After a BA in Classics from Georgetown University and an M.St. in Greek and Latin Literature from St. Cross College, Oxford, Hugh McElroy toured and recorded with a very percussive punk band from 2001 to 2004. He fell in love with medieval Latin when the band split up and he had to create a new advanced Latin curriculum at the Field School in Washington, DC. Neither DC nor Field nor medieval Latin have succeeded in getting him to leave them alone since then.

Translator’s Note

I have loved Hildegard’s music since I was a teenager. As a child, I had hated the Gregorian chant LPs that my mother used to play at top volume while preparing to host family and friends for Easter or Christmas. Now I was starting to come around to them. As committed feminists, my mother and I were intrigued to learn about Hildegard of Bingen, a female composer of liturgical chants whose melodies were as visionary as the texts she set to them. While I adored the music, I only casually read the words, at first in English, but over the years, with increasing confidence, in Latin. 

In some ways Hildegard fit in well with the punk rock I was listening to when I first heard her. I had The Slits and The Raincoats in heavy rotation on the stereo in my room and on the portable monophonic cassette player that served as my car “stereo.” Both were female UK bands creating wild rhythms as alternatives to what they saw as the stale, and male, palette of three-chord punk. The Slits sneered at how “typical girls worry about fat and spots and natural smells.” 

Hildegard’s work has an embodied charge that I hear echoes of in The Slits and The Raincoats. Hildegard’s monasticism and mysticism, and the unearthly melodic tides of her compositions, might lead a casual listener to expect a gentle flotation through the celestial realms of Neoplatonism’s Invisible World. While that isn’t entirely absent from her work, Hildegard was also a plantswoman, a healer, and a natural scientist. She knew about blood and birth and babies. Her theology stretches its tender green shoots into Heaven but its fibrous roots hold the earth fast. The black, wet earth, enriched by the decomposition of living matter is the terroir that gives Hildegard’s writings their ripe funk: Resurrection amid the moist warmth of the compost heap; Incarnation enrobed in the amniotic sac.

 I have been guided by this sense of embodiment in translating Hildegard’s musical texts. They allow us to apprehend something of the unknowable Divine through the language of familiar sensory phenomena and they do not shy away from the messy, smelly, bloody realities of Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth. Likewise, Hildegard uses conventionally erotic language in describing mystical longings and experiences. Thus, where a Latin word could be rendered by a number of English terms, I have often opted for the pungent over the sanitary. As earthy as her writings are, however, Hildegard scrupulously avoids prurience. 

 It has been an honor to labor as a sort of lay brother under Hildegard’s guidance. When I have occasionally strayed from the faithful execution of my work, I hope I have been gracious about being guided gently back to my seat in the scriptorium.