A Companion to Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (fl. 960): Contextual and Interpretive Approaches


Hrotsvit, a canoness in the German convent Gandersheim, wrote Latin poems, stories, plays, and histories during the reign of Emperor Otto the Great (962-973). She expresses a strong sense of authorial mission in letters, prefaces, and dedications. These personal writings, as well as her full literary corpus, are studied in twelve original essays by scholars from Europe and North America, who bring several perspectives to bear. Her historical roots are shown, both in her use of Christian literary tradition (e.g., ...

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Hrotsvit, a canoness in the German convent Gandersheim, wrote Latin poems, stories, plays, and histories during the reign of Emperor Otto the Great (962-973). She expresses a strong sense of authorial mission in letters, prefaces, and dedications. These personal writings, as well as her full literary corpus, are studied in twelve original essays by scholars from Europe and North America, who bring several perspectives to bear. Her historical roots are shown, both in her use of Christian literary tradition (e.g., the legend) and in her understanding of political forces shaping her time. Her strong spirituality emerges from vivid portraits not only of martyrs but also of men and women who question and doubt the Lord, while her openness to problems of sexuality, and of the need for women to realize their individuality and particular gifts, is surprisingly modern.

Contributors include: Walter Berscin, Katrinette Bodarwé, Jay Lees, Gary Macy, Linda McMillin, Florence Newman, and Lisa Weston

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Meet the Author

Phyllis R. Brown, Ph.D. (1979) in English, University of Oregon, is Associate Provost at Santa Clara University. She co-edited Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Contexts, Identities, Affinities, and Performances (2004) and Women Writing Latin: From Roman Antiquity to Early Modern Europe (2002).

Stephen L. Wailes, Ph.D. (1968) in Germanic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University, is Professor Emeritus of Germanic Studies, Indiana University. Among his publications on medieval writing is Spirituality and Politics in the Works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (Selinsgrove, 2006).

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Table of Contents

Editions, Translations, and Abbreviations
Canon and Titles
Chapter One: Hrotsvit and Her World
Stephen L. Wailes
Chapter Two: Hrotsvit and Her Works
Walter Berschin
Hrotsvit’s Mind and Spirit
Chapter Three: Hrotsvit in Context: Convents and Culture in Ottonian Germany
Jane Stevenson
Chapter Four: Hrotsvit’s Theology of Virginity and Continence
Gary Macy
Chapter Five: The Sacred Stories in Verse
Stephen L. Wailes
Chapter Six: Hrotsvit’s Plays
Stephen L. Wailes
Chapter Seven: The Necessity of Hrotsvit: Evangelizing Theatre
Michael Zampelli, S. J.
Chapter Eight: David rex fidelis? Otto the Great, the Gesta Ottonis, and the Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis
Jay T. Lees
Chapter Nine: Hrotsvit’s Apostolic Mission: Prefaces, Dedications, and Other Addresses to Readers
Phyllis R. Brown
Chapter Ten: Virginity and other Sexualities
Lisa M.C. Weston
Chapter Eleven: Strong Voice(s) of Hrotsvit: Male-Female Dialogue
Florence Newman
Chapter Twelve: The Audiences of Hrotsvit
Linda A. McMillin
Chapter Thirteen: Hrotsvit and her Avatars
Katrinette Bodarwé
Contributor Biographies
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First Chapter

