Acting sacred words – Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (935 – 1000) written by dr.art Anne Helgesen

Posted on May 15, 2014

She was the first poet of Saxony. She was the first Catholic playwright. She was the first female German historian. But when her work of 8 legends, 6 plays and 2 epics were rediscovered by the German humanist Conrad Celtis in 1494, the name Hrotsvit[i] of Gandersheim was unknown to all scholars. Even as late as in the 19th century scholars like the Viennese Joseph von Aschbach doubted the authenticity of the Emmeram-Munich codex. He claimed that Celtis could not have found the codex in the library of the monastery St. Emmaram and suggested that Celtis forged what was supposed to be the manuscript of Hrotsvit´s works.[ii]  However the manuscript is now proved to date back to the 10th century. Probably three different female writers produced it. The Emmeram-Munich Codex is now believed to originate from the monastery of Gandersheim during the lifetime of Hrotsvit. Most probable its production was ordered by the Abbess Gerberga II, niece of Emperor Otto the Great and send to the learned men at St. Emmeram where Gerberga herself had been educated.[iii]

Outside her own manuscripts there is no historical evidence to prove that Hrotsvit ever existed. However from her writings one can deduce that she was born about 935 and died a short time before the end of the century. She was a canoness in the convent of Gandersheim in Saxony, an independent principality ruled by women. As she lived and worked inside this exclusive society of women, she must have been born as a member of the aristocracy of Saxony. The canonesses did not have to take the wow as nuns, they were allowed to have property and servants, and they were allowed to travel and to have visitors.[iv] Hrotsvit was educated at the convent and her teachers were the learned canoness Rikkarda and the Abbess Gerberga II. Even more interesting than revealing biographical information is to discover the intellectual, self-confident female artist and theologian, Hrotsvit through her writings. She organize here threefold authorship into three books that shows her skill in Latin and poetic language and her mastery of symmetry and balance. The first book contains eight legends of Maria, Ascensio of Christ, Gongolf, Pelagius, Theophilus, Basilius, Dionysius and Agnes. The second book contains six plays or as Hrotsvit names them – “comedies”: Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Calimachus, Abraham, Pafnutius and Sapienta. In the third book she works as a historian, she writes an epic containing Gesta Oddonis I, the deeds of Emperor Otto I and Primordia coenobii Gandeshemnsis, about the foundation of the Monastery of Gandersheim. These works are organized in a complex pattern on the themes of Divine grace and eternal justice with interwoven connections, thematically and structurally. The female artist Hrotsvit knows how to handle literary structures, theology and gender discussions. She argues theologically in a way that aims to silence learned men in opposition to the growing independence and power of the women in Gandersheim. In her prefaces and dedications she openly announce her religious and political ambitions. Being an author without any documented biography, she is still able to give an astonishingly well documented and nuanced picture of what she intends to do by her words, an her intentions are of my particular interest in this study of her works.

I base my method in speech act theories as Quentin Skinner develops them as a historical method in his Visions of Politics from 2002. Skinner elaborate Austin’s theories about speech acts[v] by stressing the focus of the agents’ intentions and motives for engaging in the act of communication in a given situation:

To know about motives and intensions is to know the relationship in which a writer stands to what he or she has written. To know about intentions is to know about such facts as whether the writer was joking or serious, or ironic, or in general what speech acts they may have been performing in writing as they wrote. To know about motives is to know what prompted those particular speech acts, quite apart from their character and truth-status as utterances.[vi]   

Through prefaces, dedications and headings Hrotsvit explicitly expresses her intentions 18 times in her texts. Her main issue as she expresses her intentions is to glorify female weakness and condemn male violence and self-assertion. In the preface to her plays she argue that it was necessary to describe both seduction and sexual promiscuity to fulfil her intentions:

I would not have fulfilled my intent,/ neither would I have rendered/ the praise of the innocent as well as I could, because the more seductive the unlawful flatteries of those who have lost their sense,/ the greater the heavenly Helper’s munificence/ and the more glorious the victory of triumphant innocence,/ are to be/ especially/ when female weakness triumphs in conclusion/ and male strength succumbs in confusion./[vii]

The same theme is exposed when she writes about herself as a female artist and writer. She stresses her weakness and her lack of experience, contrast it to the strength and wisdom of the men that should evaluate her work, and then turns this into victory because her talents are a gift of God and cannot be disputed be the men. The humbleness of Hrotsvit has led many of her critics to disregard her as a naive nun of the 10th century, “an artist without precedent and without succession.”[viii]  But when Hrotsvit is placed into the context of the Convent of Gandersheim, an important cultural institution, ruled by a member of the imperial court, then it is obvious that her literary works belong in a political and theological setting where the fight for power and influence is relevant. Peter Dronke interprets Hrotsvit´s prefaces in this context, he even suggest that she had a past at the royal court before she became a member of the female community at Gandersheim. But Dronke then read Hrotsvit in such a modern way that her prefaces become ironic, as if her words should not be sincere:

