The Devil Can’t Sing: Nathan Dowell

This article was published in the Oct. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.


The twelfth-century musical drama the Ordo Virtutum is perhaps best remembered for being the first entry in a genre it was never intended to be a part of: the morality plays. These late medieval works, also referred to as moralities, functioned as a form of outreach from the church into local communities. Named after their tendency to offer allegorical stories with generic spiritual messages—such as cherishing good work or resisting temptation—morality plays were designed to reach any audience. Naturally, this shared goal led to shared plot features: most morality plays include a generic audience surrogate figure, meant to symbolize humanity; at least one representation of temptation or sin; and often numerous personifications of characteristics, emotions, or actions. This is the formula that made morality plays successful, and every aspect of this formula is included in the Ordo Virtutum. The only issue is that the Ordo was written three centuries before the morality play genre became popular. The play’s author, Hildegard of Bingen, was a noted abbess, composter, mystic, academic, and theologian. In crafting both the story and the musical score of the Ordo, she made decisions that carefully mimicked her own monastic background—a background that would not be shared by the later moralities. Thus, when the Ordo Virtutum is seen as simply another morality play, the intricacies of Hildegard’s life are overlooked. For all of the similarities between moralities and the Ordo, Hildegard wrote a work that, in many ways, later authors would not have written. Perhaps the best example of this difference lies in a seemingly trivial fact: while the Ordo Virtutum is a musical drama, the Devil himself never sings.

Scholars disagree on how important this small fact is, just as they disagree on whether the Ordo should be seen as a morality. In its basic plot outline, the Ordo shares many similarities with the morality play genre: An Anima, or human soul, is welcomed by an array of personified virtues, seduced and led away by the Devil, and finally saved by the same virtues who she abandoned. On the surface, this sequence of events, including the role of the Devil, closely follows what one would expect from a morality. Thus, the current scholarly consensus has increased the Ordo’s prominence by declaring it the first morality play. This widely accepted title gives Hildegard a firm place in the historic evolution of the concept of spiritual battles, from the Ordo to morality plays to modern times. However, some academics have shifted focus toward the ways in which Hildegard’s play does not meet the later mold. Robert Potter, for instance, responded to general acceptance of the morality play designation by claiming that the Ordo is “alone and unprecedented,” not so much a precursor to morality plays as it is a unique work (Potter 1986, 12). For these scholars, the behavior of the Devil becomes indicative of Hildegard’s worldview. Many morality plays had a very modern outlook on the Devil. His popular image as a smooth corrupter of souls was a perfect fit for theatrical performances—charming but deceitful, and recognizable to any audience. But Hildegard’s Devil is seductive only in theory. Despite his apparent skills at recruiting souls, he never displays any of the impressive tactics or rhetorical skills we would expect from the master corrupter. Instead of singing, this Devil shouts his lines—limiting how seductive he can really be. Morality plays exaggerated the power of temptation; Hildegard restricted it. A small musical choice thus becomes representative of a theological gulf between the Ordo and the plays it may have inspired.

The purpose of this essay is not to examine whether or not the Ordo Virtutum is a morality play. Rather, it is to build upon scholarly discussion by examining the play in the context it was written in. In debating the merits of calling the Ordo a morality, scholars have begun to place renewed emphasis on Hildegard’s decisions. By leaving behind the question of categorization, I seek to expand upon this emphasis by prioritizing Hildegard and her choices. Necessarily, this means discussing the conventions of moralities in order to highlight how Hildegard made decisions that later authors would not have made. Because whether or not the Ordo Virtutum is a morality play, it is primarily a work deeply affected by its author’s personal situation. Morality authors sought to best reach any audience, while Hildegard sought to best embody the monastic experience.  Her convent served as her inspiration, backdrop, and audience. Thus, this monastic context played a key role in determining how the Ordo could be viewed both as a morality play and as a one of a kind creation. The unique form of the Ordo Virtutum developed because Hildegard sought to write a play that reflected the atmosphere of her own convent. The impact of this atmosphere on the work can be illustrated through the characters, music, and audience of the Ordo Virtutum.

