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Tengswich of Andernach

„The report of your saintliness has flown far and wide and has brought to our attention things wondrous and remarkable. (…) We have, however, also heard about certain strange and irregular practices that you countenance. They say that on feast days your virgins stand in the church with unbound hair when singing the psalms and that as part of their dress they wear white, silk veils, so long that they touch the floor. Moreover, it is said that they wear crowns of gold filigree (…), and that they adorn their fingers with golden rings. (…) Moreover, that which seems no less strange to us is the fact that you admit into your community only those women from noble, well-established families and absolutely reject others who are of lower birth and of less wealth. Thus we are struck with wonder and are reeling in confusion when we ponder quietly in our heart that the Lord himself brought into the primitive Church humble fishermen and poor people (…).“

Tengswich of Andernach addressed these criticising words to Hildegard of Bingen between 1148 and 1152. Tengswich herself lead a Canoness monastery in Andernach and represented an ideal conception of poverty. Different to Hildegard, Tengswich did not come from an ancient noble family, but from a family that had just recently moved up to the ennobled servants (ministeriales). Tengswich further wrote to Hildegard „which authority would justify this cloistral tradition“ – well aware that such a tradition did not exist. Basically, this letter was not only about Hildegard’s monastery specifically, but also different attitudes towards spiritual life between the „old“ Benedictines and the new reformed orders of the 11th and 12th century were revealed. As letters were normally a public means of communication in the Middle Ages, the criticism of the Abbess on the Rupertsberg was heard by many people and thus was not a bad „advertising medium“. Hildegard, on the other hand, had experienced similarly strict views on the asceticism of nuns during her time with Jutta of Sponheim and deliberately decided against them. As for all members of the Benedictine order, the rule set up by St. Benedict was only seen as a guideline for her actions.

In an interpretation of this rule by Hildegard, the Abbess of the Rupertsberg discussed her attitude, according to which all that was not explicitly forbidden, was permitted and the right balance was the decisive factor. To the criticism of Tengswich, Hildegard reacted as a prophet and refrained from justifications or any personal words:

„The living fountain says: (…) Virgins are joined together in the sanctity of the Holy Spirit and in the dawn of virginity. It is for this reason that it is proper, through this license and through the revelation of the mystical breath of the finger of God, that a virgin decks herself in clothes of dazzling white, as a shining symbol of her betrothal to Christ.“

So, the custom shall represent the festively dressed virgins as brides of Christ. Hildegard also spoke explicitly about the noble nuns.

„And what rational person would bring together all his animals – oxen, asses, sheep and young goats – haphazardly into a single stable? For the same reason let there be discrimination in these matters, lest diverse people, all herded together, become divided whether through pride or disgrace.“

In this regard, she distinguished herself from the attitudes of her time and the statements of authorities such as Paul or Benedict. Some historians assume that Hildegard wanted to establish a representative position for her monastery in competition with the many new foundations of the time, and she was successful. Her reputation did not suffer serious damage after the letter by Tengswich. The opposite was the case; more and more people sought her advice. They came from the entire Empire and from far beyond

„crowds of both genders streamed to her from all directions, who she, through the grace of God, gave admonition and advice suitable for all ways of life.“