A Space of Convergence: Hildegard of Bingen’s Multivalent Understanding of the Body

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A Space of Convergence: Hildegard of Bingen’s Multivalent Understanding of the Body
   My talk today is part of a larger work dealing with the complexity of Hildegard of BingenÕs medical thought. I have chosen to present the portion of my analysis that deals specifically with how Hildegard viewed the body. I would like to begin with one of the most striking quotes, I think, from HildegardÕs medical text, Causes and Cures ; she says: ÒIn this way human beings carry everything because the entire creation is within them.Ó In Causes and Cures, Hildegard characterized the human  being using several metaphors but the majority describe the body as a container within which all of creation was held together. All of the elements that humans carried within the physical body were a reflection of HildegardÕs own intellectual and spiritual context. Causes and Cures is a textual space where HildegardÕs monastic spirituality and scientific knowledge intersect. These two epistemological categories were not markedly distinct but rather existed in a fluid state. The continuity of monastic spirituality and scientific interpretations of the natural world are apparent in HildegardÕs medical writings and particularly manifest in her conceptualization of the human  body. While the effect of monasticism on HildegardÕs writing is discernible, she gave equal weight to scientific explanations. Hildegard was an active participant in the burgeoning scientific culture of the twelfth century. Today, I argue that even though Hildegard placed Causes and Cures  within the context of the ancient medical tradition, she presents an innovative theory of the  body as a space of convergence of natural philosophy and spirituality. I will demonstrate my thesis through an expansion on the following three concepts germane to HildegardÕs understanding of the body: microcosm and macrocosm, the permeability of the skin, and the physiological differences between women and men . International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, MIConference Paper 1    This paper draws on the work of Caroline Walker Bynum, Monica Green, and Victoria Sweet. I utilize Margaret BergerÕs translation of Causes and Cures . The practice of medicine in the Middle Ages provides a frame through which to view somatic experience and embodiment of cultural and religious values. The body played an active role in shaping medieval culture which was ultimately connected to concepts of health and disease. In HildegardÕs visionary and natural-philosophical writings she placed human beings at the center of the universe. The body was a space on which cultural and religious beliefs were etched. Caroline Walker Bynum has argued that medieval perceptions of the body were not consistent with a Cartesian-like dualism of body and soul. Rather there existed a continuity, a fluid concept of the self as a psychosomatic unity.The idea of person was conceptualized as an integral entity. As Bynum writes, Òperson was not person without the body, and body was the carrier of the expression of what we today call individuality.Ó HildegardÕs medical writings are evidence of not only the value of the body but also the significance of the body for cultural expression. The body as space is a particularly rich lens through which to view perceptions of the medieval body. The work of linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson provides a fruitful schema for analysis. Thoughts about the body influence and are influenced by conceptions of space. As Lakoff and Johnson describe: ÒWe are physical beings, bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and we experience the rest of the world as outside us. Each of us is a container, with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation.Ó The body is a container which is set off from the world by the surface of the skin but also permeable because it contains the features of the world. This container acts as a physical locus into which culture is 2  imprinted on the body. Physicality, space, and culture an inherently linked. The body as container is a recurring theme in HildegardÕs Causes and Cures.  The schema of space is highly resonant for the medical body. The body in a state of health or disease reflects cultural perceptions. Biological change manifested in the medical body often indicates the ways in which societies respond to disease and infirmity. Culture permeates the body which is like a container of social historical experience. Exploring the history of the  body should take into account not only biological factors but, also, how medieval society mediated between the biological and the social. The body is not only a container but also the location of the self. As noted by Bynum, the self was located in the physical body as exhibited by sensation, emotion, reasoning, and identity. These ideological manifestations of the bodyÕs physicality tell us how culture was embodied. The relationship between the body and culture holds meaning for the nature of somaticism and embodiment of social values. The projection of culture onto and into the body, a container of societal characteristics, is applicable to HildegardÕs own perception of the healthy and diseased  body. The body that emerges from Causes and Cures is a complex system that indicates the interconnectedness of natural philosophy and spirituality. The body in HildegardÕs medical writing was a container which was filled to the brim with the imprint of God. The medical thought manifest Causes and Cures was shaped by HildegardÕs religious vocation and monastic environment in addition to HildegardÕs knowledge of ancient medical literature. All of these factors converge on the physical space of the body in Causes and Cures. The body was the 3  centerpiece of HildegardÕs spirituality and medical writing. Thus, the body emerges from HildegardÕs writing as a focal point and as a template for her spiritual and medical thought. The first concept of HildegardÕs multivalent theory of the body that I will discuss today is the notion of microcosm and macrocosm. Hildegard viewed the human body as a microcosm of GodÕs macrocosmic Creation. The body was, then, a small scale copy of the macrocosmic universe. Hildegard writes, ÒO human, look at the human being! For human beings hold together within themselves heaven and earth and other things created, and are one form; and within them everything is concealed.Ó According to Hildegard, within every human being, all of creation was contained: heaven, earth, and other divinely-ordained things. As stated at the beginning of this talk, Hildegard wrote, ÒIn this way human beings carry everything because the entire creation is within them.Ó Thus, the body described in Causes and Cures  was a space, a container that held together all of creation within it. The second theme germane to HildegardÕs perception of the body is the concept that the  body was connected to the universe through the permeable surface of the skin. A discussion of HildegardÕs cosmology is necessary in order to understand how Hildegard perceived the  permeability of the body. HildegardÕs unique cosmology affected her medical thought. She explains that all of the elements were contained within the body: Ò... the elements- namely fire, air, earth, and water- are in the human being. They operate in him with their forces, and in all the humanÕs undertakings they circle around fast, like a turning wheel.Ó Hildegard envisioned that each of the elements contributed to one or more anatomical functions of the human body. The elements of the universe were integrally bound to the body and essential for health. The external elements influence the internal workings of the body. Although the skin may function as a 4   boundary between the body and the natural world, borders are unclear and permeable. The best  place to see the permeable boundaries of the body is in HildegardÕs discussion of winds. The winds play a crucial role in HildegardÕs understanding of the body. Her metaphorical use of winds implied not only the external winds but also the winds that move inside the body. The internal winds brought about physiological qualities. According to Hildegard, wind circulated in the veins to the major organs. This internal circulating wind caused physiologic change resulting in everything from laughter to erection. Hildegard understood the affect of the winds as highly influential on the bodyÕs functions. She explains quite clearly that the winds affected the internal body: ÒAll the winds, whether naturally or by GodÕs disposition, penetrate manÕs body, so that by their breaths he is either strengthened or made destitute.Ó Through the  permeable pores of the skin wind could enter the body and alter someoneÕs internal state. This alteration was made possible because of the connection between the winds and the humors: ÒThe different qualities of the winds and of the air go together, and they change the humors in the  body, which take up the qualities of the winds.Ó Thus, the body takes up and contains the qualities of the winds. The process of physiological change due to the influence of internal winds occurs through the anima: ÒThis makes man somewhat mutable in his humors; for when he takes on this changed air, and his soul [anima] transmits it to the interior of his body, his humors are changed, and often induce sickness or health in him.Ó The anima is the medium through which the internal state of the body is changed. The humors are influenced by the winds which then cause either disease or health. In sum, the body that emerges from the text of Causes and Cures was  permeable. It was affected by the external winds. The winds entered the body through its pores 5
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