One consequence of the fall of man was the corruption of marriage and the eventual institution of legal divorce. Even in Hildegard’s day (12th-century) divorce and remarriage were common in Latin Christendom. Marriages were utilitarian and pre-arranged, and consequently, loveless. They facilitated alliances between noble families in order to protect their respective fiefs or wealth. When circumstances would change and an alliance was no longer advantageous, the nobleman would discard the wife who was the basis of the pact and form another one with a different feudal lord.
One of the best weapons the Church employed to break down feudal society’s marriage customs was its insistence on consent as the basis for a valid marriage. Girls in their early teens were considered too young to grant consent and arranged marriages precluded it. Invalid marriages were a problem for the nobility because any children produced in them would be regarded as illegitimate and unable to inherit. The people of Christendom finally accepted that it was Church law, not civil law, that determined the validity of a marriage.
St. Hildegard (1098-1179), explaining her vision of the creation and fall in her mid-12th century work, Scivias, revealed that through Christ, marriage could be restored to its original ideal, the marital union of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden:
“‘What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’ What does that mean? God, creating the human race, took flesh out of flesh and joined them in a union, and thus established that this connection must not hastily be broken. How? Because in the union of man and woman flesh will be united to flesh and blood to blood by a legal ceremony, so they cannot be divided from each other in foolish haste” (Scivias: Book II, Vision 5, chap. 25).*
We are told here that the marital bond is to be regarded as the same physical union of man and woman as occurred in the very act of Eve’s creation out of a rib of Adam. The first married couple were “one flesh” and could not be divided. In Jesus’ teaching on marital indissolubility (Matthew 19: 1-12) He repeatedly uses the phrase “…from the beginning”, referring to the state of marriage in the Garden and thus prior to the fall. He knew that through His sacrifice there would be a new source of grace available to permit marriage to be restored to the institution for which it was designed.
In Hildegard’s vision, after God ejects Adam and Eve from Eden, He preserves and encloses the Garden, implying that it might again be reopened:
“…[T]he Power of the Divine Majesty took away every stain of contagion from the place and fortified it with His Glory, so that from then on it would be touched by no encroachment; which also showed that the transgression which had taken place there would one day be abolished by His clemency and mercy” (Scivias: Book 1, Vision 2, chap. 26).*
In the following quotation Hildegard assumes the voice of God, explaining that Christ undid the damage caused by the fall:
“Therefore I sent my Son into the world born of a virgin, so that by His blood, in which there was no carnal pollution, He might take away from the devil those spoils that he had carried off from humanity” (Chap13).*
One of those spoils was the corruption of marriage.
A reestablishment of marriage to its original ideal prior to the fall was not the way the institution was understood in the 12th-century either by canonists or theologians. They followed the Augustinian view that sex had been contaminated by original sin. Hildegard was ahead of her time in describing Christian marriage as a restoration of the institution as it had been established in the Garden of Eden. She even describes this higher form of love between a married couple using the Latin caritas, “charity”, instead of amor, “love”. She also defines marital intercourse using the phrase conjuctione caritatis (“conjugal union of charity”).
Once Abbess Hildegard’s visionary work, Scivias, was discovered by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and Pope Blessed Eugenius III (1088-1153), both of whom regarded it as divinely inspired, her reputation as a prophet began to spread throughout Christendom. Her rediscovery in the late 20th-century led to her elevation to Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Benedict XVI.
*Quotations taken from Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, translated by Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. The Abbey of Regina Laudis: Benedictine Congregation Regina Laudis of the Strict Observance, Inc. Paulist Press, 1990.