Friday, March 1, 2019

Sapphic Visions: the Queer Erotics of Hildegard Von Bingen


"Inside, you’ve got heaven and earth, and all of creation. You’re a world—everything is hidden in you."

Hildegard Von Bingen
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Assignment Overview

In this exercise, the seminar will creative a "vision" that queers (alters, disturbs, widens) Christianity through contemplation on the virtues and circumstances of Hildegard Von Bingen. These visions will take the form of a visionary presenting specific insights on the given topic and the other members of the group representing the students or adepts presenting questions or alternative points of view. The goal is to rehearse and then present discourses that arise from or cut across the life of Hildegard Von Bingen. All of these discourses call on students to offer their own insights and experiences. This means that visions and queries are rooted in the historical figure and context of Hildegard but applied to later and current events. Again, this is not a recitation of facts and dates but rather an invitation to contemplate and discourse around important contributions that arouse of women-center relationships, the erotics of chastity, queer family, convents, the divine feminine, mysticism v. scholasticism, and the body v. the mind.


Each group will be given some time in class to research, script, and rehearse. Because the goal is to incite conversation, the visions and adepts' queries need not be pre-written word for word. The task is to generate a discussion which will conclude with the visionary and the adepts inviting others into the dialogue.
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Sample Groups

Vision 1: The Love Between Women,
Hildegard Von Bingen and Sister Richardis


Convents were attractive to a wide ranger of women for diverse reasons, not least because of either a lack of attraction for reproductive sex with men or a desire for intimacy with women. This intimacy need not always be reduced to sexual intercourse, just as heterosexual relationships should not be. Yet for women who love women, convents were places where same gender community and intimacy could be enjoyed. Numerous cases of overtly sexual or chastely erotic relations between nuns are found across the generations. A famous such pairing existed between Hildegard Von Bingen and Sister Richardis. Some scholars strongly suspect that their relationship was sexual. Others believe their intimacies manifested in other forms. In any case, this love between women was greater than any other relationship either of them possessed, especially with any living man.


Because sexual intercourse, including queer sex, tends to focus on penetrative sex, society has often not been able to define sexual relations between women. This failure to define women's love for other women, especially by men, has led to many queer female relationships to be overlooked or excused. The misogynist question, "what do women want?" has riddled generations of men. The question, "what do women want from other women?" usually never gets asked even if it could be answered. In any case, within the contexts of women exclusive spaces, queer women's relationships are allowed to grow and evolve to include the sexual but also forms of intimacy than are unknown in male-dominated society. What was going on between Hildegard and Richardis? The men of her world may never have been able to properly guess.

Vision 2: Queer Erotics of Chastity
and Non-Reproductive Sexuality

Despite being defined by heterosexuals by their modes of sexual activity, queer people have a wide range of intimacies and erotics that go beyond the normative definitions of sex. As in normative relationships, queer relationships include a great deal that is not explicitly sexual. Yet even when these relationships get heated, they need not always involve traditional sexual contact. Demisexual and asexual relationships may privilege forms of intimacy that are either non-physical or do not involve genital contact, such as handholding, nuzzles, cuddling, and sitting comfortably quiet together. Indeed, with modern kink, BDSM, and queer communities, a wide range of relationships and erotics can be explored that are both non-reproductive and non-penetrative. Toys, impact play, role playing, power exchange, and bondage all offer a variety of ways for people to explore each other and themselves intimately without genital play being involved. These experiences can be not only erotic but spiritual. Many of these practices and instruments are based on medieval faith practices wherein the mortification of the body was meant to excite spiritual growth and discipline.

Then again, heterosexual culture has also defined and condemned queer erotics for being non-reproductive. Yet non-reproduction is itself something that can be erotic, life-giving and even spiritual. Despite this privileging of reproductive futurity, non-reproductive forms of sexuality, gender, and community are central to Christian traditions. The convent is one such place in which non-reproductive life was celebrated as bringing one closer to God. In these contexts, asexuals and demisexuals might rejoice in the freedom from being expected to engage sexually. Lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals and even heterosexuals might rejoice in being in intimate relations with a community of all women. Again, the freedom from reproductive sex may be viewed as a relief and may orient the person towards other forms of relationship and pleasure. Chastity itself can be one of these queer erotics that bring its own form of excitement. 

