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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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Hildegard Tales: Tea with the Baroness

I went on my first Hildegard Pilgrimage in late Spring of 1998, Hildegard's 900th birthday anniversary year. Germany was fabulous. After it finished being fabulous, it was amazing and wonderful. I had adventures, saw everything I wanted to see, got all relaxed and happy, and really really really could have just stayed there.

 

As you probably know, I was following the life of Hildegard von Bingen, although I did it a little out of order. I started in Bingen, which is a lovely little town right in the kink of the Rhein as it heads toward Frankfurt and Mainz. It's got a central train station, the incredible Rhein boat excursions start and end there, and there is a lovely ferry across to another Hildegard site. I found a very congenial hotel and settled in. The original plan was to stay two or three days, but it was such a central spot, I stayed six days.

 

Bingen is about 15,000 people, split into three little towns. Bingen is the main town, with what few businesses they have. Bingersbrück is across the Nahe river where it meets the Rhein, and has the train station, the church and monastery where Hildegard lived the last 30 years of her life and where she died, and where most of the residences are for "regular" folks. The wealthier folks live up the hill behind Bingen on the way to Rochusburg, which only barely qualifies as a town, but is the original location of Hildegard's Bingen monastery. That monastery burned down soon after she moved into it, and she relocated to the more practical Bingersbrück. Across the Rhein above Rupertsburg is Eibingen, where the "overflow" monastery was. (HvB was a popular leader, and she had to build a second monastery to house her followers. The Eibingen nuns can see both Rochusburg and Bingersbrück, and vice versa, and the original buildings still stand—well, not Rochusburg, although they've put another beautiful church on the site, which commemorates HvB.) I spent the first three days walking from site to site (as she would have done) and taking the ferry across and walking to Eibingen. Then, I got on a train to Disibodenburg, and had my first adventure.

 

HvB was born in 1098 in a little town called Bermersheim bei Alzey and tithed to the church (at her own request) at age 8. After the ceremony in Trier (these spots are covered in another travelogue--you're only getting one adventure in this episode), she went to the monastery at Disibodenburg, where she lived until she was promoted to magistra at the death of her roommate Jutta, who had been magistra for about 30 years, a little longer than HvB's residency. (Ultimately HvB relocated to Bingen, did some preaching around the area, including Köln and Mainz, and died in Bingersbrück in 1179.)

 

Disibodenburg was originally a Celtic monastery in pre-Christian times. It became Roman in the first century, and became Christian under the leadership of St. Disibod in the second century AD. After a brief pagan sponsorship in the fourth century, it returned to Roman Catholic territory in the sixth century, which it remained until about the sixteenth century, when it became unoccupied and fell down. Meanwhile the area developed and the wine business that is still there began (there's really luscious farm country all around the Rhein). In the sixteenth century, whoever was king or Emperor or Kaiser at the time (my "recent" history is not as good as my medieval history, I'm afraid) promoted a member of the von Racknitz family to be a Baron, and gave a huge chunk of land to him, including Disibodenburg. The family recognized Disibodenburg's historical relevance and did not build on top of it, although they didn't really actively preserve and unbury it until about the 1960s.

 

 

I had been given a letter of introduction to give to the Baron and Baroness von Racknitz, so I hopped on a train and made my way there. I walked the mile and a half or so through the little town of Staudernheim, and then another mile down a lovely shaded, packed-dirt road. The signs made my heart pound with anticipation as they directed me to the Weingut (it's their version of a vineyard with a tasting room) and Baronial mansion, and the ruins of Disibodenburg. I didn't choose the path to the ruins first, because I thought I'd give the Baroness time between my arrival and the ruin-visit to write a response to my introductory letter. I walked onto the grounds of the mansion, and rang the bell. (No, not the doorbell, an actual bell that calls folks from the grounds, which occupy about six acres of house and stables and museum and wine shop. There are more buildings in the fields which probably have to do with the production of wine, and the fields extend as far as the eye can see.)

