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  • Hildegard’s Headaches September 23, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    ***Dedicated to Moonman who got Beach thinking about this***

    Hildegard of Bingen, monastic reformer, abbess and all round good egg, regularly had visions. These visions were at the very centre of her intellectual and spiritual existence. They gave her the courage to share her unique theology of the world with others: she believed that they had been God-sent and otherwise would almost certainly not have written. And these visions scared off most of the potential, carping critics that swam around the mill pond of medieval Germany: the fact that she was noble born and that Frederick Barbarossa had a thing about her also, naturally, helped.

    But were these visions detailed in several of her works and letters really what they seemed? Or were they, as several scholars have suggested, neurological explosions (aka migraines) that Hildegard took completely out of context?

    Consider the evidence. She had them already as a small girl, perhaps from as young as three. She saw a serrated light around objects: ‘scotomata’ to migraine sufferers. She also experienced euphoric swings that can be characteristic of migraines. And interestingly  her lack of reported headaches need not remove the migraine hypothesis: some migraine sufferers are not crucified on that particular tidal barrage of pain. Even ‘her’ illustrations – which she almost certainly did not paint herself, but that she might have supervised – have been called into the witness box to have her labelled as a migraine-sufferer.

    Beachcombing finds all this intriguing but must also ask ‘are visions ever what they seem’? Does the shaman relying on hallucinogenic fungus have a ‘vision’? Does the schizophrenic on his or her dream-quest? And let’s not even get started on poor Beachcombing who always hears strange voices as he falls asleep – something that Jung made a great deal out of and that by all accounts (please God) is ‘normal’ (?!?).

    But, equally, does a vision cease to be ‘divine’ let alone useful because it turns up, say, on a magnetic scan? A vision, after all, is a creative act. Beachcombing has always been struck by the way that extraordinarily wise and perceptive people can seem almost psychic. And even a materialist can understand the visionary as a valuable individual who strains world facts through the mesh of their own experiences to gather patterns and come to conclusions that they then share with a wider society. Hildegard asked various questions while in the middle of a vision/attack and she  fuelled her life and gave many satisfied respondents answers to their questions.

    Beach has a vague memory of Paul’s vision near Damascus being described as a headache gone wrong in a lightning storm; one that was to have momentous consequences for the world. Are there – there must be – other such instances…? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    30 June 2014, An old friend of the blog KMH writes: Regarding Hildegard of Bingen, Christianity is replete with examples of saints suffering from a variety of afflictions. It seems to be the price they must pay to be considered saints. Actually, if an aspiring saint doesn’t suffer from a typical affliction, then they  may artificially subject themselves to pain, for example by self-flagellation with different kinds of whips, wearing hairshirts or other devices, or even doing something like St. Francis of Assisi, who threw himself into thorns or nettles (among other things). Then there is social/emotional suffering including rejection by relatives or loved ones, persecution for supposedly heretical beliefs, etc. Everything in the way of suffering is allowed for Christian saints if it can be related in one way or another to the suffering of Christ during his earthly life.Those voices you hear may indicate a creative gift – but don’t try to talk back.’

    29 Sep 2017: Bruce T wrote ‘A lot more like simple partial seizures than a migraine. Her symptoms are classic. That being said there are some schools of thought that put migraines in the same spectrum of diseases as Epilepsy, but the lack of headaches and her lifelong affliction with her “spells” make it seem more like SPS. SPS’s and their symptom’s could get you condemned as witch unless you were well connected like Hildegard. Tonic-Clonic seizures have been recognized as disease since antiquity. Julius Caesar was afflicted with the ‘Divine Illness’ as the Roman’s supposedly called it. Saul of Tarsus? His was likely heat stroke in his zeal to round up those tax cheats in Damascus. Too stubborn to wear a hat in the desert is my guess. I hope he wasn’t an epileptic, I’d hate to lumped into the same category as that character.’