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Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)


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Early History of Gandersheim.[1*]

From these general remarks we turn to the foundation and early history of Gandersheim, one of the earliest and wealthiest of Saxon houses, which claims our attention as the home of the nun Hrotsvith. It was situated on low-lying ground near the river Ganda in Eastphalia and was surrounded by the wooded heights of the Harz mountains. It owed its foundation to Luidolf himself, the great Saxon duke and the progenitor of the royal house of Saxony. At the close of a successful political career, Liudolf was persuaded by his wife Oda to devote some of his wealth and his influence to founding a settlement for women in Eastphalia, where his property chiefly lay.

Oda was partly of Frankish origin, which may account for her seeking the aggrandisement of her family in a religious foundation at a time when there were very few in Saxon lands. It is noteworthy that this foundation was to be for women and that all the daughters of Liudolf and Oda went to live there. Information about the early history of Gandersheim is abundant. There are extant a life of Hathumod, its first abbess, which was written by her friend the monk Agius († 874), and an elegy on her death in which Agius tries to comfort her nuns for the loss they have sustained; both these compositions are written in a very attractive style.[2*] A century later the nun Hrotsvith was busy at Gandersheim describing the early history of the settlement in a poem in which she celebrates both it and the family of its founder.[3*] In many ways this is the most beautiful and finished of the nun's compositions; a work which reflects credit alike on her powers as a poetess, and on the settlement with which her name and fame are indissolubly linked.

From these accounts we gather that Oda's mother, Ada, had already had a vision of the future greatness of her family. Hrotsvith tells how St John the Baptist appeared to her clad in a garment made of camel's hair of bright yellow, his lovely face of shining whiteness, with a small beard and black hair. In giving   [p. 155]   these details of the saint's appearance the nun was doubtless describing a picture she had before her at Gandersheim.

It was in 852 that a plan was formed for transferring a small congregation of women, who had been living at Brunshausen, to some property on the river Ganda. A suitable site had to be sought and a fitting centre of worship provided. Luidolf and Oda undertook a journey to Rome and submitted their scheme to Pope Sergius II (844--847), begging him for a gift of relics. They received from him the bodies of the saints Anastasius and Innocentius, which they carried back with them to Saxony.

On the night before All Saints' Day a swineherd in Luidolfs employ had a vision of lights falling from heaven and hanging in the air, which was interpreted as a heavenly indication of the site of the settlement. A clearance was accordingly made in the densely wooded district and a chapel was built.

It was at this time that Hathumod, the eldest daughter of Liudolf, was living in Herford. From childhood her bent had been serious, and her friend Agius tells us that 'of her own free will she desired to be admitted to serious studies to which others are driven even by force.' [4*] She left her father's residence for Herford, where she was so happy that in after years she often longed to be back there. In 852 at the age of twelve she was taken away to Gandersheim to preside over the new settlement. This settlement was to be an improvement on existing institutions of the kind, for Agius tells us that its members were not allowed to have separate cells or to keep servants. They slept in tenements (villula) in the neighbourhood till their 'spiritual mother' was able to provide them with a suitable dwelling. Curious sidelights are thrown on other religious institutions by the following remarks of Agius on the nuns of Hathumod's convent: 'They shared everything,' he says;[5*] 'their clothes were alike, neither too rich nor too poor, nor entirely of wool. The sisters were not allowed to dine out with relatives and friends, or to converse with them without leave. They were not allowed like other nuns (sanctimoniales) to leave the monastery to stay with relatives or visit dependent estates (possessiones subjectae). And they were forbidden to eat except at the common table at the appointed times except in cases of sickness. At the same hour and in the same place they partook of the same kind of food. They slept together and came together to celebrate the canonical hours (ad   [p. 156]   canonicos cursus orandi). And they set to work together whenever work had to be done.'

Agius draws a beautiful picture of the gentleness and dignified bearing of Hathumod, who was at once strong and sensitive. She was always greatly cheered by signs of goodness in others, and she was as much grieved by an offence of a member of the community as if she had committed it herself. Agius tells us that she was slow in making friends but that she clung faithfully through life to those she had made.

Her literary acquirernents were considerable. 'No one could have shown greater quickness of perception, or a stronger power of understanding in listening to or in expounding the scriptures, he says,[6*] and the scriptures always remained her favourite reading.

