I, like all the best people, have spent the last month or so being absolutely amazed that there was a time before Janelle Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computer’ existed, and that apparently there was music before now. It’s a lot to deal with, you know? Obviously, this album is important for a number of reasons, the most pressing of which is that it BANGS. However, it is also an amazing record of queerness and female auteurship in a male dominated society.
And of course, all of this is rather like the work of Hildegard of Bingen.
Hildegard, like Ms. Monáe, was a phenom. A polymath, she can comfortably be labelled: a composer, philosopher, mystic, and the founder of natural history in the German lands. Bitch is also a saint, so there is that. Hildegard has written on any number of subjects, but like Janelle, she produced a lot about the nature of humanity, sexuality, and the transformative power of music itself.
While to be this incredible you need to have some inborn talent, both women were able to gain expertise as a result of killer education. The careers of both Janelle and Hildegard started in institutions. For Janelle that was the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, for Hildegard it was a Benedictine monastery in Disibodenberg in the Palatinate.
While you might think that a nunnery and a centre for the performing arts don’t have a lot in common, you would also be wrong. See nunneries in the medieval period were, more or less, the place to BE if you were a woman who was a) smart, and b) not royal, so that you could go think instead of getting married and seeing to a family and, likely, a farm for the rest of your life.
Plus, in the medieval period the closest thing there was to being an international sensation was being a philosopher and author. Is it exactly the same thing as being a pop sensation? No. It was sorta kinda like being, say, someone like Stephen Hawkins or Neil DeGrasse Tyson (if you ignore the superior atheist mindset and total disregard for the humanities that Dr. Tyson inflicts upon us all) is now. People got hyped on ideas, and they circulated. That is how Abelard managed to get a following devoted enough that they cried in the street (I mean, according to him) when he got his junk cut off by Heloise’s uncle. #NeverForget
So both these amazing women were HOOKED UP in institutions that could give them the educations they needed to thrive, but crucially they both also had access to kick-ass mentors. In Hildegard’s case that mentor was the noblewoman Countess Jutta von Sponheim, who was an anchoress (aka a person who was into living alone in one room for God) at the monastery. Her solitude was often broken, however, when she was asked to tutor the children of nobles who entered the nunnery, of which Hildegard was one. Jutta taught Hildegard to read, write, chant, and probably play the psaltery which was a sorta harp like instrument that we don’t really truck with anymore.
Similarly, Janelle, after a move to the ATL, was tutored by Sir Lucius L. Leftfoot, aka Hot Tub Tony Francis, aka Daddy Fat Sacks, aka Chico Dusty, aka General Patton, aka Big Boi, aka Antwan André Patton, if you want to be like that. That Sir Leftfoot is hip hop nobility is not up for discussion on this fucking blog, which recognises Outkast as true luminaries and demands that you respect their back catalogue or GTFO. Anyway, Big Boi knew talent when he saw it, and our girl showed up on two Idelwild tracks – “Call the Law” and “In Your Dreams”, but I don’t want to talk about that because I miss Outkast. (Sidenote: WHYYYYYY??)
Anyway, basically that was that and our girls were OFF AND RUNNING from that point on and they were ready to bring it BIG TIME, and also make it kinda queer.
Hildegard, you see, felt some things about her assistant Richardis von Stade, who had been by her side all through Hildegard’s work on her major work Scivias. And Hildegard was straight up about how helpful Richardis was and how much she loved her.
When I wrote the book Scivias, I bore a strong love to a noble nun, (…), like the one of Paul to Timothy, who connected with me in friendship and love during all those events, and who suffered with me until I finished this book.
Richardis was noble too, and clever, and in 1151 elected abbess of a monastery at Bassum, which was really far away from Rupertsberg where Hildegard was living. Hildegard was bereft. She wrote to Richardis’s mum to try to get her to intervene. She wrote to the Archbishop of Bremen, and maybe even Pope Eugene III. She told them the election was against God’s will. She accused people of simony (aka paying for a position.) She Lost. Her. Shit. No one cared. Richardis had to leave. Hildegard was straight up heartbroken and wrote aching letters to Richardis declaring her grief.
Now, let all who have grief like mine mourn with me, all who, in the love of God, have had such great love in their hearts and minds for a person- as I had for you- but who was snatched away from them in an instant, as you were from me.
Richardis died the next year. Hildegard never got over it. I’m not over it. No one is over it.
