views updated


HROTSVIT (c. 935c. 1000, alternate spellings include Hrotswitha and Hrosvitha) was canoness in the Abbey of Gandersheim in tenth-century Saxony. Hrotsvit is known today as Europe's first woman playwright, indeed the first known dramatist of Christian Europe. Her six extant plays, written in rhymed Latin prose, offer a Christian response to the Roman comedies of Terence (c. 190159 bce), incorporating the traditions of medieval hagiography. Blending comic intrigue and disguise motifs with conflicts between pagan and Christian values, Hrotsvit's plays typically feature strong-willed female protagonists who undergo physical ordeals and achieve redemption. Hrotsvit also created a parallel sequence of eight poetic saint's legends and two historical verse epics.

The appearance of such a figure in the "dark ages" of the tenth century may seem surprising, but the social and intellectual contexts of Hrotsvit's life reveal that she grew up in privileged circumstances, at the height of what is known today as the Ottonian Renaissance. Only recently Christianized, the Saxons became dominant in Germany in the tenth century as inheritors of the empire of Charlemagne. The daughters of the Saxon aristocracy not chosen for dynastic marriages were sent to nunneries to be educated and comfortably housed in circumstances befitting their rank. Hrotsvit was such an aristocrat, closely related to the royal family, and Gandersheim was a uniquely rich and independent foundation. Entering as a canoness rather than a nun, Hrotsvit would have been permitted to retain her own private property, employ servants, and travel at will from the cloister, as well as receive an education in the writings of both classical and Christian authors.

At Gandersheim Hrotsvit mastered the arts of the Latin language and was encouraged to begin her own compositions; appropriately, her Saxon name, Hro-suit, is usually translated as "strong voice." Her earliest works were the eight sacred legends, written in the classical measures of dactylic hexameter and elegiac verse. Two poems commemorate incidents in the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ; the remainder present the lives of Christian saints and martyrs. The legends tell lively tales of pagan-Christian conflicts, and Hrotsvit's taste for sensational incidents is evident.

There is some indication that Hrotsvit's dramas were intended to complement the verse legends, forming part of a larger unified sequence of works. However the immediate stylistic impulse of the plays is a response to the pagan comic dramatic texts of Terence, valued for their refined Latin style. Hrotsvit's innovation was to write new Latin dramas in a similarly refined style, but with Christian characters and subject matter, rather than clever servants and love intrigues in the Roman tradition.

Although sometimes carelessly described as adaptations of Terence's dramas, Hrotsvit's six plays are retellings in dramatic form of the lives of Christian saints and martyrs, borrowing Terentian phrases and plot devices, but leading her central characters through ordeals and tortures to salvation, rather than comic happy endings. The Conversion of General Gallicanus features a pagan general who is converted to Christianity on the battlefield, and later suffers martyrdom at the hands of Julian the Apostate. The remaining plays, all with female central figures, were given titles by modern editors that would suggest otherwise; in the summaries below, Hrotsvit's original titles are employed, with the traditional titles in parentheses.

The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Agape, Chionia, and Hirena (Dulcitius ) tells the story of three Christian maidens pursued by a farcically lustful pagan governor and then tortured cruelly by the emperoran ordeal that they survive without pain, gaining martyrdom in the process. The Resurrection of Drusiana and Callimachus (Callimachus ) also recounts the martyrdom of a Christian woman who chooses death before dishonor. In The Fall and Repentance of Mary, the Hermit Abraham's Niece (Abraham ) a young novice in a nunnery runs off to become a notorious prostitute. Her uncle, a monk, disguises himself as a customer and confronts her, winning her repentance. In a similar vein, The Conversion of the Harlot Thaïs (Paphnutius ) dramatizes the encounter of a monk and a prostitute. In this case, the harlot Thaïs is a secret Christian who gives up her jewels and gold for a foul-smelling cell in a cloister. The final drama in Hrotsvit's sequence is The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Fides, Spes, and Karitas (Sapientia ), another tale of pagan-Christian conflict, featuring the ordeals and martyrdom of the three allegorically named daughters. All of these works were completed by the year 973, and there are no further records of Hrotsvit's life.

Were these dramas intended for performance, and if so, in what form? Earlier scholars assumed that the plays were intended solely for reading, but most of Hrotsvit's contemporary critics think it likely that the texts were intended for some dimension of performance, whether in a group reading in the abbey or in a more formal performance at the Saxon court.

For many centuries after her death Hrotsvit was a forgotten figure, but all this changed in 1493 when the German humanist Conrad Celtes discovered a manuscript of her work in a monastery. Soon Hrotsvit was celebrated as the first poet of Germany, and her works were printed in 1501 in an elegant edition with woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer and others. Surviving claims by misogynist critics that her works were forgeries invented by Celtes, Hrotsvit is today recognized as a remarkable and unprecedented literary figure. Whether or not her works were intended for performance, there has been no shortage of stage revivals of her work, beginning in 1888 with a marionette performance in Paris inspired by Anatole France, who modeled his popular novel Thaïs on Hrotsvit's original. By 1914 her plays had reached the London stage, with Ellen Terry in the role of Thaïs. Since that time performances of Hrotsvit's plays have taken place regularly in Britain, Germany, and the United States, generally in academic settings and often with a feminist focus.


The standard edition of Hrotsvit's Latin texts is Helene Homeyer's Hrotsvithae Opera (Munich, 1970). Fluent rhymed English translations of the plays may be found in Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: A Florilegium of Her Works, edited and translated by Katharina M. Wilson (Cambridge, UK, 1998). Wilson is also the editor of a collection of critical essays Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Rara Avis in Saxonia? (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1987). For an annotated bibliography and performance history of Hrotsvit's work to 1963, see Anne Lyon Haight's Hroswitha of Gandersheim: Her Life, Times, and Works, and a Comprehensive Bibliography (New York, 1965). Key critical works include Bert Nagel, Hrotsvit von Gandersheim (Stuttgart, Germany, 1965), and Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (d. 203) to Marguerite Porete (d. 1310) (Cambridge, UK, 1984). Recent articles on the plays include Sue-Ellen Case, "Re-Viewing Hrotsvit," Theatre Journal 35 (1983): 533542; Marla Carlson, "Impassive Bodies: Hrotsvit Stages Martyrdom," Theatre Journal 50, no. 4 (1998): 473487; and David Wiles, "Hrosvitha of Gandersheim: The Performance of Her Plays in the Twentieth Century," Theatre History Studies 19 (1999): 133150.

Robert Potter (2005)