What we can still trace with some precision, especially in Hrotsvitha´s Prefaces, is her growing – and changing – awareness of herself as artist. These Prefaces are written in most artificial prose of which Hrotsvitha felt capable – yet paradoxically they are so full of self-revelations, at least between the lines. If we can look beyond Hrotsvitha´s overwrought facades, beyond her topoi of humility that become almost presumptuous though sheer over-insistence, we can discover what really on her mind.[ix]

It is of course true that Hrotsvit work with a paradox in her prefaces, but it is a paradox that is her concern in her legends and plays as well. But irony belongs to a time when the existence of the Holy God is doubted, when words cannot be sacred any more. Paradoxes belong to a religion that open up to alternative ways of thinking.  To Hrotsvit these paradoxes were a fundamental part of her faith, as it is a central paradox of the Gospel and therefore an important part of Hrotsvit´s theology. What most scholars who discuss her literature fail to take into account is that Hrotsvit also must be regarded as a theologian. In this role she very carefully document her statements in what would be widely accepted as Christian authority. The highest authority was of course God the Creator. Then Hrotsvit argues that God created both men and women, and the Creator gave women special talents, talents that were wanted and intended and therefore should be used. The Holy Bible was the words of God and an authority. Hrotsvit´s statements about weak women being the strong ones are reflected in the words and deeds of Jesus. He told his disciples: “For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.” (Luke 9, 48) This was also reflected in the preaching of the first Christians. They should not ask for honour themselves, the honour belonged to God. But even so, Saint Paul for instants could be quite aware that he was doing a good job:

But by God’s grace I am what I am, and the grace that he gave me was not without effect. On the contrary, I have worked harder than the other apostles, although it was nor really my own doing, but God’s grace working with me. (1 Cor. 15, 10)

According to Hrotsvit this paradox is a truth that women grasp more easily than men. In Hrotsvit´s legends and plays it is a clear tendency that man fall in sin as a result of ambitions for power and honour, while women fall out of erotic passion and greed. The female theology that is openly reflected in the works of Hrotsvit, have a counterpart by the end of the second part of the 3rd and the first part of 4th century in the Roman Empire, when Christianity was a growing religion with a will for social changes. The new religion specially attracted men of the upper middle classes and women from the aristocracy. Christianity offered an alternative to marriage to these women, a religious and intellectual liberation. Quite a lot of them chose virginity and an ascetic life. For the young Christian congregations these women represented intellectual resources but also economical incomes, they brought their dowry into the church. While the families of Senators suffered from the lack of female candidates for marriage, naturally male members of the aristocracy tried to force the young rebellion women into relationship with earthly men instead of the heavenly bridegroom which they hade chosen. It is no surprise that a whole lot of the hagiographical material which Hrotsvit threats in her works descend form that period, and that she uses these hagiographies as sources of authority when she describes females as religious and intellectual subjects.[x]  The noble women of the German Empire under the rule of Otto I had intellectual and religious resemblance to the women of the Roman Empire under the rule of Diocletian and Constantine. Nobel women in both periods had the opportunity to learn to read and write and was often more schooled than the men of their own class, because men had to be warriors as well. In both societies Christianity was new and fresh and for the women to study and interpret, before it settled in an administrative and institutionalized form.

Western Europe was transforming from a tribal to a feudal society. Otto I the duke of the Saxons, the later king Otto I of Germany and even later the Roman Emperor Otto I, was a warrior who could hardly write his own name. He was no reader of books. To rule his kingdom Otto was constantly on the move. He did not stay in a residential town. The court was moving with him, and that included the bishops. Monasteries and convents were left to men of the upper middle class and women of aristocracy. The convent of Gandersheim was founded by the Saxon duke Liodolf and his wife Oda. Liodolf was not coincidently also the founder of the Ottonian imperial house. Gandersheim was placed in the crossing of two Roman roads and had the river Gandes as the third possibility of transportation. It was planned as an important convent from the very beginning. When the Saxon Otto became the king of Germany, the position of Ganderheim was strengthened. His niece Gerberga II was appointed as Abbess of the convent. She was the daughter of duke Henry who was found guilty in an attempt of coup d`état. Gerberga II had to prove her loyalty to Otto I. She obviously did, and she was rewarded. Otto did send his son Otto to be schooled by the learned women in Gandersheim. And Gandersheim became independent form the local church administration. The convent benefited from both royal and papal protection. This is the context to be aware of in this analysis of how Hrotsvit and Gerberga II cooperate to realize their theological, cultural and political intentions in Hrotsvit´ literary works.

