Many of the healing herbs, flowers, and foodstuffs mentioned by the twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen in her great work Physica are grown in Bonnefont garden at The Cloisters. Above, from left to right: Field peas (Pisum sativum arvense, variety ‘Blue Pod Capucijners’); Madonna lily (Lilium candidum); milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Photographs from the Gardens archives.
It is the first book in which a woman discusses plants and trees in relation to their physical properties. It is the earliest book on natural history to be done in Germany and is, in essence, the foundation of botanical study there. It influenced the 16th-century works of Brunfels, Fuchs, and Bock, the so-called “German fathers of botany,” but the fact is that German botany is more indebted to a “mother.”
—Frank Anderson on the Physica, from An Illustrated History of the Herbals
Certain plants grow from air. These plants are gentle on the digestion and possess a happy nature, producing happiness in anyone who eats them. They are like a person’s hair in that they are always light and airy. Certain other herbs are windy, since they grow from the wind. These herbs are dry, and heavy on one’s digestion. They are of a sad nature, making the person who eats them sad. They are comparable to human perspiration. Moreover, there are herbs which are fatal as human food . . . they are comparable to human excrement.
—From Book I of the Physica, translated by Priscilla Throop
Hildegard of Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, poet, dramatist, composer, and the most learned woman of the twelfth century, wrote the Physica, or Natural Science, about the year 1150. The work is more than a natural history of the plant world. Hildegard combined book learning with practical knowledge and produced a treatise that is a singularly vivid and concise account of medieval medical theory and practice. It is one of only two scientific works produced by Hildegard, the other being a medical treatise, Causae et Curae. Most of the writings of the “Sibyl of the Rhine” were of a mystical nature; Hildegard corresponded with the leading theologians of her day, as well as with popes and emperors.
Frank Anderson, editor of German Herbals to 1500 and an authority on the genre, notes that Hildegard’s life as a cloistered nun was not as unlikely an origin for the Physica as it might seem. In northern Europe in the twelfth century, the practice of medicine remained largely in the hands of the clergy. (The first lay school of medicine, at Salerno, was far away in Italy.) Monastic healers treated not only fellow monks and nuns, but lay workers on monastery lands, villagers in neighboring parishes, and travelers. Hildegard propounds the understanding of natural history and medical theory current in learned circles while recording her own observations on diseases and their treatment, folk-cures, and recipes. When Hildegard was unable to give a Latin name to a plant used in folk medicine, she simply retained the German name.
While Hildegard’s works are of great interest to scholars in a number of fields, she is also the subject of popular interest worldwide, especially in her native Germany. (For answers to frequently asked questions about Hildegard, visit the website of The International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies.)
See a bibliography of works by and about Hildegard.
See a discography of her musical works, which have received a great deal of attention.
Hildegard’s life and work are the subject of Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, a remarkable new film by the prominent German director Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa. The film opened at the Film Forum in New York City on October 13 and will run through October 26. For more information on the film and on showings in other parts of the United States, visit the website for Zeitgeist Films.
I’m happy to report that the herbs growing in the convent garden, where Hildegard is shown instructing the nuns in their proper uses, were accurately named and represented.
Anderson, Frank J. An Illustrated History of the Herbals. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 1977.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.