Vision 3: Queer Family
and the Convent

Queer family often looks different. For many LGBTQIA people who are not accepted by their family of origin, a family of choice is the their primary support. Then for queer couples who elect to have families of their own, the children are often either adopted or mixed. Then there are queer families which are not concerned with reproduction in the normal sense of the word. Rather, family forms informally with elders taking on the parenting role or friends soon becoming like siblings. In special cases, intentional communities such as those women's communes and lesbian communes can form. Some of these collectives are built to last year-round and others are temporary affairs, constituting weekly events, monthly meetings, or yearly festivals. In the case of some lesbian separatists, specific rules and structures form that dictate who can join as well as what the roles of members will be.

Like these queer families and intentional communities, convents form familial structures that use the language of mother, sister, and daughter while not being related by blood. For many of the members, the convent becomes more of a family to them than their family of origin. As in other queer communities, adoption and choice are how the family grows rather than by heterosexual reproduction. These non-normative forms of sexuality, gender roles, and community can themselves be considered queer. Then there are the countless queer people who have joined convents over the generations: lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, asexuals, non-binary or gender queer people, as well as both trans men and women. In your group, your task is to consider the ways in which convents may contribute to how we understand queer family as distinct from the traditional heterosexual household.

Vision 4: Nuns
and the Divine Feminine

A result of the co-mingling of faith life and womanhood together in the exclusive spaces of convents was a development in theology of the feminine. While the patriarchy of the Orthodox and the Catholic Church was definitively male, with the advent of convents Christian culture began to transform and nuns increasingly became the on-the-ground workers for the Church. With growing population and relative power, womanhood began to shift in Church discourse from being a primarily secondary and subjugated gender towards being an alternative form of being as well as approaching the divine. As convents developed separately from monasteries and other male influences, a theology of the divine feminine rouse in prominence. The question turned from problematics (how do we deal with the faultiness of women in contrast to a deity characterized as masculine?) to celebration (how might God embody and honor the feminine?)

In your group, consider the ways in which a spirit of femininity may be said to exist? Is it social, natural, super-natural? How does the life of Hildegard Von Bingen and the development of convents illustrate the possibilities and conflicts that arouse when a theology of femininity began to speak back against patriarchal church politics? How might a feminist, a gynophilia, lesbian, or lesbian feminist perspective inform or reform Christian theology?

Vision 5: Theology of the Body:
Women Mystics vs Male Scholastics


In the Middle Ages, scholastic theology celebrated the re-examination of Classic Greco-Roman texts and Reason-centered theology. Yet nearly all of these scholastics were men. Women rarely found their respect as theologians and when they did it tended to be based in mysticism. Mystic approaches to theology were rooted in direct contacts with spirits over the mediation of the written word, the sensuality of the physical body over the mind over matter emphasis of male scholastics. This corresponds to traditions in which men are supposed to be more rationale and ruled by logic while women are supposed to be more emotional and ruled by their bodies. Women mystics followed this patriarchal division in certain ways, yet in other ways demonstrated how the eroticism of female bodies and emotions can allow for different ways of encountering the divine. Consider in what ways that mysticism's defense of devalued gender and embodiment represent a queer turn in theology.

How does the various bodies and emotions of women allow for distinct insights that are might not occur as readily in male dominated theological circles? How does a theology that arises out of the body defy certain limits and ways of knowing which focus on the mind? How does mysticism allow women to work around assumptions that exclude women from reading or writing about the Bible, Classical philosophy or scholastic theology? How have queer women, non-binary folx, and trans people of all sorts developed alternative forms of knowing and speaking that fill in the limits, blanks, and gaps left by heteronormative cisgender men?

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