Hrotsvitha, also known as Hroswitha, Hrotsvit, Hrosvit, and Roswitha (c. 935 to c. 975) was a 10th century German canoness of the Benedictine Order, as well as a dramatist and poet who lived and worked in Gandersheim, in modern-day Lower Saxony. Her name, as she herself attests, is Saxon for "strong voice."
Hrosvit was born into the German nobility and later became a canoness at the Benedictine Abbey of Gandersheim. Her work shows familiarity, not only with the Church fathers, but also with Classical poetry, including Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Plautus and Terence (on whom her own verse was modelled). Several of her plays draw on the so-called apocryphal gospels. Her works form part of the Ottonian Renaissance.
Hrosvit studied under Gerberg, daughter of Henry-the Heinrich, whose brother Otto penned a history. Otto's history became one of Hrosvit's poetical subjects-De Gestis Oddonis I. Imperatoris-which encompasses the period up to the coronation of Emperor Otto I in 962.
Hrosvit believed Otto had an affinity for Italy because of romances which are set there such as the story of Geoffrey Rudel. Pilgrims returned commending the troubled Queen Adelheid. Hrosvit penned a number of legends in verse. Two of these are St. Gingulphus and Theophilus.
The story of Theophilus was one of the most popular written in any language. It describes how the young archdeacon was disappointed about his promotion. He consults a Jewish sorcerer and is taken to a meeting of devils. Theophilus renounces God in a written document, then repents. He is rescued by the Virgin Mary. Hrosvit supplements the story with her description of Theophilus in The Seven Arts:- De Sophia rivis septeno fonte manantis.
The most well known and original of the works of Hrosvit is her imitation of Terence. It was written in prose as six comedies. She writes in her preface that her writing will appeal to many who are attracted by the charm of style.
The comedies of Hrosvit took the place of Terence in the studies of Gandersheim. Her themes remained love stories. Among them include Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Callimachus, Abraham, Paphnutius, and Sapientia. The reader will note Dulcitius being stricken with illusion, embracing the pots and kettles in the kitchen. In the meantime three lovely maidens, Agape, Chionia, and Irene, are rescued from his villainy.
Her plays feature the chastity and perseverance of Christian women and contrast these to the Latin portrayal of women as weak and emotional. Her Passio Sancti Pelagii is derived, she says, from an eyewitness to the martyrdom of Pelagius of Cordova.
Hrosvit divided her work herself into three books. The Book of Legends contained eight legends— with the exception of Gangolf—in dactylic hexameter:
The third book comprised two historical writings in Latin Hexameters: the Gesta Ottonis (a history of the Ottonian houses 919-965) and the Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis (a history of her order from 846-919).
EDUCATION IN THE CLOISTER: She seems to have been still in her earliest youth when she entered the convent of Gandersheim, then highly famed for its asceticism and learned pursuits. Her extraordinary talents found here wise and judicious cultivation, first under guidance of her teacher Rikkardis, then under the special care and direction of Gerberg, a niece of Otto I and the most accomplished woman of her time, who was later to become her abbess (959-1001). The latter took particular interest in the development of her muse, by the training of which she hoped "to contribute something to the glory of God".
POETIC WORKS: This is about all that is known of the external life of the first German poetess. Hroswitha shares the lot in this respect of all the poets of olden time: we are far better acquainted with her works than with her personality. Furthermore, the Latin poems of this unassuming nun have had a curious history. After centuries of neglect, they were discovered, as is well known, by the poet laureate Conrad Celtes in the Benedictine monastery of St. Emmeram at Ratisbon, and were published in 1501 to the great delight of all lovers of poetry. The poetic work of the childlike, pious religious took at first the epic form; there appeared two Biblical poems and six legends. For these she drew upon Latin sources, and used her poetic freedom in the psychological treatment of her characters and their actions. The material of her "Leben Mariens" (859 hexameters) was taken from the Holy Bible, and from the apocryphal [Gospel of St. James]. This life of Mary was rather closely connected with her poem "Von der Himmelfahrt des Herrn" (150 hexameters).
