Hroswitha of Gandersheim Essay - Critical Essays

Hroswitha of Gandersheim


Hroswitha of Gandersheim c.935-c. 1002

(Also known as Hrotsvitha, Hrotsvit, Roswitha.) German dramatist, poet, and historian.

A Benedictine canoness, Hroswitha of Gandersheim is primarily known for her composition of six plays, ostensibly imitations in the style of the Roman playwright Terence, which to a degree bridge the lengthy gap between stage drama of the classical era and the later miracle and morality plays of the High Middle Ages. Without precedent in tenth-century European literature, Hroswitha's dramas exhibit a strongly didactic tone throughout. They explore the theme of chastity as a sanctifying spiritual force and reflect Hroswitha's intention of providing an alternative to the licentious plays of Terence. Though chiefly remembered as a unique and original woman dramatist, Hroswitha also wrote a series of more traditional saintly legends in verse and two historical epics, the first a history of her Abbey at Gandersheim, and the second an account of the life and reign of her contemporary, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great.

Biographical Information

The full extent of what is known about Hroswitha's life comes predominantly from internal evidence—her own literary prefaces and histories. Using these sources, scholars have placed her birth in Saxony, a northern German dukedom, in approximately 935, during an era of learning and enlightenment ushered in by the Christianizing reforms of the emperors Charlemagne and Otto I. In about 955, Hroswitha, almost undoubtedly of aristocratic birth, entered the Benedictine Abbey at Gandersheim, where she was schooled in Scholastic philosophy, mathematics, music, astronomy, scriptures, and the Latin writings of Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and others. As a canoness, Hroswitha was required to take vows of obedience and chastity, but not the typical vow of poverty. Yet within the confines of the religious life, Hroswitha explored a literary path rarely followed by women at the time. Calling herself Clamor Validus Gandersheimes, "the strong voice of Gandersheim," she began to compose a series of saints' lives and holy legends in verse. Traditional in form, these poems later gave way to Hroswitha's more original writings, a cycle of six dramas inspired by the style of Terence. Later she turned to the genre of the historical and epic narrative, producing verse accounts of the reign of Otto the Great and of her cloister at Gandersheim. Remaining at Gandersheim throughout her life, Hroswitha lived to see the end of the tenth century and, evidence suggests, perhaps the early years of the eleventh.

Major Works

Chronologically and generically, Hroswitha's principal writings fall into three categories: eight holy legends and saints' lives in verse, six dramas in the manner of Terence, and two narrative poems. "Maria," the first legend, treats the life of the Virgin Mary and inaugurates the major theme that Hroswitha would explore throughout her career, the virtue of chastity. The second legend, "Ascensio," details the ascension of Christ into heaven. The virtuous eighth-century Frankish knight Gongolf provides the subject of the next legend. Manipulated by the Devil, Gongolf s adulterous wife undertakes a failed attempt to bring about her husband's death. Chastity is the theme of "Pelagius," based upon the life of a tenth-century Spanish saint martyred for his refusal to succumb to the homosexual advances of Abderrahman III, the caliph of Cordoba. Faust-like characters in "Basilius" and "Theophilus," Hroswitha's fifth and sixth legends, make pacts with the Devil, exchanging their immortal souls for worldly gain. In the former, Bishop Basilius intercedes, while in the latter, the Virgin Mary saves the soul of Theophilus. The final two legends are "Dionysius," which describes the martyrdom of the first bishop of Paris, and "Agnes," which glorifies this sainted martyr for preserving her virginity.

Hroswitha's highly original dramas are preceded in the second book of her collected works by a dedication to Gerberga, her Abbess at Gandersheim, and by the prose "Epistola ad quosdam sapientes huius libri fautores," a letter addressed to the "learned patrons" of her book. Comprised of two parts, the first play in the cycle, Gallicanus, deals with the conversion and martyrdom of the title character, a pagan Roman general. Promised the hand of Constantia, Emperor Constantine's daughter, Gallicanus instead takes a vow of chastity and devotes the remainder of his life to Christianity. Dulcitius takes place during the Diocletian persecutions of Christians and dramatizes the martyrdom of three virgin sisters (Agapes, Chionia, and Hirena) who refuse to give up their faith and their chastity. Sometimes referred to as Agapes, Chionia, and Hirena, the play takes as its more commonly used title the name of the pagan executioner who imprisons the girls. Callimachus (sometimes called Drusiana and Callimachus) depicts the sin of a pagan youth who tries to compromise a young virgin, Drusiana. Her prayers for death are granted, and when Callimachus breaks into her tomb and attempts to profane her lifeless body, he is struck dead. Paphnutius, or the Conversion of Thaïs and Abraham treat themes of fall and redemption. In each play a harlot is converted by a saintly anchorite and subsequently lives an ascetic life. The title character of Paphnutius, inspired by a holy vision, converts the courtesan Thaïs, while the eponymous hermit in Abraham saves his niece, Mary. Sapientia, Hroswitha's final play, deals with the martyrdom of three allegorical virgins—Fides (Faith), Spes (Hope), and Caritas (Charity)—who, like the heroines of Dulcitius, willingly face death so that they may enjoy eternal life in heaven.

