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Hildegard of Bingen's Book of Divine Works: With Letters and Songs

de Hildegard of Bingen

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Hildegard of Bingen, a Rhineland mystic of the twelfth century, has been called an ideal model of the liberated woman. She was a poet and scientist, painter and musician, healer and abbess, playwright, prophet, preacher and social critic. The Book of Divine Works was written between 1170 and 1173, and this is its first appearance in English. The third volume of a trilogy which includes Scivias, published by Bear & Company in 1985, this visionary work is a signal resounding throughout the planet that a time of healing and balance is at hand. The Book of Divine Works is a cosmology which reunites religion, science, and art, and readers will discover an astonishing symbiosis with contemporary physics in these 800-year-old visions. The present volume also contains 51 letters written by Hildegard to significant political and religious figures of her day and translations of twelve of her songs.… (més)

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This is a review specifically of the Matthew Fox / Bear & Co. 1987 edition, with English translation by Robert Cunningham.

Although this edition is the only widely-available English translation of Hildegard's final and magnum opus, it is highly abridged and has several significant defects. When Matthew Fox commissioned Robert Cunningham to produce the first English translation of Hildegard’s Liber Divinorum Operum ("Book of Divine Works," also known as De Operatione Dei, "On the Activity of God"), the only published Latin text available was Mansi’s 1761 edition of the Lucca Codex, as reprinted in Migne, PL 197. Since Schrader and Führkötter’s pioneering work in the 1950’s, however, it had been widely recognized that this text had significant flaws, including a slightly different numbering system and frequent errors in transcription. In place of the Lucca manuscript, they had established the Ghent manuscript (G, the first fair-copy of the text for editing), together with the Troyes manuscript, as the superior witnesses. Thus, when Heinrich Schipperges published the first authoritative German translation (Welt und Mensch [Salzburg: Otto Müller Verlag, 1965]), he worked to collate the Mansi/Migne text against that Ghent manuscript, and included a partial appendix indicating passages from G that ought to supersede Migne—however, as Dronke notes in the new critical edition of the text in CCCM 92, this was only a partial collation, and there remain passages in Schipperges’ translation that were made from Migne rather than the superior reading of G. Moreover, Schipperges chose not to translate the full text, replacing large sections of repetitious or arcane material with his own summaries.

Thus, without access to a full and accurate critical Latin text, Fox and Cunningham chose to make their English translation from Schipperges’ German, “because of its accurate interpretation of the difficult original text" (Cunningham's Translator's Note, p. 2). In addition to Schipperges’ own summarized abridgement, Cunningham made his own further omissions. Fox explains the rationale for this decision: “Since this volume was designed to be a ‘Hildegard Reader,’ we did not want to expend the cost or the time necessary to reproduce Hildegard’s entire text. (…) To publish the whole work will take several more years and, of course, it is our fondest wish that scholars and scholarly publishing houses will undertake such an exercise" (Fox's Introduction, p. xxii).

Ultimately, the Cunningham/Fox edition omits (sometimes with summary, more often without) approximately 40% of the total text. Because they relied on Schipperges’ translation, some of those omissions reflect the latter’s particular lens in interpreting Hildegard, which emphasized the scientific, homeopathic, ecological, and cosmological. Often, some of the more overtly theological sections were left out—for example, the allegoresis of the seven heavenly bodies as the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in I.2.36-8 (Cunningham/Fox, p. 50), or most of Hildegard’s discussion of the archetypal characters of the apostles and the history of the Church in III.5.9-11 (Cunningham/Fox, p. 237). Perhaps the single most egregious omission, however, was the latter nearly three-quarters of Part II, Vision 1 (Vision 5), which is Hildegard’s hexaemeral commentary on Genesis. These 41 chapters—among whose unique characteristics is Hildegard’s ecclesiological interpretations of Creation—represent the single longest, sustained scriptural exegesis in Hildegard’s entire oeuvre (at more than 50 pages of Latin text, more than twice as long as the LDO’s kernel exegesis of the Prologue to John’s Gospel in I.4.105), and yet have remained entirely unavailable to English-speaking audiences.

