Hildegard of Bingen wrote Physica during the period 1150 to 1158. For those of us interested in Hildegard of Bingen medicine, or German herbal remedies in general, Physica and Causae et Curae are valuable primary resources. Both were originally combined in “Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturarum creaturarum” (the “Book of the Subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Creatures”).
Physica: a Practical Handbook of Folk Healing
Despite its contemporary meaning, the title Physica bears no relationship to physics. Instead, the meaning draws from the use of the word Physica in the Salernitana School (the first western medical school), meaning pharmacology. The premise of Physica relates to traditional healing remedies applied in everyday life.
Hildegard’s Physica serves as a practical handbook of folk healing and monastic medicine. The majority of content derives from practical knowledge aggregated through Hildegard’s personal experience. It is also likely that Hildegard compiled much of the information from contemporary writings of medical experts available at that time. Together, Hildegard’s experience, as documented in Physica, was derived from the practice of monastic medicine over centuries.
Naturalia: natural healing techniques
In Physica, Hildegard describes the natural medical tools available at that time; she refers to these as naturalia. Physica is organized according to several different naturalia, resulting in what could be nine separate books. Each chapter describes a unique natural healing technique, including plants, elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, and reptiles.
As with all Hildegard of Bingen writings, Hildegard’s Physica represents a departure from her contemporaries. Her description of the various naturalia objects glosses over details such as form, color, occurrence, location, and harvest time. Instead, Hildegard confines her description of naturalia according to their humoral-pathological classifications.
Hildegard’s pragmatism revealed in Physica
The style of Physica emphasizes pragmatism. Rather than use formal Latin terms to describe her naturalia, Hildegard favors common German terms. Her remedies, which derive chiefly from the plant-world, contain basic descriptions, without superfluous language. Hildegard simply provides the relevant qualities of each plant and offers indications for their treatment against various health conditions.
Interestingly, Hildegard’s formulas do not often contain specific quantities. She relies on relative dosage proportions, rather than specific units of measurement. Further complicating matters, Hildegard uses multiple terms to describe the same health conditions, creating some challenges of ambiguity and consistency.
Overall, the versatility of Physica reflects its importance and longevity as a resource for folk and natural medicine. Physica provides a compendium of folk medicine remedies, most of which are native to Germany. Presumably, Physica also represents the first record of its kind to aggregate healing techniques that had been passed along informally for generations. The book names no sources, which implies the informal nature of any source material.
The nine “books” of Physica describe about 500 herbs, plants, animals, precious stones, and metals. Hildegard focused on the therapeutic use of these naturalia, resulting in about 2000 remedies, with recipes and instructions for their use.
Physica Includes Hildegard’s 6 Golden Rules of Life:
- Draw energy from nature’s life force (Viriditas)
- Healthy and balanced nutrition found from food’s healing powers (Subtleties)
- Regenerate strained nerves with healthy sleep and dream regulation
- Finding the harmonious balance between work and leisure
- Detox and purification with regular fasting and sweat bath
- Optimism and strength of psychological defenses, using the 35 subconscious virtues
The sixth point is particularly interesting because it underscores Hildegard’s psychotherapy which, similar Edward Bach, cross-references negative-archetypical behaviors with corresponding counter-measures. Leaving the practitioner with specific self-improvement remedies.
Similar to Chinese medicine, the whole system is integrated into a theory of elements. At the core are four elements, two of which are “material”, namely, earth and water, and two “spiritual” elements, air and fire. Good health results from a balanced interplay among these four basic elements.
Humoral theory found in Physica
Consistent with the concept of bodily humors and rule of fours, holistic healing takes place in four distinct areas. Managing these distinct spheres calls on acknowledgement of the simultaneous microcosm and macrocosm of our universe. The spheres include:
- The divine sphere
- The cosmic realm
- The physical area
- The mental area
Hildegard’s approach addresses both the discrete symptoms of disease in a person, and how that relates to the healing of man as a whole:
“In all creatures, animals, birds, fishes, herbs and fruit trees mysterious healing powers lie hidden, Which no man can know, unless they are revealed to him by God himself. “
-Hildegard von Bingen
Contemporary Appreciation for Hildegard in Germany
Hildegard’s centuries old treasure of knowledge is finding a new audience. In Germany, the study and practice of her holistic healing remedies and philosophy is a growing rapidly. The trend of revisiting a holistic approach to wellness and healing is a natural response to the often fragmented and incongruent approach of modern medicine. Like Hildegard, modern practitioners are once again looking to treat more than just symptoms, to dig deeper into the root causes of suffering. Just as in Hildegard’s time, a patient’s mental and spiritual condition informs his well-being and thus it makes sense to return to a broader perspective of health.
Physica is a bounty of valuable information about the effects of medicinal herbs. Though over 900 years old, Hildegard’s remedies continue to inform, based on practical, altruistic intentions. And as modern medicine moves further into the ancient wisdom contained in such volumes as Physica, research often confirms many of the same findings Hildegard proposed in the middle ages.
Physica and Modern Phytotherapy
Even today, in the context of modern phytotherapy, Hildegard’s recommended use of plants and herbs remains prevalent in modern medicinal products. In fact, the first of the two Hildegard books contain information and applications for a total of 225 plants, of which 60 are positively monographed drugs according to the modern regulatory bodies.
Despite the many successes, a large number of plants described in Physica by Hildegard, remain obscure in modern medicine, or have not yet received approval. For some, the question remains, whether modern medicine will have the time or inclination to evolve full circle to the days of Hildegard and her predecessors.