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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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The Nun Hrotsvith and her Writings.[1*]

The nun Hrotsvith occupies a unique position in monastic life and among unmarried women generally. 'This fruitful poetic talent,' says the writer Ebert, 'which lacks not the inspiration and the courage of genius to enter upon new ground, evinces how the Saxon element was chosen to guide the German nation in the domain of art.' The literary work of Hrotsvith can be grouped under three headings. To the first belongs the writing of metrical legends which were intended for the perusal and the edification of inmates of convents; to the second, the composition of seven dramas written in the style of Terence; and to the third, the   [p. 161]   writing of contemporary history in metrical form. Each kind of work has merits of its own and deserves attention. But while Hrotsvith as a legend writer ranks with other writers of the age, and as a historical writer is classed by the modern historian Giesebrecht with Widukind and Ruotger, as a writer of Latin drama she stands entirely alone. We have no other dramatic compositions except hers between the comedies of classic times and the miracle plays, which at first consisted only of a few scenes with bald dialogue.

It can be gathered from Hrotsvith's writings that she was born about the year 932;and the fact of her entering a nunnery is proof of her gentle birth. It is uncertain when she came to Gandersheim, probably at a very early age. She owed her education there partly to Rikkardis, to whom she refers in her writings, but chiefly to the abbess Gerberg, who, she says, was somewhat younger than herself.

Judging from Hrotsvith's writings she worked diligently and soon attracted attention beyond the limits of her convent. The following facts in regard to time are of importance. The first of her two sets of legends was put together and dedicated to Gerberg as abbess, that is after the year 959; she wrote and submitted part if not the whole of her history of Otto the Great to Wilhelm, archbishop of Mainz, before the year 968, in which the prelate died. How the composition of her dramas is related in point of time to that of the legends and the historical poems cannot be definitely decided; probably the dramas were written in the middle period of Hrotsvith's life. For the legends bear marks of being the outcome of early effort, while the historical poems, especially the one which tells of the early history of Gandersheim, were written in the full consciousness of power. We do not know the date of Hrotsvith's death; an early chronicle says that she wrote a history of the three Emperors Otto, in which case she must have lived till 1002, that being the year of Otto III's death. But the annalist to whom we owe this remark may have been misinformed; only a part of the history of the first emperor is extant, and we cannot argue from any references in her other works that she wrote a continuation of it.[2*] The nun and her writings soon ceased to attract attention, and there are few references to her in any writings for nearly five hundred years. At the beginning of the 16th century, however, the humanist Conrad   [p. 162]   Celtes came across a copy of her dramas, which seemed to him so remarkable that he had them printed. And since then they have repeatedly been published, and excellent translations have been made of them into German and French.[3*]

In the introduction to her plays Hrotsvith appeals to the judgment of powerful patrons, but she does not give their names; in her history, as mentioned above, she asks for criticism from Wilhelm, archbishop of Mainz, who was the illegitimate son of Otto I, and a leading prelate of the time. This exhausts what we know of friends outside the convent; probably the abbess Gerberg was the chief critic throughout and had more influence on her than any other. It was she who introduced Hrotsvith to the works, classical and other, which she had herself studied under learned men, and she was always ready to encourage her able pupil and supply her with materials to work upon.

The library at Gandersheim, to which Hrotsvith had access, contained the writings of a number of classical and theological authors. Among the classical writers with whom the nun is thought to have been directly acquainted were Virgil, Lucan, Horace, Ovid, Terence, and perhaps Plautus; among the Christian writers Prudentius, Sedulius, Fortunatus, Marianus Capella, and Boethius.[4*] Ebert, who has analysed the sources from which Hrotsvith drew the subject matter of her legends and dramas, considers that at this time Greek authors were read at Gandersheim in Latin translations only. Another writer, arguing from the fact that the nun frequently uses words of Greek origin, considers that she had some knowledge of Greek.[5*] This latter opinion has little in its favour. However we know that Greek teachers were summoned from Constantinople to instruct Hedwig, Gerberg's sister, who was to have married the Emperor Constantine. The match fell through, but the Saxon royal family aimed steadily at securing an alliance with the court of Constantinople, and ultimately attained this object by the marriage of Otto II to the Greek princess Theofanu (971).

After Hrotsvith had mastered the contents of the library at Gandersheim she was moved to try her hand at writing Latin verse; she cast into metrical form the account of the birth and life of the Virgin Mary contained in a gospel which in some   [p. 163]   manuscripts is ascribed to St James, the brother of Christ.[6*] The story is well told, and the incidents described follow each other naturally; the poem exceeds nine hundred lines in length. She supplements the original text with some amplifications of a descriptive nature and a panegyric on Christ, with which she closes the poem.

The diffidence Hrotsvith felt at first in writing is described in the introduction which she prefixed to the complete collection of her legendary poems and addressed to a wider public.[7*]

'Unknown to others and secretly, so to speak, I worked by myself' she says, 'sometimes I composed, sometimes I destroyed what I had written to the best of my abilities and yet badly; I dealt with material taken from writings with which I became acquainted within the precincts of our monastery of Gandersheim through the help of our learned and kindly teacher Rikkardis, afterwards through that of others who taught in her place, and finally through that of the high-born abbess Gerberg, under whom I am living at present, who is younger than I am in years but more advanced in learning as befits one of royal lineage, and who has introduced me to various authors whom she has herself studied with the help of learned men. Writing verse appears a difficult and arduous task especially for one of my sex, but trusting to the help of divine grace more than to my own powers, I have fitted the stories of this book to dactylic measures as best I could, for fear that the abilities that have been implanted in me should be dulled and wasted by neglect; for I prefer that these abilities should in some way ring the divine praises in support of devotion; the result may not be in proportion to the trouble taken and yet it may be to the profit of some.

