Blog post

Hildegard von Bingen: celebrating an early ecofeminist

How women in the past have strongly advocated for better care of our fragile planet

by
Johanna Fisher (Professor of English and Women Studies, Co-director Women and Gender Studies)

The women’s movement in the late 1960’s and seventies brought attention to the need to consider how the environment and the lives of women intersected in ways that often lead to social injustice, poverty, exploitation and oppression. While this arm of the feminist movement may seem a relatively new initiative by women [the French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne is credited with coining the term, ecofeminism in 1974], we can trace this initiative back to the distant past. Medieval mysticism opened spaces for women’s voices on a variety of subjects, (i.e. church corruption, history, morality), including that of care for the earth.

We see this in the writings of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century mystic, artist, composer, writer, Doctor of the Church and recently a saint [2010]. While she did not have a concept of the word feminism let alone ecofeminism, it is through her work that we can understand her contribution to the ideals of ecofeminism, albeit from a Christian perspective.

Hildegard von Bingen understood that, ‘the divine is present in the greening of the earth’. Her term for this phenomenon is viriditas or ‘greenness’. For Hildegard this is the life-giving force that is inherent in creation. It is associated with fertility, transformation and renewal. Her image of a God with a green finger is recognizable to all who grow things. She says:

Greenness of God’s finger, Through you God has planted a vineyard That gleams on high Like a carved pillar

Hildegard understood that there was a connection between humankind and nature. It is interesting that she does not qualify this by gender. Indeed, this is in alignment with feminist principles that advocating for all of humankind must be the focus of feminist work. Yet, Hildegard does celebrate feminine fertility in her creative work, especially in her poetry as evidenced here:

Holy persons draw to themselves all that is earthly.. The Earth is at the same time mother, She is mother of all that is natural, Mother of all that is human, She is mother of all, for contained in her are the seeds of all.

It is not denigrating that she, as some ecofeminists argue, associates women with nature, especially in her sensitive understanding of the world as an organic, dynamic interconnected entity. She proclaims in another one of her writings;

Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you’ve got Heaven and Earth, and all of creation. You’re a world-everything is hidden in you.

If we can see ourselves from this perspective, we can embrace ecofeminism as a way to address the devastation of such events as climate change, overuse of fossil fuels, exploitation of migrant workers, inequality in health care, overfishing in certain waters, and loss of flora and fauna species. These are the concerns of ecofeminists and these concerns were also expressed by Hildegard from a different perspective over a thousand years ago. It is remarkable that this mystic already could see the effects of our human footprints on the Earth. Perhaps the following lines from an early proto feminist who artistically spoke about her concerns for the health of our planet, despite the restrictions imposed upon her by a patriarchal society, can serve as inspiration for us all:

Humankind, full of all creative possibilities is God’s work. Humankind alone is called to assist God. Humankind is called to co-create. With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and life-sustaining.

Resources and Further Readings

  • Bingen, Hildegard von, and Mark Atherton. Selected Writings. Penguin Books, 2001.
  • McDonagh, S. 1990 The greening of the church. Maryknoll:Orbis Books.
women's history feminist sustainability