The first book of Hrotsvit is the Legends.  In her preface Hrotsvit admits that her work started out as a secret:

I need help of many to defend this little work now that it is finished, all the more since at the beginning I was not sustained by much strength of my own; I was not mature in years, nor advanced in my studies. But I did not dare to reveal the direction of my intent by asking the advice of someone wiser, for the fear that I might be forbidden to write on account of my down-home way of speaking (rusticitas). So, in total secrecy and almost furtively, struggling alone to write, and sometimes tearing up what was poorly written, I worked away as best as I could to put together a text which might be of some slight value, woven from passages of other writings which I gathered together in granary of our foundation of Gandersheim. (Pref. I:5-6)[xi]

In her first preface Hrotsvit aim to be authorized as an author. She runs the risk that her writings might be stopped. It is a real threat, and she accepts the relevance of this threat. She is not ironic, she works hard to produce the proofs and she strongly believes that way to do it, is by the power of the words. It is of great importance to prove her talent. That is why she cannot show her work to “somebody wiser” before her writings are good enough to reveal her talent. But as a theologian she also knows how to use the authority of the church fathers and the freedom of the Christian paradox. In her book Eloquent virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc Maud Burnet McInerey points to Hrotsvit´ rhetoric use of the word rusticas about her own ability in writing the Latin language. In classical Latin rhetoric rusticas described a speech that was provincial and rural, but the church´ fathers had already made effort to argue that simplicity in language was a Christian virtue:

Ambrose and the great Augustine, let alone that of models like Vergil and Cicero, tried to make virtue of simplicity. “Why should I be afraid of my ignorance,” asks Gregory of Tours at the beginning of his Life of St. Martin,” when the Lord, our Redeemer and our God, selected fishermen instead of orators and countryfolk instead of philosophers…?”[xii] By implying familiarity with this long rhetorical tradition, Hrotsvitha´s protestation of rusticitas thus immediately begins to undermine itself. The process is completed by the image elaborated in the following sentence, in which the writer is represented not as an author, with all the connotations of authority built into that term, but as a collator, one who gathers up and organizes the bounty of Gandersheim´s library.[xiii]

In her preface Hrortsvit goes on to tell how helpless and fragile she is, but again her language gets a double meaning, because this makes her an instrument of God:

Although composing in meter is supposed to be laborious and difficult for the fragile sex, by relying upon the exclusive help of merciful grace from on high, I have tried to put the songs of this little work into dactylic meters. I have done this not with any confidence in my own powers, but so that the little imaginative talent granted me should not lie sluggish in the dark cave of my heart and be destroyed by the rust of neglect, but rather be struck by the hammer of earnest devotion and give forth a little chime of divine praise so that even if the occasion never arose for any further profit to come of it, still the sound itself might in the end be transformed into a useful instrument. (Pref. I:8)[xiv]

The double-edged words of Hrotsvit, her outspoken modesty, which is contradicted by her self-conceit represent a twisting words which is a typical way of altering normative vocabulary in a context where fundamental value and practice are under pressure.[xv]  All the way through her texts Hrotsvit is performing her verbal attacks at normative male vocabulary.

To perform her texts, Hrotsvit needed to mediate them. To send the handwritten texts to learned men who could hide them away in the libraries of monasteries was hardly any real attack on male values. But there excited female society where the legends of Hrotsvit could be performed in an efficient way. To Hrotsvit the convent of Gandersheim was of course the most important of those. Hrotsvit demonstrate it by letting her preface being followed by a dedication praising Gerberga II, the Abbess of royal blood. From then on it is clear that the two of them have a close cooperation and that they aim to perform Hrotsvit´s works. The practical use of the legends is revealed at the end of the fourth legend.[xvi] Theophilus ends by a prayer:

Der einzige dessen auf dem Höchsten Thron, gezeugt vor den Zeiten der Welt,

der, sich der Menchenerbarmend, herabstieg von des Vaters Festung

und des Fleisches wahre Gestalt aus der Jungfrau annahm,

um zu vertilgen der ersten Jungfrau bitteren Genuss,

gnädige segne er uns das Gericht auf dem bereiteren Tisch,

lasse diese Speise denen, die sie genissen, zum Heil gereichen.

