Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (c. 935–1001)

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Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (c. 935–1001)

German nun, poet, and historian who resided in the monastery in Gandersheim and was the first woman playwright of the West. Name variations: Hrosvitha; Hroswitha; Hrotsuit; Hrotsuitha; Hrotsvit; Hrotsvith von Gandersheim; Hrotswitha; Roswitha. Pronunciation: Ros-VI-thuh (name derived from the old Saxon word "hrodsuind," meaning strong voice). Born around 935 in Saxony; died in 1001 at Gandersheim monastery; educated at the St. Benedict monastery in Gandersheim; wrote six plays, eight legends, two epic poems, and a historical account of the founding of the monastery at Gandersheim.


Gallicanus (Parts I and II); Dulcitius; Callimachus; Abraham; Paphnutius; Sapientia. Eight narrative religious poems concerned with the Nativity of the Virgin, the Ascension, and a series of legends of saints (Gandolph, Pelagius, Theophilus, Basil, Denis, Agnes). Two versified histories: Carmen de gestis Oddonis, detailing the deeds of Otto I; and De primordiis et fundatoribus coenobii Gandersheimensis, a history of the foundation of Gandersheim monastery.

The playwright Hrotsvitha stands as the sole figure connecting the rich theatrical tradition of classical Greece and Rome with the medieval religious drama that was staged throughout Europe between c. 1100 and 1600 ce. During the waning years of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church issued numerous edicts against theatrical activity, and as a result the theater, an institution that relied upon traditional dramatic literature, was non-existent throughout the Dark Ages. In an age when the theater was looked down upon, Hrotsvitha, a representative of the Church, turned to the drama as a means of promoting the Christian ideals of chastity, poverty and obedience, an almost unfathomable endeavor. Hrotsvitha lived during a time in Western civilization when most of the population was illiterate; education in general was not common, and the education of women was extremely rare. By contemporary standards, she has been regarded not only as the first woman playwright but also the first feminist playwright, because she strove to elevate the status of women in her plays from the more typical shrew or courtesan character seen in the plays of the Roman playwright Terence, whom she imitated, to women of dignity, self-resolve and virtue.

Little is known of her life either before or during her days in the monastery at Gandersheim in Saxony, and she has sometimes been confused with another learned abbess, also named Hrotsvitha, of the same convent who is thought to have died at least half a century earlier. One can only make suppositions about the later, famous Hrotsvitha, based on what is known about life in general during the 10th century and life in monasteries. As a result of the early 10th century decline of the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne, the political and cultural center of the West shifted from France to Saxony with the accession of Henry I the Fowler as Holy Roman emperor in 919. In 936, Otto I the Great, the son of Henry and Matilda of Saxony (c. 892–968), was crowned king, and in 962 he was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope John XII. Otto, who learned to write and to speak Latin, surrounded himself with educated, talented scholars; he and his second wife Adelaide of Burgundy (931–999) aimed at elevating the sensibilities of the court by fostering an interest in culture. As testimony to their concern in creating a more "refined" civilization, both Otto I and Adelaide (as well as their son Otto II and his wife Theophano of Byzantium ) were responsible for the establishment of many monasteries, which were traditionally the centers of education during the Dark and Middle Ages. Monasteries were established for both men and women as early as the 6th century.

Monastic life for women was particularly desirable for numerous reasons. Women married early, at an average age of 12 years old. Wives were expected to have children, to raise and to educate them, as well as to take care of the house. Abandonment, divorce, and polygamy were rampant, with little or no recourse for the woman; furthermore, marriage was expensive because of the expected dowry. During the 10th century, infanticide was common, particularly with female babies. Even though the women who joined the monasteries were subject to hard work, the monastic life still held a strong appeal, providing an oasis from the traumas of Germanic married life and a safe haven where a woman could live with some sense of security. Of the numerous monasteries established in Saxony, Gandersheim was one of the most important.