Later in life, Hroswitha composed two verse epics, Carmen de gestis Oddonis imperatoris, "Deeds of the Emperor Otto," (often referred to as the Gesta Ottonis), and Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis, "Origins of the Abbey of Gandersheim." In the Gesta Ottonis Hroswitha depicts the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great as an ideal Christian ruler, a descendant of King David. Among the female characters in the work, Otto's queens Edith and Adelheid appear as paragons of feminine virtue and are described in the superlatives typical of the hagiographic tradition. The Primordia presents the history of the Gandersheim Abbey from its founding until the death of Abbess Christina in 918. Replete with hagiographic conventions, like the Gesta Ottonis, the poem features legendary characters whose exemplary lives are reminiscent of those of the heroes and heroines of Hroswitha's works.

Textual History

Following her death, Hroswitha's reputation and her writings fell into near total obscurity for almost five centuries, until 1493, when the Renaissance humanist Conrad Celtes discovered manuscripts of her works preserved in the Emmeram-Munich Codex, dating from the early eleventh century. The oldest extant manuscript of Hroswitha's writings, the Codex organizes the totality of her literary output chronologically in three books. Book I includes her eight holy legends and saints' lives, Book II contains her six-play cycle, and Book III her epics Carmen de gestis Oddonis imperatoris and Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis. Several minor poems also appear in the Codex. Scholars have discovered corroborative manuscript, evidence, particularly of the dramas, from other sources, including a late-twelfth-century copy of the play Gallicanus, included as part of the Alderspach Passionale, as well as a handful of later manuscripts, some of them translations into European vernacular languages. The standard modern edition of Hroswitha's collected works is the Hrotsvithae Opera (1970), edited by Helena Homeyer.

Critical Reception

Despite centuries of relative neglect, Hroswitha's writings have garnered considerable interest among modern scholars. In the nineteenth century, Hros-witha's position as the sole female dramatist of the tenth century raised the question of authenticity for some critics, including Joseph von Aschenbach, who in 1867 argued that Hroswitha, a historical absurdity, had clearly been concocted by her sixteenth-century editor, Conrad Celtes. Such thinking has been discredited by contemporary scholars, although a related point of contention raised in prior centuries continues to command critical attention: Were Hroswitha's plays performed during her lifetime? While no definitive evidence on the matter exists, critics continue to ask the question, with most acknowledging at the very least that the canoness' dramatic cycle was intended to be read aloud, if not performed on stage. In more recent years, critics have shifted their focus to stylistic, thematic, and cultural issues related to Hroswitha's plays, and, to a lesser degree, to her other works. There have been reevaluations of Hroswitha's supposed indebtedness to the Roman playwright Terence, explorations of her moral and artistic intention in crafting the plays, and studies of the decidedly feminine focus in her dramatic works. The last of these areas has sparked particular interest in late-twentieth-century scholars, who have done much to challenge androcentric interpretations of Hroswitha's dramas and even to uncover certain proto-feminist tendencies in her writing. Commenting on her unique overall importance, Cardinal Gasquet has remarked, "Hroswitha's works have a claim to an eminent place in medieval literature, and do honour to her sex, to the age in which she lived, and to the vocation which she followed."

