Hildegard of Bingen (c. 1098 – 17 September 1179), also known as Saint Hildegard or the Sibyl of the Rhine, was a 12th-century nun, prophet, and healer. During her life, she led an abbey, communed with God, advised royalty, and chastised emperors.
But she also made cookies.
Already committed to a hermitage from the tender age of eight, she rose to prominence as a result of her divine visions.
In a series of books, she relayed messages from God that ranged from the metaphysical to the practical.
Along with interesting depictions of the world literally as a cosmic egg, enveloped in the flames of God’s love, her books included divinely inspired recipes said to cure everything from leprosy to lung disease to even a common cold.
Hildegard’s pharmacopoeia revolved around the kitchen and the garden and, in her books Physica and Causes and Cures, she outlines herbal and culinary remedies for a vast array of ailments.
For a weak heart, she suggests a daily teaspoon of “wine for the heart,” consisting of boiled parsley, honey, and wine. For stomach pain, a nightcap of wine mixed with powdered ginger, galingale (a ginger relative from Southeast Asia), and zedoary (another ginger cousin, but from India).
And, for problems of melancholy, she suggests her “cookies of joy”, made with key ingredients like spelt flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves to calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart, and make you cheerful.
In any case, Hildegard’s life itself was exceptional.
In fact, in addition to her books, she composed around 70 pieces of music and even invented her own language.
Whether or not you believe she communed with God, she was blessed with a unique education in the healing arts.
Born on the cusp of the prosperous 12th century, she was poised to reap the benefits of a booming era in European history, with scholastic advancement, population growth, as well as agriculturally beneficial weather.
Although she would have lived separate from the men at the coed Disibodenberg monastery, Hildegard would have likely communicated with educated monks and had access to the library, the medicinal garden, and the infirmary.
The result was an education that rivaled those of leading medieval minds, with her treatments that blended the metaphysical aspects of spirituality with the physical aspects of the body and the earth.
In addition to the interplay of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, she saw all ailments as imbalances of the elements (earth, fire, water and air), and the key was identifying whatever imbalance threw off this power (was the body too hot? too dry? too cold?), rectifying it with herbal wines, soups, syrups, and, of course, cookies.
In the case of her cookies of joy, her target was an overabundance of black bile, what she considered to be the source of evil and melancholy.
Her weapons against this darkness were spelt and spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove.
Spelt, in Hildegard’s words, is literally a “hot, rich, and powerful grain that creates a happy mind and puts joy in the human disposition”, while spices like nutmeg would have a similar effect, opening up the heart, freeing the mind and senses, establishing an overall joyful disposition.
While the emotional effects and poetic descriptions may sound suspect, there is real nutritional value within the cookie recipe, as it seems that more of her cures worked than didn’t.
But It’s hard to tell if Hildegard actually practiced what she preached.
Although she wrote that she was constantly fettered by sickness, she lived into her 80s, a miraculous age for the medieval time, and that suggests a healthy life.
However, she whined all the time about her health, but it’s hard to imagine somebody who really was sick doing everything that she did, writing and composing and traveling.
Probably because the “sick, little, woman”, as she often described herself, was inspired by God.
If you have a problem with me, take it up with God, she said.
For example, she was struck by a mysterious illness after the abbot at Disibodenberg initially refused to let her leave to found her own monastery.
Actually, the abbot was reluctant to lose the prophet-nun, who’d attracted a fair share of visitors (and revenue) but, as a result, she lay in bed for months, unable to do anything until the will of God (to found her own abbey) was completed.
And in fact, when the abbot finally relented, she made a miraculous recovery.
In any case, whether she was a divinely inspired mystic or an intelligent, shrewd healer, or both, Hildegard’s works continue to influence healthcare still today.
In some parts of Germany, for example, some doctors still practice Hildegardian medicine. Including in the town of Allenbach, a clinic focuses exclusively on her treatments.
Moreover, her work is still alive and well at monasteries. At St. Hildegard Abbey, founded by Hildegard herself in Eibingen in 1165, nuns carry on her culinary traditions, also making and selling “cookies of joy” along with galangal-ginger cookies, wine, and a selection of herbal liqueurs and teas.
If you don’t plan to visit the Rhineland soon, you can still try Hildegard’s “cookies of joy”, with this satisfying recipe found around the web.
She would’ve recommended pairing them with a spelt coffee, but a cup of herbal tea or a regular coffee will do.
And her feast day is today, on September 17.
Why don’t try it?
Cookies of Joy
12 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup raw honey
4 egg yolks
2 1/2 cups spelt flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
Melt the butter, then add it to a bowl with the sugar, honey, and egg yolks.
Beat gently, then fold in the rest of the ingredients. Refrigerate the dough for an hour.
Flour a surface and then roll out the dough.
Cut it into small circles using a cookie cutter or an upturned glass.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, then bake until a golden-brown.
Let cool, and then enjoy!
Images from web – Google Research