Hrotsvit of Gandersheim


Hrotsvit of Gandersheim
(Hroswitha)
(ca. 935–after 972)
   In 1494 the German humanist and crowned poet laureate Conrad Celtis, while teaching and researching in Regensburg, discovered a medieval manuscript in the convent library of the St. Emmeran monastery (today Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Clm 14485 1–150), which contained the works of the 10th-century Gander-sheim nun Hrotsvit. He immediately hailed her as a literary wonder who proved to him and his contemporaries that Germany also had had a glorious, intellectually highly developed past that could even compete with classical Roman literature. Hrotsvit has enjoyed superior respect for her Latin dramas, religious tales, and historiographical poems ever since because she appears to have been the first and only Saxon (or generally, German) woman playwright in the early Middle Ages who endeavored to try her hand at such a sophisticated literary genre. Hrotsvit’s oeuvre (the complete body of her texts) was printed in Nuremberg in 1501, accompanied by six woodcuts for the dramas: two by Albrecht Dürer and four by Wolfgang Traut. Additional manuscripts containing Hrotsvit’s works were not found until the 20th century.
   Although we have no biographical material about the poet, references in the texts—especially the Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis—and circumstantial evidence allow us to draw a fairly clear picture of Hrotsvit’s life. She was the daughter of a high-ranking Saxon noble family and joined the Benedictine convent of Gandersheim as a canoness under the rule of the abbess Gerberga II (born ca. 940). Her Primordia Hrotsvit also states that she was born long after the death of Emperor Otto II (Nov. 30, 912). She was obviously proud of her literary achievements, since she explains her own name in the introduction to her dramas as “Clamor Validus Gandeshemensis.” As Jacob Grimm observed (Lateinische Gedichte, 1898, 9), her Old Saxon name derived from two compounds, hruot, meaning “voice” (in Latin: clamor), and suid, meaning “strong” (in Latin: validus). Katharina Wilson offers the following explanation: “Seen as allegorization of her name, ‘Clamor Validus’ could be best rendered as ‘Forceful Testimony’ (that is, for God), or ‘Vigorous (valid) Attestation’ (that is of Christian truth)” (1998, 4). The convent of Gandersheim, founded in 852 in northern Germany near the Harz mountains by Count Liudolf and his wife, Oda, admitted only daughters of noble families and educated them in the classical arts, music, theology, and probably also some philosophy. Although Emperor Otto I had freed the convent from royal rule and allowed the abbess to administer every aspect of her convent all on her own, he and his own family maintained close ties with Gandersheim. The convent soon grew into a major center of intellectual and spiritual education. Hrotsvit demonstrates with her large oeuvre that 10th-century convent women were fully capable of making their own voices heard and could participate in the literary activities of their time. She seems to have begun writing already during her school years, a regular aspect of medieval educational principles, but those texts have not come down to us.
   Hrotsvit composed eight religious tales (legends), first on the Virgin Mary, then on the Saints Ascensio, Gongolfus, Pelagius, Theophilus, Basilius, Dionysius, and Agnes. Subsequently she wrote seven religious dramas: Gallicanus (I and II), Dulcitius, Calimachus, Abraham, Pafnutius, and Sapientia. Finally, she created two historical verse epics, the Gesta Ottonis (Deeds of Otto) and Primordia coneobii Gandeshemensis (The origins of the Gandersheim abbey). Not surprising for a convent woman, Hrotsvit repeatedly glorified the life and suffering of martyred virgins who lived and died in the time of the late Roman Empire and of the early Middle Ages as witnesses of the power of Christ. Although her heroines often reflect women’s physical weakness, their oaths to keep their virginity, the hope to join the chorus of divine virgins in the afterlife, and their hope that Christ would welcome them as his heavenly brides signal these women’s courage and spiritual dedication. Surprisingly, many of Hrotsvit’s texts are characterized by a quite earthy humor and prove to be considerably entertaining even for modern tastes. For her religious tales and the historical poems Hrotsvit heavily drew from the Roman poets PRUDENTIUS (348–405 C.E.) and Virgil (70–19 B.C.E.), among many other late antique and early medieval writers. Most important, however, proved to be the dramatist Terence (195–159 B.C.E.), whose comedies seem to have exerted a considerable influence on the early-medieval convent schools. But Hrotsvit rejected his secular outlook with its often highly erotic allusions, and decided to create her own dramas to replace Terence in the reading (or performance) canon within her convent. In the preface to her dramas, Hrotsvit states that many nuns “frequently read Terence’s fiction,/and as they delight in the sweetness of his style and diction,/they are stained by learning of wicked things in his depiction.” Her own religious dramas served as powerful substitutes with which she hoped to convert her audiences back to virtuousness and Christian piety: “Therefore I, the Strong Voice of Gandersheim, have not refused to imitate him in writing/whom others laud in reading,/so that in that selfsame form of composition in which the shameless acts of lascivious women were phrased/the laudable chastity of sacred virgins be praised within the limits of my little talent.”Although Hrotsvit tends to utilize humility topoi (standard phrases) about her unworthiness (see the preface to the religious legends), she emerges not only as a most powerful Latin author, but also as a highly self-conscious personality fully aware of her abilities to write in various learned genres.
   Bibliography
   ■ Brown, Phyllis Rugg,Katharina M.Wilson, and Linda A. McMillin. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Contexts, Identities, Affinities, and Performances. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2004.
   ■ Hrotsvithae Opera. Edited by H. Homeyer. Munich: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1970.
   ■ Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: A Florilegium of Her Works. Translated with Introduction by Katharina M. Wilson. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1998.
   ■ Wilson, Katharina M., ed. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: “Rara Avis in Saxonia”? Ann Arbor, Mich.: Medieval and Renaissance Collegium, 1987.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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