The nun is filled with the consciousness that her undertaking is no mean one. 'Full well I know,' she says, addressing the Virgin, 'that the task of proclaiming thy merits exceeds my feeble strength, for the whole world could not celebrate worthily that which is a theme of praise among the angels.' The poem on the life of the Virgin is written in leonine hexameters, that is with rhymes at the middle and the end of the line. This form of verse was sometimes used at that period, and Hrotsvith especially in her later historical poems handled it with considerable skill.

Hrotsvith afterwards added to the account of the Virgin a   [p. 164]   poem of a hundred and fifty lines on the Ascension of Christ.[8*] In this, as she tells us, she adapted an account written by John the Bishop, which had been translated from Greek into Latin.

This poem also is simple and dignified, and gives proof of considerable power of expression on the part of the nun. Her vocabulary however has certain peculiarities, for she is fond of diminutives, a tendency which in the eyes of her editor is peculiarly feminine.[9*]

The poem on the Ascension closes with the following characteristic lines: 'Whoever reads this let him exclaim in a forbearing spirit: Holy King, spare and have mercy on the suppliant Hrotsvith and suffer that she who here has been celebrating thy glorious deeds may persevere further in holy song on things divine!'

The next subject which engrossed the nun's attention was the history of Gongolf,[10*] a huntsman and warrior of Burgundy, who lived in the time of King Pipin. He was credited with performing wonders such as calling up a fountain; he was a pious Christian and was put to a cruel death by his faithless wife and her lover. This poem is over five hundred lines in length and contains some fine descriptive passages. The version of the story Hrotsvith made use of being lost, we cannot tell how far she drew upon her own powers of narrative.[11*]

But the next legend she wrote left full scope for originality of treatment. It describes the experiences and martyrdom of Pelagius,[12*] a youth who had been recently (925) put to death by the Saracens at Cordova in Spain; the event, as she herself informs us, had been described to Hrotsvith by an eye-witness. The story opens with an enthusiastic description of the beauties of Cordova. Pelagius, the son of a king of Galicia, persuaded his father to leave him as hostage with the Caliph. But the Caliph, enamoured by the youth's physical beauty, persecuted him with attentions, and meeting with contempt ordered him to be cast down from the city walls. The young man remained unharmed, and was then beheaded and his head and body thrown into the river. Fishermen picked them up and carried them to a monastery, where their identity was ascertained by casting the head in the   [p. 165]   fire, which left it untouched. The head and body were then given solemn burial.

The next legend has repeatedly been commented on as the earliest account in verse of a pact with the devil and as a precursor of the many versions of the legend of Faust.[13*] The 'Lapse and conversion of Theophilus'[14*] may have had special attractions for Hrotsvith since the incident of the devil forced to return his bond was connected, as mentioned above, with her namesake Hrotsvith, abbess of Gandersheim. The story of Theophilus which Hrotsvith expanded and put into verse had recently been translated from Greek into Latin, as Ebert has shown. The story runs as follows.

Theophilus, nephew of a bishop of Cilesia (of uncertain date), had been educated in the seven liberal arts, but he held himself unworthy of succeeding his uncle, and considered the office of 'vice-domus more suited to his powers. His popularity however drew on him the hatred of the newly appointed bishop, who robbed him of his post. Thirsting for revenge the young man went for advice to a certain Hebrew, 'who by magic art turned away many of the faithful,' and who led him at night through the town to a dark place 'full of phantasms that stood in white clothes holding torches in their hands' (line 99). Their demon king was at first indignant that a Christian claimed his assistance and jeered at the Christians' ways, but at last he promised to help Theophilus on condition that he should sign an agreement by which he pledged himself to be one of the ghastly crew to all eternity. The young man agreed to the condition, and on his return home was favourably received by the bishop and reinstated in his dignity. But his peace of mind had deserted him; again and again he was seized by qualms of conscience and affrighted by agonising visions of eternal suffering which he forcibly describes in a monologue. At last he sought to escape from his contract by praying to the Virgin Queen of heaven in her temple, and for forty days consecutively prayed to her to intercede in his favour with God. The Virgin at last appeared to him, told him that he was free and handed him the fatal document. On a festal day he confessed his wrong-doing before all the people and burnt the parchment in their presence. In the very act of doing so he   [p. 166]   appeared as a changed man before their eyes and was instantly overtaken by death.

To this legend Hrotsvith attached a little prayer of eight lines which is a grace for use at meals. This prayer is in no way connected with the legend, and its presence here indicates that the legends were originally intended to be read aloud during meals in the refectory, and the reading to be closed with a prayer.

Having written so far Hrotsvith collected her legendary poems together with the poem on the Virgin and dedicated them in the form of a little book to her teacher, the abbess Gerberg. Evidently the stories attracted attention beyond the limits of the convent, and Hrotsvith was encouraged to continue in the path she had chosen. Accordingly she wrote a second set of legends, in composing which she was mindful of a wider public and that not exclusively of her own sex. For in the opening lines of the first of these legends which treats of the conversion of Proterius by Basilius, bishop of Caesarea, she begs that those who peruse this story 'will not on account of her sex despise the woman who draws these strains from a fragile reed.'[15*]

The story of this conversion, like that of Theophilus, treats of a pact with the evil one, but with a difference. For in the one story the man signs away his soul to regain his position, in the other he subscribes the fatal bond for the purpose of securing the hand of the bishop's daughter. The bishop however intercedes with God in his behalf and regains his liberty for him. The poem is neither so complete nor so striking as that of Theophilus.

