Launch Speech by Dr. Gisela Sophia Nittel

                    Hildegard von Bingen – A Poetic Journey – Launch Speech

Thank you, Sue, for your kind introduction. And thank you, Colleen, for the great honour of asking me to launch the book that’s been your magnificent obsession for a very long time. How wonderful to see so many of you here celebrating this special day with Colleen!

Let me start with a confession: even though I was born in Germany and studied German literature to post-graduate level, I knew little about H until reading Colleen’s book. My academic focus had always been 20th century

literature, and the subject of my doctoral dissertation was the Austrian poet, Ingeborg Bachmann — a woman born more than 800 years after H.

It’s not that I wasn’t exposed to the medieval era at Sydney University — as undergraduates we read the German equivalents of Beowulf and Chaucer, for example, but there was never any mention of H. In fact we didn’t study the work of any women from any period at all in those intense four years of German language and literature. Mind you that was the 1970s before feminist consciousness had begun influencing the academy in general and the male- dominated German Department in particular.

Fast forward to 2019 with Colleen asking me to launch her book and I find I’m not only belatedly curious about this famous German woman, but newly conscious of a personal connection because of the Bingen component in her name. You see, Bingen is a German town on the Rhine River, and I was born in a German town on the Rhine River (south of Bingen). And I share my

page1image55271872

surname with a town located not far west of Bingen.

So I found myself wondering: Who was this H, whom my distant ancestors may well have known (or at least heard of)? A woman who is so highly revered (not just in Germany but internationally) almost a millennium after she was born? Most importantly, what was it about H that so mesmerised my non- German-speaking, Australian poetry friend, that she not only travelled to

page1image55271488

 

Germany three times to tread the same ground but also spent two decades immersing herself in the life and work of this Benedictine Abbess so she could transform her research into more than 100 poems — hoping, I suspect, to infect others with what I like to call “Hildy fever”. It certainly worked in my case!

After reading these poems, and being inspired to find out more, I now understand why Col fell in love with this Sibyl of the Rhine, for H was by any measure a most extraordinary woman — dizzyingly prolific writer, gifted composer, skilled naturalist, revered mystic, expert healer and dedicated

missionary. And not just a dabbler but genuinely accomplished in these fields — a true polymath. Her CV would be impressive enough for a man of her era. For a woman her achievements can only be described as astonishing.

Even by today’s standards, H was prolific in her writing. Her first work, Scivias (Know the Ways (of the Lord)) was 150,000 words long — that’s the length of two doctoral dissertations in the 21st century! (Imagine doing that in an era of wax tablets and parchment.) This magnum opus (in which H documented her extensive spiritual visions) took 10 years to complete.

But H wasn’t done with writing at this point: two more lengthy tomes followed — one that took 7 years and another that took 10. These three writing marathons are even more remarkable when you consider that H didn’t start writing her first book until she was 43, and didn’t finish her third and final book until she was 75. Truly an inspiration to all of us who write!

In the field of music, H composed 77 liturgical songs and an allegorical

morality play (which, I understand, was the first of its kind). And in her role as a healer, H completed two major medical treatises. She also wrote books on the lives of saints; her literary legacy also features volumes of correspondence including letters to VIPs like the Holy Roman Emperor (Frederick Barbarossa), Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

 

No wonder there’s a cornucopia of publications, translations, web sites and societies devoted to H. Colleen’s book, however, [hold up Col’s book] is a unique contribution to this field because it transforms H’s life into poetry — into poems that engross us with their immersive reimagining of H’s persona and experiences; poems that give us the sense that we are there, witnessing the highs and lows through H’s own eyes.

Right from the start, we’re hooked by the drama and suspense that Colleen creates with the cinematic technique of flashback in the two opening poems.

We are dropped into H’s life at 81, at what is clearly a moment of crisis: our heroine in the cemetery, alone and trembling with rage; her frail but determined body pulling and heaving at a large wooden cross. “What on earth is going on?” we wonder. “Why is she doing this?”

Having sparked our curiosity, Colleen cuts back to the 14-year-old H before she became a nun. From there we are taken step by step on H’s long and often challenging journey, which reveals to us the significance of that moment in the cemetery and its consequences. We tend to think of nuns as having quiet, contemplative, and uneventful lives, but this was not the case with H, who was entrepreneurial in her service to others and courageous in the face of adversity! Our Hildy was no shrinking violet!

Throughout her book Colleen skilfully balances moments of high drama with the joy and calm of quotidian life at the abbey. In the poem “Anticipation” (p. 129), for example, we read: “The sisters prune, pickle and preserve, / plait the

garlic / to hang from the cross-pull beams…”

Colleen’s poems are full of such lyrical attention to detail — detail that often interweaves multiple senses. Let me quote from p. 179: “It’s a time of tumbling leaves, abundance of fruit, / grapes, apples, wild plums, mulberries, quinces, hazels, chestnuts, all for the picking. // She smells stench of malt, […] recoils at the reek of tanneries. Her ears prick at the clang of forges, mills and water

page3image55134848

 

wheels, / tune into the lilt of troubadours and balladeers.” And what about this delightful example of synaesthesia: “Aroma of pickles zings from the kitchen.” (p. 223)

Another aspect of this book that delights me is the thoughtful inclusion of background material that supplements and enhances the poems. Col’s bibliography contains two pages of primary and secondary references as well as background reading and a list of recordings. There’s an excellent set of endnotes; a glossary for those of us unfamiliar with terms like “simony”; a map

showing H’s journeys; and a handy list of characters to refer to when we wonder, “Guda? Where does she fit into the picture again?” Col’s aim here was to find “a middle ground between an accurate scholarly presentation of H and a personal interpretation of her story”. Colleen has achieved this to Goldilocks level – or should I say “Hildegard” level — here and indeed in every aspect of this book.

The story of Hildegard of Bingen is not just one about a truly remarkable woman but one that also exemplifies the spirit of friendship, community, humanity, perseverance, resilience and courage in the face of opposition, adversity and injustice. As such it’s a story to inspire us all, and Colleen’s poems do that story more than justice so I enthusiastically commend this book to all of you.

Congratulations, Colleen, on this inspired and inspirational “labour of love”. I am both delighted and honoured to declare your book officially launched.

Leave a Reply