Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim

views updated

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim

German-born Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (c. 935–c. 973) was one of the first known female playwrights in Europe. A Benedictine nun ensconced in a renowned monastery that served as a center of learning and culture in medieval Germany, Hrotsvitha wrote poetry as well as six plays that drew heavily from classical sources and Christian lore. Her works for the stage, noted an essay in the International Dictionary of Theatre, "are of monumental importance in world drama: one may look several centuries in either direction without finding a comparable corpus by a single dramatist, and women playwrights have always been a rarity in the Western theatre."

There is scant biographical evidence regarding Hrotsvitha's origins and early life before she entered the Gandersheim monastery, which probably occurred when she was in her early twenties. Literary scholars have concluded that Hrotsvitha came from the Eastphalian area of Saxony, and was born into a noble family some time around the year 935. The preface she wrote to accompany her poetry asserts that she was slightly older than the daughter of the duke of Bavaria, called Gerberga II, a woman believed to have been born in 940. Gerberga served as the abbess of Gandersheim, as did another Hrotsvitha, who may have been the playwright's aunt. It is known that the earlier Hrosvitha was the fourth abbess of Gandersheim, serving from 919 to 926, and was the daughter of Duke Otto the Illustrious, whose son was the German king Henry the Fowler. It was common for Saxon noble families to give their offspring names in honor of illustrious relatives, hence scholars have given credence to the idea that Hrotsvitha herself hailed from the same genealogical tree.

A Center of Christian Learning

At its height, the Gandersheim Abbey was the most distinguished monastery of Saxony. It was founded around 850 by Duke Liudolf, together with his wife Oda and her mother Aeda, and it emerged as a self-sufficient community of Benedictine monks and nuns and, perhaps more significantly, a center of learning at a time when universities and other cultural institutions were virtually nonexistent in Europe. Gandersheim enjoyed status as a "free abbey," meaning that its religious leaders were answerable only to the local ruler. In 947 Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor and son of King Henry the Fowler, made Gandersheim entirely free, thus subject only to its own rule.

The Benedictines were one of the oldest formal religious orders in Christian Europe. Founded in 529 in Italy by St. Benedict of Nursia, its separate communities of male and female members took religious vows as well as a vow of stability that promised allegiance to their abbot. They joined in a religious community to live, work, and pray, and for women of Hrotsvitha's era, it was the only alternative to a predetermined marriage and spending the next two or three childbearing decades either pregnant or nursing an infant. Within the peaceful and most likely comfortable confines of the Abbey, Hrotsvitha carried out a day that was centered around prayer and the study of holy works, but she also likely maintained contact with the royal court. Scholars surmise that Hrotsvitha did not follow the stricter Benedictine Regular rule, but rather lived under "canoness" rule, as many women of noble birth did at the time. This meant that she likely took vows of chastity and obedience, but not poverty.

Tutored within Convent Walls

An educated European of Hrotsvitha's day could read and write in Latin, the unofficial scholarly language of Europe as well as the language of the Catholic church. She mentions her novice mistress, Rikkarda, as an influential teacher for her, as well as Gerberga, whose intellectual range Hrotsvitha extols in her preface. The Gandersheim Abbey contained an impressive library, and Hrotsvitha's writings give evidence that she was familiar with the works of Church fathers like St. Augustine, and also with poetry from the classical era, including the works of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid.

Hrotsvitha was unknown outside of Gandersheim during her lifetime. Her writings were likely only shared with her fellow Benedictines, and possibly members of the Saxon royal court. Her exact death date is not known; the latest mention of current events in her writing dates her work to the year 968, and scholars believe she lived at least another five years after that, and perhaps much longer, even as late as 1002. Her works remained entirely unknown until 1493, when German scholar Conrade Celetes discovered them in the Emmerammonastery in Regensberg. They were published in the original Latin in 1501, and appeared first in English translation in the 1920s. In all, she wrote eight poems, six plays, a tribute to Otto I, and a history of the Gandersheim community.

Penned Homages to the Saints

Hrotsvitha's verse may give her the honor of being the only known female poet in Europe after the ancient Greek, Sappho, who lived in the seventh century B.C.E. While Sappho penned love poems, the verses Hrotsvitha penned, dedicated to the saints, reflect her interest in Christian history and themes. They individually honor Dionysius, Basil, Agnes, Gongolfus, Pelagus, Theophilus, and the Virgin Mary. Her Passio Sancti Pelagii contains a side note explaining that she had written it based on an eyewitness account of the martyrdom of Pelagus. She struggled with the verse, she admitted in a preface, according to Sister Mary Marguerite Butler and her work, Hrotsvitha: The Theatricality of Her Plays. "I worked by myself," Hrotsvitha noted, "sometimes I composed, sometimes I destroyed what I had written to the best of my abilities and yet badly. . . . Writing verse appears a difficult and arduous task especially for one of my sex, but trusting to the help of divine grace more than to my own powers, I have fitted the stories of this book to dactylic measures as best I could, for fear that the abilities that have been implanted in me should be dulled and wasted by neglect."