Was wir sind und was wir genissen oder was wir tun,

segne die Rechte des alles lenkenden Schöpfers![xvii]

This is a prayer used at meals. Collections of legends and apocrypha were often used for reading loud at mealtimes and even when doing craft work like embroidery and weaving.[xviii] Collections for such use are discovered in several monasteries. Gandersheim´s collection of legends differs of course in the literary cultivation and adaptations of the original manuscripts made by Hrotsvit. First of all the originals are turned into a lyric form, second she adapt the texts in a way that they stress the glorifying of female weakness and condemn male violence and self-assertion.

It is of special interest to analyse how Hrotsvit treat the female characters of her text. In the Legend of Mary Hrotsvit uses the apocrypha of Jacob, an author traditionally believed to be the brother of Jesus. But she stresses the period when as a young girl Mary serves at the Temple in Jerusalem together with other young women. In her behaviour Mary become a clear ideal to the women in the convent of Gandersheim. Even more interesting to the development of the later comedies is Hrotsvit´s treatment of her last legend, the one about Agnes. Hrotsvit had access to different versions of the life and martyrdom of Agnes. In her text there is reminiscences from Poem on Virginity: qui falsas mundi contemnunt pectore pompas by the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aldhelm and from Prudentius´s Peristephano and Psycomachia. But both this writers present Agnes as a passive victim of prosecution. That is not the case in a letter that was mistakenly ascribed to Ambrose. This letter refers Agnes´ own speech of defence. McInerney gives a description of what must have been the intended result when Hrotsvit prefers this text as her main source:

…the Pseudo-Ambrosian letter provided Hrotsvitha with a representation of the virgin martyr conveyed through direct speech. This allows her to represent Agnes not as a suffering body but as an eloquent and rational voice, a woman who defends her choice of virginity as a talented lawyer might defend any other unusual but legally binding contract.[xix]

A canoness listening to the readings from these texts would hopefully – from Hrotsvith´s and Gerberga´s point of view – realize that Gandersheim was the best place to stay for a noble, religious and intellectual woman. The women stayed at Gandersheim out of free will, some of them might even have denied marrying men that was chosen by their families. These women also had the possibility to leave the convent. The sacred stories of Hrotsvit were important in the ideological upbringing of the female society in Gandersheim.

Gesta Ottonis I, the first historical epic of Hrotsvit demonstrates how successful the use of her work must have been. In her preface Hrotsvit tells that the epic about the deeds of Otto I is ordered by Gerberga II as a gift for the Emperor. Then follows a dedication for Otto I, and a dedication for Otto II. The coronation of Otto I as Emperor forms the ending of Gesta Ottonis I.[xx] Probably the coronation was the occasion that made Gerberga order the book in the first place. Gerberga II, the female head of a female convent, ordered a female author to be the chronicler of the Emperor of the Roman Empire. That is a strong sign of selfconcisness and of political and cultural ambitions.

How closely Hrotsvit knew the emperor himself is difficult to tell, but in the dedication for Otto II, who at the time the epic was completed, was still a young boy, reveals that she knows him personally: “if you design to remember, you yourself, your eyes sparkling, recently bade that the text be presented to you.”[xxi]

After finishing Gesta Ottonis I, Hrotsvit wrote Primordia coenobii Gandesheimensis, an epic about the history of the convent of Gandersheim. This epic is not preserved as a manuscript and is only partly reconstructed from other manuscripts that quote it. From the reconstruction one can single out the main motif of Hrotsvit: the women that founded and developed the convent in Gandersheim are presented as religious and intellectual subjects, stronger than men in their weakness. The opposition and aggression of males however is not strong in Primordia. The important men in this epic are supporters; they are members of the Saxon dynasty. Primordia links the story of Gandersheim to the story of the Ottonian family.

Gerberga II could not tie Gandersheim closer to the peak of power than she had succeeded to do by the time she offered Gesta Ottonis I as a gift for the Emperor of the German-Roman Empire. The only way to get closer was to see Gandersheim ruled by some inside the closest royal family, and that was what happened after Gergerga`s death. Sofia became the new Abbess, she was the daughter of the emperor Otto II.

