Anna Lina Litz

Visions and Wisdom

Hildegard von Bingen's unconventional life

The 12th century German nun Hildegard of Bingen is a historical figure admired by many to this day, be it for her vast knowledge and structured treaties on the properties of plants, the music she composed, the 'unknown language' she devised for her own mystical purposes, or the power and influence she was able to gain as woman during her time. 

While undoubtedly impressive in any case, there are good reasons to speculate that many of von Bingen's extraordinary achievements are related to her untypical mind, making her a fascinating role model for neurodivergent creatives today. 

Patricia Ranft's Ruminations 

In 2014, historian Patricia Ranft published a paper entitled 'Ruminations on Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and autism'. In it, she collected and interpreted sources dating back to Hildegard's childhood and spanning her adult life in order to illuminate the possibility that Hildegard possessed a number of traits we would today classify as autistic. Click here for a detailed summary of the paper. 


Vision of the angelic hierarchy - Hildegard von Bingen

A difficult childhood 

For example, Ranft found evidence that Hildegard was a socially secluded child who had difficulty speaking in the first years of her life. She summarises: 'Hildegardian sources describe a child […] beset with an undefined 'weakness', social isolation, deficits in expressive oral communication, difficulty in expressing needs, extreme distress at failed attempts at relationship and withdrawal in the face of failure.' 

Since her family was relatively wealthy, they were able to secure a safe place in a monastery for their peculiar daughter, a decision that proved to be very fortunate for Hildegard. 

Talent, drive, and empathy

Although her difficulties did not disappear during Hildegard's adulthood, monastic life allowed her to learn to manage them while also realising her potential and gaining influence in her community. Ranft writes that Hildegard's treatises Physica and Causa et Curae, as well as her innate musical abilities are a testament to a single-mindedness and willingness to abandon outside interests which she seemed to share with many autistic people today, as well as a possible posession of 'savant skills that approximately 10% of the autistic population possesses (as compared to 1% of the general population)'. 


Picking mugwort - Mugwort, with the botanical name of Artemisia vulgaris , is said to have derived its common name from its traditional use, along other herbs (such as Ground Ivy), in the flavouring of drinks, especially beer - before the introduction of hops. There have been many superstitions surrounding this plant: it was believed to protect from wild beasts and evil spirits in general; in the Netherlands and Germany one of its names is St. John's Plant, due to the belief that if harvested on St. John's Eve Iines Råmark

In addition to this, Ranft recognises in Hildegard an unusually 'close association with the mentally/socially disabled', in particular mentally ill women, whom she allowed to spend time in her monastery. It is easy to speculate that this compassion could have come from her own experience with neurodivergence.

Visual and visionary thinking 

Ranft also ruminates on the idea that Hildegard's vivid and intense visions, for which she gained fame already in her own time, could be interpreted to correspond to 'the unusual sensory experiences of many [autistic] individuals'.

Hildegard herself maintained that what she learned in her visions was visual, not mystical, knowledge: 'I never suffer the defect of ecstasy in these visions. And fully awake, I continue to see them day and night'. She also believed that 'her visio was 'linked in a mysterious way with her recurrent bodily afflictions'.

Hildegard's artistic expressions of her visions also point to what Ranft describes as a 'highly imaginative, visually oriented intellect' that pictured structures and events 'in an entirely unique and creative manner'. 


Depiction of Hildegard of Bingen visions - Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard as a role model: special interests and safe spaces

At the end of the day, it is of course impossible to diagnose someone who was alive a thousand years ago as autistic or neurodivergent, and it is not Ranft's nor our intention to do so. What matters, however, is that Hildegard clearly had an extraordinary mind, and thus continues to be inspiring for others who also do. 

Her fixation on the 'special interests' of music, herbal knowledge, and her tireless work to document them are one source of inspiration, her position of leadership and power as a much respected and admired woman in her time is another. 

But there is a third way in which Hildegard von Bingen can serve as a role model, and it has to do with the monastery in which she lived.


St. Hildegard Abbey - monastery founded by Hildegard von Bingen Photo by Matthias Zepper , found on Wikimedia . 

Patricia Ranft speculates that many of the characteristics of monastic life, such as its strictly structured daily routines, were beneficial and in fact instrumental to Hildegard realising her full potential as an adult. 'Medieval monasticism', she concludes, 'however unwittingly, was well suited for fulfilling the secondary function of integrating a spectrum of behavioural phenotypes into its life.'

Thus, Hildegard's example can also teach us about the importance of finding or creating safe and structured (communal) spaces to thrive in. 


Ranft P. Ruminations on Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and autism. J Med Biogr. 2014 May;22(2):107-15. doi: 10.1177/0967772013479283. Epub 2013 Jul 29. PMID: 24585581.