Monthly Archives: March 2012

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of BingenComposer, Playwright
(1098 – 1179) 

Hildegard of Bingen  is one of only a few of the men and women known by name who authored plays in the Middle Ages, and the only one about whom modern scholars have a substantial amount of information. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, polymath and mystic, was the composer of the Ordo virtutum or  “Service of the Virtues,” among many other works. Hildegard’s extraordinary life and achievements have attracted the attention of an extremely wide and varied audience including medievalists, feminist critics, New Age spiritualists, historians of science, and fans of medieval music.

Hildegard was the tenth child born into an aristocratic family. She suffered from ill health throughout her life, and by the time she was eight years old her parents apparently decided that she should be dedicated to religion. She was entrusted to the care of a young anchoress called Jutta, who lived in seclusion in a cell attached to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg, near the German city of Speyer. There, Hildegard learned some Latin and also apparently received informal instruction in a wide and eclectic array of subjects, including medicine and the natural sciences. Above all, she learned the elements of musical composition, which she would later employ inher drama. At the same time, Hildegard began to experience the visions for which she would later become renowned. By the time Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard had acquired a secretary, the monk Volmar, to whom she dictated and described the visual and aural messages that came to her from God. In the ensuing decade, Hildegard attracted many young women to the tiny convent that had grown up around her, and by 1147 was actively in search of a new home for her burgeoning community.

Drama in the Convent

In the meantime, thefame of her visions and holiness had spread, and Hildegardbegan to preach in public, as well as to circulate herwritings. These controversial activities brought her to the attention of the bishop of Mainz and also to that of Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–1153), both of whom eventually declared her teachings to be divinely inspired and encouraged her to complete work on what is now recognized as one of the great mystical books of the Middle Ages, the Liber Scivias, roughly translated as “The Book on Knowing the Ways.” By 1150, Hildegard and her followers were established in a new and larger convent at Rupertsberg on the banks of the Rhine, near Bingen.

It was here that Hildegard composed the Ordo virtutum ,a drama about a female soul appropriately called “Anima” and her journey through life. This work is only one of many innovative liturgies, hymn sequences, and song cyclesintended for performance by her nuns. She also oversaw the copying of the books containing her writings and personally directed the production of the many manuscript images designed to illustrate these books and to capture the extraordinary visual qualities of her mystical communications with God. The color, vibrancy, and sensuality of these illuminations provide some indication of the qualities that must also have enriched the spectacle of performance in the convent.

An Unorthodox Career

Hildegard died in 1179, and it was widely believed that she would be canonized as a saint. An official biography was produced, and a number of miracles were attributed to her. However, the late twelfth century was a time when the process of canonization was becoming highly politicized, and when control over this procedure had shifted from local authorities to the papal court. Official enquiries were conducted four times over the course of the next two centuries but, on each of these occasions, objections to the orthodoxy of Hildegard’s life and works were raised by various factions within the church. To this day, only a few religious communities acknowledge her sanctity and celebrate her feast on 18 September.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

writer, novelist
(1821 – 1881)


Fyodor Dostoevsky

Among European writers of the nineteenth century, Fyodor Dostoevsky is the preeminent novelist of modernity. In his masterworks Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880), he explored the far-ranging moral, religious, psychological, social, political, and artistic ramifications of the breakdown of traditional structures of authority and belief. He chronicled the rise and fall of the modern secular individual and traced the totalitarian potential of the new ideologies of his time, including socialism. His personal and literary engagement with the ongoing political and social issues of his time makes his work particularly interesting from a historical perspective. However, Dostoevsky’s work is much more than a window into the world of nineteenth-century Russia. Modern readers continue to find Dostoevsky’s work compelling because of the way he examines, as no one had previously and few have since, the potential for violence and the abuse of power in all forms of human interaction. His perfectly drawn psychological portraits of common people in distress resonate with all readers who struggle to find meaning in the world.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Noble Family Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born on October 30, 1821, in the Moscow Mariinskii Hospital, where his father, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky, was a staff doctor. The second of seven children, he was closest to his older brother, Mikhail. Dostoevsky later wrote with warmth about his mother, Mariia Fedorovna, but wrote nearly nothing about his father and is reported to have said that his childhood was difficult and joyless. The Mariinskii Hospital served the indigent, so Dostoevsky was exposed at an early age to the results of urban poverty. The plight of the poor made a strong impressionon the budding writer. In 1828 Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky was granted a nobleman’s rank, and shortly the reafter the family purchased an estate at Darovoe.

Crime and PunishmentIn 1837 Dostoevsky’s mother died, and in the same year Dostoevsky’s father enrolled him in the Military Engineering Academy in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky’s formal education before this time was limited to a boarding school in Moscow. An episode from his journey to St. Petersburg made an overwhelming impression on Dostoevsky. While traveling by coach, he saw a courier beat the coachman on the back of his neck with his fist and with every blow the coachman whipped the horses. Dostoevsky used this scene later in Notes from Underground (1864) and indirectly in Crime and Punishment (1866) in Raskolnikov’s dream of the peasant who beats his mare.

In addition to engineering, the training at the Military Engineering Academy focused on parade and drill. Dostoevsky was not a brilliant student. Dostoevsky’s letters to his father from the Military Engineering Academy are mostly requests for money, but to his older brother, Mikhail, he wrote about his love for literature, especially the works of German author Friedrich Schiller and ancient Greek epic poet Homer. Dostoevsky compared Homer to Christ, arguing that in the Iliad Homer’s vision with regard to the ancient world was similar to Christ’s with regard to the new world.

At the end of his life, in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), and his speech on Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, Dostoevsky returned to the idea of universal organization and harmony, carving out a special role both for himself and for Russia inachieving these ends. Upon completing his training and receiving his officer’s rank, Dostoevsky served for one year in the draftsman’s section of the engineering department in St. Petersburg before retiring in 1844 in order, as he said, to devote himself to literature. In the same year his anonymous translation of French author Honore´ de Balzac’s Euge´nie Grandet appeared in print. Read the rest of this entry