 

A nice lady in her sixties answered my ring. She had on corduroy pants and a shabby sweater and had some twigs in her hair--she'd been working in the garden. I asked to see Frau von Racknitz, and she said that she was the Baroness herself. I didn't expect a satin ball gown with a tiara, exactly, but I certainly didn't expect "regular folks" either. She was delighted to have the letter and photographs I brought her--the person who wrote the letter was the first to sing HvB's music at Disibodenburg in about 400 years, or at least in this Baroness' lifetime. We had a lovely chat and a personal tour through the museum and shop. Then I left her to write her letter and walked up to the ruins. I spent about an hour there, sketching, taking photographs, listening to birds sing (in German, of course) and enjoying the first pretty weather of the month. The state has taken over recovering the ruins, so most of them are uncovered and there is a nice map explaining the various incarnations of the buildings, and marking where HvB and Jutta slept, and so forth. The Baroness' family had only uncovered the tallest of the buildings in recent times (30 years or so) before the state stepped in. At last, thinking the Baroness had enough time to write her letter, I made my way back down to the mansion and rang the bell.

 

She answered, having combed her hair and put a string of pearls on over her shabby sweater (I'd warned her that I wanted to take a picture), and invited me to join them for Tea. Also invited were the conductor of the Köln symphony and his lady friend who were visiting the ruins at the same time. Lady Friend had misunderstood "ruins" and "farms" apparently, and was shellacked and perfumed and high-heeled. But she didn't seem uncomfortable about it, so I tried not to think less of her. But I get ahead of myself. I was escorted into a room that had a harpsichord, two pianos, an electric keyboard, some very expensive sculptures and about 400 years of ancestral portraits on the walls. Although that all sounds posh, it was clearly the "play" room--not a formal room at all. I waited there while the Baroness fetched the other members of the party. Meanwhile, I could hear the Baron being baronial in the room next door. "12 more acres of this vine, 6 more of that,” etc. At last the party arrived, and introductions were made all around. (The Baron met a few of the stereotypes: white hair and fluffy mustaches, and the arrogant angle of the head that I'd expected from both of them.) I had more German than they had English, so there were a few humorous moments and a few cute pantomimes where someone (usually me) expressed that they hadn't followed the conversation. The men talked music for a while (which I could follow) and then switched to what their various children were up to (which I couldn't follow). Lady Friend wanted to practice her English (she had very little), so she and I talked about how we got interested in HvB while the Baroness was out getting the tea things.

 

When the Baroness came in with the tray, a dog and a couple of cats came in with her. The dog was not particularly interested in who we were, but promptly spread himself across three pairs of feet. The cats did cat stuff. Lady Friend commented on the pets, and the Baroness said that they had the dog and six cats, plus several horses and rabbits and so forth, all of which followed her around all day, and which made it quite difficult to get through a doorway without adequate planning. The cats all came when called. (!) Lady Friend said that she had two dogs, and talked about them for a few moments. When she'd finished, they all turned to me. I said, "I have frogs."

 

I let the silence ring out for a few seconds while they tried to figure out if I'd gotten the German wrong, whether it was some pet thing peculiar to Americans, or if I was just odd. I could see each of them was going a different route with it, so when I had enjoyed the moment long enough, I told the story of singing Handel's Israel in Egypt and how I came to have Blotch and Blaine and their little tadpole Blevin. As I told about their personalities and how one of my authors thanked them in his acknowledgments, I could see the Baroness getting sad. Oh boy, I thought. I've committed some cultural gaff. But Lady Friend also noticed the change in mood, and asked what was the matter. (Yes, they DO actually say “Was ist los?”) The Baroness said that they'd had a frog out back for about ten years, who used to sing to her in the evenings. She was sad because she wished she'd thought to get him a wife; now he was gone, and she missed him.

 

Okay, who among you can honestly say they have talked about frogs with a Baroness?

 

(We had our tea, the conductor and Lady Friend gave me a ride to the train station, and the rest of the day was uneventful, and so will go undescribed here.)

 

Completely Off Topic
Completely Off Topic