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Polymath, Mystic, and Saint Hildegard von Bingen

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Saint Hildegard of Bingen was a smasher of stained-glass ceilings. From traumatic beginnings, she fought and flourished, becoming one of the most accomplished and enduring authors, artists, healers, composers, and visionaries of the Middle Ages.

THE TITHE

Hildegard was born in 1098 to noble parents in West Franconia, now part of Germany. At the age of three, she is said to have experienced her first vision of dazzling, divine light. A strange and sickly child, within a few years her parents had passed her off to the church. After all, devout Christians were obligated to tithe, or give the church one-tenth of all they owned—and Hildegard, by many accounts, was their tenth child.

By the time Hildegard was eight, her parents had delivered her to the monastery at Disibodenberg. There, she was assigned to serve a young noblewoman named Jutta von Sponheim. Jutta was not content simply to pray; she wanted to be literally buried in religion. She dressed herself in rags, moved into a tiny cell, and brought Hildegard with her. Then she told the monks to wall them in. Jutta had sealed herself, and her charge, within a living tomb, becoming what was known as an anchoress. For the next three decades, the two would receive all of their food, water, and contact with the outside world through a small window.

THE SCRIBE

As Jutta’s behavior became more and more fanatical, Hildegard prayed harder and studied more. She learned to read and write, and a sympathetic monk brought her books on botany and medicine and pushed them through the cell’s small window. Hildegard devoured them. Jutta continued to deteriorate and undertook long fasts that left her weakened. More noble families delivered their daughters to the cell inside the wall; like Hildegard’s parents, they considered it a duty to donate their daughters—along with substantial sums of money—to the church. Left with no alternative, Hildegard took them under her wing.

After Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegard was named magistra (spiritual teacher) of the growing flock. She continued to read and develop her love of music and words. Then she began to make her own. A voice in a vision instructed her to “tell and write”—and so Hildegard did. She began composing sacred music.

She recorded her visions and the prophecies of her angelic visitors. She described and drew the plants she saw in the monastery courtyard and their medicinal properties. She illustrated religious texts with luminous images from her dreams. And she began to object to the corrupt monks who would imprison children for the sake of the dowries that came with them.

The universe. Image credit: The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
As Hildegard’s voice on the page grew stronger, so did the threat she presented to the monks who held her and her charges captive. Word of her healing and prophetic abilities had spread, bringing visitors, ailing supplicants, and devotees. But women weren’t supposed to write or publish books. They weren’t supposed to talk to God, or heal the sick, or write hymns. And they definitely weren’t supposed to criticize the church. On their own, each of these crimes looked bad. Viewed all at once, they looked a lot like heresy.

THE FIREBRAND

Hildegard was not oblivious to the risks of her nonconformity. She knew the best way to protect herself would be to obtain the blessing of higher church authorities, and so in 1147 she wrote to the supportive abbot Bernard of Clairvaux for aid. Clairvaux in turn interceded on her behalf with Pope Eugenius III, who endorsed and encouraged her. Hildegard responded with her thanks—and an exhortation for him to try harder to reform his church.

By this time, Hildegard had become unpopular in the Disibodenberg monastery. And the place became more hostile than ever after her conversation with the Pope. So when a holy voice told her to take her charges and escape to a ruined monastery near Bingen, she did not argue. Monastery leaders attempted to stop her, but Hildegard fell suddenly and violently ill—a sign, some said, that God was angry the monks had interfered. Hildegard recovered and told her flock to prepare for their journey.

THE ABBESS

The magistra and her new religious order reached their new home at Bingen around 1150. A new vision inspired Hildegard to dress her brides of heaven not in Jutta’s self-congratulatory rags, but in fine cloth and tiaras.

Over the next two decades, she would tour the country to preach. She would publish treatises on the natural world, including plants, animals, and stones. She would write a handbook of diseases and their cures. She would invent languages and words and imaginary lands. All this her detractors begrudgingly allowed.

But the final straw came in 1178 when Hildegard and her nuns respectfully and knowingly buried a man who had been excommunicated from the church before his death. The convent was stripped of its rights. There could be no Mass, no sacraments, and no music.

Hildegard fought and argued and pled. Finally, in March of 1179, the interdict was lifted.

THE LEGEND

Her legacy secure, Hildegard could, at last, rest. She died in September 1179 at the age of 81, leaving behind a wealth of sacred music, writings, and teachings that are still widely read and enjoyed today. Her work has enjoyed particular popularity since the late 20th century, when her mysticism and the feminist elements of her life and work gained new attention in part from a burgeoning New Age movement.

She was canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, who called her "perennially relevant" and "an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar.”

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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