Honey Meconi brings music history to life.
In her new book, Hildegard of Bingen, Meconi offers fresh insight into one of the most creative composers of her time, Hildegard, a German writer and mystic who lived the town of Bingen on the Rhine River. In the twelfth century, she produced music, theological books, medical texts, and paintings.
In Meconi’s new biography, Hildegard emerges as a strong leader and creative musician almost defiant in her conviction that God was speaking through her. For example, while most of her contemporaries were singing religious chant within in a modest range of about eight notes, her chants stretched the limits of the human voice, covering all of the known notes on the scale, well over two octaves.
Singing was a vital part of daily life in her religious community. But at one point, Meconi says, she and her followers were ordered to stop making music.
"Late in Hildegard’s life a nobleman came to her monastery who was dying. He had been excommunicated, but he had repented and been received back into the church. So when he died, they buried him in their graveyard. In the Catholic church, if you've been excommunicated, you cannot be buried in consecrated ground. So word got out that Hildegard had buried this guy, and the ecclesiatics in the nearby town of Mainz (they had jurisdiction over Hildegard's nuns at Bingen) heard about this and said, 'He was excomminucate. he should not have been buried there.' And they said, 'Dig him out! Toss him out!'"
But Hildegard said "no," and she even hid the grave so no one would disturb the body. Officials responded by putting her under an interdict, that is, they forbade her and the women of her community to sing at all.
"Talk about a this incredible blow!" Meconi says, "She started a letter writing campaign; she wrote to the pope, she wrote to various people, and she wrote an incredibly important letter to the prelates of Mainz (the guys who were in charge of putting her under an interdict) saying, 'The devil hates music. When you tell people not to sing you are putting yourself on the side of the bad guy!'"
The letters worked. Eventually officials relented and allowed her and her religious community to start singing again. Meconi says Hildegard’s accomplishments are remarkable, especially since she probably lived with terrible migraine pain.
Meconi says, "I think Hildegard must have been an incredible musician. I think she must have had a huge range. I think she must have had a fantastic voice. I think she started singing it first."
Honey Meconi is the author of a new book about Hildegard of Bingen, published by the University of Illinois Press.
This conversation is part of Dialogue on Disability Week, a partnership between WXXI and Al Sigl Community of Agencies, in conjunction with the Herman and Margaret Schwartz Community Series.
Watch an allegorical morality play, or liturgical drama, by St. Hildegard, composed c. 1151.