In honour of Pride Month & fuck the Church: Homoeroticism in the Devotions of Hildegard von Bingen

Y’all, I am back for another article this month for 2 reasons. Originally this was just supposed to be a post in honour of Pride Month, because how could I let it pass without paying homage to the medieval gays? But 2 days ago CNN released an article about a preacher-cop in Tennessee who wants to execute LGBTQ+ people. Naturally this got me in a rage, because goddamn, dickwad, pay the fuck attention in church and learn yourself a thing or two about your Jesus–he would have been all over the love is love thing. Fuck. SO. Obviously the only way to confront such an asinine and violent opinion is to write an exposé on the baddest bitch of them all and hardest core lesbian–yes I will fight everyone on this*–HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, St. Hildegard, Sibyl of the Rhine. Yes, dears, let’s talk about how one of the Catholic Church’s greatest doctors and one of Christianity’s most influential devotional leaders was gay as all hell (and yes I hope that the mere existence of this article leaves the Tennessee asshole sleepless, distraught, and burning to death under a cascade of rainbow flames).

In order to honour my main gal, Pride, and the gay community (but especially my fellow lesbians), as well as expose the inherent gay within Catholic worship and the Church (and, you know, probably piss off a zealot or two with the truth along the way), I’ve decided to present you with a choice devotional hymn** by Hildegard and an analysis of it that show that she was so damn gay. Trust me, this is going to be fun.

So, for everyone who has no idea who my girl Hildy is, the tldr of her amazing life is that she was born in 1098 in Bermersheim to a noble family. At age 8 (or 14? we don’t really know, cause that’s medieval dating for you) she was given to the church as a tithe and literally entombed (she actually lived her own burial ceremony, this is not a joke) as a recluse under the tutelage of Jutta von Spannheim. Jutta, though a recluse, gathered a group of young women around her and they eventually became like a convent attached to the monastery at Disibodenberg. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected prioress. She had learned to read and write Latin (at least rudimentarily) and was an extremely learned woman. Around 1150, in parallel with her move to a convent she had built in Rupertsberg, Hildegard began really writing. She wrote on medicine (including gynaecology, where she records what a female orgasm feels like), she composed a mystery play, she recorded the prophetic and mystic visions that she received (which, authorized by the pope, afforded her an incredible amount of political power in both the divine and secular circles), she composed devotional poems which were set to music (making her ostensibly the first named female composer in Western history), and she made up her own language (lingua ignota). Yeah, she was a badass.

It’s her poems that I want to present to you here today, in this exceptionally long post, because it is on those that I spent months writing a paper exposing the extreme homoeroticism of Hildegard’s conception of Mary (and yes, I’ll be copying and pasting from that unpublished paper and then editing massively to achieve what you are about to read).

The particular poem I want to share (this time) is my absolute favourite of her entire corpus (and generally one of my favourite poems ever):

Nunc aperuit (translation mine)

Nunc aperuit nobis
clausa porta,
quod serpens
in muliere suffocavit.
Unde lucet in aurora
flos de virgine Maria.
Now opens for us
The closed door, [to release that]
Which the serpent suffocated
within the woman.
From there shone the flower
Of the virgin Mary like the dawn.

In my opinion, this is Hildegard’s most dynamic and symbolically rich poem, and it is also her shortest poem at only six lines in length, and comprised of only eighteen words. She manages, nonetheless, to address a great number of theological and philosophical points purely because she employs rich imagery, which is the hallmark of all of her work.

So, the action in the poem is ultimately minimal—limited entirely to the opening of a closed door—but there is no end to the metaphors and their potential meanings . The first, most obvious, and most varied symbol Hildegard places in her poem is the “clausa porta” which “nunc aperuit nobis.” It recalls many of the more common medieval motifs (the gates of heaven, the Hell Mouth, a prison gate, etc.), but I want to focus on one metaphor in particular: that of a woman spreading her legs. At the same time as the opening doors, the spreading legs, release “quod serpens in muliere suffocavit”, they also “aperuit nobis”—open for us: we, the audience, have the right to gaze upon and, in that way, enter the liberated private space. Though none of the language in the poem indicates a physical movement either of the narrator or the audience inside the open door, Hildegard invites the gaze to penetrate the previously enclosed space. But the gaze and what it touches, where it enters, is central to Hildegard’s construction of worship and sensuality—in essence, the gaze interacts with the image the way a hand would interact with flesh, thus creating a realm of sensual worship which is at once chaste (spiritual) and tangible (physical). That the object of our gaze is inherently feminine, intact, and pure must be expressed, as those are the qualities for which we laud Mary. Thus, Hildegard constructs a physical space, a material entity, using words with which the audience can interact in order to achieve an understanding of the spiritual significance and ecstasy she experiences in Mary.