Nearly everything we know about Hrotsvit of Gandersheim’s life, education, and intentions as a writer must be gleaned from one manuscript, Munich, Bavarian State Library Clm 14485 (the Munich manuscript), in which she names herself seven times. Produced around 980, the Munich manuscript contains all but one of Hrotsvit’s surviving works: ten verse narratives, six plays, a poem depicting scenes from the apocalypse, and several prayers in verse, all contextualized by a series of prefaces, dedicatory poems, and an “Epistle to learned patrons” addressed to unnamed recipients who had read Hrotsvit’s work and encouraged her. Missing from the Munich manuscript is the Primordia, a verse narrative about the founding of the imperial abbey at Gandersheim. Although it may originally have been part of the Munich manuscript, it only survives in two post-medieval manuscripts.
Hrotsvit not only names herself in her surviving writings but also translates her name into Latin, calling herself “Clamor Validus Gandeshemensis” (the “Mighty Voice of Gandersheim”) in the Preface to the Plays. Katharina Wilson sees in Hrotsvit’s naming herself thus “a programmatic statement of her authorial intent, aligning herself with John the Baptist (vox clamantis), the patron of Gandersheim Abbey.” Walter Berschin notes that the Latin form of her name invites a comparison to Hebrews 5:7, “cum clamore valido et lacrimis offerens et exauditus pro sua reverentia.” In the Douay-Rheims translation, the full verse is “Who [Christ] in the days of his flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to him that was able to save him from death, was heard for his reverence.” Thus contemporary scholars read these linguistic echoes as evidence for understanding Hrotsvit to be presenting herself as a follower of Christ, aligning herself with His prayers, suffering, and reverence, and at the same time, in a typological sense, as a precursor of Christ, inviting others to witness the incarnation as John the Baptist did.
In her prefatory addresses to readers, Hrotsvit provides a few details about her life directly. For example, names and other specifics make it clear that she was a canoness at the royal convent Gandersheim and that the main period of her writing occurred between 960 and 975, when Gandersheim was one of the most privileged and richly endowed monasteries of the Saxon empire. Walter Berschin hypothesizes that Hrotsvit was likely born around 935 because she specifies in the First Preface that her abbess Gerberga was younger than she and in the Primordia that she was born a long time after the death of the Saxon duke Otto (ob. 912). In the First Preface she names two teachers, Rikkardis and her abbess, Gerberga, who—though younger than Hrotsvit—was “more advanced in learning.” Also in the First Preface, Hrotsvit specifies that Gerberga had introduced her to other very learned persons, “sapientissimis,” with whom Gerberga herself had studied.
In her Preface to the Plays, Hrotsvit specifies her purpose in imitating the pagan Roman playwright Terence’s style in her plays: because “many Catholics” prefer the “uselessness of pagan guile” on account of its eloquence, therefore, “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.” In his very influential chapter on Hrotsvit, Peter Dronke argued persuasively that this statement should not be read literally:
none of what Hrotsvitha claims, ostensibly solemnly, [about the popularity of Terence’s plays] at 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 more 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 the 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 Liutprand, and (as she concedes, with feigned reluctance, in a knowing aside) Hrotsvitha herself. But that many Catholics (plures ... catholici) showed this preference in Hrotsvitha’s time, or had the knowledge to discriminate among styles in this way, is at least a wild exaggeration, and almost certainly a joke.
However, knowledge of the number of medieval manuscripts of Terence’s plays has increased since Dronke wrote the above passage. By 1997 Claudia Villa had identified about 750 of Terence’s manuscripts in an uninterrupted tradition from the 9th to the 15th century. Villa reports that the only pagan Roman authors whose works survive in more medieval manuscripts are Vergil and Horace. Although it is impossible to determine whether the people copying and reading those manuscripts were discerning in matters of Latin style, it seems likely that many Catholics were reading Terence’s plays.
Surprisingly, an annotation in a late 4th-century manuscript of Terence’s plays indicates that readers of Terence included young noble women in the court of Otto I, one of whom wrote in the margin, “Adelheit • Hedwich • Matthilt • curiales adulescentulę unum par esse amicicię”; young women of the court united in friendship. Villa identifies Adelheit (Adelheid) and Matthilt (Mathilda) as daughters of Otto II and Theophanu and sisters of Otto III and Sophia, who later became abbess of Gandersheim. Adelheid served as abbess of Quedlinburg and, after Sophia’s death, of Gandersheim. Hedwich (Hadwig) was the sister of Hrotsvit’s abbess, Gerberga II, and daughter of Adelheid’s and Mathilda’s great uncle Henry (brother of Otto I). Neither Mathilda nor Hadwig entered into monastic life. Mathilda married Buchard III, duke of Suabia, and Mathilda married Ezzo, count palatine of the Rhine. Hrotsvit may have had female readers such as Adelheid, Hadwig, and Mathilda especially in mind when she decided to write plays imitating Terence’s style.
In addition to including information about her purpose in writing the plays, Hrotsvit also provides other information about her intentions. In the First Preface, she specifies that her purpose is to praise God and to inspire others to follow her example to the best of their abilities. Surprisingly, in the Preface to the Plays she uses the verb praedicare, “to preach,” to describe her work as a writer, specifying that she will not “refrain / from preaching Christ’s glory and strength as it works through His saints to the extent that He grants me the ability to do so.”
To supplement what Hrotsvit says about herself, readers depend on knowledge of the world in which Hrotsvit lived and the internal evidence of her writings, which indicate extensive familiarity with the Bible, with exegetical writings (especially commentaries of Augustine, Gregory, Alcuin, and Hrabanus Maurus), with other ecclesiastical writers (such as Tertullian, Venantius Fortunatus, and Cassian), with hagiography, with pagan and Christian writers (such as Vergil, Ovid, Seneca, Prudentius, Sedulius, Boethius, and Aldhelm), with grammatical and metrical reference books, and with pedagogical commentaries and glossaries.
This introductory section provides an overview of Hrotsvit and her world and comprises two chapters. The first positions Gandersheim and the Ottonian empire in the history and culture of the Franks and the Saxons. The second chapter is a translation of most of Walter Berschin’s “Editoris Praefatio” to his edition of Hrotsvit’s Opera, with its thorough description of the Hrotsvit manuscripts. The eleven chapters that follow focus on specific aspects of Hrotsvit’s life and oeuvre.

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