September 17 – Sophia and her Daughters; Hildegard of Bingen

Sophia[1] and Her Daughters Faith, Hope, & Charity (d. ca. 126) were martyred under Emperor Hadrian. The girls were tortured in various nasty ways while their mother was made to watch. She was then allowed to bury their bodies, whereupon she died upon their grave. Although not tortured physically, she is accounted a martyr for having watched her children suffer and die.

In 777 Bishop Regimius of Strasbourg obtained their relics from Pope Hadrian[2] I, placing them in a convent in Eschau, now the parish church of St. Trophimius. All but a portion of the relics were lost during the Revolution, but the faithful believe they are still hiding somewhere in town. My source also says that the pilgrims who come to the church to venerate the remaining relics are largely Orthodox, rather than Catholics or any of those other guys.

This may be in part because of skepticism as to their existence. One of my Catholic sources notes that their names are all names of virtues, causing some people to think the story is more of an allegory than a history. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914) on the other hand, while acknowledging the controversy, insists on their historicity.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), arguably the greatest medieval sacred composer, and arguably the greatest woman composer ever, was inarguably the daughter (eighth or tenth) of a “free lower nobility” family in the Rhineland. She was apprenticed at eight (or fourteen) to an anchoress named Jutta, from whom she learned to read and write, and first encountered sacred music. The monk Volmar, who became Hilda’s lifelong friend and secretary, may have at this time taught her psalm notation and the ten-stringed lyre. When Jutta died, the abbot of Disibodenberg (glossing this left as an exercise for the reader) tried to make Hildegard prioress, but after a battle of wills, she managed to escape with her nuns to found a convent elsewhere. Volmar went along and served as their provost and confessor.

Hildegard had her first religious vision at three, and by five she realized that’s what they were. She documented these in writing, but at first shared them only with Jutta and Volmar. She found that writing gave her strength (she was apparently always pretty sickly), and opened her mind to the understanding of the Gospel teachings. Like John at Patmos, she was commanded in her visions to write, so she wrote. Nevertheless she feared that her works were not theologically sound, and so sent a sample thereof for evaluation. When a passage of her great work Scivias was read to Pope Eugenius III, he wrote her back saying, “Write on.”

Hildegard also wrote voluminously on theology, botany, and medicine, as well as numerous poems, and letters (400 of these remain) to persons both great and humble. But she is arguably most famous for her corpus of choral works, the greatest of which is (inarguably) her musical morality play, Ordo Virtutum (“The Order of the Virtues”) (honest). (Your intrepid hagiographer is fortunate to own a copy of this, and recommends it highly to all lovers of that sort of thing.) In this monophonic (one-melody (at a time)) piece (polyphony had not yet been invented in medieval Europe), the virtues are accosted by the Devil (probably played by Volmar) for control of a human soul. Needless to say the virtues win. Ordo Virtutum is called the first morality play (by about 100 years), and is the only medieval musical drama for which the composer and librettist are both known.

Hilda also created an artificial language, lingua ignota (with its own alphabet even). She is considered by many conlangers (artificial language inventors) to be the mother of their discipline. She used it to record her visions and communicate with her nuns. She was canonized in 2012, and is only the fourth woman to be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church.


[1] Wisdom
[2] Cool coincidence. Or is it?