In the Footsteps of Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard’s Footsteps

Grape cultivation for wine production is the principal industry in these parts. Hildegard recommends wine in many healing formulas in her Physica, so I decided any effort to pursue oenology would assist my understanding Hildegard’s era. Thus wine tasting became my avocation while in the Rheingau.

All through the Reingau, as this south-facing section of the Rhine is called where it hooks eastward between Kaub in the north and Erbach in the southeast, the hillsides on both sides of the river are striped with methodical lines of grape cultivators. This is the home of German Riesling. Is it my imagination, or are the vines more precisely aligned than in the fields of Tuscany, Cahors, Sonoma and other wine producing regions I’ve visited?

Much of the wine in this region is produced for local consumption. Throughout the summer and early fall, towns along the Rhine arrange wine festivals and vintners open their doors to visitors. Some vineyards maintain weinguts, or wine tasting cellars, in the town closest to the winery where visitors are welcome to sample wine and purchase their favorites. There might be a few tables outside for the sun-seeking tourists but more often wine enthusiasts huddle in the cool dark cellars. The larger wine producing estates and abbeys invite the public for tastings and many vineyards also have excellent restaurants. You don’t need to go far for refreshment. The Abbey of St. Hildegard has its own wine cellar a cork’s pop from the road that passes behind the vineyards.

In Hildegard’s homeland, the Rheingau, the marriage of religion and cultivation of the grape has thrived. Grapes were first introduced by the conquering Romans. It would be folly to think these vineyards are direct descendants of those Roman plantings, but the farmers here have grafted and nurtured the plants until they are perfectly suited for the gravely soil. Monks guided this process and nuns too, as they still do.

Lorch, Rudesheim, Geisenheim, Assmannshausen and other villages of the Rheingau were established long ago. Lorch, founded in 1085, is a happy mix of rural agricultural life with modern conveniences.The town’s origins are visible in the vaulted ceilings of Das Hilchenhaus, built during the Renaissance–hundreds of years ago– now converted to Weingut Graf von Kanitz. The inventive gourmet restaurant was priced way beyond my pocketbook. Sabina and I nursed fragile balloons of red wine while she told me legends of the region. The picturesque gables and scrollwork hearken times long past. If it wasn’t so clean and neat, the medieval pilgrim fantasy could have played larger in my mind.

This area of Germany has been on the European tourist route for more than 200 years. Dramatic cliffs, sun dappled riverbanks, fortresses and castles fuel romantic visions. During the 19th century, the Rhineland was popular with British holiday seekers including a few Victorian era Royal Princesses. This history of tourism means finding a serendipitous surprise will be difficult. Signs, accessible public transport on river and road, guidebooks, maps and tourist information offices makes the region easy to navigate, but crowded during the summer months and predictable.

Hildegard was born on the other side of the Rhine in Bermersheim, a hamlet 31 kms. south of Lorch near the confluence of the Rivers Nahe and Rhine. The town is near Alzey within the nimbus of the cathedral city of Mainz. I didn’t pay homage there, figuring that the nine hundred intervening years would erase much of the original scene. She spent her early religious life at Disibodenberg near Bingen.The first monastery she founded was on the Rupertsberg near Bingen and some years later, another one at Eibingen.

With my German friend Sabina, who has been interested in Hildegard for years, and to create an adventure, we decided to brave the hordes and make a pilgrimage to the current version of Hildegard’s abbey, a 19th century building never known to the original Hildegard. The Abbey of St. Hildegard looms high above the vineyards of Rudesheim. But this is her turf. She trod these fields, crossed the Rhine near here, knew the soil and ate of its gardens.

Sabina called and made an appointment to meet with the one sister who could speak English and German. We planned to replicate, as much as possible, transport available when Hildegard lived here in the 11th century. We walked from Grube Nortstar Sabina and Manfred’s slate mine, to the dock in Lorch. There we lounged on the wooden dock waiting in the sun for the Rhine steamer, which would take us to Rudesheim, the closest stop to the abbey.

Our route that morning took us three miles on foot, then the Rhine steamer and more walking. Hildegard probably traveled on foot, donkey or ox-cart and perhaps in a rowing punt, but rowing would have taken us too long and in the swirling soup of the Rhine, I preferred to use the modern equivalent, the river bus.

At Rudesheim-Asmanhausen, thickets of tourists hampered our progress up the hill to the fields surrounding the abbey. We scampered around the back of town, away from the cute shops and signboards advertising tourist lunches. Within a half hour we were into the vineyards, hearing bees buzzing around ripening fruit. The day was hotter than I thought a northern European country could be, even in August.

The Rheingau-Riesling hiking path bisects the vineyards, and we followed it for a while, and then ambled in the sun at the edge of the road. Sabina and I trudged up the hill to the Abbey of St. Hildegard which seemed to recede as we approached, the trick that topography deals, as distant dips in the landscape become wide crevices and the road curves in meanders like a stream. Bingen is actually on the opposite western bank of the Rhein, across from Rudesheim, but in one of the many shifts of political-religious power, the abbey’s seat was moved to the eastern bank.

There’s a plum cherry tree with fruit colored red, yellow and pink all on the same tree cherry size plums.  Later I see a polk plant (Phytolacca americana, Phytolacca decandra) growing in a large fissure in the wall around the cloister. There is some leaf variation and wider spaces between the berry units on the cone like stalk. The polk is a weed of some tenacity; the very tender young leaves are vitamin rich and edible, although all the herbal reference books on my shelf say the plant is poisonous. Perhaps the plant grows toxic as it ages. The root is useful for stimulating the lymphatic system. The ink purple berries are good for dyes and kid’s pranks. With my sister, we once painted our youngest sister purple.

After gorging ourselves on cherries from a lone tree at the side of the path, we put on skirts over our hiking shorts for the visit to the cloister. We hesitated around the entries, unsure which door to knock on.  A workman passed by, handsome enough to catch our eyes and we giggled and joked about how the nuns must invent repair tasks to be done on the neo gothic brick building.

As the abbey that St. Hildegard’s daughters run today grew large on the horizon, my thoughts turned to the founding abbesses’ travels. She managed several tours of the region during her lifetime, a considerable feat in the pre-motorized ear. Hildegard’s peregrinations bore a motive. She had abbots to persuade, popes to convince, other convents to visit.

A pale nun takes us to a library sitting room and a jolly red-cheeked ebullient nun with colloquial English talks to us. They have no garden of herbs mentioned by Hildegard, a disappointment. I asked about the polk plant, but they hadn’t heard of it or noticed the weed. I wondered if Hildegard’s medical treatise mentions the polk plant. It doesn’t.

Our pilgrimage on foot and boat continues back to Assmannhausen through the vineyards. We forage for ripe blackberries on the sunny sides of the vineyards. Following the vineyard trail marked with small signs depicting a yellow wine goblet, we pass near the Germania monument, or Niederwald Monument, raised to commemorate Germany’s earlier reunification under Bismarck in the 1880’s. Nearby, we pause for a sweet snack on the terrace of Grapevine Hause restaurant — apple cake with cream and my inevitable ice coffee.

I don’t suppose Hildegard would have ever tasted coffee. The beans arrived in Europe long after she died in 1179.