A chaste reading of this poem would address the many and varied metaphors for Heaven, Hell, the Garden of Eden, a church, or even prison or a castle. But I ain’t here for that, so let’s talk about the “porta” as symbolizing both Eve’s and Mary’s vaginas. In my opinion, to take the poem to mean anything else in its most visceral sense is to misunderstand the poem and to willfully ignore the deeply sensual and erotic relationship that Hildegard has with Mary. Let’s pause for a moment and consider the euphemism: “She would spread her legs and let any man enter.” The legs, functioning as doors, ought to remain closed—to bar the entrance into the woman’s vagina and keep out the intrusive, sullying phallus. To keep her legs together is to protect herself and her wholeness (integritas). Perhaps such a connection here would be unfounded if not for the medieval understanding of Original Sin (here indicated by the presence of “serpens”) as being deeply associated with sexual desire–see my previous post where I give an overview of how that happened.

Hey, gurl heyyyy

Phallic in nature and in symbolic significance with special regard to the Fall, serpens is one of the markers defining Eve in contrast to Mary, signifying that interaction with the serpent (and thereby the phallus: fornication) is the most precise difference between these two Mothers of mankind. This is common in Hildegard’s writing as in all ecclesiastical writing; thus, we can pretty much see that, due to the serpent’s presence in this poem, Hildegard not only acknowledges but fixates upon the particularly sexual nature of Eve’s sin. Yet, nowhere in the poem does she accuse Eve of man’s downfall; rather, her language insists that the serpens is the cause of evil. It appears as the nominative subject doing the action of suffocating some unnamed object, which the construction of the poem leads us to see as achieved by the closing of the door. The presence of the phallus is the cause of loss, of closing (separation), of suffocation, of death (or: dicks as the cause of the closeted lesbian, the silenced lesbian, the death of female homoerotic experience).

The serpent introduced libido and lustful fornication to mankind when he tempted Eve, soiling the innocence of humanity. Very importantly: dogma stated that sin must be passed on to the offspring through the sexual act itself by means of the male semen, rendering the phallus or any phallic symbol a source of anxiety; it is inherently dirtying because it is the means by which sin propagates (basically: don’t fuck a dick). Notably, Hildegard does not talk about Eve as being impregnated with sin or evil by means of the serpent—the problem here is not that Eve expels evil into the world as offspring, but that the sexual act with the serpent prevented her from birthing (or from getting it on with a chick?). Eve thus becomes the woman who carries death within her, but only because of the interdict against spreading her legs. In essence, Hildegard implies that Eve, in attempting to rectify her sin by complying with new social dicta and displaying ‘proper’ (hetero)sexual behaviour, was thus rendered incapable of bringing life to humanity. So. Much. Closeting.

This, then, is the miracle of Mary as Hildegard sees it: that Mary, unlike other women, was able to refuse entry to the destructive phallus while still spreading her legs to give birth to that which suffocated inside of Eve (and by extension, inside us, the ‘daughters of Eve’). Whereas sin forced Eve to conceal her vagina for shame and protection, Hildegard invites us to look at Mary’s, which remains pure, clean, untouched, and therefore the capable of redeeming humanity. We only see what Hildegard sees: a vagina untouched by man, and thus worthy of adoration and able to withstand our gaze (#gay). What is super fucking important to remember here is that Hildegard wrote these songs for her nuns to sing; presumably, the strong mental image of this opening vagina would have only been perceived by women, meaning that Mary remained untouched both by a physical phallus (serpens) and by the penetration of the male gaze (also phallic, if you will). Because women lack the physical penis and therefore semen, women lack the very thing which carries in it the possibility for soiling and rupturing, and therefore their gazes, though taking on the role of our girl Butler’s Lesbian Phallus, do not destructively penetrate. Hildegard denies the possibility of eroticism in Eve through the clearly negative connotation surrounding the phallic insertion of the serpent into her body, causing Original Sin (don’t crush on a straight girl…). To contrast, Mary is never physically entered, and therefore has no need to contain “flos” within her in order to deny sin or the devil possession of her body and, thereby, humanity. The homoerotic atmosphere created by the audience of virginal nuns looking lovingly between Mary’s spread legs is the only possible way in which Hildegard could express the miracle of the Virgin Birth—by negating the destructive and libidinous component altogether and thus never relegating control of Mary’s body to the male phallus.

