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Małgorzata KOWALEWSKA – Hildegard of Bingen on Man and His “Lesser Brethren”


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Although ecology began to develop as an independent discipline only in the19th century, having experienced its most spectacular rise a century later, the study of nature and of the relations obtaining between nature and the human world was undertaken much earlier in history. A notable figure in this respect was St. Francis of Assisi, whom Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Inter Sanctos of 1974, proclaimed the heavenly Patron of the promoters of ecology. However, the rise of Franciscan ideas did not come unexpectedly; rather, it might be considered as crowning the long process of human interest in nature, which enhanced attitudes of admiration for the natural world and anticipated the ideas of the brotherhood of all creation.

The 12th century seems particularly interesting as far as the study of the «Book of Nature» it concerned, since the thinkers of that time put forward the idea of the analogy between the microcosm and the macrocosm, and clearly articulated the ideas of friendship between human beings and animals, making use of the concepts of the «golden chain» of beings and of the «ladder of nature.» In numerous allegorical poems written at that time and undertaking cosmological themes, the key figure of «Lady Nature» appears. The «ladder of nature» became a widely shared concept in the Middle Ages, contributing to the vision of the world as the unity of various layers of life which are interconnected and mutually inclusive. The concept in question inspired also Renaissance thinkers, as it provided the basis for their universal vision of the world. Four basic “perfections” were distinguished in the world: being as such (deprived of life, sentience or rationality), being which manifests life (although deprived of sentience and rationality), being which manifests life and sentience (although deprived of rationality) and being which manifests life, sentience and rationality.

Among the most interesting authors of the period who addressed the themes of the animal world was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a Benedictine nun, whose views of plants and animals, manifesting a holistic vision of the reality, demonstrate her medical knowledge and keen observation of the surrounding world. Hildegard’s views also express her fascination with nature: in her writings, she develops motifs concerning animals and refers to their symbolic meanings, their usefulness to human beings, in particular in medicine, and describes their «attitudes» which she considers as worthy (or unworthy) of being imitated by humans. Hildegard also tells numerous tales of the customs of animals which are partly true to facts and partly imagined. Side by side with actually existing animals, she describes imaginary ones as well as hybrids. Thus, Hildegard’s works, which provide a «companion» to the medieval knowledge of man and nature, may be of interest to contemporary researchers studying the history of medicine, as well as to the historians of philosophy.

Translated by Dorota Chabrajska

Keywords: St. Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, nature, animals, hybrids, microcosm, the chain of being

The research reported in the article was funded with the support of the Polish national budget provisions for science 2010-2013.

The illustrations from the manuscript Liber de natura rerum by Thomas de Cantimpré (in the collection of the Jagiellonian Library, catalogue no. Rkp BJ 794) accompanying the article are published courtesy of the Jagiellonian Library, Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland.

Contact:
Zakład Historii Filozofi i Starożytnej i Średniowiecznej, Instytut Filozofii, Wydział Filozofi i i Socjologii,
Uniwersytet Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej,
Collegium Humanicum,
Pl. Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej 4,
20-031 Lublin, Poland

E-mail: mem.kowalewska@op.pl

http://filozofia.umcs.lublin.pl/zaklad-historii-fi lozofi i-starozytnej-i-sredniowiecznej/malgorzata-kowalewska



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  1. ISSN 0860-8024
  2. The Republic of Poland Ministry of Science and Higher Education Value: 20.00
  3. Quarterly “Ethos” is indexed by the following databases: EBSCO, CEEOL, Index Copernicus (ICV 2017: 55.26), Philosopher’s Index, ERIH Plus.
  4. DOI Prefix 10.12887