated all, / in the heights, upon the earth, / and in all abysses: / you bind and gather all people together. / From you clouds overflow, / winds take wing, / stones store up moisture, / waters well forth in streams – / and the earth swells with living green. / You are ever teaching the learned, / made joyful by the breath / of Wisdom. / Praise then be yours! / You are the song of praise, / the delight of life, / a hope and a potent honor, / granting rewards of light.  (trans. Barbara Newman)]

Responsory – these are usually a sort of call-and-response chant consisting of a verse and then a repeated line.  Due to their floridness, Hildegard’s responsories are generally considered “Great Responsories”, meaning they would follow Lessons in a Matins service.  There’s also a spot between readings in the first half of the Mass for a responsory.  Their complexity suggests that Hildegard’s convent was quite musically adept.

[O most noble greenness, / you are rooted in the sun, / and you shine in bright serenity / in a sphere / no earthly eminence / attains. / You are enfolded / in the embraces of divine / ministries. / You blush like the dawn / and burn like a flame of the sun. (trans. Barbara Newman)]

Hymn – perhaps the oldest form of chant.  Not a regular part of the Mass, but they would appear during the Divine Office and on special occasions.  As with much of her other work, Hildegard’s five hymns don’t fit the traditional poetic meter associated with the hymn.  They also tend to be quite long.  (This recording makes use of some very *ahem* interesting vocal ornamentation.)

[This text is very very long, but it uses elaborate metaphors to connect St. Ursula’s martyrdom with the story of Moses and sacrificial animals.]

She also wrote a Kyrie and an Alleluia, which fit in their usual spots in the Mass.

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