Hildegard von Bingen: History of Naturopathy

Hildegard von Bingen: History of Naturopathy

"Beware of pretending to do the good - in spirit or work - as if it came from you. Rather, attribute it to God, from whom all powers emanate like sparks from fire. " Hildegard von Bingen to Archbishop Arnold von Trier

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) is a name today mainly due to herbal medicine, which is particularly popular in naturopathy. First of all, however, a lot of what goes on under "Hildegard von Bingen Medizin" has little to do with the Benedictine abbess of the 12th century, and secondly there is a risk of adopting a worldview that runs counter to the self-determination of the individual.

Hildegard was famous during her lifetime; Johann von Salisbury wrote about her visions as early as 1167; Albertus Magnus praised her; Dante Alighieri was inspired by her work Sci vias. The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) finally discussed their visions in his "Complex Psychology".

She exchanged letters with emperors and popes, bishops and princes, as well as with ordinary citizens - in Germany, England, Holland, France, Italy, Switzerland and Greece. In doing so, she sharply criticized the Miss booths and also made the powerful aware of their ethical misconduct.

Hildegard's work

Hildegard wrote Sci vias between 1141 and 1151 after allegedly God had revealed her to her in 1141, and so she would have experienced herself as a seer. It describes 26 visions. The first part deals with the relationship of man to God, sin and the way to godly behavior. She also designs a cosmology and discusses the angels.

The second part deals with the art of healing, which is inextricably linked to God. First comes the creation of the world and man, then man's duty to obey God. Man does not keep this and fails. Then he is redeemed by Christ. Hildegard sees these three levels as determining in all areas of life: original state, crisis and prosperity. She also criticizes the behavior of the clergy of her time - especially the purchase of ministries and priesthood.

Her second work, Liber vitae meritorum, written 1158-1161, deals with the view of life and the way people live. Hildegard goes back to the scholasticism of her time; Catholic scholasticism developed a contradiction between God and the world, body and soul, and thus anticipated later approaches of humanism in early modern times: science and natural law did not necessarily have to mean worship. God had created everything, but man could grasp the world intellectually without doing his work wrong. Hildegard, on the other hand, does not distinguish between God, the world and human decision: God is omnipotent for them, man is powerless; it sees itself as a feather that, carried by God's strong wind, flies into the miracles of God.

From 1163 to 1174 she wrote Liber divinorum operum as world and human studies. All three works belong together: the Sci vias deals with faith, the Liber vitae meritorum with life and Liber divinorum operum with the world and man.

At over 70 she wrote a work on the cosmos. In it she interprets the beginning of the Gospel of John and discusses the Trinity of God.

The abbess did not see herself primarily as an intellectual, but lived, like other writers of her time, in a world of images. At that time it was not considered a metaphor, that is, an image of something, but an immediate expression of the experience of God.

For them, God was the "living, awake, brightest light." All areas of being began in the viriditas, the joy of life, which God had guided into creation. So she also thought like a poet: she related events and brought them together in her world of images.

The diabolus, for example, was for them the "pitch-black dark bird", the bishops were "trees planted by God", the monks as "brave fighters in faith, humility and love should wear the bond of obedience."

Hildegard's medicine

"Also learn to heal the wounds of sinners judicially and yet mercifully like the highest doctor left the example of the savior to save the people," wrote Hildegard to the Archbishop of Trier. The highest doctor for them was Jesus. The obligation to heal was expressly for everyone, no matter what he had done. The example of Jesus also showed her that piety did not mean accepting illness as fate, that is, letting it happen fatalistically. Rather, physical healing went hand in hand with opening the patient to God's message.

Like all medical scholars of her time, she learned the teaching of body fluids developed by Hippocrates and continued by Galen. For her, diseases were embedded in a cosmic context. God and the devil played their part; demons also brought epidemics and death.

There was no academic medicine in a systematic sense in Hildegard's time. For them, healing from illness and salvation is inextricably linked. It includes ancient herbal knowledge as well as folk medicine and an image of the Old Testament. Added to this is the already developed monastic medicine of the monasteries in Franconia, Spain, Scotland and Italy; this combined empirical approaches with experience and Christian salvation.