Gandersheim was founded by Liudolf, count of Saxony, and his wife Oda , great-grandparents of Otto I. Oda decided that they should found a monastery for women because of a prophetic vision which her mother Aeda had of St. John the Baptist. Oda and Liudolf's daughter Hathumoda was installed as the first abbess of the new community which was housed in a church on their land. After journeying to Rome to obtain the blessing of Pope Serius II, Oda and Liudolf acquired relics of saints Anastasius and Innocent, who would be the monastery's patron saints. As they returned to Saxony, a vision of light was seen that was interpreted as a sign for the exact location of the monastery's buildings. For well over a hundred years, the community had the continued support of the descendants of Oda and Liudolf, as well as their heirs, the Ottos. Hathumoda's sisters, Gerberga (d. 896) and Christine of Gandersheim , followed in her footsteps as abbesses. Another Gerberga (r. 959–1001), daughter of Judith of Bavaria , was consecrated abbess in 959.

The prefaces to Hrotsvitha's works provide the only information about her life in Gandersheim, and this information is very limited. In the "Preface to Her Poetical Works," translated by Christopher St. John, she writes:

I was trained first by our most learned and gentle novice-mistress Rikkarda and others. Later, I owed much to the kind favour and encouragement of a royal personage, Gerberga, under whose abbatial rule I am now living. She, though younger in years than I, was, as might be expected of the niece of an Emperor, far older in learning, and she had the kindness to make me familiar with the works of some of those authors in whose writings she had been instructed by learned men [p. xxxii The Plays of Roswitha].

She notes in the "Preface to The Complete Works," "I found all the material … in various ancient works by authors of reputation," and given the philosophical discussions on religious thought and mathematics in at least two of her plays she obviously was educated. Hrotsvitha's sources included Acta Sanctorum, Aprocryphal Gospels, Passionale Passiones, Apostolorum, and Vitae patrum. She wrote in Latin, which was the only language used for literary work in the West. Her familiarity with the literature of at least the Roman writers is evident from her "Preface to Her Plays." She specifically states that there are many Catholics who prefer the works of the pagan writers to that of the Holy Scriptures. In addition, she notes that there are those who are particularly attracted to the works of Terence, a Roman playwright whose female characters were often courtesans and shrews. It is Terence whom she chooses to imitate, in her writing style, but for the purpose of glorifying "the innocent."

Hrotsvitha's manuscript was discovered in the library of the Benedictine monastery of St. Emnmeran, Ratisbon, in 1494 by Conrad Celtes, a well-known Vienna humanist. Celtes edited the manuscript, and it was published, with eight woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer, in Nuremberg (1501). The manuscript consisted of three parts: eight poems about the saints, six plays, and a lengthy poem in honor of the Ottos. This epic, Carmen de gestis Oddonis, was completed in 968 and details the deeds of Otto I. Composed at the request of the abbess Gerberga, it was presented by Hrotsvitha to Otto I and his son Otto II. This work, only half of which is extant, adhered closely to materials provided Hrotsvitha by members of the imperial family and is considered a historical authority. Her narrative religious poems were written in leonine hexameters or distichs and were concerned with the Nativity of the Virgin, the Ascension, and a series of legends of saints (Gandolph, Pelagius, Theophilus, Basil, Denis, and Agnes ). Hrotsvitha also composed De primordiis et fundatoribus coenobii Gandersheimensis, a work of 837 hexameters which narrates the history of her own convent up to the year 919. This foundation history of Gandersheim and the poems about the saints are significant in their attention to religious history; it is Hrotsvitha's six plays, however, that place her in the annals of Western culture.

With the intent of employing the drama as a means of edification, Hrotsvitha used the popularity of hagiography (lives and legends of the saints) to illustrate the preference for martyrdom and hermetic life as the perfect realization of the Christian ideal. In four of her plays—Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Callimachus and Sapientia—she illustrates the desirability of martyrdom. And in both Abraham and Paphnutius, she focuses on the need for hermetic life as a means of getting closer to God. These were popular and accepted ideals of the day within the monastic community. Her fundamental concern is the pronouncement of the Christian faith and the enlightenment and instruction of the followers of Christ. Hrotsvitha accomplished her mission by utilizing a very simple writing style; she structured her plays using a series of short scenes, with precise dialogue and little elaboration.