Two more legends are grouped with it. One of them describes the Passion of Dionysius,[16*] who suffered martyrdom at Paris, and who at an early date was held identical with Dionysius the Areopagite. The hand of this saint had been given as a relic to King Heinrich the Fowler, and had been deposited by him at Quedlinburg--an incident which made the saint's name familiar in Saxon lands.

The passion of Dionysius is described according to a prose account written by Hilduin († 814), but Hrotsvith abbreviated and altered it.[17*] She describes how Dionysius witnessed an eclipse of the sun at Memphis at the time when Christ was put to death, how he returned to Athens and there waited to hear something of the new god. The apostle Paul arrived and preached,   [p. 167]   and Dionysius followed him to Rome. From Rome he was despatched into Gaul to preach the new faith, and while there he was first cast into the flames which did not burn him, and then thrown before wild beasts which refused to touch him. He was finally beheaded during the persecutions under Diocletian. In this poem there is an especially fine passage in which we hear how Dionysius after being beheaded rose to life and took up his head, which he carried away down the hill to the spot where he wished to be buried,--a story similar to that told of many saints.

The last legend which Hrotsvith wrote treats of the Passion of St Agnes, a virgin saint of Rome, whose fortitude in tribulation and stedfast adherence to Christianity and to the vow she had taken made her story especially suitable for a convent of nuns.[18*] The story has often been put into writing from the 4th century downwards; Hrotsvith took her account from that ascribed to Ambrosius († 397), which she followed closely. She prefaces it with an address to maidens vowed to God, who are exhorted to remain steadfast in their purpose. Like most of these legendary tales it is between four and five hundred lines in length.

Throughout her legends Hrotsvith, as she herself says in a few remarks which stand at the conclusion of the legends, was bent on keeping close to the original accounts from which she worked. 'I have taken the material for this book, like that for the one preceding it, from ancient books compiled by authentic authors (certis nominibus), the story of Pelagius alone is excepted.... If mistakes have crept into my accounts, it is not because I have intentionally erred but because I have unwittingly copied mistakes made by others.'[19*]

Ebert, commenting on the spirit of the legends generally, remarks on the masterly way in which the nun has dealt with her material, on her skill in supplying gaps left by earlier writers, on her deft handling of rhyme and rhythm, on the right feeling which guides her throughout her work, and on the completeness of each of her legends as a whole.[20*]

The lines in which the second set of legends are dedicated to Gerberg bear witness to the pleasure Hrotsvith derived from her work. 'To thee, lady Gerberg,' she says, 'I dedicate these stories, adding new to earlier ones, as a sinner who deserves benevolent indulgence. Rejoicing I sing to the accompaniment with dactylic   [p. 168]   measures; do not despise them because they are bad, but praise in your gentle heart the workings of God.'[21*]

Having so far worked along accepted lines and achieved success therein, the nun of Gandersheim was moved to strike out a new path. Conscious of her powers and conscious of a need of her time, filled with admiration for the dramatic powers of classical writers while disapproving of their tendencies, she set to work to compose a series of plays on the model of Terence, in which she dramatised incidents and experiences calculated to have an elevating influence on her fellow-nuns.

How she came to write plays at all and what determined her in the choice of her subject, she has described in passages which are worth quoting in full. They show that she was not wanting either in spirit or in determination, and that her conviction that the classical form of drama was without equal strengthened her in her resolve to make use of that form as the vehicle for stories of an altogether different tenor. The interest of the plays of Terence invariably turns on the seduction of women and exposure of the frailty of the sex; the nun of Gandersheim determined to set forth woman's stedfast adherence to a vow once taken and her firm resistance to temptation. Whatever may be thought of these compositions, the merit of originality can hardly be denied to them. They were intended for perusal only, but there is nothing in the dialogue or mechanism that makes a dramatic representation of them impossible.

'There are many Christians,' says the nun,[22*] 'from whom we cannot claim to be excepted, who because of the charm of finished diction prefer heathen literature with its hollowness to our religious books; there are others who hold by the scripture and despise what is heathen, and yet eagerly peruse the poetic creations of Terence; while delighting in his flow of language, they are all polluted by the godless contents of his works. Therefore I "the well known mouthpiece of Gandersheim" have not hesitated in taking this poet's style as a model, and while others honour him by perusing his dramas, I have attempted, in the very way in which he treats of unchaste love among evil women, to celebrate according to my ability the praiseworthy chasteness of godlike maidens.