The road between the internal ideologisation of the legends and well-accepted tribute of Gesta Ottonis I is paved with the six comedies of Hrotsvit. They are the most astonishing part of her work, and the most disputed part. The early academic works on the theatre of the middle age, refused to take her writings seriously, she destroyed their thesis about the new Christian drama born from the liturgy without any living connection to the theatre of antiquity. They labelled her plays as exercises that had never been staged. More resent studies tends to argue that the plays must have had some way of staging. Most of them tend to propose that there must have been some sort of resitated performance. Katharina M. Wilson who has translated Hrotsvit´s plays from Latin into English, argues this way:

Moreover, her dramas are imbued with a spirit so clearly dramatic that, to use von Winterfeld´s phrase, they fairly cry for performance. It does not follow, however, that she intended them for performance. Indeed, it is quite clear from Hrotsvit´s prefaces that the dramas were meant to be read (or read aloud) rather than acted, and most scholars now agree that the tenth century did not have clear conceptions of theatrical performance.[xxii] Magnin´s and France´s suggestions, thus, of full-fledged performances with costumes, props and visitors in the audience seem most unlikely.[xxiii] But another, more feasible, possibility of their “performance” as school dialogues is suggested by Charles C. Jones. He says:

It is difficult, indeed impossible, for me to believe that these scripts i.e., Hrotsvit´s dramas were never “acted out” at Gandersheim. Imagine a classroom given to studying by dialogue directly and through written texts, to composition of classical limitations, to rote and mnemonic teachings of religious choirs in which antiphons and responses were the allotment of individuals, to the practise of tropes which were already developing (so critical theory goes) into liturgical drama. Now imagine that these speaking parts created by Rosvitha were not allotted to individual members of class for speaking aloud. I cannot.[xxiv]

The theory of dramatic recitations of dialogues in the tenth century and even earlier is also endorsed by Peter Dronke.[xxv]

These speculations could easily be supplied by a dozen more. Without any evidence of Hrotsvit´s dramas being performed in this or that style, it is of course impossible to tell how they were performed. But by the use of speech act theory, the question might be turned to why they were performed.[xxvi] What could be the motives and intentions for speech acts modelled on the comedies of the pagan author Terents?  The starting point for answering this question will be the “preface” for the comedies and the following letter dedicated to  “the learned patrons of the book”.[xxvii] A comparison between the prefaces of Hrotsvit´s three books (legends, comedies, epics) reveals that they are centred on her work as an author, their concern are the written words. She does not at all discuss how her legends will bee used for reading aloud for the canonesses and nuns at the convent Gandersheim, but it is almost certain they were produced as a collection to be red aloud at the convent. She does not write about how her historical works could have a political impact and help for the struggle of the independence of Ganderheim, but it is certain that Gerberga II used them as such. The same are to be said about the preface and the letter that introduce the plays. The letter is addressed to “the learned patrons of this books”, they seem to be important men that already support the cultural activities at Gandersheim, like the teacher of Gerberga in St. Emmeram. The patrons are asked to read the texts, to evaluate them and to defend them, of course then this letter is about reading the dramas as texts.  But the preface runs like this:

Many Catholics find,/ and we are also guilty of charges of this kind,/ who for beauty of their eloquent style,/ prefer the uselessness of pagan guile/ to the usefulness of sacred Scripture./There are also others, who, devoted to sacred reading and scorning the works of other pagans, yet frequently read Terence´s fiction,/ and as they delight in the sweetness of the style and diction,/ they are stained by learning of wicked things in his depiction./ Therefore I, the Forceful Testimony of Gandersheim, have not refused to imitate him in writing/ whom others laud in reading,/ so that self-same 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. Not infrequently this caused me to blush./ and brought to my cheeks scarlet flush,/ because being forced by the conventions of this composition/ I had to contemplate and give a rendition/ of that detestible madness of unlawful lovers and their evil flattery,/ which we are not permitted to even hear. But had I omitted this out of modesty/ I would not have fulfilled my intent,/ neither would I have rendered/ the praise of innocent as well as I could, because the more seductive the unlawful flatteries of those who have lost their sense,/ the greater the heavenly Helper’s munificence/ and the more glorious the victory of triumphant innocence,/ are shown to be/ especially/ when female weakness triumphs in conclusion/ and male strength succumbs in confusion./ Doubtlessly some will remonstrate/ and the worthlessness of this composition berate/ as much inferior, much humbler, on a much smaller scale, and not even comparable to the language of him whom I set fort to imitate./ I concede that; but I say this to my critics: they cannot in fairness reprehend me/ as if I considered myself presumptuously yearning/ to be equal of those who by far are betters in learning./ For I am not such a braggart nor so presumptuous as to compare myself to the least of these scholars´ pupils; this alone I strive for with humble and devoted heart./ – even if aptitude is lacking in my part/ – that I return the gift I received to its Giver again./ For I am not such a lover preaching Christ’s excellence and strength as it works through His saints below/ to the extent He grants me the ability to do so./ If my pious gift pleases anyone, I am glad;/ if, on the other hand,/ it pleases no one either because of my own worthlessness or the rusticity of my inelegant style,/ it was still worth my while/ because while I wrote down the trifling efforts of my other works (revealing my lack of knowledge) in the heroic meter’s norm,/ here I joined them in the dramatic form,/ always trying to avoid the perilous fetter/ and the dangerous allurement of pagan subject matter./

