We’re halfway through Women’s History Month! As I’ve been looking at women in history for this post, there are so many that remind me of Sir Stephen Spendor’s poem The Truly Great. Women who were brave. Women who were contrary. Women who “wore at their hearts the fire’s centre” and “left the vivid air signed with their honour.”
But I didn’t expect someone like that to be the youngest in a family of ten living in the twelfth century.
This tenth child was a girl, often sickly, whom this family dedicated to the church as a tithe. She was made a nun.
At a time when most women were illiterate, given little schooling, and did not tend to hold high offices, this girl was sequestered away in a convent. She could have seen herself as the runt of the family, or even unwanted. She could have stayed quiet her entire life, living in the walls of the abbey and doing very little to make a mark on history.
So I was surprised to learn that this girl grew up to become Abbess of the convent in 1136, a writer, composer, theologian, and even a preacher. One of her books ended up being over 600 pages, and her writing was recognized as doctrine by the catholic church in October, 2012. She not only wrote about theology, but about medicine and biology. And she didn’t shy away from describing human sexuality either. Her work was one of few at the time that gave a woman’s perspective on sex. She also wrote poetry, plays, and corresponded with lots of people. Her diverse works (written in both Latin and German) remind me a bit of Leonardo da Vinci, to be honest. She traveled to several places in Germany to preach in public, something not a lot of women did.
Even when she was in her eighties, she was a visionary who didn’t let anyone get her down. She felt it was right to bury an excommunicated man at the convent, so she did it, then hid the grave from her superiors when they ordered her to exhume the body. As a result, her entire convent was excommunicated and banned from singing. It was the singing part that really bothered her, but she still didn’t exhume the man. Instead, she wrote letters to other authorities and eventually got them to unban her and her fellow nuns.
There are some times when I feel like there are just some things I can’t do. Like the best path for me is to be silent, keep my head down, and make peace with my current possibilities. But this woman’s story made me sit up and take stock: Am I in a convent and out of touch with the world? Was I given away by my family into a situation that did not lend itself well to anything other than one particular occupation?
Am I living in a society where women are mostly illiterate and where I have no formal teaching on the things I want to write about?
She didn’t let those reasons stop her. So why should I let anything stop me? It makes the obstacles I face seem like not a big a deal.
Hildegard of Bingen, 1098 – 1179, is one of my favorite examples of a woman who took to heart the phrase “Be Amazing.” Clearly she had never heard the phrase “write what you know” because she wrote an awful lot about things she wasn’t taught about. She just figured them out herself or found people to ask the right questions of. And her writings were on par with, if not surpassing, many of her male contemporaries. As a writer, I find myself bolstered by her example from over 800 years ago.
When someone or something in life tells you that you can’t be amazing, be amazing anyway.
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