“Subjectivity is as much the business of history as the more visible ‘facts’. What the informant believes is indeed a historical fact (that is, the fact that he or she believes it) just as much as what ‘really’ happened.” – Alessandro Portelli, “The Peculiarities of Oral History” in History Workshop, p. 100.
I’m taking a class on the theory and practice of oral history this term, and our first class yesterday involved some discussion of the relationship between memory and truth. For instance, my visual memory of where I was during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake is completely inaccurate. And yet, I keep remembering it this way in spite of having been told the real location a number of times. Why? I have no idea. Maybe I dreamed it. Maybe it’s two memories that blended. The subjective nature of truth is a concept that I keep encountering in my studies – in my history classes we called it “context.”
A few years ago, for a history class on the high and late middle ages, I
wrote a paper about female visionaries, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena. Noted neuroscientist Oliver Sacks wrote a book about Hildegard, using modern medicine to propose a scientific explanation for her remarkable visions. Contemporary records indicate Hildegard, when in the throes of a vision, was sensitive to light and sound. She saw flashing lights and streaks of color, and her sight was sometimes clouded with black specks that seemed to fall across her view. She was frequently unable to eat or move, and spent the duration of the vision prostrate on her bed in a dark quiet room.
Sound familiar? It should. Sacks, with modern medical knowledge to back him up, proposes that Hildegard of Bingen, one of the most influential women of middle ages Europe, a powerful abbess, visionary, writer, composer, and healer, suffered from migraines. Sacks uses convincing arguments to compare migraine symptoms to Hildegard’s descriptions of her visions.
And yes, he’s probably right. If you read his argument, Hildegard’s symptoms seem like textbook migraines. But, as I argued in my paper lo these many moons ago, this does not mean that Hildegard’s visions were a lie. She wasn’t faking.
The point here is context. Hildegard herself claimed her first vision at age three in the late eleventh century or early twelfth and her parents offered her to the Church as an oblate. She was enclosed, that is, shut into a convent cell, with an older nun named Jutta when Hildegard was little more than a child. Her own vows and rise through the convent ranks followed accordingly. She wielded local and political power, writing letters to advise bishops and popes, and writing books on subjects ranging from herbal medicine to descriptions of her own visions.
So yes. Hildegard may have suffered from chronic migraines. The important thing is how she interpreted what she saw. She took the flashing lights, the streaks of color, and falling black specks as divine imagery. She wrote astonishing poems, songs, and music about what she saw, and her visions gave her great power. She was beatified and made a Doctor of the Church, one of only a few women given such an honor.
Oliver Sacks’ explanation of what “really” happened is fascinating and should be given academic consideration. But Hildegard’s explanation for what happened is equally important, because it reveals a great deal about not only her own mindset but the context in which she lived.