This erotic atmosphere is augmented in the last two lines, focused completely on Mary, through the language Hildegard uses to describe what the eye sees in Mary’s open door. She says, “Unde lucet in aurora/ flos de virgine Maria,” which most critics will say is meant to represent Jesus and his birth. While I really can’t deny that Hildegard is very likely referring here to Jesus and renewed life (as much as I would like to deny it), the image conjured by this moment of text is also deeply erotic. In the past four lines, Hildegard has worked us through the traumatic event which caused Woman to deny entry to her vaginal region, and to the point where she is opening her legs (exclusively for the female gaze) again. If this poem is sex, that was foreplay, and the gaze of the audience has been working its way slowly, sensually, between Mary’s spreading legs until finally she reveals her vagina. This moment is euphoric, triumphant (though not in the context of a conquest, but in the context of joy in love)–dare I say orgasmic? Where before with Eve’s closed door imagery of death, rape, and repression pervaded the poem, now imagery of life, light, and openness prevails. Beyond my own extended metaphor of opening legs, the words themselves are even evocative of the image of a vagina: while “lucet in aurora” means literally to “shine like the dawn”, the term “aurora” is associated particularly with the colour red. Further, considering the anatomic structure of vaginas, “flos” is easily suggestive of that very image, especially in conjunction with the colour red. Just think of Georgia O’Keefe’s piece, Red Canna. At long last, Woman (Mary) allows the audience to look upon the brilliant, life-giving, redeeming force which is her vagina—a flower shining red like the dawn.

Georiga O’Keefe. Red Canna. 1924.

The fact that this poem was written as such about a woman, by a woman, for the voices and ears of women is central to Hildegard’s ability to communicate the wonderment and worship she has for Mary and the Virgin Birth. Where the phallus is involved—where the penis must penetrate the vagina—death is a prerequisite for life; but this debunks the entire Christian notion of eternal life through the rebirth of redemption. Though Hildegard certainly could not have perceived of eroticism in terms of cellular division, she writes extensively on the sexual union of men and women:

Prima enim inceptio hominis per delectationem, quam serpens in pomo primo homini insufflavit, exoritur, quia tunc sanguis viri ex delectation concutitur. Unde et idem sanguis figidam spumam mulieri immittit, quae ex calore maternae carnis coagulatur et in sanguineam formam extenditur; ac eadem spuma in eodem calore sic permanens postmodum a sudore sicci ciborum matris in spissitudinem parvae humanae staturae crescit. (Causae et Curae 60)

Translation (mine): For the first conception of a human being arises through delight, which the serpent breathed into men by way of the first fruit, because then the blood of man is shaken by lust. Whence also that very blood [of the man] sends forth cold foam into the woman, which from the heat of the mother’s flesh coagulates and spreads into a bloody form; and this same foam, persisting in this same heat in such a way, after that grows from the dry sweat of the mother’s nutrients into the solid material of a small human.

Her medical work displays an acute understanding of fleshly union and two becoming one, and how this phenomenon is intrinsically linked with desire in a post-lapsarian existence. She even says explicitly in the above passage that desire was first breathed into men by the serpent (“delectatio, quam serpens in pomo primo homini insufflavit”). As long as the serpent, sin, the phallus, semen, sexual desire, and carnal reproduction are all associated, death must indeed be a prerequisite of life. So, Mary, in order that she remain purely representative of eternal life and redemption, must remain untouched by corrupting, deadly ejaculation, which results from touch which follows male gaze (according to medieval understandings of attraction and desire). The homoerotic element here is the only way in which Hildegard can imbue Mary with eternal, renewing life without death first. Basically, lesbianism is the world’s ultimate redemption.

Alright, so just in case anyone was getting worried, I am by no means dissing sex with dicks, that’s all good and fine for people who enjoy it and just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it. BUT, what’s really exciting here is that, right smack in the High Middle Ages, one of the most influential people of her time has produced a text (well, several, actually) that only manages to glorify the divine through extremely sensual (if ultimately chaste) homoerotic imagery. I mean, literally everything about this poem, every positive aspect of it, is hinged on it being totally woman-centred, and the only place where a symbol of masculinity appears is as sin and death. Now, I’m not here to hate on men, and honestly I don’t think Hildy was either–actually, what she was most probably hating on was carnal sex itself, which she was avidly opposed to–but the mere fact that this entirely female-centric, deeply homoerotic text exists, and was approved of, as a devotional hymn is seriously fucking fantastic. What this means is that, little though the Christians are gonna wanna hear this, there was a place for explicit homoeroticism (and lesbian eroticism at that!) in Christian devotion (well, actually, I would argue that in many ways Christian devotion was often the best and even only place for homoeroticism to flourish in the middle ages). Which is kind of a HUGE DEAL, because that means that homoeroticism helped develop forms of divine worship into how it gets practised today (the gays: pushing their agenda since the 12th century… *cue conservatives losing their shit while I look on smiling smugly because history*).