Finally, the Cunningham/Fox edition has several significant deficiencies in scholarship, including its lack of substantial bibliography and Fox’s distortions of Hildegard’s ideas to fit his own theological points of view (for a penetrating critique, see Barbara Newman's essay, "Romancing the Past: A Critical Look at Matthew Fox and the 'Creation Mystics'"). Following Schipperges, they render Hildegard’s frequent use of the generic homo (“human person,” “humankind”) in the third-person singular with first-person plurals in English (“we,” “us”), which shifts the register away from Hildegard’s visionary voice. Moreover, they claim to mark divine speech (“The sections of quotations, when Hildegard is writing down the ‘voice’ she hears”) with indented, italicized text—but their choices of what text fits this category seem quixotic and random; and this obscures the fact that, besides the initial visual description of each vision and the Prologue and Epilogue, which are rendered in the first-person singular (Hildegard speaking), all of the remaining text is at least purported to be from “the voice from heaven” that spoke to Hildegard in her visionary experiences (when it lapses into the first-person singular, it is God speaking, not Hildegard). A fundamental component of Hildegard’s construction of her authority as a theologian was her claim that everything she wrote was of divine, not human, origin; and Fox's edition obscures this authorial claim.

Because of these many deficiencies and omissions, a new, full, and scholarly translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works, with critical introduction and bibliography, will be published in 2016 by CUA Press in their Fathers of the Church, Medieval Continuation Series.
  nathanielcampbell | Dec 20, 2014 |
To my knowledge, this is the only English translation of this spectacular work of Mystical writing. Furthermore, I believe that it is out of print. Hildegard writes on the practice of meditation for the purpose of mystical attainment, and this forms the book's main subject. Hildegard's practice of meditation consists of developing certain images in one's soul (or mind, if you prefer not to be so mystical about it). Provided in this edition are drawings which accurately reproduce the images Hildegard originally either developed, or saw, in her mystical visions. She included such drawings in the original manuscript of the Book of Divine Works, although in the only surviving copy of the text (which this volume was translated from) was done according to Hildegard's supervision, not by her hand.
Hildegard's writing is an eloquent and beautiful exposition of christian mysticism in the 11th century. Her intent in writing this work was in part to increase the practice of meditation for the purpose of mystical attainment, and in many ways it reads as a guide for the person who wants to 'see' god; a 'how to be a mystic' tract. This is quite different from Theresa of Avila's intent in her autobiography, in which she discusses mystical practice in terms of personal journeys and experiences as a mystic.
Hildegard is also an interesting figure in Christian (church) history: she comes not too long before Galileo and might have offered Catholicism something that some of those involved in the reformation would have sought. She was a powerful woman leader as an Abbess, and wrote letters (some of which are included by Fox here) to some of the most powerful people in the world, which usually well-received. The Catholic Church had a tenuous interaction with Hildegard however, as evidenced by her non-attainment of sainthood and the reversal (unwilling reversal, no doubt) of a decision to remove her from her position as abbess. ( )
  Donovan | Apr 25, 2006 |
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(Hildegard's work did not carry a "dedication" per se.)

Of the Matthew Fox / Bear & Co. 1987 edition:
To four persons who, like Hildegard, fought the good  fight to awaken church and society in their lifetimes:
Sr. Marjorie Tuite, O.P.
Bob Fox
Ken Felt
Ton Joseph

And to Jose Hobday, who is still doing so.
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First words of the Book of Divine Works:

And it happened in the sixth year after the wonderful and true visions, on which I had labored for five years when a true vision of the unfailing light had shown to me, a human being, the diversity of various morals, of which I had been quite ignorant: that was the first year and the beginning of the present visions.

From the Matthew Fox / Bear & Co. 1987 edition:

Introduction: Hildegard of Bingen has been called an "ideal model of the liberated woman" who "was a Renaissance woman several centuries before the Renaissance."
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Hildegard of Bingen, a Rhineland mystic of the twelfth century, has been called an ideal model of the liberated woman. She was a poet and scientist, painter and musician, healer and abbess, playwright, prophet, preacher and social critic. The Book of Divine Works was written between 1170 and 1173, and this is its first appearance in English. The third volume of a trilogy which includes Scivias, published by Bear & Company in 1985, this visionary work is a signal resounding throughout the planet that a time of healing and balance is at hand. The Book of Divine Works is a cosmology which reunites religion, science, and art, and readers will discover an astonishing symbiosis with contemporary physics in these 800-year-old visions. The present volume also contains 51 letters written by Hildegard to significant political and religious figures of her day and translations of twelve of her songs.

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