It is difficult to form an idea of the standard of life in these religious settlements. The age was rough and barbarous in many ways, but the surroundings of the Saxon dukes did not lack a certain splendour, and traces of it would no doubt be found in the homes they made for their daughters. In these early accounts nothing transpires about their possessions in books and furniture, but it is incidentally mentioned that the abbess Hathumod owned a crystal vessel in the form of a dove, which contained relics and hung suspended by her bedside.[7*]

The plan was formed to build a stone church for Gandersheim an unusual and difficult undertaking. No suitable stone, however, could be found till one day, as Hathumod was praying in the chapel, she was divinely moved to walk forth and follow a dove which was awaiting her outside. The bird led the way to a spot where the underwood was removed and masses of stone which could be successfully dealt with were laid bare. 'It is the spot barren through its huge masses of stone, as we know it now-a-days,' Hrotsvith the nun wrote a hundred years later.[8*]

The densely-wooded character of the neighbourhood is frequently referred to by early and later writers. Lingering superstitions peopled the forest with heathen fantasies, with 'fauns and spirits,' as Hrotsvith designates them. The settlement lay in the midst of the forest and was at all times difficult of access, but especially so in winter when the ground was covered with snow. In the introduction to her history of Otto the Great Hrotsvith likens her perplexity and fear in entering on so vast   [p. 157]   a subject to the state of mind of one who has to cross the forest in mid winter, a simile doubtless suggested by the surroundings of the convent.[9*] Her feelings, she says, were those of 'someone who is ignorant of the vast expanse of the forest which lies before him, all the paths of which are hidden by a thick covering of snow; he is guided by no one and keeps true to his direction only by noticing the marks pointed out to him; sometimes he goes astray, unexpectedly he again strikes the right path, and having penetrated half way through the dense interlacing trees and brush-wood he longs for rest and stops and would proceed no farther, were he not overtaken by some one, or unexpectedly guided by the footprints of those who have gone before.'

Neither Liudolf the founder of Gandersheim nor his daughter Hathumod lived to see the stone church completed. He died in 866, and the abbess in 874 at the age of thirty-two. She was surrounded by her nuns, among whom were several of her sisters, and her mother Oda, who had also come to live at Gandersheim. The monk Agius, who was a frequent visitor at the home, was often with her during her last illness, and after her death he composed an elegy in dialogue to comfort the nuns under the loss they had sustained. This poem is full of sweetness and delicacy of feeling, and is said to have been written on the model of the eclogues of Virgil. Alternate verses are put into the mouths of the nuns and of Agius; they describe their sorrow, and he dwells on the thoughts which might be a consolation to them. It opens in this strain 'Sad were the words we exchanged, I and those holy and worthy sisters who watched the dying moments of the sainted abbess Hathumod. I had been asked to address them, but somehow their recent grief made it impossible for them to listen to me, for they were bowed down by sorrow. The thoughts which I then expressed I have now put into verse and have added somewhat to them. For they (the sisters) asked me to address them in writing, since it would comfort them to have before their eyes, and to dwell upon, the words which I then spoke in sadness. Yielding to their wish and entreaties, I have attempted to express the thoughts which follow. Thou, O reader, understand that I am conversing with them, and follow us if thou wilt in our lament.'

He then directly addresses the nuns and continues: 'Certainly we should weep for one who died before her time in the bloom   [p. 158]   of youth. Yet grief also has its limits; your sorrowful weeping should be within bounds. 'Tis natural you should be unhappy, still reason commands moderation in all things, and I therefore entreat you, 0 beloved and holy sisters, to stay your weeping and your tears. Spare your energies, spare your eyesight which you are wearing out by excess of grief. "Moderation in all things" has been said wisely and has been said well, and God Himself commands that it should be so.' The nuns make reply in the following words: 'What you put before us is certainly true. We know full well that God forbids excess, but our grief seems not excessive, for it falls so far short of what her merit claims. We can never put into words the wealth of goodness which we have lost in her. She was as a sister to us, as a mother, as a teacher, this our abbess under whose guidance we lived. We who were her handmaids and so far beneath her shared her life as her equals; for one will guided us, our wishes were the same, our pursuits alike. Shall we not grieve and weep and lament from our hearts for her who made our joy and was our glory, and in whom we have lost our happiness? There can be no excess of tears, of weeping and of grief, for in them only we find solace now that we shall never more behold her sweet face.' Agius replies: 'I doubt not that your grief is well founded, or that your tears rightly flow. But weeping will not undo you altogether, for the body has powers of endurance; you must bear this great anguish, for it has come to you through the will of God. Believe me, you are not alone in this grief, I too am oppressed by it, I too am suffering, and I cannot sufficiently express to you how much I also have lost in her. You know full well how great was her love for me, and how she cherished me while she lived. You know how anxious she was to see me when she fell ill, with what gladness she received me, and how she spoke to me on her deathbed. Th words she spoke at the last were truly elevating, and ever and anon she uttered my name. Agius tries to comfort himself with dwelling on Hathumod's gentleness and sweetness, and urges the nuns as they loved their abbess in the flesh now to continue loving her in the spirit. This alone, he says, will help the work to grow and increase which she began and loved. 'To dwell on grief,' he says, 'brings weeping and weakness; to dwell on love cheers and brings strength. The spirit of your abbess is still among you, it was that which you most loved in her, and it is that which you have not lost.'