What is new, however, is the visionary justification of their salvation teaching. Hildegard sees herself not as a researcher, but as a vessel for God's will. That is why it combines medical tradition with religious piety. In doing so, she places herself in the old tradition of healing priests, which the clergy of her time were just giving up.

The second Lateran Council in 1139 determined that no priest should work as a doctor. Scholasticism distinguished between natural diseases that fell within the realm of the doctor and supernatural visitations for which the Catholic exorcists were responsible. This separation did not exist for Hildegard.

The clergyman, on the other hand, transferred the Christian idea that illnesses were caused not only by misconduct but also by the devil's attacks to healing: sickness always showed a disturbance in the balance between divine and diabolical forces. Healing therefore always had to include salvation, and the diseased organ showed the way to where the harmful forces had penetrated.

Compassion for the sick (miseriis compatiens) and mental support (cooperiens hominem) were just as crucial as the medicine administered. For her, healing meant remedies, methods of removing the disease from the body, healthy eating, physical recovery, but above all mental cleaning. Today's natural healers see Hildegard's importance in this: Today we would describe her approach as psychosomatic. However, this “psychosomatic” was directly linked to the supernatural for her.

For example, she wrote to a priest: “Don't be afraid of the heaviness that startles you in your sleep. It arises in you through the blood-red juices that get uneasy due to the black gall complex. ”Here she shows herself as a diagnostician in the galenic tradition of her time.

Then she continues: “Because the old deceiver moves within them, even if they don't hurt your senses, they can confuse you with juggling. But by virtue of God's disposition you are chastised by such distress, so that this fear tames the fleshly desire within you. ”So this is no longer about stresses on the (social) environment that disturb sleep because they affect the body impact (black gall), but about the struggle between God and Devil, which in the end, however, decides God.

So the work of supernatural powers was essential for the physical condition; the Christian represented the (early) medieval concept of the unity of body and soul. Gemstones, for example, could be used for healing, because “God has put wonderful powers into the gemstones. All these powers find their existence in the knowledge of God and help man in his physical and spiritual vitality. Every stone has fire and moisture in it. They serve as a blessing and a cure for man. Therefore, the gems are shunned by the devil and it shivers him day and night. ”

Magic was as important as the presumed healing properties of the stones themselves. Agate should drive thieves away if you made a cross with the agate. The topaz worked against fever, but only with the appropriate ritual: "If someone has a fever, they dig three smaller pits into a soft bread with the topaz, pour pure wine into them and look at his face in the wine and say:" "I look at me like in the mirror so that God can drive this fever away from me ”.

Thinking in analogies

Hildegard's worldview and her medicine were determined by analogue thinking from the Middle Ages. God had created the world perfectly, and that meant that each element in one area had a correspondence in another. The naturalists therefore interpreted animals that we now identify as whales, seals, sharks or rays as sea horses, guinea pigs or even sea monks, because the country's fauna had their counterpart in the water.

In the judiciary, therefore, the principle of “like with like” had to be retaliated in order to restore the disharmony of the divine order. In medicine, plants were considered to be remedies that resembled the symptoms of diseases on an associative level: mistletoe, for example, should help against epilepsy, which is called epilepsy; because it grew on trees without falling down.

Mental illnesses

Medieval obsessi, lunatici or daemoniaci are known today as people with mental health problems. Hildegard von Bingen saw these "obsessions" as trials of God. He would allow the demons to enter the body to give people the opportunity to be purified. However, those affected are not really obsessed, they are only dazed.

The case became known of Sihewize, a noblewoman who had been "possessed by demons" for seven years. The suffering that plagued the woman cannot be judged from a distance. The Benedictines in Brauweiler Abbey fought the "demons" in vain with exorcisms, but in the Rupertsberg church she was liberated from "evil spirits" on Holy Saturday and entered Hildegard's monastery.

The scholar wrote to Arnold von Trier: “And this woman has been freed from the tortures of the devil. She was then struck by an illness that she had not previously felt. But now she has attained the powers of body and soul in full health. "

In the High Middle Ages, the idea of ​​being possessed was consolidated in that the devil and his servants used the body as a vessel. Animals such as snakes, worms, frogs and toads also lived inside the body, especially that of women. There they slipped in through the body openings during sleep, understandably more often in women because they offered an entrance more.

