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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #20 – Schibanoff 2001 “Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis of Stade: The Discourse of Desire”

Full citation: 

Schibanoff, Susan. “Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis of Stade: The Discourse of Desire” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn), Palgrave, New York, 2001.

Publication summary: 


Palgrave is one of the most important academic publishers of work in the loosely-defined field of “queer history”, both monographs and collections such as the present work. As with the collection on singlewomen, I will be blogging all the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their direct applicability to my project. And expect to keep seeing the various authors included here in other publications yet to be covered.

Schibanoff, Susan. “Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis of Stade: The Discourse of Desire”

This article looks at the fine dividing line between friendship expressed in passionate terms and passion in the context of friendship. The elevated and highly poetic language of ecclesiastic correspondence may have provided a vocabulary for expressing that passion that could be hidden (even from the user) under the cover of devotion and convention.

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Schibanoff’s article explores the close emotional relations between 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis of Stade, a younger noblewoman who became a nun under her. Their relationship led to conflict when Richardis left to become abbess at a different institution and Hildegard went to great lengths to try to arrange for her return. Secular as well as church politics were involved in the maneuverings, but what stands out in Hildegard's correspondence is the expression of a strong and very personal emotional bond between the two, couched in language that otherwise might seem passionate or even erotic. The entreaties also carry overtones that wouldn’t be out of place after a bad breakup.

The rhetoric of the correspondence on both sides suggests the unusual nature of Hildegard's demands and the unease they provoked from authorities. Although Hildegard’s own writings echo monastic rules and penitentials in condemning physical sexual relations between women, and especially nuns, the physicality of her language with regard to her bond with Richardis suggests she may have compartmentalized the prohibition as applying to specific practices ("play[ing] a male role in coupling with another woman") and have seen her own relationship as qualitatively different. Her letters also invoke a maternal bond but the desires and expressions don't resemble a mother-daughter relationship. In the only extant letter between the two, Hildegard frames a reciprocal mother-daughter relationship with each playing both roles. She paraphrases Biblical quotations that suggest a separation of romantic partners or spouses.

In this she echoes two other surviving missives at the 12-13th century where a woman expresses longing and desire for an absent female friend. Those cases draw on the decidedly erotic language of the Song of Songs and Canticles. The article discusses gender fluidity in how Christ and the church are framed in medieval devotional literature, including Hildegard's works where she pairs the (grammatically) female Ecclesia with the Virgin in metaphors of marriage and passionate joining, As further evidence that Hildegard may have seen a clear distinction between forbidden phallocentric activities between women and acceptable-even praiseworthy-non-phallic relations, her medical treatises include a rather frank discussion of differences between men and women in experiencing sexual pleasure, describing how a woman "may be moved to pleasure without the touch of a man" with further metaphorical elaborations.

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