Hildegard of Bingen was born into a family of free nobles in the service of the counts of Sponheim, close relatives of the Hohenstaufen emperors. She was the tenth child, sickly from birth. From the time she was very young, Hildegard wrote, she experienced visions. In fact, the only surviving tale of Hildegard's childhood involves a conversation that she held with her nurse. Hildegard described an unborn calf as "white... marked with different colored spots on its forehead, feet and back." The nurse, amazed with the detail of the young child's account, told Hildegard's mother, who later rewarded her daughter with the calf, whose appearance Hildegard had accurately predicted.
Perhaps due to Hildegard's visions, or as a method of political positioning, Hildegard's parents, Hildebert and Mechthilde, offered her as a tithe to the church at the age of eight. Hildegard was placed in the care of Jutta, the sister of Count Meinhard of Sponheim, just outside the Disibodenberg monastery in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of what is now Germany. Jutta was enormously popular and acquired many followers, such that a small nunnery sprang up around her.
Upon Jutta's death in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected as "magistra," or leader of her sister community. The election would lead to the significant move, executed in the midst of great opposition, of twenty members of her community to her newly-formed monastery, Saint Rupertsberg at Bingen on the Rhine in 1150, where she became abbess.
Hildegard realized that keeping her visions to herself was a wise choice, and confided them only to Jutta, who in turn told Volmar, Hildegard's tutor and, later, scribe. Throughout her life, she continued to have many visions. In 1141, she received a call from God, "Write down that which you see and hear." She was hesitant to record her visions, and soon became physically ill. In her first theological text, 'Scivias, or "Know the Ways," Hildegard describes her struggle within:
"I didn’t immediately follow this command. Self-doubt made me hesitate. I analyzed others’ opinions of my decision and sifted through my own bad opinions of myself. Finally, one day I discovered I was so sick I couldn’t get out of bed. Through this illness, God taught me to listen better. Then, when my good friends Richardis and Volmar urged me to write, I did. I started writing this book and received the strength to finish it, somehow, in ten years. These visions weren’t fabricated by my own imagination, nor are they anyone else’s. I saw these when I was in the heavenly places. They are God’s mysteries. These are God’s secrets. I wrote them down because a heavenly voice kept saying to me, 'See and speak! Hear and write!'"