On the other hand the themes of her six legends are quite varied: "The Martyrdom of St. Gangolf" (582 distichs), a Burgundian prince; "The youthful St. Pelagius" of Cordoba, whose recent martyrdom she relates in 414 verses in accordance with reports gathered f rom eyewitnesses, was a contemporary of hers, hence the realism and impressiveness of the picture; the legend of "Theophilus" (455 verses) is the earliest poetical treatment of the medieval legend of Faust; of a similar tenor is the legend of St. Basil (259 verses), in which an unhappy youth is saved from a diabolical pact; the list closes with the martyrdom of St. Dionysius (266 verses) and that of Saint Agnes (459 verses). This last poem, which is based on the biography of the saint ascribed to St. Ambrose, is written with great fervour. The language is simple but smooth, and frequently even melodious.
DRAMATIC WORKS: But her poetical reputation rests, properly speaking, on her dramatic works. As regards her motives in adopting this form of literary expression she herself gives sufficient explanation:
"Lamenting the fact that many Christians, carried away by the beauty of the play, take delight in the comedies of Terence and thereby learn many impure things, she determines to copy closely his style, in order to adapt the same methods to the extolling of triumphant purity in saintly virgins, as he has used to depict the victory of vice. A blush often mounted to her cheeks when in obedience to the laws of her chosen form of poetical expressions she was compelled to portray the detestable madness of unholy love."
This last remark applies peculiarly to the case of five of her dramas, the theme of which is sensual love. The pious nun's treatment of her subject is of course on a higher moral plane, and she is skilled in demonstrating the principle, in the midst of rather bold situations, that the greater the force of temptation the more admirable is the final triumph of virtue.
The most popular work, judging at least from the numerous transcripts thereof, is the "Gallicanus". This general of Constantine the Great, while still a pagan, seeks in marriage the emperor's daughter, Constantia, who however has long since consecrated herself as a spouse to the Lord; the suitor becomes converted and suffers a martyr's death. Her second drama is a most singular composition, in which humour and gravity are strangely compounded. "Dulcitius", a prefect under Diocletian, wishes to force three unwilling Christian maidens into marriage with high dignitaries of the Court, he has his victims imprisoned in a kitchen and with evil intention makes his silent way towards them under cover of the night; but God punishes him with blindness, and the prefect embraces but sooty pots and pans. Though he does not know it, his appearance as he emerges is that of a charcoal burner, and his utter discomfiture is led up to in the merriest of scenes; the three maidens win the palm of martyrdom.
In "Callimachus" the violence of passion is carried to a threatened profanation of the dead which however is miraculously averted. Here indeed is the boldest situation of all, which reminds one of Goethe's "Braut von Corinth". The two succeeding plays, "Abraham" and "Paphnutius", tell in a touching manner of a fallen woman's conversion. Finally, the last drama relates in a plain and simple way the legend of the martyrdom of the three sisters Faith, Hope, and Charity, daughters of Wisdom.
The literary significance of Hroswitha's dramas has been expressed in a comparison which likens them to snowdrops: "In the very midst of winter they lift their white heads, but they die long ere the advent of spring, and there is none to remember them."
EPIC WORKS: Her prolific career as a poetess closed with two greater epics, the one singing the achievements of Otto I (Taten Ottos I) down to the year 962, and the other celebrating the foundation of the monastery of Gandersheim (Die Gründung des Klosters Gandersheim). Quite a romantic touch is given to this last composition by the number of legends which the author has skilfully woven into it. The eulogy of Otto I, on the other hand, is highly prized by historians who "find the account given to the poetess of direct assistance in historic work". The poem was written in 967 and was dedicated to the emperor.
EDITIONS: In addition to that of Celtes, the following are the chief editions of Hroswitha's works: Barack, "Die Werke der Hroswitha" (Nuremberg, 1858); Schurzfleisch (Wittenberg, 1707); Migne, P. L. CXXXVII, 939-1196; de Winterfell, "Hrosvithae opera" (Berlin, 1902).
In 2006, American feminist drama group Guerrilla Girls on Tour issued the "First Annual Hrosvitha Challenge" on their website, announcing that they would bestow the First Annual Hrosvitha Award on whichever professional theater decides "to scrap their plans of producing yet another production of a Greek tragedy and instead produce a play by Hrosvitha, the first female playwright".