Principal Works*

Opera Hrotsvite (poetry, dramas, and history) 1501

Hrotsvithae Opera (poetry, dramas, and history) 1902

Hrotsvithae Opera (poetry, dramas, and history) 1970

*Hroswitha's major collected works include the following poems: "Maria", Historia ascensionis Domini ("Ascensio"), Passio Sancti Gongolfi martyris ("Gongolf'), Passio Sancti Pelagii ("Pelagius"), Lapsus et conversio Theophili Vicedomini ("Theopilus"), Conversio cujusdam juvenis desperati per S. Basilium episcopum ("Basilius"), Passio Sancti Dionysii ("Dionysius"), and Passio Sanctae Agnetis ("Agnes"); dramas: Passio sanctarum virginum Agapis Chioniae et Hirenae, Resuscitatio Drusianae et Calimachi, Lapsus et conversio Mariae neptis Habrahae heremicolae, Conversio Thaidis meretricis, and Passio sanctarum virginum Fidei Spei et Karitatis; and works of history in verse: Carmen de gestis Oddonis imperatoris and Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis.

Principal English Translations*

The Plays of Hroswitha (dramas) 1923

The Plays of Hroswitha von Gandersheim (dramas) 1979

*English titles of Hroswitha's six plays are usually rendered as Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Callimachus, Abraham, Paphnuiius, or the Conversion of Thaïs, and Sapientia in translation.

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Cornelia C. Coulter (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "The 'Terentian' Comedies of a Tenth-Century Nun," The Classical Journal, Vol. XXIV, No. 7, April, 1929, pp. 515-29.

[In the following essay, Coulter investigates the extent to which Hroswitha's dramas may be called "Terentian," concluding that "Hrotsvitha's independent contribution to mediaeval Latin literature is far more important than her connection with Terence."]

Modem discussions of mediaeval drama are very likely to include the name of Hrotsvitha and some mention of her debt to Roman comedy. Creizenach, in the early pages of his Geschichte des Neueren Dramas, takes up her plays with special interest because they are the one isolated example of...

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Rosamond Gilder (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "Hrotsvitha, a Tenth-Century Nun: The First Woman Playwright," in Enter the Actress: The First Women in the Theatre, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931, pp. 18-45.

[In the following essay, Gilder summarizes Hroswitha's place in early medieval drama and evaluates her plays, noting particularly her masterful characterization in these works.]

Although the early Christian Church welcomed to its bosom certain repentant actresses, it was on the whole the mortal enemy of the theatre. The war between Church and stage has been long and bitter, particularly in the early days when the theatre represented the last entrenched camp of paganism, and as such was the subject of...

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Rosemary Sprague (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "Hroswitha—Tenth-Century Margaret Wester," The Theatre Annual, Vol. XIII, 1955, pp. 16-31.

[In the following essay, Sprague surveys Hroswitha's life and works, focusing on the author's development in her six dramas.]

From the far away past emerges a picture of a nun, with habit tucked up to her ankles and with manuscript in hand, striding up and down a great hall in a convent directing her sisters in a play she herself has written. This is Sister Hroswitha, the pride of the Benedictine Convent of Gandersheim, Saxony, who wrote, as far as can be ascertained, the very first plays in the Western world after the collapse of the Roman Empire. She is not the...

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Sister Mary Marguerite Butler (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim," in Hrotsvitha: The Theatricality of Her Plays, Philosophical Library, 1960, pp. 62-84.

[In the following excerpt, Butler presents an overview of Hroswitha's life and early writings, then outlines the significant sources, style, influences, and intent of her dramatic works.]

The Woman and Nun

Most theatre historians admit that there is scant documentary evidence about Hrotsvitha's chronology and background. Three sources will be related here as representative of typical available data.

Magnin, relying on the Hildesheim Chronicles, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, and on the...

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Anne Lyon Haight (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Hroswitha of Gandersheim: Her Life, Her Times, Her Works" in Hroswitha of Gandersheim: Her Life, Times, and Works, and Comprehensive Bibliography, The Hroswitha Club, 1965, pp. 3-34.

[In the following essay, Haight surveys the life an(d writings of Hroswitha, terming her "the most remarkable woman of her time."]

The most remarkable woman of her time was Hroswitha, the tenth-century canoness of the Benedictine monastery of Gandersheim, Saxony. She was the earliest poet known in Germany and the first dramatist after the fall of the ancient stage of classical times.

In 1494 Conrad Celtes, the Renaissance humanist and first poet laureate of...

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Marianna da Vinci Nichols (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Callimachus, A Play by Hrotswitha," Allegorica, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 7-11.

[In the following introduction to her co-translation of Callimachus, Nichols explores the classical sources and romantic / Christian theme of the play.]