Hildegard’s Characters

The personification of spiritual concepts became a defining trait of morality plays, but Hildegard’s personified characters serve as direct symbols of monasticism. For example, the Ordo’s Anima, Devil, and virtues all have partial analogues in later moralities. But despite these similarities, the uniqueness of Hildegard’s work stems from how she treats the various categories. Most morality plays give a numerical advantage to the temptations that a hero must face. In the Ordo Virtutum, however, the sole tempter—the Devil—is alone and outnumbered. In contrast, the play includes seventeen different virtues, all working to save the Anima from her one true enemy. Unlike moralities, the Ordo is not trying to depict a single soul surrounded by sin. Instead, it shows that same soul surrounded by goodness—much like the intended function of a convent. Hildegard downplays temptation in favor of the positive aspects of a spiritual journey.

To further reinforce the monastic background behind this decision, Hildegard ensured that the play’s characters are the specific virtues that guide life in a convent. In fact, many of Hildegard’s virtues were not only important to the lives of individual nuns, but to the texts that would have played key roles in their community. In the Ordo, Humility, Queen of the virtues, leads followers such as Chastity, Knowledge of God, and Modesty. (Hildegard 4). Margot Fassler argues that these specific virtues can be traced to three important monastic texts: the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Speculum Virginum, and a collection of Hildegard’s own visions entitled the Scivias (Fassler 2014, 329). The Scivias, especially, is important to consider because parts of the Ordo Virtutum were originally published at the end of that work. Hildegard, according to Fassler, “designed Scivias so that the play makes sense within it” (Fassler 333). Thus, Hildegard’s very choice of characters draws an instant connection between the Ordo Virtutum and monastic life—and ensures that this connection could be easily understood by other nuns.

This comparison extends to the fact that the Ordo’s virtues behave like nuns. This is true even in circumstances where this behavior would not be expected—such as the climactic battle between the virtues and the Devil. While many works that predate the Ordo featured personified battles, Hildegard’s virtues wage verbal, not literal, war. Their victory comes from their words and behavior, rather than simple strength. Hildegard is clearly acknowledging the tradition of military metaphors, but she modifies it to fit a more monastic setting. This is seen through the character of Victory, who helps bind the Devil and calls the other virtues the “bravest and most glorious soldiers” of God (Hildegard 10). In most morality plays, the military metaphor is preserved in a straightforward and direct manner. But Hildegard shifts this metaphor to prioritize her true goal: the depiction of monastic ideals.

Similarly, the other virtues that receive special roles in the Ordo Virtutum bear special significance to the female monastic lifestyle. This is best illustrated through the beginning and end of Hildegard’s work. In the beginning, the virtues are only seen as a group. However, when a single soul becomes troubled, Knowledge of God reveals herself, telling the soul that if she is “steadfast” she “will never fail” (Hildegard 2). The fact that Knowledge of God is the first virtue to receive individual lines fits well with both the educational focus of monasticism and with Hildegard’s specific reputation as a scholar. Once the Devil arrives, Knowledge of God’s role fades, to be replaced by Humility, but this early introduction shows that failing to know and study God is the first step to falling into temptation. For the members of a convent, especially, this would have been a pointed warning. Later in the story, when the now penitent soul returns to the virtues, Humility gains the most focus, asking her followers to “take up this weeping sinner” and guide her back to God (Hildegard 9). When the Devil returns for Anima, he is defeated by Victory and the other virtues, but, interestingly, his last exchange is not with Humility, Knowledge of God, or even Victory, but with Chastity. Against the Devil’s complaint that she will never bear a child, Chastity responds that there is “one man” she has “brought forth”—Jesus himself (Hildegard 11). By shaping her characters to create the story of a soul that flees from Knowledge of God, is accepted back by Humility, and is at last saved by Chastity, Hildegard structures her plot to mirror what she sees as the essential social role of convent.