The sextet of plays that Hrotsvitha wrote are notable for their very existence; although drama had flourished as a cultural form during the classical era, it had died out by the early Middle Ages, and was generally discouraged by the Christian hierarchy. A new form of religious or morality play arose in twelfth-century Europe, but in the absence of other playwrights Hrotsvitha is one of the only names associated with the form for several centuries. She is also thought to be the first writer of drama whose work feature a uniquely Christian slant. "Her plays have an impish use of sardonic understatement and sometimes crisp dialogue," noted the International Dictionary of Theatre essayist, though the contributor did find that certain passages, "like two long didactic speeches on mathematics and cosmic harmony, are puzzling in their dramatic function; but elsewhere there is enough broad situational comedy and vicarious sensationalism to make their entertainment appeal obvious."

Linked to Saucy Roman Farce

Hrotsvitha modeled her plays on the style of Terence, the Roman playwright whose works were performed between the years 170 to 160 B.C.E., and whose many manuscripts survived well into the medieval era. She claimed she began writing her own drama to provide the Benedictine nuns with an alternative to Terence's works, which have a somewhat ribald tone. Hrotsvitha's plays were not written for public performance, and it is not known if they were every performed at all. Likely they were designed to provide literary entertainment for her Gandersheim community and perhaps the Saxon court as well. In any case, they were written with a great verve and comic sensibility. They center around one of two themes, the first of which being that of a lost or "fallen" woman who is rescued by a pious, God-fearing man. These include Abraham, translated into English as The Fall and Repentance of Mary, and Paphnutius, with an alternative English title of Paphnutius; or, The Conversion of Thais, the Harlot,

Hrotsvitha's other recurring theme in her dramatic plots involves the martyrdom of a Christian woman during the more brutal period of pagan Roman times. Her source for these stories was probably the Latin and Greek writings of historians from that era, whose works she had likely become familiar through her readings at the Gandersheim library. These plays begin with Sapientia, translated as Sapientia; or, The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Faith, Hope, and Charity. Sapientia is the mother of the three women who are tortured because of their Christian faith by soldiers of the Emperor Hadrian. Their faith keeps them safe, and one of them exults, "Look! I am playfully swimming, unhurt, in this boiling pitch and wax!" Because of such content, productions of Hrotsvitha's works have usually been exceedingly difficult to stage.

Dulcitius, another play from Hrotsvitha, has been translated as Dulcitius; or, The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Irene, Agape, and Chionia. This time, the persecution of the Christian women takes place during the time of Emperor Diocletian. In this particular work, there is much slapstick humor as well as some sexually explicit themes, such as when the governor voices his desire for the trio. Hrotsvitha noted to her readers that, while she had based some of these themes on the plays of Terence, she also "attempted, in the very way in which he treats of unchaste love among evil women, to celebrate according to my ability the praiseworthy chasteness of godlike maidens."

Fired by Her Religious Faith

Hrotsvitha noted elsewhere in her preface that for a woman living within a chaste religious community, it may have seemed unlikely that she could write such ribald dialogue. In her preface to her works, she did admit that she "often hesitated with a blush on my cheeks through modesty. . . . But if I had hesitated on account of my blushes I could not have carried out my purpose, or have set forth the praise of innocence to the fullness of my ability. For in proportion as the blandishments of lovers are enticing, so much greater is the glory of our helper in heaven, so much more glorious the triumph of those who prevail, especially where woman's weakness triumphs and man's shameless strength is made to succumb."

Hrotsvitha's two other plays are Callimachus, translated as The Resurrection of Drusiana and Callimachus, and Gallicanus, which appears at times as The Conversion of General Gallicanus. The only other writings of hers to survive the ages are Panagyric Oddonum, a tribute to Holy Roman Emperor Otto, and Primordia Coenobii Gandershemensis, her history of the founding of Gandersheim Abbey.


Butler, Sister Mary Marguerite, Hrotsvitha: The Theatricality of Her Plays, Philosophical Library, 1960.

International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights, St. James Press, 1993.


English Historical Review, February, 2001.