Hrotsvit of Gandersheim and Her Christian Plays
Hrotsvit of Gandersheim and Her Christian Plays
Anyone who is familiar with the works of the Roman playwright Terence (185-159 BC) knows that they are an interesting depiction of the realities of his day. They are comedies, and generally end with a marriage or reconciliation. They could easily find their way into our movie theaters, if some of their ethics didn’t rub against the grain of most viewers – even in our permissive society.
In one of his plays (Hècyra), for example, a woman gives birth to a baby she believes to be a fruit of rape. In the end, they discover the rapist was really her husband who, in the dark of the night, had assaulted a young lady he could not clearly see. The proof was a ring he had taken from her, which turned out to belong to his wife.
This was, for Terence and his viewers, a happy ending. All was well, everyone was reconciled, and life went on. Other plays have similar plots, often involving rape, and similar conclusions.
If we see a problem with these happy endings, we are not alone. So did Hrotsvit (935-1002), a canoness at the abbey in Gandersheim, in the German region of Saxony.
An Ambitious Project
Hrotsvit lived at the time when the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (912-973) aspired to bring about a cultural renaissance in Saxony, similar to what Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) had produced a century earlier in Aachen (on today’s border between Germany and Belgium). Most likely, she was a member of a noble family and had begun her life at court. Because of this, she was acquainted with the classics and had learned to appreciate their literary value.
A canoness could live in a convent or abbey without taking the same vows as nuns. This allowed her to travel freely, receive visitors, own property, keep servants, buy books, and – if desired – permanently leave the convent.
Gandersheim was an exclusive abbey – a community of noble women run by Gerberga II (c. 940–1001), the emperor’s niece. There, Hrotsvit was able to continue her education and cultivate her passion for literature and writing.
Of all the ancient writers, she particularly liked Terence. She loved his wit and eloquent style, but had some problems with his overall message. Christianity had drastically changed the world by restoring dignity to all human beings as made in the image of God, and by emphasizing humility, compassion, and self-sacrifice.
Why couldn’t there be some equally stirring plays, written from a Christian perspective? she wondered. As many authors do when they wish for a book that is nowhere in print, she decided to write her own.
The very idea was revolutionary and ambitious. No one had written a play in centuries, and no woman in known history had ever embraced that genre.
She sent her work to some scholars to review and correct, and to Gerberga for approval. She explained the source of her stories: mostly ancient accounts, except for the story of a Spanish martyr named Pelagius (not to be confused with Augustine’s theological opponent), which she had heard from an eyewitness.
She also explained the reason for her writing. There were people who loved the classics to the neglect of Scriptures, and others who believed Christians should not read any pagan writings. She wanted to provide an alternative, by creating recreational works that could both edify and entertain.
Today, we still have six of Hrorsvit’s plays in rhyme prose, eight short stories in verse, and two historical poems – all in Latin.
In these, she displayed a great amount of creativity. Far from being a wooden imitation of Terence, her plays are written in an original style, adopting only some of Terence’s features. For example, while Terence normally proceeds through the story in a methodical, chronological order, she jumps from scene to scene in a modern, cinematic manner.
She was not afraid to take some literary license (for example, combining historical figures from different centuries), and to include elements that were popular in her day – such as riddles or lessons. One of her plays includes a music lesson, and another a complex mathematical riddle that baffles Emperor Hadrian.
What might seem surprising to a Christian reader is that, instead of simply cleaning Terence’s plays from all their crassness and violence, she kept some of those features for specific purposes. The intense scene of an attempted rape, for instance, was necessary to emphasize the triumph of the women who resisted, and the language of a man who disguises himself as a client to rescue his niece from prostitution has to sound real to allow him to keep up the pretense.
In her preface, she apologizes for these scenes, admitting they were not pleasant to write. “This led me, not rarely, to be ashamed and to blush, that I had to think and write in this kind of composition about the hateful madness of illicit lovers and their evilly sweet talk, which are not permitted to reach our ears. But if I failed to do this because of my embarrassment, I could not carry out my purpose, nor expound fully the praise of innocents according to my powers since the more the flatteries of the senseless lead to illicit things, the higher the glory of the heavenly helper and the more glorious the victory of the triumphant proves to be, especially when feminine fragility conquers and virile strength is confounded.”
Some have interpreted this last sentence as a feminist statement, but that seems far from Hrotsvit’s historical context and Christian persuasion. More likely, she saw in the triumph of fragile women an example of God’s strength becoming evident in weakness.
But sexual violence is not the only Terentian feature she preserved in her works. She also included crass jokes, such as farts (an apparently perennial source of laughter), and physical comedy. In her Dulcitius, a villain, in the dark of the night, hugs some dirty kitchen pots which he mistakes for the women he is planning to rape. Hrotsvit attributes this ridiculous blunder to God’s intervention, who dulls the rapist’s mind.
Dulcitius, as many of Hrotsvit’s plays, ends with the martyrdom of the girls, who had been condemned by Emperor Diocletian for refusing to deny their faith. For Hrotsvit, their death is the true happy ending, as God preserves their faith until the end and allows them to die for his sake.
Hrotsvit’s stories are not typical hagiographies. As in Terence’s plays, many of her characters are confused and fallible, faced with difficult choices. In her Callimachus, Drusiana, assailed by the insistent advances of an infatuated young man, admits her uncertainties. “Oh Lord,” she prays, “look upon my fear, look upon the pain I bear! I don’t know what to do. If I denounce him, there will be public scandal on my account, I’m afraid. If I keep it secret, I cannot avoid falling into these devilish snares without Thy aid.”
In the end, she asks Christ to take her rather than allowing her to “become the ruin of that charming young man.” And Christ answers affirmatively.
This might sound like a tragic ending, but not to Hrotsvit, because the young man repents and becomes a Christian, so all is truly well in her eyes.
There are several things in Hrotsvit’s plays with which, as Protestants, we might disagree, such as Drusiana’s insistence to preserve her chastity even within the bond of marriage, or most women’s view of martyrdom as a meritorious act. But the honesty and vulnerability of her characters make them relatable, allowing us to place ourselves in their shoes, relive and process their choices, and question our own views of happiness and Christian priorities.
 Hrotsvit, Katharina M. Wilson, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: A Florilegium of Her Works, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1998, p. 57.