Hrotswitha was a canoness at the Abbey of Gandersheim in Saxony during the tenth century. She wrote two epics, a number of shorter works, and six plays modelled after Terence's to replace his for readers who were "fascinated by the charm of [his] manner [and] risked being corrupted by the wickedness of [his] matter," as she says in her Preface to the plays.

Callimachus is her most...

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Karl A. Zaenker (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Homage to Roswitha," The Humanities Association Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 117-34.

[In the following essay, Zaenker traces the literary influence and reception of Hroswitha's dramas in the contemporary era.]

One could think of two immediate reasons why it appears timely to pay homage to Roswitha von Gandersheim, that mysterious Saxon poetess of the tenth century, and concern ourselves with her work and the impact it has had on European literature over the past centuries. On the one hand we could commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Roswitha's death which might well be any of these years. It is very convenient that the uncertain dates of her...

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Dennis M. Kratz (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The Nun's Epic: Hroswitha on Christian Heroism" in Wege der Worte: Festschrift für Wolfgang Fleischhauer, edited by Donald C. Riechel, Böhlau Verlag, 1978, pp. 132-42.

[In the following essay, Kratz examines Hroswitha's Latin epic Gesta Ottonis, concluding that it is "among the most successful attempts in the history of Latin literature to adapt the epic genre for the expression of a Christian definition of heroic excellence."]

Best known for the comedies which she wrote in order to provide her Benedictine sisters a Christian alternative to the comedies of Terence, Hroswitha of Gandersheim stands as a unique figure in the history not only of Latin...

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A. Daniel Frankforter (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Hroswitha of Gandersheim and the Destiny of Women," The Historian, Vol. XLI, No. 3, February, 1979, pp. 295-314.

[In the following essay, Frankforter studies Hroswitha's dramatic exploration of the sources and models of spiritual strength available to women in Medieval society.]

There is a substantial fund of medieval literature which is relevant to the study of the roles, models, and ideals which medieval European society endorsed for women. Most of it was written by men whose educations and vocations gave them a limited capacity for the appreciation of women,' and it suggests that the medieval world was often rather harsh in its criticism of females. The...

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A. Daniel Frankforter (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Sexism and the Search for the Thematic Structure of the Plays of Hroswitha of Gandersheim," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, May / June, 1979, pp. 221-32.

[In the following essay, Frankforter discusses Hroswitha's six plays, arguing that they should be viewed as works focusing on women as Christian heroes rather than as imperfectly realized dramas primarily about their male characters.]


The writing of history has long been an activity controlled by males. Most of the honored commentators who have shaped the western historical tradition have been extraordinary men who have concentrated their professional...

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Peter Dronke (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Hrotsvitha" in Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310), Cambridge University Press, pp. 55-83.

[In the following essay, Dronke undertakes an overall evaluation of Hroswitha's writings, examining her life and relation to the court of Emperor Otto I; her literary intentions and possibly self-conscious pose as a humble and unassuming woman writer; the thematic structure of her collected writings; her artistic limitations; and her influence in the Middle Ages.]

Hrotsvitha wrote more prolifically than Dhuoda, and planned her major work on a larger scale. Like Dhuoda, she clung...

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Peter R. Schroeder (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Hroswitha and the Feminization of Drama" in Women in Theatre, edited by James Redmond, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 49-58.

[In the following essay, Schroeder observes proto-feminist themes in Hroswitha's plays, especially "the thematic pattern of feminine weakness overcoming masculine strength."]

Most non-specialists who think about Hroswitha at all tend to think of her largely as a freak of literary history, a kind of duck-billed platypus standing outside the normal flow of evolution—in this case, the evolution of Christian drama in the Middle Ages. Yet our perception of her as a sideshow exhibit—the tenth-century nun who wrote religious plays in...

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Further Reading

Allen, Philip Schuyler. "The Mediaeval Mimus." Modern Philology VIII, No. 1 (July 1910): 17-60.

Includes discussion of some of the Roman sources of Hroswitha's dramas and poetry.

Carter, Barbara Barclay. "Roswitha of Gandersheim." The Dublin Review, No. 385 (April 1933): 284-95.

Short survey of Hroswitha's life and principal dramas.

Coffman, George R. "A New Approach to Medieval Latin Drama." Modern Philology XXII, No. 3 (February 1925): 239-71.

Contains a brief look at Hroswitha's poetry and her relationship to Gandersheim Abbey.

Dale, Darley. "Roswitha, Nun and Dramatist." The American...

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