Parergon 36.1 preview: Language and Thought in Hildegard of Bingen

We’ve asked contributors to the current issue of Parergon to give us some additional insights into their research and the inspirations for their articles. In this post, Jeroen de Gussem and Dinah Wouters talk about their piece, ‘Language and Thought in Hildegard of Bingen’s Visionary Trilogy: Close and Distant Readings of a Thinker’s Development’ (doi:10.1353/pgn.2019.0001).

Our article on ‘Language and Thought in Hildegard of Bingen’s Visionary Trilogy’ originated in the discovery that each of us (the authors) had data that could clarify the other’s findings. We are both writing our dissertations at Ghent University in Belgium. Jeroen’s project employs a computational methodology to investigate the issue of medieval authorship and collaborative writing in a variety of texts, ranging from Suger of Saint-Denis to Bernard of Clairvaux and Hildegard of Bingen. Dinah’s project is more focused on the figure of Hildegard and explores how the allegorical form of the vision books functions within its intellectual setting.

One day, Jeroen showed the results of a so-called ‘principal component analysis’ of Hildegard’s three vision books, which demonstrates how they each have such a distinctive stylistic profile that a computer could easily attribute small chunks of randomly chosen texts to one specific vision book. We thought this quite remarkable, given that what is most apparent to the non-digital readers is that the texts share the same prophetic and formulaic style. But Jeroen’s findings corresponded to something Dinah had discovered that same week. While studying Hildegard’s ideas on language, she had noticed that the prophet significantly changes her vocabulary and the semantic contents of words, but also that the changes are implemented as discreetly as possible. We decided to bring these two findings together and to do some collaborative writing of our own.

For the article, we combined the methodologies of distant reading and close reading, while focusing on the level of words. We investigated the frequency of words, their occurrence in relation to other words, and their semantic values. By looking at a number of almost imperceptible changes and patterns, we traced the development of Hildegard’s prophetic style. Our goal was to demonstrate how small developments in the frequency, use and meaning of words are indexical of the way in which a prophetic style, which wants to appear monolithic and unchanging, deals with variation, change, and development. A distant reading of the texts’ lexical patterns reveals subtle changes and developments not apparent at first sight, and a close reading shows that these patterns result from an effort to integrate variation and change into a style that aims to dissociate itself from human writing.

An abiding issue in Hildegard scholarship is the influence of secretaries. To what extent did the prophet’s collaborators contribute to the language and ideas of the texts? Our article makes a contribution to this discussion by highlighting the strong internal motivation behind stylistic variation and change. Regardless of how we should envisage the ‘author’ Hildegard – as a divinely inspired writer, a group effort, or a strong central voice aided by others –, the somewhat curious style of her texts appears as the voice of an unlearned woman only as the result of a stylistic effort that controls even the smallest words. We hope our article can shed light on the way in which Hildegard crafts her words and her style in accordance with her prophetic persona.

Parergon can be accessed via Project MUSE (from Volume 1 (1983)), Australian Public Affairs – Full Text (from 1994), and Humanities Full Text (from 2008). For more information on the current issue and on submitting manuscripts for consideration, please visit