Demonic obsession was mostly due to the sins of those affected. Christian scholastics at least saw epilepsy as an organic brain disorder, so in contrast to Hildegard, they separated between the natural and the supernatural. The exorcist had to decide whether it was a demon after all.


For Hildegard, the mother of all virtues was discretion, humility. Humility meant attention, patience, moderation, prudence and wisdom. The discretion brought balance into the other virtues and virtues. Humility was necessary to act mercifully and to care for people.

Hildgard wrote: “The soul flows through the body like the sap flows through the tree. The sap causes the tree to bloom green and bear fruit. And how does the fruit of the tree ripen? By changing the weather appropriately. The sun gives warmth, the rain moisture, and so it matures under the influence of the weather. What shoud that? Like the sun, the merciful grace of God illuminates man, like the rain the breath of the Holy Spirit thaws him, and the right measure (discretio) brings about the perfection of good fruit in him like a corresponding change in the weather. ”

Healing as an obligation

The doctor took care of the people. This duty arose from obedience to God - and not because of a Hippocratic oath. She sees the example of this duty of the doctor in the sacrifice of Abraham, who wanted to sacrifice his only son God. This made Abraham the "Father of Mercy".

So the doctor did not control life, he just guarded it. Only God decided for Hildegard when a person died, when a person was born. Hildegard's thinking meant caring for existing life to the utmost. Sickness was not a godly destiny and also not a test of God, so healing, like Jesus, meant turning to people to open them to the divine message.

“Manipulating life” was out of the question for her. Man as he was was created by God, and to emancipate himself from it would have been a crime for her.

The "Physica" and the "Causa et curae"

Hildegard summarized her texts on natural and medical science in a book that she wrote between 1151 and 1158. Today it is only known to us from the two works "Physica" (natural history) and "Causa et curae" (medical science).

The writings were probably intended as a handbook, because Hildegard ran her own monastery in Rupensberg at the time, and the nuns needed instructions to treat the sick together with Hildegard.

The "Physica" is divided into nine parts, which are arranged chronologically according to the story of creation: elements, stones, metals, i.e. the inorganic, systematize them as well as fish, reptiles, birds and (mammals) animals. She does it scientifically for her time. It describes the appearance, properties and benefits for humans, sketching the specimens of the respective species as precisely as possible and discussing how they can be used medically.

She also places mythical creatures in her natural encyclopedia, which shows how much she was based on the tradition of antiquity. For example, she blamed the basilisk, which hatched from a snake egg that a rooster had hatched, for animal diseases.

The ancient Greeks had called this fantasy reptile "Little King". This basiliskos should rule over the snakes and therefore wore a crown. Zoology mingled with mythology. Thus wrote the Roman Pliny, the elder: “With his hissing he chases away all snakes and does not move his body through multiple turns like the others, but walks along proudly and half-erect. He lets the shrubs die, not only by touch, but also by the breath, he scorches the herbs and blows up stones: this monster has such strength. It was believed that someone had once killed him on horseback with a spear and that the acting poison rose on it and brought death not only to the rider but also to the horse. And this mighty monster - because kings have often wished to see it dead - is killed by the evacuation of the weasel: so much did nature like to leave nothing without any counterforce. You throw the weasels into the caves [the basilisks], which you can easily recognize by the parched soil. These kill by their smell, but at the same time die themselves, and nature's dispute is settled. ”

The basilisk's poison should kill all life just by its stench; and his eyes petrified. It should come from the egg of a rooster or a black chicken, either from an egg without yolk or from a toad or snake hatching that egg in the dung heap. When the monster hatched, it crawled into pits, wells, or dungeons.

The researchers in the Middle Ages, and not only Hildegard, considered the basilisk to be a real being and speculated how its powers came about. For example, Thomas von Cantimpré thought that the eyes of the basilisk would shine and thus destroy the astral body of man. But he thought it was a fairy tale that the basilisk hatched from the egg of a rooster.

She also believed in the magic power of mandrake, a nightshade family that causes strong hallucinations. In the Middle Ages people believed that the "hangman" would emerge from the mandrake root if the seed of a hanged man dripped on it. The hallucinogenic effect of the plant, and a, with a lot of imagination, human-like appearance of the root, may underlie this idea.

