Hroswitha: the first female dramatist
Hroswitha (which has been variously spelled as Roswitha, Hrotswitha, Hrosvitha, Hrotsuit) is considered to be the first female dramatists and poetesses after the Dark Ages. She was born between 930 A.D. and 940 A.D. (most sources say 935 A.D.), probably to an aristocratic family of German and Saxon decent. As can be seen by her various works, she lived up to her name, which means “strong voice.” She has also called herself “the mighty voice”, “the strong voice of Gandersheim” “forceful testimony of God” and the “Nightingale of Gandersheim”.
“The preface of Hroswitha's metrical legends provides clues to her age, educational background and social status. She writes:
‘...I strove according to my ability, scarcely adequate though that was, none the less to complete a composition from the thoughts in the writing with which I had become acquainted within the confines of our monastery at Gandersheim; first through the instructive guidance of our learned and kindly teacher Rikkardis, and of others who taught in her stead; and then through the gracious consideration of the royal Gerberga, under whose rule as Abbess I am living at present. Though she is younger than I in years than I am, yet as befits a niece of the Emperor, she is farther advanced in learning, and she it was who right kindly instructed me in those various authors from whom she herself studied under the guidance of learned teachers’ (Haight 14)“ (quoted in Prodigal Daughters Project).
At a young age (some say as early as twelve, others say as old as twenty-three), Hroswitha entered the convent of Gandersheim, a Benedictine convent founded in 881 A.D., which was known for being a great center of learning in Germany while other countries in Europe suffered cultural and educational set-backs. Here, she had access to classical texts, intellectuals and royal communities. The idea of a poor, obscure woman writing poetry from her lonely cell may be the image that Hroswitha gives through her prefaces; in actuality, she was well-trained and enjoyed many of the privileges of the royal court. She had a structured education by those at the convent. She was humble at heart, though, and achieved greatness through the help of those around her.
Her talents were first cultivated under her teacher, Rikkardis. Hroswitha then went on to study with Abbess Gerberga, who was a niece of Otto I, an Ottonian princess, and a very accomplished woman. Hroswitha writes that Gerberga was “younger in years.” It is therefore assumed, due to Hroswitha upbringing as an educated woman of noble blood, that she entered the convent at the age of 20 in 955 A.D., under the direction of Abbess Wendelgard. Abbess Gerberga was then consecrated in 958 or 959 A.D. and encouraged Hrostwitha’s writing, which began around the age of twenty-four.
Hroswitha was considered a cannoness at Gandersheim, and therefore, was under less strict guidelines than the nuns. She did not have to take a vow of poverty (and was therefore, allowed her royal financial privileges) and was allowed more freedom into the world outside of the convent. She was also protected from the threat of marriage and the limitations it imposed upon women. And although she had this freedom, she did not use it to abuse her vows to God; on the contrary—her works were used to praise and to glorify God and the Christian saints.
Hroswitha’s poems were discovered by Conrad Celtes in 1493 A.D. in the Benedictine monastery of St. Emmeram at Ratisbon and were published in 1501 A.D. There was an epic, two Biblical poem and six to eight metrical legends that were derived from Latin sources and her own creative freedom. The basis of “Leben Mariens” was in the Holy Bible as was her poem “Von der Himmelfahrt des Herrn” which dealt with the life of Mary. The themes of the legends come from the real-life story of a Burgundian prince and martyr, the medieval legend of Faust, and the legends of St. Basil, St. Dionysus, St. Agnes and St. Ambrose. Her language is described as being “simple but smooth, and frequently even melodious.”
Some source say that five of her plays have survived, some say six, with the most famous being Callimachus. They are based around the theme of sensual love, which she admitted was a difficult topic to write about, since she was vowed to uphold the vows of religious purity. The reason she did this was because she saw how the audience loved the comedies of Terrence and wanted to copy his style. (Other influences include Virgil, Prudentius and Venantius Fortunarus, Boethius, Horace, Ovid and Plautus.) However, Hroswitha uses the sensual love to focus on a higher plane of morality and the triumph of virtue. They celebrate chastity and perseverance of Christian women, which contrasted with the Latin portrayal of women a weak and emotional. Her plays are episodic in nature, with believable characters and short, to-the-point dialogue. Though her plays have great production and theatrical value, it was not until 1923 that they were published in English. Her last two pieces were two epics: one was a eulogy for Otto I (Panagyric Oddonum) and the other is a celebration of the founding on Gandersheim (Primordia Coenobii Gandershemensis).
Though Hroswitha’s forte was writing, she was also known for he skills in science and mathematics. For example, one of her dramas is about the three daughters of Wisdom—Faith, Hope, and Charity—and in this drama, they are asked their ages. They answer using the mathematical language of Boethius, who was a sixth-century scholar in mathematics. Hroswitha also identified four perfect numbers—numbers that are equal to the sum of their factors (6, 28, 496 and 8128). Most people can only come up with two.
It is said that Hroswitha spent 70 years in Gandersheim, which seems unlikely as her death date is estimated at 1001 A.D., so she would have had to enter the convent at age 2. Other sources say she died in 973, which would have put her time in Gandersheim around 30 years.
Though it is unlikely that Hroswitha’s plays were ever performed in her lifetime, or that she had much fame beyond the walls of Gandersheim, it is true that she has had an impact on the dramatists and poets of Middle Ages and modern writers alike.
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