Her first play, Gallicanus, is written in two parts. The first part reveals how Constantia's (Constantina [c. 321–c. 354]) vow of chastity results in the conversion of the pagan Gallicanus. The story takes us to the days of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who has summoned General Gallicanus to court to impress upon him that there is a Scythian rebellion that must be suppressed. Knowing that battling the Scythians will be dangerous, Gallicanus asks for a reward: the hand of Constantine's daughter, Constantia. Constantine presents Gallicanus' proposal to his daughter who, because she has recently converted to Christianity and to a vow of chastity "for the love of my God," finds Gallicanus' offer repugnant. Constantine faces a dilemma; while he respects his daughter's decision to remain a virgin, he is also concerned with the security of his country for which he requires Gallicanus' help. Constantia, sympathizing with her father's predicament, suggests a somewhat unethical solution: her father should assure Gallicanus that Constantia is amenable to his proposal but she also tells her father that they must pray to God to "recall the soul of Gallicanus" to prevent him from attaining his reward of Constantia's hand in marriage. Gallicanus happily leaves for battle.

Wherefore I, the strong voice of Gandersheim, have not hesitated to imitate in my writings a poet whose works are so widely read, my object being to glorify, within the limits of my poor talent, the laudable chastity of Christian virgins in that self-same form of composition which has been used to describe the shameless acts of licentious women.


In Thrace, Gallicanus' men, realizing that they are outnumbered and that continued fighting would be useless, want to surrender to the enemy. Gallicanus, despairing, does not know what to do. Constantia's spiritual advisor John, who has accompanied Gallicanus, now assures him that, if he vows his allegiance to the one true God and vows to become a Christian, he will be victorious. Gallicanus agrees, and the enemy, miraculously overcome, surrenders to Gallicanus, who proclaims "let us embrace as allies." Gallicanus does not forget his vow to God and is anxious to be baptized, "to spend the rest of my life in the service of God." Returning triumphant, he recounts the events to Constantine and tells him that because of his conversion and baptism, he has given himself to God and no longer wants to wed Constantia. Gallicanus realizes that he can not stay at court, for despite his conversion and his vows his heart still yearns for Constantia. "It is not wise for me to gaze too often on the unmarried girl I love—more than my very soul." Part One concludes with Gallicanus resigning his commission and seeking permission to live with Hilarianius, a holy man.

Part II of Gallicanus takes place 25 years later, during the reign of Julian the Apostate. Julian advocates paganism and is opposed to Christians having the freedom "to follow the laws they were given at the time of Emperor Constantine." Vowing to confiscate the property held by Christians, Julian sends his soldiers to Gallicanus' house; but as each soldier attempts to enter the house, he is struck with leprosy. The emperor, furious, demands that Gallicanus abandon Christianity or risk exile. Undaunted by the prospect of exile, Gallicanus goes to Alexandria where, as reported by the soldiers to Julian, he is arrested and killed. The soldiers also report that John and Paul, the elderly advisors to Constantia, have given her property to the poor. John and Paul are summoned; they vow that they will not serve the pagan emperor and are subsequently arrested. Terrentianus, one of Julian's soldiers, tells John and Paul that they are to be given a second opportunity to abandon Christianity for the Roman gods. When they refuse, he murders them. After hiding the bodies, Terrentianus returns home to find his son "struck down by Divine vengeance." His son's dementia terrifies Terrentianus, who repents his actions and is forgiven. At the conclusion of the play, when his son recovers, Terrentianus proclaims his eternal thanks to God.

Gallicanus illustrates the power of belief that was so critical to early Christian doctrine. Constantia, knowing that her faith in God would remedy any situation, felt secure that Gallicanus' carnal interest in her would be abated once he too turned to Christianity. Likewise, Gallicanus' faith gave him the strength to face exile and eventual death. But it is Terrentianus' conversion and the renewed health of his son that bring the concept of faith in Christianity to its climax.