Anyways, my dears, this is only the tip of the iceberg and if I don’t stop now this post risks becoming the new home of a 50 page paper. So I shall leave you all to marvel at the masterpiece that is Nunc aperuit and at Hildegard’s extremely gay affection for Mary while I go learn more about medieval gays so that I can keep unsettling the Church and contributing to the history of my people (who are not going to be extinguished or scared out of existence by bigoted fuckwads like that Tennessee preacher-cop). Happy Pride, everyone!

-HANNAH VICTORIA


*Disclaimer: I know I can’t really claim that she was truly a lesbian because 1/ she was very very against homosexuality (product of her times?), and 2/ lesbianism didn’t exist in the middle ages, and one cannot simply slap modern labels on historical figures. However, I think acknowledging queer tendencies in history is the only way to acknowledge that there is such a thing as a queer history even in times when queers were silenced, invalidated, criminalized.

**Another disclaimer: Yes, I am presenting only one poem, but no, it is by no means the only one of her poems to display such blatant and extensive homoeroticism, and yes I have studied the other hymns and written analyses of them in this vein. But if I were to include them all here this blog post would be never ending… (if y’all want more gay Hildy either tell me and I’ll do another post like this or help me get my paper published ;D).


Further Reading:

A Companion to Hildegard of Bingen: Companion to Hildegard of Bingen. Ed. Beverly Kienzle, George Ferzoco, Debra Stoudt. Brill, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Bataille, Georges. “Introduction.” Eroticism, translated by Mary Dalwood. Penguin Books, 2001.

Bennett, Judith M. “The L-Word in Women’s History.” History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. University of Pennsylvania Press (2006): pp. 108-127.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. Routledge Classics, 2011.

Dickens, Andrea Janelle. “Sybil of the Rhine: Hildegard of Bingen.” Female Mystic: Great Women Thinkers of the Middle Ages. I.B. Tauris (2009): pp. 25-37. Ebook Central.

Elouard, Daniel. Hildegarde de Bingen: Biographie. Éditions Salvator Paris, 2018.

Furlong, Monica. Visions and Longings: Medieval Women Mystics. Mowbray, 1996.

Gaunt, Simon. “Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature.” Cambridge University Press (1995): pp. 71-121.

Garber, Rebecca L.R. “Where Is the Body? Imitability in Hildegard’s Images of Eve and Mary.” Feminine Figurae: Representations of Gender in Religious Texts by Medieval German Women Writers, 1100-1475. Taylor & Francis Group, 2013: pp. 33-60. Ebook Central.

“Hildegard von Bingen.” Great Lives from BBC Radio 4, 23 September 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b014q00c.

Holsinger, Bruce Wood. “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic, vol. 118 (1993): pp. 92-125. Literature Resource Centre.

Jantzen, Grace M. “Eros and the Abyss: Reading Medieval Mystics in Postmodernity.” Literature and Theology, vol. 17, no. 3 (2003): pp. 224-264. JSTOR.

—. “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics.” Hypatia, vol. 9, no. 4 (1994): pp. 186-206. JSTOR.

Lochrie, Karma. “Situating Female Same-sex Love in the Middle Ages.” The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature. Edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

O’Keefe, Georgia. Red Canna. 1924. https://www.georgiaokeeffe.net/red-canna.jsp

Payer, Pierre J. The Bridling of Desire: Views of Sex in the Later Middle Ages. University of Toronto Press Inc., 1993.

Poetics of Love in the Middle Ages: Texts and Contexts. Edited by Moshe Lazar and Norris J. Lacey. George Mason University Press, 1989.

Signe-Morrison, Susan. “Hildegard von Bingen (1097-1179): Audacious Innovator.“ Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages. Casemate Publishers, 2015: pp. 105-111. Ebook Central.

Von Bingen, Hildegard. Causae et Curae. Edited by Paul Kaiser. B.G. Teubner, 1903. Archive.

—. Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, vol. 1. Translated by Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman. Oxford University Press, 1998.

—. S. Hildegardis Abbatissae Opera Omnia.Compiled by Jacques-Paul Migne, vol. 1. Paris, 1855. Google Books.

—. Symphonia: Gedichte und Gesänge (Lateinisch und Deutsch). Edited by W. Berschin and H. Schipperges. Gerlingen: Lambert Schneider, 1995. Bibliotheca Augustana.

Weeks, Andrew. German Mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History. Edited by David Appelbaum. State University of New York Press, 1993.

Weithaus, Ulrike. “Sexuality, Gender, and the Body in Late Medieval Women’s Spirituality: Cases from Germany and the Netherlands.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 7, no. 1 (1991): pp. 35-52. JSTOR.

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