'In doing so, I have often hesitated with a blush on my cheeks through modesty, because the nature of the work obliged me to   [p. 169]   concentrate my attention on and apply my mind to the wicked passion of illicit love and to the tempting talk of the amorous, against which we at other times close our ears. But if I had hesitated on account of my blushes I could not have carried out my purpose, or have set forth the praise of innocence to the fulness of my ability. For in proportion as the blandishments of lovers are enticing, so much greater is the glory of our helper in heaven, so much more glorious the triumph of those who prevail, especially where woman's weakness triumphs and man's shameless strength is made to succumb. Certainly some will allege that my language is much inferior, much poorer, and very unlike that of him whom I try to imitate. It is so, I agree with them. And yet I refuse to be reproached on this account as though I had meant to class myself with those who in their knowledge are so far above my insufficiency. I am not even so boastful as to class myself with the least of their pupils; all I am bent on is, however insufficiently, to turn the power of mind given to me to the use of Him who gave it. I am not so far enamoured of myself that I should cease from fear of criticism to proclaim the power of Christ which works in the saints in whatever way He grants it. If anyone is pleased with my work I shall rejoice, but if on account of my unpolished language it pleases no one, what I have done yet remains a satisfaction to myselg for while in other writings I have worked, however insufficiently, only in heroic strophe (heroico strophio), here I have combined this with dramatic form, while avoiding the dangerous allurements of the heathen.'

Those passages in which Hrotsvith speaks of her modest hesitation are especially worthy of notice and will not fail to appeal to those women now-a-days, who, hoping to gain a clearer insight into the difficulties with which their sex has to contend, feel it needful to face facts from which their sensibilities naturally shrink. They will appreciate the conflicting feelings with which the nun of Gandersheim, well-nigh a thousand years ago, entered upon her task, and admire the spirit in which she met her difficulties and the courage with which she carried out her purpose, in spite of her consciousness of shortcomings and derogatory criticism.

As she points out, the keynote of her dramas one and all is to insist on the beauties of a steadfast adherence to chastity as opposed to the frenzy and the vagaries of passion. In doing so she is giving expression to the ideas of contemporary Christian teaching, which saw in passion, not the inborn force that can be   [p. 170]   applied to good or evil purpose, not the storage of strength which works for social advantage or disadvantage, but simply a tendency in human nature which manifests itself in lack of self-restraint, and the disturbing element which interferes with the attainment of calmness and candour.

As Hudson, one of the few English writers who has treated of this nun and her writings,[23*] remarks: 'It is on the literary side alone that I-Irotsvitha belongs to the classic school. The spirit and essence of her work belong entirely to the middle ages; for beneath the rigid garb of a dead language beats the warm heart of a new era. Everything in her plays that is not formal but essential, everything that is original and individual, belongs wholly to the christianised Germany of the 10th century. Everywhere we can trace the influence of the atmosphere in which she lived; every thought and every motive is coloured by the spiritual conditions of her time. The keynote of all her works is the conflict of Christianity with paganism; and it is worthy of remark that in I-Irotsvitha's hands Christianity is throughout represented by the purity and gentleness of woman while paganism is embodied in what she describes as 'the vigour of men (virile robur).'

For the nun does not disparage marriage, far from it; nor does she inculcate a doctrine of general celibacy. It is not a question with her of giving up a lesser joy for a greater, but simply of the way to remain true to the higher standard, which in accordance with the teaching of her age she identified with a life of chastity. Her position may appear untenable; confusion of thought is a reproach which a later age readily casts on an earlier. But underneath what may seem unreasonable there is the aspiration for self-control. It is this aspiration which gives a wide and an abiding interest to her plays. For she is not hampered by narrowness of thought or by pettiness of spirit. Her horizon is limited, we grant; but she fills it entirely and she fills it well.

Passing from these generalities to the plays themselves, we find ourselves in a variety of surroundings and in contact with a wide range of personalities. The transition period from heathendom to Christianity supplies in most cases the mental and moral conflicts round which centres the interest of these plays.

The plays are six in number, and the one that stands first is divided into two separate parts. Their character varies considerably. There is the heroic, the romantic, the comic and the un   [p. 171]   relieved tragic element, and the two plays that stand last contain long disquisitions on scholastic learning. A short analysis of their contents will give the reader an idea of the manner in which Hrotsvith makes her conceptions and her purpose evident.

'Gallicanus,' the play that stands first,[24*] is in some ways the most striking of all. A complex theme is ably dealt with and the incidents follow each other rapidly; the scene lies alternately in Rome and on the battle-field. The Emperor Constantine is bent on opposing the incursions of the Scythians, and his general Gallicanus claims the hand of the emperor's daughter Constantia as a reward for undertaking so dangerous an expedition. Constantia is a convert to Christianity, Gallicanus is a heathen. In an interview with her father the girl declares she will sooner die than be united to a heathen, but with a mixture of. shrewdness and confidence in her faith she agrees to marry him on his return on condition that the Christians John and Paul shall accompany him on his expedition, and that his daughters shall meanwhile be given into her keeping. The manner in which she receives the girls is at once proud and dignified. 'Welcome my sisters, Attica and Artemia,' she exclaims; 'stand, do not kneel, rather greet me with a kiss of affection.' There is no development of character in the course of the play, for Hrotsvith is chiefly bent on depicting states of mind under given conditions. The characters in themselves are forcibly drawn: witness the emperor's affection for his daughter, the general's strength and determination, Constantia's dignified bearing and the gentleness of the Christian teachers. The sequel of events bears out Constantia's anticipations. The daughters of Gallicanus are easily swayed in favour of Christianity and their father is converted. For Gallicanus is hard pressed by the Scythians on the battle-field and despairs of success, when the Christian teachers urge him to call upon their God for help. He does so, overcomes the Scythians and takes their leader Bradan prisoner. In recognition of his victory he is rewarded by a triumphal entry into Rome. But he is now a convert to Christianity; he describes to the emperor how Christ Himself and the heavenly host fought on his side, and he approaches Constantia and his daughters and thus addresses them: 'I greet you, holy maidens; abide in the fear of God and keep inviolate your virgin crown that the eternal King may receive you in His embrace.' Constantia replies: 'We serve Him the more readily if thou dost not oppose us.' Gallicanus:   [p. 172]   'I would not discourage, prevent or thwart your wishes, I respect them, so far that I would not now constrain thee, beloved Constantia, whom I have secured at the risk of my life.' But he admits that his resolve costs him much, and he decides to seek solace in solitude for his grief at having lost so great a prize.