Hildegard’s Music

If this firmly monastic argument is made by characters, then it is heavily reinforced through Hildegard’s musical decisions. By highlighting music as a tool to be used by a certain group—monastic women—the Ordo Virtutum supports the values of Hildegard’s own community. As a musical drama, the Ordo has most of its characters sing their lines. This musical aspect of the script takes on a new importance due to the structure of the play: while the beginning and ending of the Ordo feature confrontations with the Devil, the majority of the drama consists of an extended showcase of each virtue. Plotwise, very little happens in this segment, but the shifting music gives personality and weight to the individual virtues. In fact, Fassler notes that Hildegard makes the ability to sing certain high notes a defining characteristic of the virtues, and uses this trait to define their relationships with other characters (Fassler 318). Throughout the play, these singers cycle through a range of high keys. By establishing this power as a key trait of her noble characters, Hildegard is then able to use it as a mark of the trials faced by her most human figure—the Anima. Initially, the Anima is able to match the high notes of the virtues, but she loses this divine voice as she succumbs to the Devil’s temptations. After the Anima returns, she regains this ability, marking a symbolic reunion both with divine harmony and monastic values. However, it is noteworthy that even when the Anima is gone, the play still focuses on the virtues and their singing. Hildegard shows music—as a symbol for monasticism—to be a key focus even when spiritual battles would seemingly be more important.

As Potter illustrates, Hildegard may have had very personal reasons for giving her play this structure. Shortly before the believed publication date of the Ordo Virtutum, Hildegard’s close friend and follower Richardis von Stade left her to receive another appointment that Hildegard viewed as driven by “worldly desires” (Potter 206). Despite this loss, Hildegard remained focused on her community. Music within the Ordo, then, is symbolic of the communal strength of a monastery. The music continues even when a single soul has left. Just as importantly, the emphasis of the play remains on this music, rather than on the soul that has chosen to abandon it. Later morality plays almost always follow a soul’s descent into sin. Instead, the Ordo Virtutum highlights the community of virtues ready to accept that soul when she returns.  Even with a straightforward script, the emphasis on music reflects both Hildegard’s personal struggles and her beliefs in a unifying monastic community.

The Devil’s inability to sing, then, carries even more weight in light of how Hildegard frames music as a symbol of monasticism. Music is not just a trait of the virtues, it is an ability. If the Devil were to be portrayed as a master of seduction, he would likely be able to match if not exceed the harmonies of heaven. But Hildegard seems to have not been interested in showing the power of the Devil. In fact, Potter asserts that “the balance of power” within the Ordo is firmly with the virtues the entire time, even when the Devil appears to temporarily win. He claims the Anima, but never succeeds in claiming the stage. Even during the Procession of virtues, the Devil is restricted to being a minor nuisance. Ultimately, this Devil lacks the weapon which is music, a weapon on full display in the individual introduction to each Virtue. Even today, this is a rare decision. Portraying the Devil as an ineffective adversary risks stripping the play of what should be its moral, the dangers of temptation. But Hildegard’s use of monastic conventions means that she does not need to focus on the terrors outside the monastery, but instead the music inside. This Devil is merely a background temptation, an occasional shout to disrupt the monastic music—worthy of the sole attention neither of the play nor of Hildegard.

By keeping the audience with the Procession of virtues, and its distinct musical structure, Hildegard narrows the focus of her writing to reduce non-monastic influences. Fassler argues that this “systematic progression through tonal areas” was intended to be “understood interactively” within a monastic community (Fassler, 318). Effectively, Hildegard constructs a symbolic monastery using the vocal abilities of her virtues. To do this, she includes very specific musical beats and ranges, and especially emphasizes the parts of music that nuns would be familiar with. By increasing the musical power of her monastic characters—the virtues—and reducing that of her antagonist—the Devil—Hildegard affirms the long-standing monastic musical tradition as the sole weapon of heaven’s servants. The Ordo Virtutum reinforces the importance of monasticism through musical cues and themes, tying the work even more closely to Hildegard’s perception of her convent.

Hildegard’s Audience

Both the characters and music of Hildegard’s play are crucial internal factors to the finished work, but she was also closely influenced by her need to reach an external factor: her monastic audience. The Ordo Virtutum was primarily written for an audience of nuns, and would have largely—though not exclusively—been performed in Hildegard’s own Rupertsberg Convent. This does not mean, of course, that the play would only have been seen by women, as visiting men would also have been common audience members. However, most spectators would have been nuns, and this means that the message of the play is largely been directed towards women, altering the tone that this message takes. Morality plays were partially defined by their audience—their characters are so generic because they must appeal to any possible group of people. If the Ordo Virtutum is similarly seen as a result of its own audience, then Hildegard’s monastic focus becomes even more crucial to the work’s identity.