Hrotsvitha's second play, Dulcitius, is a comedy which focuses even more specifically on the power of faith and on women. Dulcitius takes place during the 4th century ce, during a time of aggressive persecutions of Christians under Diocletian. The sisters Agape, Chione and Irena (See joint entry on Irene, Chionia, and Agape of Thessalonica ) have converted to Christianity, and this prevents them from being part of Roman society. Diocletian summons the women, offering to wed them to the noblest of Roman men if they renounce their Christian faith. When the beautiful young women shun Diocletian's offer, he threatens to punish them for their stubbornness. Irena proclaims that they "yearn for the day we can embrace [punishment]; We long to be torn asunder for the love of Christ." Diocletian calls for Governor Dulcitius, who upon seeing their beauty is immediately overwhelmed with lust. He orders them jailed in the kitchen, so that he can have easy access to them. Dulcitius arrives at the kitchen, but is placed under a spell whereby he mistakes the kitchenware for the young women. The girls, hearing him arrive, hide in the next room; they peer through the cracks of the walls and see him embracing the sooty pots and pans. This comic moment is prolonged in the next scene when Dulcitius, covered with soot, is mistaken by his men for the Devil. Unaware of his own appearance, Dulcitius seeks redress from the emperor but is turned away because there too he is not recognized. It is not until he returns home that the spell is lifted and Dulcitius sees that he has been made a fool. Outraged, he orders the girls stripped of their clothing, so that they too can be humiliated. Miraculously, the clothing cannot be removed. Diocletian then turns to Count Sisinnius to punish the girls for humiliating Dulcitius. Sisinnius orders the two older sisters to be tortured; they are given the opportunity to renounce Christianity for the Roman gods, and they refuse. They are burned at the stake, but their souls miraculously leave their bodies before dying. Sisinnius then turns to the youngest, Irena. When she refuses to abandon Christ, he threatens to take her to a brothel. Irena retorts: "trials bring the crown of Heaven." As the soldier takes her to the brothel, she vows that they will not succeed. Hours later, the soldiers return to Sisinnius and report that en route two well-dressed men met them on the road and told them that Sisinnius had ordered them to take Irena to the mountain top instead. Sisinnius, furious, goes to the mountain but gets hopelessly lost. He finally finds Irena and orders his men to kill her. She taunts him with her wish for eternal glory and martyrdom. The play concludes with the soldiers shooting their arrows at her as she stands with her arms held up toward Heaven.

Callimachus, Hrotsvitha's third play, centers on Callimachus' admitted love for Drusiana , Lord Andronicus' wife. His friends try to convince him that Drusiana is a devout Christian and will never be lured into an affair; she does not even sleep with her own husband. Callimachus, not to be dissuaded, confesses his love to Drusiana. When Drusiana is repulsed by his confession, Callimachus threatens to pursue her until she relents. In her despair, Drusiana prays to God. She fears a scandal if she reveals Callimachus' threats. Drusiana prays for death so that she can preserve her chastity and her husband's reputation. Her prayers are answered, and when Andronicus returns home he finds that his wife has died. Andronicus seeks out St. John the Apostle, who tells him that he should shed no tears for Drusiana because she is with God. While Andronicus is away, Callimachus pays a house servant to take him to the family vault to see Drusiana's body. He buries his head in the folds of her gown and vows to have her now that she is dead. As he is about to carry her off, the house servant, who is with him, sees a large snake, is bitten and dies. Callimachus, viewing this in disbelief, believes the snake to be the Devil. He is so terrified that he dies on the spot. Meanwhile, en route to the tomb, Andronicus and St. John see a vision of Jesus who tells them that He wants both Drusiana and Callimachus resurrected, "So that My Name may be glorified in them." When they arrive, they find the dead bodies of Drusiana, Callimachus and Fortunatus, the servant. Realizing Callimachus' intentions, they do not understand why Christ would want to resurrect Callimachus. However, when Callimachus is resurrected, he repents his deeds and asks forgiveness. When Drusiana is resurrected, she asks for Fortunatus' return to life. Callimachus protests, believing that it was Fortunatus' fault that he was in the tomb; but St. John reminds Callimachus that Christianity requires forgiveness for everyone. When Fortunatus is resurrected, he cannot tolerate looking at Drusiana or Callimachus, who are true Christians. Fortunatus would prefer death, and he gets his wish at the conclusion of the play.

