Hildegard of Bingen, who lived from 1098 to 1179 in present-day Germany and was declared a saint and a doctor of the Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. She can be considered one of the first environmentalists in written history (the oldest of these handed down orally are often lost): even before Francis of Assisi, she had understood the fundamental importance of respecting the environment and all its creatures.
She did so in homage to the Creator but also because she understood that human beings are made of the same material as any other being. Destroying nature was equivalent to destroying humanity itself because nature takes care of us and we must take care of nature, respecting its environment, its rhythms and its creatures.
A Benedictine nun and a teacher of spirituality already famous in her time, Hildegard is also considered a teacher in the use of wild plants for food, and the care and well-being of people: “In each creature that comes from God, even the one that seems most useless, there is some usefulness, even if humans do not know it.”
In her view, ‘creatures’ were plants, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals and reptiles, but also elements and metals. They weren’t just things to know, classify and study, but real concentrates of principles and substances useful for healing and feeding. Many of her intuitions in the herbal and nutritional fields were subsequently confirmed by scientific studies: “Everything is useful for something; you need to know what that is and be able to treat plants and animals in the right way to derive from them their intrinsic usefulness.”
In her countless writings, Hildegard goes into detail and indicates which animals and plants are edible and what they are good for, suggests remedies for treatment and also useful information for a healthy and balanced diet, essential for living in health and harmony: “If a human being suffers from fatigue and fear, it is because they have fed on inappropriate foods and drinks, and harmful substances and juices accumulate in their body.”
There are many books and manuscripts that the saint left based upon her visions, and from them, we know that in the Middle Ages, many of the wild plants known and used today were already fundamental ingredients of dishes and treatments that Hildegard used and recommended.
In the ‘Book of Creatures’, she mentions nettles, mallows, poppies, wild mustard, plantain, dock and many other wild herbs, spices and trees.
She also indicates ‘recipes’ for a healthy and ‘healing’ diet: “For example, Nutmeg has great warmth and a happy balance in its forces. Whoever eats nutmeg opens their heart, purifies their senses and draws good dispositions from it. Take a nutmeg, some cinnamon (the same weight as the nutmeg), a few cloves and grind everything into powder. Then with that powder, semolina flour and a little water, prepare biscuits and eat them often: this appeases the bitterness of the heart and mind, opens the heart and the senses, makes the mind happy, reduces bad moods, gives good juice to your blood and strengthens the body. From these indications, a more modern recipe was derived: the biscuits of joy.”
Saint Hildegard maintained that the body, the spirit, the soul and the environment are the four pillars of health and are closely connected and, therefore, that nutrition also has a direct effect on human emotions.
According to the theory of the four moods, popular at the time, sadness and anger cause numerous diseases and to neutralize these harmful states of mind, Hildegard invited us to consume some revitalizing and healing foods, a “source of joy”. In this way, she was already introducing the concept of “healing food”. (Lena Deckert – Photo: Saint Hildegard of Bingen, stained glass window by Sieger Koder in Benediktbeuern Abbey, Germany. 123rf)