Who are addressed in this text if not the “Catholics”? And who are the Catholics in the world of Hrotsvit if not the aristocratic families of Saxony, the court of the emperor, but also the noble ladies at Gandersheim and their relatives? Dronke states that:

…the opening of this Preface can conceivably be literally true. In the fourth century there were, to be sure, some Christian men of letters who preferred reading pagan authors, because of their elegant style, to reading the Bible – Augustine’s and Jerome’s admissions of weakness in this matter are especially well known. And it is possible that a handful of most literate people at Otto’s court once again made such a stylistic comparison and came down in favour of pagans – Bruno perhaps, or Rather or Liutprad,[xxviii] and (as she concedes, with feigned reluctance, in a knowing aside) Hrotsvitha herself. But that ”many Catholics (plures…catholici)” showed this preference in Hrotvitha´s time, or had the knowledge to discriminate among styles in this way, is at least a wild exaggeration.[xxix]

Even though Dronke concludes that Hrotsvit makes “a wild exaggeration” by stating that Catholics enjoy beauty and eloquent, his description of the intellectuals at the court give a good example of the cultural fashion of the ottonian renaissance. This aristocracy is the audience of Hrotsvit, these people are her fellow Catholics. When Hrotsvit states that she intend to compete with Terents she knows that she have to raise “delight in the sweetness of the style and diction”. She is in fact announcing her intent of making entertainment.

Hrotsvit stick to her modesty as she does in other prefaces. To honour God and “glorious the victory of triumphant innocence” are the theological motives of her poetic struggle. But to make pleasure through art does not contradict her main motive. In the 10th century church of Western Europe art became a tool to perform to glory the Holy God and to manifest the power of church.  Monasteries near to Gandersheim developed liturgical music. The internal of the churches went from open an almost naked halls to development of alters and of religious visual art.[xxx] The performance of literary texts was another important field of development and experiments. The performances varied from reading the texts loud, restitations, singing, making dialoges between two performers or more. Theatrical events were not unknown to the members of Saxon elite. In their rural neighbourhoods seasonal folk festivals containing theatrical rituals, games, animal-disguises and lively actions were played out. The wandering mime-players of the Roman Empire were slowly turning into historiones and jougolores of the middle age. The comedies of Terents were most probably performed by mute actors while the text were read aloud. Constantinople still had an unbroken historical line of performative art dating back to Antiquity. Luitprand of Cremona reports that he had seen the deccention of Elias performed in the church of Hagia Sophia. And he was surely not the only member of the Ottonian court that had visited the capital of the Byzantin Imperium. A whole lot of theatrical traditions were known to Hrotsvit, but non had turned into an established performative praxis of the western church. The court and the aristocratic ecclesians of her time seem to have had an unworried attitude towards theatrical events.

Dramatic art provided an excellent tool for Hrotsvit to fulfil her intention to bring forth her theology to the Catholics/Saxon aristocracy by entertaining them. But a theatrical event needs an occasion and a place to be performed. There are no records of performances neither at the court nor at Gandersheim, this has to be speculation. Dronke proposes that court must have been a place for theatrical entertainment, and therefore court festivities might even have given room for the dramas of Hrotsvit.[xxxi] But even so, playing at court should not have suited the intentions of the women from Gandersheim. Such performances would have been an irregularity, the king and the court was still on the move. Gerberga II and Hrotsvit would have not been able to control the performative settings. Hrotsvit´s production of six comedies is so well planned, so well constructed, and they are a part of a bigger plan, which contains her whole production. The administrators of Gandersheim must have provided an occasion to perform these dramas on a more regular basis. Gandersheim needed a festival. And they had one. In the reconstructed Primordia coenobii Gandreshemnsis Hrotsvit emphasis that the festival of Halloween was celebrated in Gandersheim from the very beginning. It was the day of foundation. It was the night when lady Oda saw the un-earthly lights in the forest of Gandersheim and understood that the convent had to be placed there. According to Hrotsvit the canonesses from that time on celebrated Halloween by forming processions and carrying lights. People from the surrounding area and the families of women in Gandersheim came to celebrate the festival.[xxxii] Hrotsvit obviously stresses the history of the Halloween festival because it is important at her own time, but as the reconstructed manuscript ends before Gerberga II is appointed as Abbess, the development of the festival stays in darkness. The convent however contained big lodgings for guests, and the church was an open-spaced basilica, a sacred room, but still a place to gather a congregation for different events, not exclusively for an established liturgy. Gerberga II and her staff were developing a cultural centre in Gandersheim. A centre needs visitors; it must have been natural to use the festival and the dramas of Hrotsvit to form gatherings.