Hildegard's medicine is nevertheless extremely practical; however, it remains unclear whether the existing material matches the original. The manuscript in the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel dates from the 14th century, and parts of the text were clearly added after Hildegard's death. If, however, the essential parts come from Hildegard herself, she turns out to be a thoroughly rational doctor - in contrast to her theological explanations of the world, which are available in the original. The work deals with:

1) From the creation of the world,

2) From the construction work of the cosmos,

3) Of the world elements,

4) From human education,

5) From the healthy and sick body,

6) How a person becomes

7) Gender behavior,

8) The person between sleep and waking,

9) diseases from head to toe,

10) The conditions and circumstances of the woman,

11) From nutrition and digestion,

12) Sex life,

13) Of the emotions,

14) Of metabolic disorders,

15) Of the remedies,

16) From the signs of life,

17) Healthy living,

18) From medical care,

19) On the virtue of the doctor and

20) The image of life.

One reason for, from today's perspective, a rational approach to using herbs would be that the descriptions were added 100 years after Hildegard's death. In the 13th century contact with the Arabs in the Crusades enriched the medicine of Central Europe with the practical methods of the Orient. It is more obvious, however, that Hildegard drew from her own experience here, applied the recipes herself, collected the herbs herself and tried them out.

Hildegard calls the Soff, a potion with hot water. Powdered herbs can also be stirred into it. Herbs can also be soaked in vinegar or wine, or eaten as tortellies, cookies as wheat flour and placed on the body. Hildegard prepared ointments with butter, goose or lard, bear fat or deer tallow. She made plasters from herbs and resin. For smoking, she placed dried herbs on glowing roof tiles.

The social order

Hildegard differentiated between the spiritual (spiritual) and secular (secular) realms. The spirituales were divided into priests and monks / nuns, the secular ones into powerful and powerless, poor and rich, nobles and non-nobles.

She herself came from the high aristocracy and was very class-conscious. So she refused to train non-nobles in the healing arts. According to her, inequality came from God and should therefore not be touched.

She liked monks and nuns the most among people, because her virginity would come closest to the perfect way of life. They would be the only free people because they freely committed themselves to serving God. They would therefore receive the highest wages in the hereafter.

The "Hildegard medicine"

In 1970 Gottfried Hertzka, a doctor from Austria, brought out “Hildegard medicine” together with the German naturopath Wighard Strehlow. Herbal medicine, gemstones, food and cosmetics of "healthy living".

Hertzka and Strehlow gave advice on various diseases in a “Big Hildegard Pharmacy”. They often made sense, but they have little to do with Hildegard von Bingen. In "The Other Medicine - Alternative Healing Methods Evaluated for You", the Stiftung Warentest wrote: "The marketing of the name Hildegard von Bingen and the use of her writings in a way that is hardly covered by the original has to be the most knowledgeable professors of this subject prompted a public statement: The attempts to introduce a completely justified naturopathy as "Hildegard medicine" into medical practice and the area of ​​the pharmacy are without any scientific basis. "

Hildegard and today's naturopathy

Hildegard's reputation in today's natural history is based on the following principles, which it formulates: Physical illnesses have mental causes; man is connected to the elements; the connection to the cosmos is part of healing; Diseases arise from a disharmony between man and creation.

The enthusiasm for "Hildegard's medicine", as is often the case in postmodern esotericism, often relies on the "wrong horse". Hildegard's praised “holistic thinking” is only food for thought insofar as it thinks people and the environment together. It is by no means a role model for a socially and ecologically balanced society, as advanced naturopathy strives for - on the contrary.

The abbess was a child of her time and thought deeply anti-democratically: the hierarchy of nobility, clergy and powerless people directly expressed God's will for her; consequently, society did not allow people to change it; they were neither able nor entitled to do so. This "social wholeness" cannot be separated from Hildegard's "holistic healing". For her, healing meant following “God's commandments” and submitting to social inequality.

The point was not to improve social conditions in order to alleviate the suffering of the powerless; rather, the individual had to conform to the role prescribed by God. The reward was waiting in the hereafter. Adopting such a model of the world today negates the principles of the civil rule of law, as well as equal opportunities. Further ideas of social emancipation are not even conceivable in Hildegard's cosmos.