There is a curiously modern ring in much that the monk   [p. 159]   urges. His poem sets forth how the nuns at last took heart, and requested Agius to visit them again and help them with his advice, which he promised to do.

On her deathbed Hathumod in talking to Agius compared her monastery to a plant of delicate growth and deplored that no royal charter sanctioning its privileges had as yet been obtained.[10*] This charter and further privileges were secured to the settlement during the abbacy of Gerberg I (874--897), sister and successor of Hathumod, a woman of determined character and full of enthusiasm for the settlement. She was betrothed at one time to a certain Bernhard, against whose will she came to live at Gandersheim, and refused to leave it. He had been summoned to war, and departed declaring that she should not remain in the convent after his return. But opportunely for her wishes he was killed and she remained at Gandersheim. She ruled as abbess more than twenty years and advanced the interests of the settlement in many ways. The stone church which had been begun during Hathumod's rule was completed during that of Gerberg and was consecrated in 881, on All Saints' Day. The bishop of Hildesheim officiated at the ceremony of consecration, many visitors came to assist, and the assembled nuns for the first time took part in the singing of divine service.

The abbess Gerberg was succeeded by her sister Christine, who ruled from 897 to 919. Kopke, one of the chief modern historians of this period, considers that these three sisters, Hathumod, Gerberg and Christine, abbesses of Gandersheim, were among the most zealous advocates of culture and civilizing influences in Saxony during the 9th century.[11*] The settlement became a centre of interest to the whole ducal family. After the death of Liudolf his widow Oda, who is said to have attained the age of one hundred and seven years, dwelt there altogether. She outlived her son, Duke Otto, who died in 912 and was buried at Gandersheim, and it is said that she lived to hear of the birth of her great-grandson Otto (913), who was destined to become king and emperor.

After the death of the abbess Christine the settlement of Gandersheim drifts for a time into the background; Quedlinburg, founded by Heinrich I at the instigation of his wife Mathilde, takes its place in ducal and royal favour. Scant notices are pre   [p. 160]   served of the abbesses who ruled during the first half of the 10th century. We hear of the abbess Hrotsvith († 927) that she was distinguished like her namesake of later date for literary acquirements,[12*] and that she wrote treatises on logic and rhetoric which are lost. And 'what is more,' says an early writer,[13*] 'she forced the devil to return a bond signed with blood by which a youth had pledged away his soul.'

Her writings may have perished in the fire which ravaged the settlement without permanently interfering with its prosperity during the rule of Gerberg II (959-1001). Contemporary writers concur in praise of the learning, the powers of management and the educational influence of this princess, who was the daughter of Heinrich, duke of the Bavarians († 955). Heinrich for many years was the enemy and rival of his brother Otto I; and the final reconciliation and lasting friendship between these princes formed an important episode in the history of the time. We do not know what prompted Gerberg to embrace convent life; perhaps she became a nun at the wish of her father. She was appointed abbess at the age of nineteen when her father was dead and her mother Judith was ruling in Bavaria in the interests of her young son. Gerberg ruled at Gandersheim for forty-two years; she has a special claim on our interest because she was the friend, teacher, and patron of the nun Hrotsvith.


[1*] Harenberg, Historia Ecclesiae Ganders., 1734; also Luentzel, Geschichte der Diöcese und Stadi Hildesheim, 1858, vol. I, pp. 33 ff., 63ff.

[2*] Agius, Vita et Obitus Hathumodae (in Pertz, Mon. Germ. Scrptores, vol. , pp. 166--189).

[3*] Hrotsvith, 'Carmen de Primordiis Coenobii Gandersh.,' in Opera, edit. Barack, 1858, p. 339 ff.

[4*] Agius, Vita et Obitus Hathumodae, ch. 3.

[5*] Ibid. ch. 5.

[6*] Agius, Vita et Obitus Hathumodae, ch. 9.

[7*] Ibid. ch. 15.

[8*] Carmen de Primordiis Coenobii Gandersh.,' line 273.

[9*] 'Carmen de Gestis Oddonis I,' in Opera, edit. Barack, 1858, p. 302.

[10*] Agius, Vita et Obitus Hathumodoe, ch. II.

[11*] Köpke, R., Deutschlands älleste Dichlerin, 1869, p. 17.

[12*] Harenberg, Historia Ecclesiae Gandersh., 1734, p. 589.

[13*] Meibom, H., Rerum German. Script., 188, vol. I p. 706, quoting Selneccer.

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