The administrative and political reasons to perform the dramas of Hrotsvit dramas are obvious. Another important reason stays within Hrotsvith´s texts: It is her ambition to let the females speak by their own. The legends of Hrotsvit end with the martyrdom of Agnes, a heroine that defend herself and speak for herself. But the dramas create even better opportunities to make female roles speak for themselves. The author then must intend them to speak. Hrotsvit does not get her model from Terents in this case. Most females in the comedies of Terents are mute and passive roles, victims of male actions or saved by the same. The heroines of Hrotsvit defend themselves verbally and they are far better off intellectually than their male antagonists. It is as if Hrotsvit tries to portrait women in all possible social roles as daughters in Gallicanus and in Sapientia, as sisters in Dulcitius and Sapientia, as wife in Calimachus and as niece in Abraham.[xxxiii] Some of Hrotsvit´s protagonists are devoted Christian virgins, but others are women who fall in sin, even prostitutes are portrayed, but they all show themselves superior to the male. Most of the antagonist males in the plays of Hrotsvit are of course heathen persecutors of Christian Martyrs and she is allowed to make fun of them. In Saphientia she let the mother lecture the Emperor Hadrian on mathematics, and he is too stupid to understand the subject:

Sapientia:

Oh, Emperor, you wish to know my children’s ages; Karitas has completed a diminished, evenly even number of years;/ Spes, on the other hand a diminished evenly uneven number, and Karitas an augmented unevenly even number of years./

Hadrian:

Your reply leaves me totally ignorant as to the answer to my question./

Sapientia:

That is no wonder/ since not only a single number but several fall into the categories I mentioned./

Hadrian:

Explain it in more detail/ or my mind try to grasp it to n avail./[xxxiv]

The examples could be multiplied, in the fiction of Hrotsvit most women speak up often and better than men. But in the liturgical life of Hrotsvit´s time, women were silenced. The convent of Gandersheim needed male priests to perform their services. When the dramas of Hrotsvit were performed, the women would speak by their own; for real. Even it was inside the fictive world of a theatrical performance, it is acted out in a setting similar to a service.  If the dramas were performed in church that would even make the women speak out in church. This game of doublenes fits Hrotsvit´s way of using words.

The speech acts of Hrotsvit were a success, and they might have changed the religious and social life of women in western Christianity, but her words were stopped and hided away. The independence of the females in Gandersheim became a problem to the local church administration and to central political power. Sofia the daughter of Otto II and the Byzantine Princess Theophano entered the convent in 980. She was then only five years old. When she some years later should take the veil as a canoness she insisted that the archbishop of Mainz should perform the ceremony, not the local bishop of Hildesheim. At this occasion the bishop of Hildesheim did win. But it was the first documented sign of long ongoing conflict between the bishop of Hildesheim and the open convent of Gandersheim. When Sofia became Abbess, she followed the traditions of the convent and kept close relations to the court. In 995-97 she followed her brother in his progress into Italy. But she was under constant pressure form the local clergy. They labelled her a sinner and a woman who was amusing herself instead of praying and doing religious service. By the support of her brother, the pope and of her private army the convent of Gandersheim stayed open institution.

But the pope Gregor V died from malaria in 999, and Otto III died from the same in 1006. The Ottonien rule that favoured independence of women had come to an end. But the later emperor Henry II, pope Sylvester and the bishop Bernard of Hildesheim needed several Synods and an army to defeat Sofia and her sisters in Gandersheim.[xxxv] The convent was then turned into a closed monastic institution were the concern of the women should be the eternal life and spiritual purification. This isolation of female convents happened all over Europe. But Gandersheim was the only convent where this development coursed big political, theological and military conflicts.


[i] There are a whole lot of different spellings of her name, like Hrotsvitha, Hrosuita Hroswita, Rotsuith and Rotswith. I keep “Hrotsvit” because it is the spelling used in the original manuscript, and she even gives the etymology of it; it should mean “strong sound” or more likely “well known because the sound of it is so strong”. (Nagel 1966, Bernt: “Einfürung.” in Hrotsvit von Gandersheim: Sämtliche Dichtungen. Winkler-Verlag, München

[ii] Aschbach 1867, Joseph von: “Roswitha und Conrad Celtis.” Sitzungsberichte der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften LVI. p. 3-62

3. Nagel. MCMLXV, Bert: Hrotsvit von Gandersheim. J. B. Metzelersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Stuttgart. p. 32-33. Nagel also gives the list of other Hrotsvith manuscripts that were discovered after the Emmeran-Munich Codex, as example Münchener Gallichanushs which dates back to the 12th century the contains just the play of Gallichanus  Pergaments 44 der Klagenfurter Studienbibliothek contains fragments from The legend of Mary and from the play Sapientia, it dates back to the 11th century.

