Since the presidential debate on Tuesday, Romney has been getting lots of grief for that seemingly off-key characterization of his approach to the glass ceiling. In his early days as governor, Romney recalled in response to an audience member’s question, his staff approached “a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Predictably enough, “binders full of women” went viral the moment Romney uttered the phrase, and there is now a tumblr site devoted to one of the great memes of the election.
What has been lost in all the post-debate ruckus, though, is the theological subtlety of Romney’s response. For in fact, in his evocation of “binders full of women,” the former Massachusetts governor was making a sophisticated historical reference to the visionary writings of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a Benedictine abbess of the Middle Ages. A nun, a musician, a naturalist, and a theologian of great accomplishment, Hildegard of Bingen was also the inventor of the three-ring binder, which she interpreted throughout her religious life as a complex allegory for the Trinity.
We get an early posthumous glimpse at Hildegard’s theology of the three-ring binder in Theoderich of Echternach’s Life of Hildegard (book 2), where he records the recently deceased abbess’s practice of compiling her correspondence in a volume uniquely suited to the purpose:
It is also known how elegantly she replied to letters sent to her from diverse places, if anyone wished to consider more deeply the meaning of the words that she drew from the divine revelation. Indeed, the correspondence is gathered in one three-ring binder, both her own letters and those sent to her.
Theoderich’s Latin phrase (uolumen trianulum in the nominative) represents the first recorded appearance of the three-ring binder in the written record. While Theoderich’s authority is hardly in question, some scholars have rightfully wondered how the Sibyl of the Rhine could have developed a technology of such ingenuity in the midst of her straitened technological circumstances.
While Hildegard never tells us about the invention of the binder itself, one of her more obscure letters (yet to be edited from the autograph manuscript in Cologne) makes great theological hay out of the holy binder she claims to have seen in one of her many visions. Drawing on the venerable medieval tradition of interior writing, Hildegard rather gruesomely imagines the binder as a thousandfold stack of parchment folios, all rendered from the skins of women martyrs (the specific allusion is to the 11,000 virgin followers of St. Ursula beheaded by the Huns in the fourth century). Particularly intriguing are her glosses of the binders’ holes as the three persons of the Trinity and of the rings as the Three Marys.
The uppermost hole is God the Father, girding the roundness of the heavens with His omnipotence. The middle hole is His Son, displaying the wound in His holy side. The lowermost hole answers to the Holy Spirit, from whose mouth tongues of flame descend even unto the mind of this humble creature as she records the Word of God in the Divine Book. The rings answer to the three Marys at the tomb, mourning the death of the Son at the holy sepulchre. In this volume, moreover, are contained many pages, all filled with revelations of an age to come. These parchments are the skins of the eleven thousand virgins, dried and scraped in glorious martyrdom. Into this binder full of women the Lord gathers His feminine flock, and in reading from its womanly pages He promises our salvation.
“Into this binder full of women”: here, I believe, we have the key to Romney’s eloquent defense of his hiring practices.
Those still skeptical would do well to consult the visual record. One of the most famous artistic depictions of Hildegard comes from the Rupertsberg Codex, a manuscript containing her most influential work, the Scivias (see figure 1 above). While art historians have long contended that the illumination shows Hildegard writing in a wax tablet, recent restorative work to the manuscript leaves little doubt that the book in which she inscribes what she saw is, in fact, the same uolumen trianulum allegorized in her vision (see the detail). Both the rings and the stark holes are clearly discernible here, capturing the theological content of her vision.
I hope this helps clear up the historical source and theological implications of Governor Romney’s evocation of “binders full of women” during the debate. A fair and judicious survey of the evidence suggests that he deserves better treatment from the public on this matter than he has received over the last twenty-four hours.
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