From the perspective of dream research, her visions, that is, their associations from symbolic images, which she put together into imagery to give them meaning, are quite suitable for therapies. However, they activate the patient (and healer) as subjective realities and not through interventions by the supernatural. Just as the shaman's hunting ritual actually worked because the hunter mentally went through the hunt and was more successful, believing that the powers of God defeated the devil's work in the sick could strengthen the patient and bring about healing in many cases.

Thinking in analogies, as the abbess also advocated, is only "superstitious" if we apply it to organically caused diseases. To put it simply: Mistletoe does not help for the biochemical processes that occur during an epileptic attack. However, analogies can bring therapeutic benefits for the psychological processing of suffering. This is not about the scientific ingredients, but about working with symbols, intuition, imagination and inspiration. To put it bluntly: A person who develops psychological abnormalities, uses addictive substances, suffers from insomnia and concentration disorders because he has forgotten his social roots, the sight of a strong oak tree could remind one to concentrate on these roots and thus a healing process in progress put. The healing takes place in the subject and not through the object.

Today, however, it would be crucial to consider these (dream) images as signposts of the unconscious, to let them act as symbols and consequently not to force the patient into a religious system, but to leave them to him as his own experience.

Instead of longing for a "holistic" medieval dream, medieval medicine should take social reality into account: Our ancestors were helplessly exposed to infectious diseases, and the average life expectancy was half as high as today.

There were two main reasons for this: the first was the catastrophic hygienic conditions with an inequality that literally stinks to the sky, the second was the wrong treatment methods. Hippocrates' and Galen's teaching on juices was not "alternative", but partly, when it came to viruses, for example, was simply wrong - this became particularly clear in the great plague of the 14th century.

Here the healer, like the other doctors in today's Germany, was far behind the knowledge of the Orient. The Iranian al-Razi had also described the interplay between mental and mental illness 200 years before her, without seeing it as a struggle between supernatural powers. 100 years earlier, Avicenna had not only described the human blood circulation in Persia, but also discussed in detail the infection of people from person to person, by germs in the earth and in water. The importance of these great Persian doctors lay in the fact that they no longer regarded illness as effects of the supernatural, to which man passed out.

Hildegard von Bingen's importance does not lie in her belief that her teaching of salvation was sent directly by God, but in the knowledge that therapies affect the whole body. Your herbal pharmacy is given a place here - even today. Domestic plants weeded as weeds are important medicinal plants for her, and the applications she describes are valid in many cases.

Herbal medicine actually has a more "holistic" effect than "conventional medicine" medication: sage, calendula, burdock, ivy, yarrow or rosemary improve the overall well-being, while products from the pharmaceutical industry concentrate on combating individual symptoms. Hildegard interpreted collecting, preparation and application religiously; but, in practical terms, it was often correct. When, and in what degree of ripeness, fruits are picked, shrubs cut or roots dug, how long they dry, how teas are prepared, determines the effect.

Compassion, i.e. psychological support, contributes significantly to healing in many diseases. The believer was also right there. However, applying your methods and at the same time “injecting” the underlying belief pattern into the patient is problematic. In particular, in order to treat the sick, whose suffering also has a psychological origin, the result could possibly be compared with drug addicts, who in religious sects get rid of the substance, but only at the price that they go into a new age.

To see the doctor as the guardian of life, but not as its driver, as Hildegard did, can be interpreted positively from today's perspective - but without the "reverence for life" and the resulting awareness of the doctor about his own inadequacy to combine submission to an "Almighty God".

Hildegard von Bingen was one of the great universal scholars of her time. To appreciate them historically and critically, however, means to see them as a person of the Middle Ages - as an outstanding figure of an era whose thinking and living environment are first of all strange to us and secondly do not give a "secret" perspective for a social and ecological tomorrow. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)


Tilo Altenburg: Social order ideas in Hildgard von Bingen. Stuttgart 2007.

Hildegard von Bingen: “Now listen and learn so that you blush. Correspondence translated according to the oldest manuscripts and explained according to the sources. Freiburg 2008.

Author and source information

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