The sequel to this play is short, and describes the martyrdom of the Christian teachers, John and Paul, who had accompanied Gallicanus on his expedition. Gallicanus is no more, the Emperor Constantius is dead, and Julian the Apostate reigns in his stead and cruelly persecutes the Christians. No woman appears in this part of the play. We first witness the martyrdom of the Christians who are put to death by Terentian, one of the emperor's generals. Terentian's son is then seized by a terrible illness, and his unhappy father goes to the grave of the martyrs, where he becomes a convert to Christianity and prays for their intercession with God in behalf of his son. His prayer finds fulfilment and the boy is restored to health. Hrotsvith took this story from the Acts and the Passion of the saints John and Paul, but, as Ebert has shown, the development is entirely her own.[25*] Though working on the model of Terence the nun is quite indifferent to unities of time and place, and sacrifices everything to the exigencies of the plot, so that the transition from scene to scene is often sudden and abrupt.

The next play is 'Dulcetius, or the sufferings of the maidens Agape, Chionia and Irene.'[26*] It dramatises a story which was familiar in western Europe from an early date; Ealdhelm mentions it in his poem on Virginity. Its popularity is no doubt due to the juxtaposition of entirely divergent elements, the pathos of martyrdom being in close company with scenes of broad humour.

During the persecutions under Diocletian three youthful sisters are brought before the emperor, who thus addresses the eldest:

'Diocletian. The noble stock from which you spring and your extreme beauty demand that you should be connected with our court through marriage with high officials. This we incline to vouchsafe you if you agree to disown Christ and offer sacrifice to our most ancient gods.

Agape. O spare yourself this trouble, do not think of giving us in marriage. Nought can compel us to disown the name of Christ, or to debase our purity of heart.

  [p. 173]  

Diocletian. What is the object of this madness?

Agape. What sign of madness do you see in us?

Diocletian. A great and obvious one.

Agape. In what?

Diocletian. In this, that casting from yourselves the observance of the ancient faith, you follow this new foolish Christian teaching.

Agape. Blasphemer, fear the power of God Almighty, threatening danger....

Diocletian. To whom?

Agape. To you and to the realm you govern.

Diocletian. The girl is crazy, let her be removed.'

He then interviews the other two, but with similar results; threats are of no avail and the girls are handed over to the general Dulcetius to be summarily dealt with. Dulcetius, however, is so powerfully impressed by their beauty, that he orders them to be placed in a chamber beyond the kitchen, hoping to take advantage of their helplessness and induce them to gratify his passion. He repairs at night to the chamber in spite of the warning of his soldiers, when a spell falls on him, he misses the room, and his reason so utterly forsakes him that he proceeds to fondle and caress the pots and pans which he seizes upon in his excitement. The girls are watching him from the next room through a chink in the wall and make merry over his madness.

'Agape. What is he about?

Hirena. Why, the fool is out of his mind, he fancies he has got hold of us.

Agape. What is he doing?

Hirena. Now he presses the kettle to his heart, now he clasps the pots and pans and presses his lips to them.

Chionia. How ludicrous!

Hirena. His face, his hands, his clothes are all black and sooty; the soot which clings to him makes him look like an Ethiopian.

Agape. Very fitting that he should be so in body, since the devil has possession of his mind.

Hirena. Look, he is going. Let us wait to see what the soldiers who are waiting outside will do when they see him.'

The soldiers fail to recognise their leader, they take to their heels. Dulcetius repairs to the palace, where the gatekeeper scoffs at his appearance and refuses him admittance, in spite of his insisting on his identity and speaking of himself as dressed in   [p. 174]   splendid attire. At last his wife who has heard of his madness comes forth to meet him. The spell is broken and he discovers that he has been the laughing-stock of the maidens. He then orders them to be exposed naked in the market-place as a punishment. But a divine power causes their garments to cling to them, while Dulcetius falls so fast asleep that it is impossible to rouse him. The Emperor Diocletian therefore entrusts the accomplishment of the maidens' martyrdom to Sisinnius. Two of the girls are cast into the flames, but their souls pass away to heaven while their bodies remain without apparent hurt. The third sister is threatened with shameful treatment, but before it is carried out she is miraculously borne away to a hill-top. At first the soldiers attempt in vain to approach her, but at last they succeed in killing her with arrows. The youthful, girlish traits which appear in both the mirth and the sorrow of the three sisters are well developed, and form a vivid contrast to the unrelieved brutality of Dulcetius and Sisinnius.

Quite a different range of ideas is brought before the reader in the next play, 'Calimachus,' which is Hrotsvith's nearest approach to a love tragedy.[27*] She took its subject from an apocryphal account of the apostles, but as Ebert remarks she handles her material with considerable freedom.[28*] The opening scene shows her power of immediately presenting a situation. The scene is laid in the house of Andronicus, a wealthy Ephesian. The youth Calimachus and his friends enter.

