erotics of aridity in Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum

The flower in the meadow falls in the wind, the rain splashes it,
But you, Virginity, remain in the symphonies of the heavenly habitants:
you are the tender flower that will never grow dry.

{ Flos campi cadit vento, pluvia spargit eum.
O Virginitas, tu permanes in symphoniis supernorum civium:
unde es suavis flos qui numquam aresces. }

Along with seventeen or eighteen female solo voices, Hildegard of Bingen in her Play of the Virtues {Ordo Virtutum} included one male solo voice: the voice of the devil. The virtue-women and the soul-woman sing lyrical poetry. The devil-man shouts unpoetically. The play poetically figures destroying the “voracious wolf {lupus rapax}” and binding and laying low the “age-old snake {antiquus serpens}.” It also refers to “man’s wantonness {hominis lascivia}.”[1] Such rhetoric is common in the long and unloving history of disparaging men’s sexuality.

devil as tempter in Hildegard

Ordo Virtutum, however, is far more poetically sophisticated than caricaturing women as virtuous and men as demonic. The devil-man shouts his worldly promises. The underlying cause of the soul-woman’s fall is her incompletely formed carnal desire, her impetuousness, and her pride. Treating men as show horses merely to be ridden impetuously and pridefully in a sexual carousel demeans men’s persons. That behavior also tends to dry women’s sexuality to aridity. Storms that produce heavy wind and rain can pass through quickly to leave a scorching desert.

The virtue-women and the soul-woman remembered a man. Like a woman in love, his body encompassed them. He was the greatest of men, but had the lowest of worldly status. He knew what women are in the fullness of their carnal being. He implored God the Father to fulfill his promise:

Now remember that the fullness which was made in the beginning
need not have grown dry,
and that then you resolved
that your eye would never fail
until you saw my body full of buds.
For it wearies me that all my limbs are exposed to mockery:
Father, behold, I am showing you my wounds.

{ Nunc memor esto, quod plenitudo que in primo facta est
arescere non debuit,
et tunc te habuisti
quod oculus tuus numquam cederet
usque dum corpus meum videres plenum gemmarum.
Nam me fatigat quod omnia membra mea in irrisionem vadunt.
Pater, vide, vulnera mea tibi ostendo. }

Hildegard of Bingen’s play ends with instruction to the gathered soul-women:

So now, all you women,
bend your knees to the Father,
so that he may reach you his hand.

{ Ergo nunc, omnes homines,
genua vestra ad patrem vestrum flectite,
ut vobis manum suam porrigat. } [2]

Creation is restored to greenness and flowering from moist earth when soul-women remember the man’s wounds and humbly wait for the one masculine touch.

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[1] The epigram and the three subsequent quotes are from Hildegard of Bingen’s Play of the Virtues {Ordo Virtutum}, ll.  109-11, 221, 481va, 55 (all sung by the voices of virtues, except 481va, which is sung solo by the voice of victory), Latin text and English trans. from Dronke (1994) pp. 160-81. In l. 110, Dronke translated Virginitas as “Maidenhood.” I replaced “Maidenhood” with the less Victorian-sounding word “Virginity.”

One of the voices of the virtue-women is illegible in the manuscripts. If that voice is different from the other virtue-women, then there are eighteen female solo voices (seventeen virtue-women and the soul-woman). On the virtues, see Dabke (2006).

Hildegard wrote Ordo Virtutum no later than 1151. She wrote it in Latin verse with musical notation that has survived. It may have been performed on May 1, 1152, at the consecration of Hildegard’s Rupertsberg convent. Dronke (1994) p. 152.

Latin texts and English translations are available online from Peter Dronke, Christine Jolliffe, and Linda Marie Zaerr (English only).  A variety of song performances are available on YouTube.

[2] Ordo Virtutum, ll. 267-9, from Dronke (1994) p. 181. The previous quote is ll. 260-66. Both are sung by the voices of virtues and souls.

In l. 267, Dronke translated omnes homines as “all you people.” However, at l. 55, he translated hominis lasciviam as “man’s wantonness.” The Latin hominis most properly means human being, female and male. Men’s masculinity, however, is often effaced in referring to men, except in derogatory contexts. Ordo Virtutum, l. 55, refers to the devil-man, hence “man’s wantonness” is the best translation in context for hominis lasciviam. Ordo Virtutum was probably performed primarily for women in Hildegard’s Rupertsberg convent. Hence “all you women” seems the most appropriate translation for the concluding address omnes homines.

In l. 264, the phrase plenum gemmarum means both “full of gems/jewels” and “full of buds.” Id. p. 151. I have chosen above the later translation. Id. notes that this image connects to the prologue’s image of a tree blossoming. Hildegard’s Hymn to the Holy Spirit, l. 12, describes wounds transformed by the Holy Spirit into jewels. The association of Christ’s wounds (coagulated blood) with jewels (sphragis imagery) occurs in early Christianity. Dronke (1970) pp. 155-6. Ruodlieb V.99-129 describes making a jewel from a lynx’s urine. Such a claim goes back at least to the first-century in Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica and Pliny’s Natural History.

Like the Song of Songs, Ordo Virtutum includes poetry of erotic love, e.g.:

Virginity, you remain within the royal chamber.
How sweetly you burn in the King’s embraces,
when the Sun blazes through you,
never letting your noble flower fall.

{ O Virginitas, in regali thalamo stas.
O quam dulciter ardes in amplexibus regis,
cum te sol perfulget ita
quad nobilis flos tuus numquam cadet. }

ll. 104-7 (voice of chastity {castitas}), trans. Donke (1994) p. 169, with, as above, my translation of Virginitas as “Virginity.”

[image] The Tempter, illumination from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Part II.7, Rupertsberg Codex, based on copy made at Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen, 1927-1933, via Böckeler (1954) Plate 18.  All the Scivias illuminations are online here. Campbell (2013) argues strongly that Hildegard oversaw the design of the illuminations.


Böckeler, Maura. 1954. Wisse die Wege. Scivias. Nach dem Originaltext des illuminierten Rupertsberger Kodex ins Deutsche übertragen und bearb. Salzburg: O. Müller.

Cambell, Nathaniel M. 2013. “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript.” Eikón Imago 2(2):1-68. Summary here.

Dabke, Roswitha. 2006. “The Hidden Scheme of the Virtues in Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum.” Parergon. 23 (1): 11-46.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry, 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1994. Nine medieval Latin plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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