The first way that this manifests in the work is through the behavior and fate of the human identifying character, the Anima. Typically, Dorothy Wertz highlights, these characters in later morality plays would be specially designed as a “reconciliation of social classes,” a generic being who could exist at any economic level of society (Wertz 1969, 451). The tone of this character would thus try to appeal to any viewer in medieval Europe. Popular morality plays that follow this model include The Castle of Perseverance and Everyman. Anima meets these criteria in some respects, but is not as specifically generic in economic status. This is especially relevant, Potter argues, because Rupertsberg Convent was an “elite, aristocratic, and female-dominated environment” (Potter 204). The play could have such a lofty tone because many of the nuns in Hildegard’s community would have been wealthy and socially connected. Hildegard did not need a main character who represented every single type of spiritual journey, because she knew she was speaking to a specific type of person: nuns. Due to this, she created a work that spoke to the people in her environment through the play’s main character. In doing so, she gives this character a specificity not always available to morality writers.

Similarly, the monastic audience for the Ordo means that Hildegard did not need to include some of the more generic tonal aspects that would become necessary for morality plays. For instance, because the convent would perform the play, it wasn’t necessary to tie the Ordo Virtutum to the local power structures that were needed to arrange moralities. Most importantly, however, the tone of the play’s message is seen in its closing passage, where the audience is told directly to look to God, “that he may reach you his hand” (Hildegard). This section, more mystic than the rest of the play, highlights virtuous living as a continuous necessity—giving this work a stronger tone than many moralities. In the cities of Europe, a brief message with a light tone would have been preferable. But in a monastic setting, the work of virtues and of nuns continued long after the play ended. The virtues of the play, already closely connected to the beliefs of convents, are in this passage firmly tied to the everyday lives that nuns are told to lead.

The play’s message would also have been more easily accepted in convents because of Hildegard’s own authority and reputation. Most importantly, the atmosphere of a convent meant that Hildegard did not need to subvert the inevitability of her own message. Morality plays, Wertz argues, have long struggled with providing “dramatic catharsis,” because catharsis implies balance—and Christian plays can only be resolved “if there is final imbalance on the side of mercy” (Wertz 444). The Ordo Virtutum, like most moralities, has this imbalance. In fact, because the Devil as a character is so limited, the imbalance is even more present throughout this work than in most moralities. In the Ordo, the power of the virtues is never really threatened, even though the Anima is temporarily corrupted. Balance remains firmly on the side of a monastic sense of godliness and mercy. Unlike morality authors, however, Hildegard did not need to grapple with the confusion of this imbalance, and instead offered clear catharsis based on the environment of her own monastery. The Anima returns, and is forgiven. Wider implications are not grappled with, because, especially for this audience, they are not necessary. Hildegard, by understanding her audience, crafted a work specifically responsive to the needs and understandings of nuns. This ensured that her finished play speaks directly to the female monastic lifestyle, tying firmly into Hildegard’s own experiences.


For all of its similarities to morality plays, the Ordo Virtutum is most fascinating as a work created by the specific monastic context of Hildegard’s own life. Hildegard was known for contributing to many fields, and the Ordo is perhaps one of the best examples of how she applied the lessons of one area of study—such as music—to another—theatre. If she predicted the morality genre, she did so largely by highlighting the themes and messages that would resonate best with the nuns that surrounded her. The characters, music, and audience of the Ordo Virtutum reflect this, combining to tailor this musical drama to the exact circumstances it would have been performed in. If the Ordo Virtutum were written as a morality play, it would likely lack many of the peculiarities that set it apart. The key to the Ordo, then, lies not only in its impact, but in its uniqueness—there are numerous depictions of spiritual temptations, but the most interesting may be the one play where the Devil can’t sing.

Works Cited

Fassler, Margot E. “Allegorical Architecture in Scivias: Hildegard’s Setting for the Ordo Virtutum.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 67, no. 2, 2014, pp. 317–378. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Hildegard of Bingen. Ordo Virtutum. Translated by Linda Marie Zaerr, Boise State University, 2013.

Potter, Robert. “The ‘Ordo Virtutum’: Ancestor of the English Moralities?” Comparative Drama, vol. 20, no. 3, 1986, pp. 201–210.  JSTOR,

Wertz, Dorothy. “Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 13, no. 4, 1969, pp. 438–453.  JSTOR,

Image Credit: “Vision of angelic hierarchy” the author is unknown, work is in the public domain (CC0 1.0 Universal).


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