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Women of Power

By Erin Erickson | HUMANITIES, March/April 1999 | Volume 20, Number 2

In the Symphony of the World: A Portrait of Hildegard of Bingen is a new documentary that brings the life and ideas of this eleventh-century nun to a modern audience. Hildegard defied the gender roles of her time and became a leader in intellectual pursuits. She was the author of three major theological works, composer of more than seventy songs, and dramatist of the first known morality play. On top of these accomplishments she was a doctor, a theologian, and a poet. Even in her death she excelled the norm by living until the ripe age of eighty-two.

The film combines a score of Hildegard’s once-again-popular compositions, interviews with modern-day nuns and scholars, and scenes of the landscape that inspired this great thinker from the Middle Ages.

Filmmakers John Fuegi and Jo Francis of Flare Productions Inc. have produced the film as part of a series called “Women of Power,” supported by the Maryland Humanities Council. So far, Fuegi and Francis have produced three films for the series -- The War Within: A Portrait of Virginia Woolf, Red Ruth: That Deadly Longing, and the newest on Hildegard of Bingen. The first two films have already won several awards and have been circulated internationally, besides being aired on Maryland Public Television.

Hildegard was born in 1098 and at the age of eight her parents placed her in a religious atmosphere to be educated. When she was fourteen, Hildegard entered the cloister at Disibodenberg, where she fell under the guidance of Jutta von Sponheim, the abbess of the convent. In 1136, Jutta died and Hildegard was named abbess, a title she held for twelve years.

Throughout her life, Hildegard had visions, which at first she kept closely guarded. At the age of forty-three, Hildegard decided she could no longer keep these visions to herself. She was told in a vision to “Cry out!” At a time when women only learned enough Latin to sing songs, it was difficult to find a public voice, so she enlisted the help of a monk and political support from another nun. With their help she completed her first theological book, Scivias.

Hildegard took great risk in challenging the role of women in her society. Women accused of heresy ran the risk of being killed or driven out. Yet, Hildegard’s writings were well received. The Pope approved of her work and she was hailed a prophet. People made pilgrimages to her at Disibodenberg, seeking spiritual advice and medical help. Hildegard studied horticulture and understood herbs and used them for medicine, which was offered at the abbeys and monasteries. Two of her writings document her extensive knowledge of herbs and their medical uses.

How does one make a film about someone who lived hundreds of years ago? “We knew it would be difficult to make Hildegard’s world and context accessible because people know so little about the Middle Ages. It was culturally so different from the modern age, but Hildegard is hard to understand outside her context,” said Francis. “We didn’t want to turn Hildegard into a twentieth-century person, because she wasn’t.”

One technique the filmmakers used was to film the modern nuns in the successor abbey to where Hildegard lived. “Monastic life is in some ways the same as it was in the twelfth century,” says Francis. “We really had to work to put the nuns into a context that explains Hildegard and her world. We tried to make visual Hildegard’s perception of the universe and nature.” To do this, throughout the film there are images of nature, reminders of the landscape where Hildegard once lived, studied, and interpreted her world.

Other female figures from the last one thousand years to be featured include the author of The Tale of Genji, Lady Shikibu Murasaki (987-1016), the painter to the court of Philip II of Spain, Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625), and the first computer programmer Ada Countess Lovelace (1815-1852). The series is projected for global television distribution in 2000-2001. According to Fuegi, the women represent “a variety of different fields of human knowledge, a variety of different countries, and different class levels.” Francis says that each of these women “illuminates something about the condition of being a woman that is universal. Each documentary starts with a sense of knowing that there is this tremendously interesting person that has something to say to us today, but has either been forgotten or else has been so interpreted through various kinds of lenses and filters that her chief statement has been distorted.” Francis said that the work of Flare productions is an attempt “to restore the speaking voice of somebody whose work, or voice, is lost or seriously distorted.”