Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.06

Joseph L. Baird, Radd K. Ehrman, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Vol. III.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2004.  Pp. 240.  ISBN 0-19-516837-2.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Stephen D'Evelyn, Brown University (
Word count: 1792 words

Hildegard of Bingen wrote letters to an astonishing number of people. She was no respecter of persons, answering queries from common people as well as admonishing popes and kings. The translations by Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman make all this available to a much wider audience in clear and readable translations. The first two volumes appeared in 1994 and 1998. The third and final volume of English renderings of the letters has now appeared. This third volume shows the widest range of correspondents, containing letters between Hildegard and Church officials, kings and nobles, and regular lay people.

People wrote to Hildegard for many reasons. Abbots and abbesses often sought advice about governing their communities or asked whether Hildegard thought they ought to resign. People both in monasteries and in the secular world wrote to her asking for words of encouragement or exhortation. Sometimes people wrote to ask about the condition of their souls or of the souls of those close to them. Parents wrote to ask about their children. One person wrote asking for help finding treasure, and, although Hildegard had to respond that God had revealed nothing to her about treasure, because He was concerned with souls rather than with transitory wealth, Hildegard nonetheless does close with a benediction; "Yet may He help you according to His will and your need."

Like much medieval epistolary culture and much medieval writing generally, the style in which Hildegard writes the letters is rhetorical. Here, as throughout her writings, she delights in word-play that adds meaning. She loves the rhythm of recurring images and the shades of meanings of single words. This aesthetic differs from present-day tastes for clarity or playfulness in its own right. The translators face the challenge set by Hildegard in her particular and distinctive version of the medieval aesthetic of copious language and variety, and they succeed in producing an inviting translation.

The book contains letters 218-390. The translators base it upon the best available text, the third volume of the Corpus Christianorum edition of the letters of Hildegard, begun by Lieven Van Acker and completed by Monika Klaes-Hachmöller. When I tried to compare one of the letters at the beginning of the book with the Latin text, I was amazed to realize that while the Latin edition starts with ep. 251, which begins Class III of letters as established by Van Acker, the third volume of translations starts with ep. 218, in the middle of Class II. The translators borrow letters which appear in the second Latin volume for their third volume, and do not seem to give a reason for this. The redistribution does mean that all three volumes of translations are about 220 pages long.

Leafing through the translated letters, one is struck by the importance of literary imagery. For readers familiar with her first prose work, Scivias, from the translation of Columba Hart, or with her poetry translated by Barbara Newman, many of the letters crackle with the same intensity. This impression is strengthened when letters by Hildegard are read together with those of her correspondents, which often seem prosaic by comparison. Hildegard uses symbolic images, often drawn from nature, in extended metaphorical symbols that convey meaning beyond simple explication, and they often come with a kick of delightful surprise. In a letter to the countess Oda of Eberstein, Hildegard says: "There was a certain valley that sometimes dried up and sometimes burst forth in flowers. It did not, however, consistently produce wholesome plants, and though it was beautiful for people to see, it was not very useful for sustenance. So it is with your mind." This third and final volume of translations contains letters to and from the lower ranks of Church officials and to and from lay people. It also includes several compositions that (as the translators note) are not principally letters, although they have been transmitted to us in correspondence -- sermons, meditations on Scriptural passages and themes, and descriptions of visions with explication of their symbolism. The letter translations are preceded by an introduction (pp. 3-8) and followed by endnotes (pp. 205-216), a bibliography supplemental to the bibliographies in the first two volumes (pp. 217-218), and finally indices of Scriptural echoes (pp. 219-220) and of general topics (pp. 221-226).

In the Introduction the translators give a description of the daunting scale of the project and the various twists and turns on the "long road" to its completion. They go on to consider the number and organization of letters. The number of letters that Hildegard actually wrote (that have come down to us) is not the "magic number" 390 most commonly mentioned, but rather 353. The last item in the collection does bear the number 390, but this number may be misleading because of the convention of ascribing numbers to letters whether a response survives or not. Letters written to Hildegard that did not receive a response also bear a number. The consideration of numbering of the letters leads naturally to a question of why they have been put in their order.