'Calimachus. A few words with you, friends!

Friends. We will converse with thee as long as thou pleasest.

Calimachus. If you do not mind, we will converse apart.

Friends. Thou biddest, we comply.

Calimachus. Let us repair to a secluded spot, that we may not be interrupted in our converse.

They go and Calimachus explains how a heavy misfortune has befallen him; they urge him to unbosom himself. He confesses he is in love with a most beauteous, most adorable being, it is a woman, the wife of Andronicus; what shall he do to secure her favour? His friends declare his passion hopeless, Drusiana is a Christian and has moreover taken the vow of chastity; 'I ask for help, you give me despair,' Calimachus exclaims. In the next scene he confronts Drusiana and declares his passion. Drusiana   [p. 175]   repudiates his advances but she is intimidated by his threats, apd gives utterance to her fears in a monologue in which she declares that she would rather die than yield to him. Sudden death cuts her down; and the apostle John is called in by her husband and undertakes to give her Christian burial. But the youth Calimachus is not cured of his passion. At the instigation of his companion, Fortunatus, he goes with him by night to the vault where she lies and would embrace the corpse, but a serpent of terrible aspect surprises the two young men and kills them. In the following scene the apostle is leading Andronicus to the vault: when they enter they come upon the serpent lying by the side of the youths. The apostle then explains to Andronicus what has happened and gives proof of his great power by awakening Calimachus from the dead. The young man confesses his evil intentions and explains how he came there at the suggestion of his companion. The apostle then recalls Drusiana to life, and she begs that Fortunatus also may be restored, but the apostle refuses on account of the man s wickedness. Drusiana herself then intercedes in his behalf and prays to God for his restoration. Her wish is fulfilled, Fortunatus comes back to life, but he declares he would sooner have died than have seen Drusiana happy and his friend a convert to Christianity. The wounds which the serpent had inflicted at once begin to swell, and he expires before their eyes, and the apostle explains that his jealousy has sent him to hell. A great deal of action is crowded into this play and we are abruptly carried on from scene to scene. It closes with some pious reflections on the part of the apostle.

There is considerable diversity of opinion among modern writers on the merits of the dramas we have discussed hitherto, but all concur in praise of the play called 'Abraham,' which dramatises the oft repeated story of a woman who yields to temptation and is reclaimed from her wicked ways. The interest in this play never flags and the scenes are worked out with a breadth of conception which gives the impression of assured strength.[29*]

Hrotsvith took the subject of this drama from an account, written in the 6th century by Ephrem, of the life qf his friend, the hermit Abraham. The story was written originally in Greek and is preserved in that language; the translation into Latin used by Hrotsvith is lost.[30*] The plot of the drama is as follows:

  [p. 176]  

The devout hermit Abraham consults his friend the hermit Ephrem as to what he shall do with his niece, Maria, who is left to his care, and together they decide that she shall come and live in a cell near her uncle. Abraham throughout speaks directly and to the point, while Ephrem's talk is full of mystic allusions. He talks to the maiden of the beauties of the religious vocation and assures her that her name, Maria, signifies 'star of the sea,' and that she is therefore intended for great things. The maiden is surprised at his words and naively remarks that it would be a great thing 'to equal the lustre of the stars.' She comes to dwell in a cell close to that of the two hermits, but after a time she is enticed away and disappears from the sight of her uncle, who is deeply grieved at her loss. For several years he hears nothing from her; at last a friend comes and tells him that the girl has been seen in the city, and is there living in a house of ill fame. The old man at once decides to go forth to seek his niece and to reclaim her. He dons shoes, a traveller's dress and a large hat, and takes with him money, since that only can give him access to her. The scene then shifts from the sylvan solitude to the house where Maria is living. Abraham arrives and is received by the tavern-keeper, whom he asks for a night's lodging, offering him his 'solidus' and requesting to see the woman the fame of whose beauty has spread. This scene and the one that follows bring the situation before the reader admirably. Abraham is served with a meal and Maria enters, at sight of whose levity he scarce represses his tears. She entertains him, and he feigns a gaiety corresponding to hers, the tavern-keeper being present. Of a sudden she is overcome by the thought of the past, but he keeps up his assumed character. At last supper is over, and they retire into the adjoining chamber. The moment for disclosure has come, and Hrotsvith is seen at her best.

'Abraham. Close fast the door, that no one enter and disturb us.

Maria. Be not concerned, I have done so; no one will find it easy to get in.

Abraham. The time has come; away, deceitful clothes, that I may be recognised. Oh, my adopted daughter, joy of my soul, Maria, dost thou not know the aged man who was to thee a parent, who vowed thee to the heavenly king?

Maria. Oh woe is me! it is my father, my teacher Abraham, who speaks.

  [p. 177]  

Abraham. What then has come to thee, my daughter?

Maria. Ah, wretchedness!

Abraham. Who was it that deceived thee? Who allured thee?

Maria. He who was the undoing of our first parents.

Abraham. Where is the noble life thou once vast wont to lead?

Maria. Lost, lost for ever!

Abraham. Where is thy virgin modesty, thy wondrous self-restraint?

Maria. Gone from me altogether.

Abraham. If thou dost not return to thine own self, what reward in the life to come canst thou expect for fasting, prayer, and watching, since fallen as from heaven's heights thou now art sunk in hellish depths?

Maria. Woe, woe is me!

