Hildegard von Bingen, First Female Food Writer in the West?


You may have come a long way, baby, but it’s taken a while.

Food historians generally agree that Sabina Welserin of Augsburg, Germany wrote the first cookbook penned by a woman in the West (Europe) in 1553, Kochbuch.  Anna Weckerin’s Ein Küstlich new Köchbuch von allerhand Speisen (A Delicious New Cookbook) appeared in 1598 in published form. Like the English writer Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Ann Weckerin’s (later Keller) book went through many reprints.

But it seems to me that an earlier female author deserves to be credited with the first food writing done by a female author, at least in Europe.

That would be the German Benedictine nun and abbess, Hildegard von Bingen.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), often called St. Hildegard (although she’s never been officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church), lived a life unthinkable for most women of her day. Mostly known for her music, her art, and her writings on her mystical visions, born into a noble family in the Rhineland in what is now Germany, as the tenth child (tithed), Hildegard entered the cloistered life at age eight. Under the tutelage of an anchoress, Jutta of Spanheim, Hildegard became a nun and later founded a number of monasteries. All the while she experienced visions, which some modern authorities attribute to migraines.

Illumination by Hildegard, "Choirs of Angels," 1165 AD

Certainly her art bears some resemblance to migraine auras. And you can take my word for that, because I suffer from occasional migraines.

Hildegard reading and writing

After the age of forty-two, she began to write extensively and two of her major works — Physica (originally titled Liber simplicis medicinae: “Medicine” or “Book of Medical Simples”) and Causae et Curae (“Causes and Cures” or “Book of Compound Medicine”) — discuss food, which in her opinion had much influence on medicinal practice. During her day, she enjoyed a stellar reputation as a healer, as well as an outspoken political activist who dared chastise the Pope on occasion.

While she adhered to the medieval concepts of hot and cold foods, she also included two other ancient Greek  medical concepts — dry and moist — in her Weltanschauung (worldview) of medicine. She divided Physica into nine sections:  Plants, Elements, Trees, Stones, Fish, Birds, Animals, Reptiles, and Metals.

Here’s Hildegard on milk, from the “Plants” section of Physica:

Milk (lac) of cows, goats, and sheep is more healthful in the winter than in the summer. In winter it does not draw into itself the variety of saps that is does in the summer. If healthy people drink milk in the summer, it harms them only a little bit. Weak and sick people should consume very little. If healthy people wish to consume milk, they should take the root of stinging nettle and dry it and air it. They shold place it in milk before they drink it, since bad humors are checked by the nettle. If weak or sick people desire milk in the winter, they should boil it and place dried nettle in it. In summer, when the nettle contains humors and saps and greenness, it is not beneficial to place in milk. The fresh sap harms the milk.

The practice of giving up children to the Church may seem barbaric to us today, but sometimes — as in Hildegard’s case (and in the case of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz), the gain is ours. Otherwise women like Hildegard would be lost in the never-ending stream of childbearing and female illiteracy.  It gives one pause because even today so many women (and men, too!) in so many circumstances — in so many cultures, in so many nations (including ours) — never reach their full potential, thanks to certain social systems, beliefs, and prejudices.

For more about Anna Weckerin’s Ein Küstlich new Köchbuch von allerhand Speisen and Sabina Welserin’s Kochbuch, see Albrecht Classen’s “Sixteenth-Century Cookbooks, Artes Literatures, and Early Modern Literature,” in The Power of a Woman’s Voice in Medieval and Early Modern Literatures (2007). Full text, or nearly so, available on Google Books.

For more about Hildegard von Bingen’s writing on food and medicine, see the following:

From Saint Hildegard’s Kitchen: Foods of Health, Foods of Joy, by Jany Fournier-Rosset (1999) (Excerpt)

Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine, by Dr. Wighard Strehlow and Gottfried Hertzka, MD (1988)

Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic work on Health and Healing, translated from the Latin by Priscilla Throop (1998)

Hildegard’s Healing Plants from her Medieval Classic Physica, translated by Bruce W. Hozeski (2001) (This book basically covers section 1, “Plants,” as found in Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica)

© 2009, 2010 C. Bertelsen



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