For the Latin critical edition, Lieven Van Acker arranged the letters in a pattern not of chronology, but of social hierarchy, first of Church officials, then of the laity. The translators observe that this arrangement creates odd gaps when letters concerning the same event, that were written at about the same time, appear in different parts of the collection because they were sent to or from members of the ecclesiastical and secular worlds. This hierarchical principle, however, was employed by the monk and provost Volmar, who served as "secretary" to Hildegard, when he gathered the letters together toward the end of her life, and it is borne out in the manuscript tradition, as the translators themselves note in the introduction to their first volume. This organization was most probably approved by Hildegard herself. Lieven Van Acker did not limit himself to the collection made by Volmar, upon which the earlier Patrologia Latina edition was based, but did maintain its organizational principle even as he collated all of the manuscripts containing letters. The hierarchical organization not only seems the closest one can come to the letter collection as Hildegard herself approved it, but this design was also employed for other collections of letters in the Middle Ages. Professor Van Acker ought not to be blamed for the awkwardness of the letters' arrangement. That Van Acker did not adopt a straightforward chronological arrangement (or re-arrangement), can be explained, as the translators point out, by the extreme difficulty of giving absolute dates to many of the letters.

The third volume of translations contains several sections. First there is a group of exchanges between Hildegard and nuns, monks, abbesses, abbots, and entire monastic communities, and then a section of letters to clergy of unknown locale. Third is her correspondence with powerful secular figures such as Frederick Barbarosa (both before and after he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor), King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England. Included here is correspondence with members of the nobility in the Holy Roman Empire. A fourth group contains letters from Hildegard to various lay persons, not all of whom are named. About a dozen letters to people of no clear status, lay or ecclesiastical, follow at the end of this group. The volume concludes with a section containing "letters of dubious epistolary character" (p. 192, n. 1). Here are counted expositions of biblical passages, more general themes such as the Fall and Redemption of humanity, and even homiletic texts that consider other texts than those covered in the collection of the Gospel homilies that Hildegard composed and preached. (For this last observation I am grateful to Beverly Kienzle.)

The translators introduce each letter with a short summary and supply interesting and useful notes after each letter. Here they discuss everything from possible dating of the correspondence in question and particular historical circumstances to the meaning of distinctively Hildegardian expressions. The Endnotes by contrast supply Latin text for particularly difficult passages. References for scriptural echoes are given in square brackets within the text of each letter. This is useful, but it also lends the impression that the only source Hildegard drew upon in the letters is Scripture, a problem that lies outside the purview of the translators and that is created by the Latin editions' scanty source apparatus.

The translators have taken great care with rendering the sometimes eclectic style of Hildegard. In some instances they seem to have grown impatient with her more complicated expressions. Substantial infelicities are very rare. They illustrate two experiences that often come with working on writings by Hildegard, the pull persuading translators to try to add to her ideas rather than simply to bring them into English, and the urge to simplify what seems flowery or clumsy language.

An example of the adding of meaning appears in the translation of the letter from Hildegard to Eleanor of Aquitaine (ep. 318). Shades of the exuberance Hildegard sometimes expresses about nature are added to the Latin "hominibus" when it is rendered as "fellow creatures", leaving the reader of the translation with Hildegard exhorting Eleanor "stand firm, relying on God and your fellow creatures...". More common than the impulse to add to the words of Hildegard is the desire to simplify it. The translators can leave out words that seem clumsy. One example comes from the opening of letter 300, addressed to a cleric whose name has not come down to us, in which the double imperative that the cleric "preuide et attende" that he is an exile in the world, is rendered simply as "be aware". Here it seems a fuller translation could have been given. However strange it seems, the straightforward translation "foresee and consider" would have given the sense of thinking about both this world and the next, which seems at the heart of the words. In other instances, the translators soften the striking character of an expression. Here too a middle ground might have been found that would preserve unusual features and still maintain clarity.

Generally, the omission of words and simplification of expressions makes for a cleaner, more modern style than is characteristic of the writings of Hildegard. On the flyleaf of the book we find praise for the readability of the translation, a characteristic that does make it accessible and inviting -- but readability comes at a cost.

Baird and Ehrman have produced translations that are very useful in the classroom. The sheer size of the accomplishment alone deserves admiration. The three volumes of letters in English make the whole of the correspondence of Hildegard widely available in an approachable form that will help introduce many readers to one of the great figures of the Middle Ages.

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