Abraham. Why didst thou thus deceive me? why turn from me? Why didst thou not make known to me thy wretchedness, that I and my beloved Ephrem might work for thy repentance?

Maria. Once fallen into sinfulness, I dared not face you who are holy.

Abraham. But is there any one entirely faultless, except the Virgin's Son?

Maria. Nay, no one.

Abraham. 'Tis human to be frail, but to persist in wickedness is of the devil. Not he who falls of a sudden is condemned, but he who, having fallen, does not strive forthwith to rise again.

Maria. Woe unto me, wretch that I am!

(She sinks to the ground.)

Abraham.Why dost thou sink? why lie upon the ground? Arise and ponder what I am saying.

Maria. Fear casts me down, I cannot bear the weight of thy paternal admonition.

Abraham. Dwell only on my love and thrust aside thy fear.

Maria. I cannot.

Abraham. Think, was it not for thee I left my little hermitage, and so far set aside the rule by which I lived that I, an aged hermit, became a visitor to wantonness, and keeping silence as to my intent spoke words in jest that I might not be recognised? Why then with head bent low gaze on the ground? Why hesitate to give answer to my questions?

Maria. The accusations of my conscience bear me down, I dare not raise my eyes to heaven, nor enter into converse with thee.

  [p. 178]  

Abraham. Be not afraid, my daughter, do not despair; rise from this depth of misery and fix thy mind on trust in God.

Maria. My sins in their excess have brought me to depths of desperation.

Abraham. I know thy sins are great, but greater than aught else is Heaven's power of grace. Put by thy grief and do not hesitate to spend the time vouchsafed to thee in living in repentance; divine grace overflows, and overflowing washes out the horrors of wrong-doing.

Maria. If I could entertain the hope of grace I should not be found wanting in repentance.

Abraham. Think of the weariness that I have suffered for thee; leave this unprofitable despair, nought in this world is so misleading. He who despairs of God's willingness to have compassion, 'tis he who sins hopelessly; for as a spark struck from a stone can never set aflame the ocean, so the bitterness of sin must ever fail to rouse sweet and divine compassion.

Maria. I know the power of grace divine, and yet the thought of how I have failed fills me with dread; I never can sufficiently atone.

Abraham. Thy feeble trust in Him is a reproach to me! But come, return with me to where we lived, and there resume the life which thou didst leave.

Maria. I would not disobey thee; if it be thy bidding, readily I yield.

Abraham. Now I see my daughter such as I would have her; I hope still to hold thee dearest among all.

Maria. I own a little wealth in gold and clothing; I abide by thy decision what shall be done with it.

Abraham. What came to thee in evil, with evil cast it from thee.

Maria. I think it might be given to the poor; or offered at the holy altars.

Abraham. I doubt if wealth acquired in wickedness is acceptable to God.

Maria. Besides this there is nothing of which the thought need trouble us.

Abraham. The dawn is breaking, the daylight shining, let us now depart.

Maria. Lead thou the way, dear father, a good shepherd to the sheep that went astray. As thou leadest, so I follow, guided by thy footsteps!

  [p. 179]  

Abraham. Nay, I shall walk, my horse shall bear thee, for this stony road might cut thy tender feet.

Maria. Oh, that I ever left thee! Can I ever thank thee enough that, not by intimidation and fear, but by gentle persuasion alone, unworthy though I am, thou hast led me to repentance?

Abraham. Nought do I ask of thee but this, be now devoted to God for the remainder of thy life.

Maria. Readily I promise, earnestly will I persevere, and though the power fail me, my will shall never fail.

Abraham. It is agreed then--as ardently as before to vanity, be thou now devoted to the will divine.

Maria. Thy merits be my surety that the divine will shall be accomplished.

Abraham. Now let us hasten our departure.

Maria. Yea, hasten; for I loathe to tarry here.'

They return to the hermitage together, and Maria resumes her former mode of life in hope of redeeming the past. The drama closes with a scene between Abraham and Ephrem, who discourse on the beneficent change which familiar surroundings are already working in Maria; the angels sing rejoicing at the conversion of the sinner, says Abraham; and Ephrem adds that the repentance of the iniquitous causes greater joy in heaven than the perseverance of the just.

This play, currently known as 'Abraham,' but which would be more fitly named 'Maria,' marks the climax of Hrotsvith's power. In form it preserves the simple directness of the classic model, in conception it embodies the moral ideals of Christian teaching.

The last two plays of Hrotsvith are chiefly of historical interest for the learned disquisitions they contain; their dramatic value is comparatively small, and many of the scenes are in a way repetitions of scenes in other plays. In 'Paphnutius' we again have the story of a penitent woman, the hetaira Thais, who lived in the 6th century, but whose conversion has little of the interest which attaches to that of Maria. In 'Sapientia' we have a succession of scenes of martyrdom which recall those of the play 'Dulcetius.' The Lady Sapientia and her three daughters Fides, Spes and Caritas are put to death by order of the Emperor Hadrian, but the horrors of the situation are relieved by no minor incidents. The learned disquisitions in these plays are however extremely curious because they show on the one hand what store Hrotsvith   [p. 180]   set on learning, and on the other they give an idea of the method of study pursued at Gandersheim in those days.