[iv] Probably they could even leave the convent and merry, even this must have been rare.

[v] In his lectures How to do things with words 1955, John Austin turned down the philosophical discussion of weather verbal statements was true or not true. He regarded statements as actions, and asked the question weather the statement failed or succeeded. Ross Chambers has developed Austin’s theories into the field of literature and theatre. Chambers discuss how speech acts can be analysed inside a literary work, but also how a work or the whole production of an author might be regarded as the speech acts of this author. According to Austin and Chambers I feel free to regard the works of Hrotsvit as her speech acts.

[vi] Skinner 2002, Quentin: Visions of Politics. Volume I: Regarding Method. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York. p. 96

[vii] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim 1985: The Dramas of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim. St. Peter´s Press, Muenster, Saskatchewan, Canada. p. 25

[viii] Frankforter 1979, Daniel: “Sexism and Search for Thematic Structure of Plays of Hroswitha of Gandersheim” International Journal of Women´s Studies 2.3 p.221

[ix] Dronke 1984, Peter: Women Writers of the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. p. 64

[x] Clark (1993), Gillian; The women in late antiquity. Pageant and Christian lifestyles. Oxford p. 55

[xi] Hrotsvith of Gandersheim: “Preface to Legends” Quoted from McInerney (2003), Maud Burnett: Eloquent virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc. New York

[xii] Gregory of Tours: Life of St. Martin. trans. Dam (1993) Raymind von: Saints and their Miracles in late Antique Gaul. Princeton. p. 201

[xiii] McInerney 2003: p. 86

[xiv] Quoted from McInerney 2003: p. 86

[xv] Skinner 2002: p. 181

[xvi] Original Hrotsvit´s first book of legend must have ended here. The second book of four legends starts by a new dedication to Gerberga. Later on the two books of legends have been collected into one unit.

[xvii] Hrotsvit von Gandersheim, 1966: Sämtliche Dichtungen. Winkler-Verlag, München. p. 111

[xviii] Carpenter 1990, Jenifer & Sally-Beth MacLean: Power of the Week. University of Illinois Press, Urban & Chicago. p. 31

[xix] McInerny 2003: p. 94

[xx] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim 1966: p. 310

[xxi] Hrotsvith of Gandersheim: Gesta Oddonis I. Quoted from Dronke (1984): p.75-76

[xxii] Stammler 1953, Wolfgang: “Zum Fortleben des antiken Theaters im Mittelalter.” in Bieldfeldt, Erich Schmidt: Kleine Shriften zur Literturgeschichte des Mittelalters.

[xxiii] France 1922, Anatole: “Hrotswitha et les Marionetets” On Life and Letters, The Works of Anatole France, ed. J. Lewis May and Fernand Miatt. J. Cane, London.

[xxiv] Jones 1970, Charles C.: The St. Nicholas Liturgy. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley. p. 85

[xxv] Wilson 1985, Katharina M.: “Introduction” in Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: The Dramas of Hrotsvith of Gandersheim. Matrologia Latina Peregrina Publishing Co. Ottawa.

[xxvi] I am aware that the term perform get a double meaning – one from the theatrical discussion about the staging of plays and one from the vocabulary of speech act theories. I want to keep this doublenes to remind my readers that all the texts of Hrotsvith contained intentions that needed to realize through action.  

[xxvii] Here I analyse the works of the author (Hrotsvit´s plays) as speech act. Chambers

[xxviii]  Bruno was the brother of Otto I and archbishop. Rather of Verona was a well-known writer by the Ottonian court, Liutprand of Cremona was a diplomat at the court, in 949 he was send to the emperor of Byzants. In his rapport from Constantinople he tells about the entertainments at court and in churches.

[xxix] Drone: p.70-71

[xxx] Harris 2005, John Wesley: Medieval Theatre in Context. p. 36-38

[xxxi] Dronke 1984: p. 56-57

[xxxii] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim 1966: p. 322

[xxxiii] Gold 1997, Barbara K.: “Hrotswitha writes herself.” in Gold, Barbara K, Paul Allen Miller and Charles Platter: SEX AND GENDER in Medieval and Renaissance Texts. Albany. p. 55

[xxxiv] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim 1966: p. 118

[xxxv] Nowak 1982, Josef: Berward von Hildesheim. Hannover. p. 25-34