Hroswitha of Gandersheim Critical Essays

Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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."