Land der Hildegard - Hildegard von Bingen

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Her Life › Work as Abbess › Interdict

Navigationsbaum: Her Life › Work as Abbess › Interdict

In 1178, one year before her death, the 80 year old Abbess of the Rupertsberg had to face her last fight which threatened to harm her as well as her monastery. The place of her work had an interdict placed on it. From then on it was forbidden to donate sacraments and to perform divine services until the interdict was lifted. It was often the case that the interdict was used as a coercive. But how was it possible that Hildegard’s monastery was hit with this penalty?

In 1178, the Abbess buried a noble knight in the monastery’s cemetery who had been excommunicated, but as Hildegard reports, freed himself from the excommunication by confessing and had received last anointing as well as communion. For her, the burial on the sanctified ground happened legitimately. However, some prelates from Mainz saw this differently. The high dignitaries from the cathedral demanded that Hildegard removed the body from the cemetery and threatened her with the interdict. Hildegard refused and the interdict was applied. In a letter to the prelates, Hildegard emphasized her legitimate conduct in this case and pointed out that not praising God with songs and prohibiting sacraments would not be beneficial for her community. It did not help. Then, Hildegard went to Mainz herself in order to resolve the matter personally – she was rejected again. She had to accept that she would not achieve anything in this way and wrote a letter to Christian of Buch, the Archbishop of Mainz. He had been in Italy for a long time on orders from the Emperor and she reported to him about the happenings. In the meantime, she managed to gain support from a different place:

„As many people felt so much sympathy for us, but could not help us with the best will, a faithful friend, namely the Archbishop of Cologne, went to Mainz. And a soldier accompanied by a knight wanted to prove with sufficient witnesses that he himself and the laid in his lifetime were freed from the excommunication by the same priest, at the same place, at the same time, as they made the same mistakes together. The priest who released them was also present.“

To begin with, the prelates of Mainz were unable to counteract the witnesses and the influence of Archbishop Philip of Cologne, and they agreed to his proposal to lift the interdict at least until his Mainz counterpart had returned. However, the taste of victory was short-lived, because soon some of the members of the cathedral went to Rome to see Christian of Buch and effected another declaration of the interdict. Just when they thought they had achieved their goal, they mistook the steadfast Abbess – the body stayed on the monastery’s cemetery. A clarification of the situation was finally achieved by the response letter from the Mainz Archbishop to Hildegard’s explanation of the situation. He believed in her innocence, but also reprimanded her:

„Indeed, for the Church it was clear that the dead man buried at your church was given the judgment of excommunication during his lifetime. While the Church was not certain about his absolution, it was extremely dangerous for you to avert the objection of the clergy and to keep the annoyance secret from the Church (…)“.

But then the relieving words followed:

„If indeed it is clear that the absolution of the dead man in question has been asserted by qualified me, we order that you resume the normal celebration of your divine offices.“

Hildegard finally won the dispute, but the feeling that there was more behind the matter than the burial of an excommunicated knight remained. In a letter to the prelates she wrote:

„Before you close the mouth of a community, (…) (you) have to consider to be lead by the eagerness of justice and not by indignation, unjust emotions or feelings of vengeance.“

The reason for these „feelings of vengeance“ is not known to us, but it is certain that both sides defended their positions without compromise. Hildegard was attacked in her role as Abbess and prophet – to give in would have totally contradicted her understanding of these tasks. The influence, however, that she gained by her reputation as a prophet was so large that the Archbishop of Mainz took her side and brought this difficult chapter of her life to a happy ending.