In Hrotsvitha's fourth play, Abraham, renouncing the world for a hermit's life becomes the means of achieving closeness to God. Abraham, seeking the advice of the hermit Effrem, is concerned about his orphaned niece, Maria; he wants her to marry Christ and live a life of chastity. Maria, who is only eight years old, does not understand all that Effrem and Abraham relate to her, but she does finally agree to renounce the present world. Abraham builds a small cell for her to live out her hermitage; living next to her, he will be able to instruct her on the ways of the Lord. Twenty years pass and Abraham once again visits Effrem. He tells him that a young man disguised as a monk gained access to Maria and seduced her; though she originally repented this sin, she has now reentered the world and become a whore. Abraham tells Effrem that he will break the vows of a hermit to seek out Maria. Disguised as a would-be lover, Abraham finds Maria and, after pretending he wants to stay with her, reveals his true identity; Maria is so overcome that she repents her evil ways and agrees to go back with him. She returns to her windowless cell next to Abraham's hermitage where she lives the rest of her days safe from the Devil's charm.

In Paphnutius, Hrotsvitha's fifth play, the hermit Paphnutius is engaged in a philosophical discussion with his disciples who learn that Paphnutius is saddened by the ways of Thais , a courtesan, whose beauty has seduced many men. Determined to find her and convert her to Christianity, he disguises himself as one of her lovers, and after gaining access to her chambers he convinces her that she has sinned. Thais feels such shame and grief that she agrees to obey Paphnutius and to enter a convent where she can live a life of contemplation and repentance. She is given a small cell where she must remain, never to leave it for any reason. At first, the humiliation of staying in one small space is overwhelming and Thais is reluctant, but she is convinced that this is the way to salvation. Three years pass and when Paphnutius returns to Thais' cell he finds a new woman, one who has finally achieved salvation. Thais then dies and joins Christ.

Hrotsvitha's last play, Sapientia, returns to the theme of martyrdom, focusing on the Holy Virgins: Faith, Hope and Charity. The play is set in the Roman world of Emperor Hadrian. His advisor, Antiochus, informs Hadrian that Sapientia and her three children have arrived in Rome; though merely women, they should still be viewed as dangerous to the state since they preach sedition: "This woman … encourages our people to abandon their ancestral rites and give themselves over to the Christian religion." Hadrian concurs and demands that they be brought to him so that he can persuade them to return to the worship of the Roman gods. He suggests that he will begin by speaking to them in a kindly manner. Antiochus believes this will prove to be a useful strategy: "for the weak and delicate nature of the feminine sex can easily be softened by flattery." Neither Hadrian nor Antiochus realize that Sapientia has instilled in herself and her daughters such a love of Christ that they cannot be dissuaded. Hadrian gives them three days to reconsider. When they do not change their minds, Antiochus encourages Hadrian to kill the young girls to achieve the most painful punishment for the mother. The young girls, however, married to Christ, yearn to be martyrs. Hadrian's sentence is harsh; he has the girls tortured in a most cruel manner. But their love of Christ allows them to accept the torture and keeps them from feeling any pain. The play concludes with the burial of Sapientia's daughters; Sapientia is assisted by other Christian women, some of whom she had converted when she arrived in Rome. Sapientia offers a prayer to God and asks that she too may join Him and her daughters in Heaven.

Hrotsvitha's plays provide a link between the classical and medieval worlds. She used the dramatic format as a tool to educate. Although there is no evidence that her plays were in fact staged at the monastery, it is likely that they were designed to be read aloud or recited by sisters of the convent. From a modern perspective, Hrotsvitha's importance may have less to do with advocating Christianity than with her ability to overcome prejudice toward the theater and her ability to depict women in a noble and enlightening manner.


Bonfante, Larissa, trans. The Plays of Hrotswitha of Gandersheim. Oak Park, IL: Golchazy-Carducci, 1986.

St. John, Christopher, trans. The Plays of Roswitha. London, 1932 (reissued by B. Blom, N.Y., 1966).

Wilson, Katharina M., ed. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim Rara Avis in Saxonia? Ann Arbor, MI: Marc, 1987.

suggested reading:

Case, Sue-Ellen. "Re-Viewing Hrotsvit," in Theater Journal. Vol. 35, no. 4. December 1983, pp. 533–542.

Nicoll, Allardyce. Masks, Mimes and Miracles. New York, 1931 (reprinted, 1963).

Anita DuPratt , Professor of Theater, California State University, Bakersfield