Janelle, on the other hand, be like:
But it’s not just the relationships that are queer: it’s the work itself and its connection to sexuality.
Our girl Hildegard was the first person to write down the experience of orgasm for people with vaginas. Now, this shit is the product of the medieval period, trust, and as a result is hopelessly heteronormative, (sorry about that) Hildegard’s own preferences aside, but here it is, in all its glory:
When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.
Janelle, of course, in the banger “Make Me Feel”, (which Prince worked on her with? We stan a legend.) similarly describes the way that sexual experiences can connect people and influence their own conception of self, to whit:
It’s Like I’m Powerful With A Little Bit Of Tender
An Emotional, Sexual Bender
Mess me up, yeah, but no one does it better
There’s nothin’ better
Both women also are extremely here for the vulva as divine.
In her Scivias Hildegard made an actual map of the universe based on the vulva. Witness:
Meanwhile, Ms. Monáe in Pynk:
Queer vulva content aside (I mean, can we really put it aside?), there is also an overlap in the way both women approached their musical composition, which is to say they both created works which are intended partly as music in its own right, as well as an encompassing play.
Hildegard, for example, wrote the Ordo Virtutam, a five part morality play based around monophonic melodies (Europe didn’t catch on to polyphony until the fourteenth century), about the struggle of the human soul. During the course of the play, the soul, which is a female voice, is pulled between the virtues (Humilty, Hope, Chastity, Innocence, Contempt of the World, Celestial Love, Discipline, Modesty, Mercy, Victory, Discretion, Patience, Knowledge of God, Charity, Fear of God, Obedience, and Faith) which are sung by seventeen female voices, and the Devil, a male voice which mostly just grunts a lot. (LOL.) There is also a chorus of prophets and patriarchs which was to be voiced by men, and a chorus of souls, sung by women. It was a whole goddamned production meant to be experienced not just as music.
Janelle has carried on in this tradition with her Dirty Computer emotion picture, an emotion picture being defined by the artist herself as “a narrative film and accompanying musical album.” In it, Janelle’s character, Jane 57821, is torn between the memories of her life with her girlfriend Zen as a polyamorous, pansexual, queer, sex rebel (*fans self*), where her music lives, and the ministrations of Mother Victoria who wants to erase Jane’s sense of self, joy, and sexuality. For Monáe, Contempt of the World is certainly a virtue, but it is contempt for a white supremacist, sexually repressive world that denies the individuality of the soul.
As a product of her time, Hildegard can’t necessarily be called a feminist, unlike the divine Ms. Monáe. However, both women could agree on one thing: women are equal to men before God. Prevailing thought during Hildegard’s time was based on Aristotelian ideas and largely defined women as inferior inversions of men. A woman was a sort of human who was directly opposed to man in relation to humours and elements. For Aristotle men and women were polarised on an elemental level, with the feminine elements being inferior.
Hildegard was not here for this, and wrote instead that while women and men had different relationships to the elements, they were not opposed, and women were certainly not inferior. To the contrary, Hildegard stated that both women and men were made in the image of the divine. For Hildegard men and women were complimentary aspects of the divine. That ain’t nothing in the twelfth century.
Janelle, because she is standing on the shoulders of giants, is able to move this discussion on even further. For her it is obvious that men and women are equal, but women can also be seen as the divine in and of themselves. For her the very concept of a loving creator is feminine, hence the “Crazy Classic Life” lyrics:
I just want to find a God
and I hope she loves me too
While our world has come on leaps and bounds for women in the 900 years between Hildegard and Janelle, we’re still not at a point where women are universally considered to be equal, let alone allowed to exhibit unbridled sexuality. Both these women have had to create within the constraints of a patriarchal system. Hildegard was arguably more hampered by her gender, but Janelle is hemmed in by our new construct of racism in addition to her queerness and femininity. Despite all of this, both women have conclusively influenced the world, changed public conversation for the better, and have queered the fuck out of it in the process.
Let us all bow in the presence of greatness.
 For more on the ideas of sex, Aristotle and Hildegard see Sister Prudence Allen, “Saint Hildegard of Bingen and the relationship between man and woman”, in, The Concept of Woman, Vol. 1: The Aristotelian Revolution 750 BC – AD 1250, (Grand Rapids, MI: 1985/1997) available here.
For more on hip hop and history see:
On the concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture
On Hotline Bling and courtly love
Kanye West is the modern day Peter Abelard
For more on women in the medieval period see:
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 2: on marriage and Sansa