Friday Hoyden: Hrotsvit von Gandersheim

Hrotsvit means “strong voice”. It is the nom-de-plume chosen by a writer of some rather unusual plays. Conventionally, when western theatre history is taught there will be a study of the Classical Greek and Roman playwrights, then a gap of around a thousand years during which there is no material record of the plays that were performed, then some talk of anonymously written medieval mystery cycles and morality plays, before we emerge into the Elizabethan period with the plays of Marlowe, Kyd and Shakespeare. There is a good chance that you will not hear of the earliest post-Classical writer of plays whose name we still have, because she was a tenth-century German nun. As is so often the case, when the first to do something is a woman, the idea of ‘first’ is put aside until a man has done it.

Hrotsvit, whose name is also recorded as Roswitha, and in other variations, lived in the Abbey of Gandersheim, which is in the region known today as Saxony. This Abbey was the home of women from the Saxon nobility, the Abbess usually drawn from the royal family. It operated rather like a feudal barony, even to the point of minting its own coins and keeping its own men-at-arms. Here you can find an introductory history of Hrotsvit and her Abbey, and links to English translations of her plays.

There is no evidence available to tell us whether these plays were read privately, read aloud by the nuns to one another, or performed by them as a recreational activity, within the convent; though it is fairly certain that they would not have been publicly performed.

Hrotsvit was inspired by the comedies of Terence, but disapproving of the moral laxity of his central characters, particularly the women. She decided to demonstrate that it was possible to use his comic techniques to more morally edifying ends. From her preface to her group of six plays:

“There are many Catholics, and we cannot entirely acquit ourselves of the charge, who, attracted by the polished elegance of the style of pagan writers, prefer their works to the holy scriptures. There are others who, although they are deeply attached to the sacred writings and have no liking for most pagan productions, make an exception in favour of the works of Terence, and, fascinated by the charm of the manner, risk being corrupted by the wickedness of the matter. Therefore 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.”

With this goal in mind, Hrotsvit wrote, in Latin, six plays that centre on the lives of early Christian martyrs, treating tragic themes with oddly comic episodes. Virgin-martyr literature was a tradition of writing histories of the lives and usually grisly deaths of young women who had consecrated their virginity to god, and faced persecution by lustful men in power. In the extraordinary Dulcitus, the three heroines are imprisoned by the pagan emperor and held in the pantry, that he might secretly visit them through the kitchens and have his wicked way upon them. However, when he tries this, angels bewitch him so that he ravishes the pots and pans instead, thinking they are the girls. When the guards discover him covered in soot, they think he is a demon and chase him out of the palace. You just wouldn’t believe the creative larks that profoundly learned medieval nuns got up to in their spare time.


Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, history

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5 replies

  1. Also, ‘the Strong Voice’- what an awesome claim to authority!

  2. I know of her because she has one of the 39 place settings in Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. I don’t recall her ever being mentioned anywhere else until this blog post!

  3. Yay for Hrotsvit! I learnt of her at Uni.

  4. @Sunset – it wasn’t me lecturing, was it? I am always very careful when giving theatre history lectures to flag her as the first post-Classical playwright. Glad to hear I may not be alone.
    I thought of making this post on the “three wise H’s”: Hrotsvit, Hildegard and Heloise, but they really deserve to each have their own.

  5. Orlando, it was Philippa Maddern at UWA a long time ago. Looking forward to Hildegard and Heloise.

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