The play 'Paphnutius'[31*] opens with passages which Hrotsvith probably adapted from two works of Boethius: 'On the teaching of Aristotle,' and 'On the study of music.'[32*] The philosopher Paphnutius dilates to his assembled pupils on man as the microcosm (minor mundus) who reflects in himself the world, which is the macrocosm (major mundus), and then explains that there is antagonism in the vorld, which is striving for concord in accordance with the rules of harmony. He explains how a similar antagonism exists in man and is represented by body and soul, which can also be brought into agreement. These thoughts, he says, have been suggested to him by the life of the hetaira Thais whose body and soul are ever at variance. Paphnutius further enlarges on the higher course of study known as the 'quadrivium' which includes arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy,[33*] and discourses about music and the influence of harmony. His pupils, however, object to being taken along such devious paths and having such knotty questions propounded to them, and at last they quote Scripture in defence of their ignorance, saying that God has chosen the foolish that he may confound the wise. This rouses indignation in Paphnutius, who declares that 'he who advocates falsehood, be he a fool or a learned man, deserves to be confounded by God.' And he further utters words which are not devoid of a deeper significance: 'It is not the knowledge that man can grasp which is offensive to God, but the conceit of the learned.'

The learned disquisitions of the play 'Sapientia' are presented in a form still less attractive.[34*] The Lady Sapientia, who speaks of herself as one of noble stock, and as the descendant of Greek princes, dilates on the relative value of numbers[35*] to the emperor Hadrian till he tires of it and commands her to be gone.

It is sometimes alleged that these two later plays were the productions of earlier years, and that the nun added them to   [p. 181]   her other more finished productions in order to equal the number of the plays of Terence. However this may be, they were probably the two plays which she submitted to the criticism of three outside but now unknown patrons with a letter in which she states that she has taken threads and pieces from the garment of philosophy to add to the worth of her work. We render this letter in full, since it throws an interesting light on what Hrotsvith thought of her own powers. If it brought advice which led to the composition of the other plays, we must commend the judgment of those who counselled her. But it is just possible that the approval which was accorded to the legends was denied to the plays, --the absence of the name of the abbess Gerberg in connection with them is remarkable,--and that, after writing a number of dramas which found no appreciation, Hrotsvith was moved to compose 'Paphnutius' and 'Sapientia,' introducing learned disquisitions in hope of giving them a more solid value.

The letter runs as follows:

'To you, learned men,[36*] who abide in wisdom and are unenvious of another's progress and well-disposed towards him as befits the truly learned, I, Hrotsvith, though I am unlearned and lacking in thoroughness, address myself; I wish you health and unbroken prosperity. I cannot sufficiently admire your great condescension, and sufficiently thank you for the help of your liberal generosity and for your kindness towards me; you, who have been trained in the study of philosophy and have perfected yourselves in the pursuit of knowledge, have held my writings, those of a lowly woman, worthy of admiration, and have praised with brotherly affection the power which works in me. You have declared that there is in me a certain knowledge of that learning (scientiam artium) the essence of which is beyond my woman's understanding. Till now I have dared to show my rude productions only to a few of my nearest friends, and my work along these lines would probably have ceased, for there were few who understood my intentions, and fewer who could point out to me in what I had failed, and who urged me to persevere. But now that threefold approval comes to me from you I take confidence and feel strengthened by your encouragement to devote my energies to work where God permits, and to submit this work to the criticism of those who are learned. And yet I am divided between joy and fear, which   [p. 182]   contend within me; for in my heart I rejoice, praising God through whose grace alone I have become what I am; and yet I am fearful of appearing greater than I am, being perplexed by two things both of which are wrong, namely the neglect of talents vouchsafed to one by God, and the pretence to talents one has not. I cannot deny that through the help of the Creator I have acquired some amount of knowledge, for I am a creature capable of learning, but I acknowledge there is ignorance in me. For I am divinely gifted with abilities, but were it not for the untiring zeal of my teachers, they would have remained undeveloped and unused through my want of energy (pigritia). Lest this gift of God in me should be wasted through neglect I have sought to pluck threads and pieces from the garments of philosophy, and have introduced them into my afore-mentioned work (praefato opusculo), so that my own moderate knowledge may be enhanced by the addition of their greater worth, and God, who grants power, may be praised by so much the more as a woman's power is held to be inferior. This is the object of my writing, this alone the purpose of my exertions, for I do not conceal from myself that I am ignorant, and had it depended on myself alone, I should know nothing. But as you urge me on by the possibility of your approval and by your request proffered to me in writing, I now submit to your criticism this little work which I wrote with the intention of sending it to you but which I have hitherto kept concealed on account of its demerits, hoping you will study it with the intention of improving it as though it were your own work. And when you have altered it to a correct standard, send it back to me so that I may profit by your teaching in those points in which I may have largely failed.'

The productions of Hrotsvith in the domain of contemporary history consist of a poem on the emperor Otto the Great, and a history of the monastery of Gandersheim. The history of Otto is thought to have been over sixteen hundred lines in length, [37*] but only a fragment of about nine hundred lines is preserved. The nun received the materials for this history chiefly if not exclusively by word of mouth from the abbess Gerberg, whose family feeling it seems to reflect in various particulars, for among other distinctive traits, the quarrel between the father of Gerberg and his brother the emperor is passed over; it is rather a history of the members of the ruling family than a description of contemporary   [p. 183]   events.[38*] This detracts from its historic, though hardly from its poetical value, which is considerable. Some of the episodes, such as that of the imprisonment and flight of Queen Adelheid in Italy, are admirably told. Adelheid was the widow of the king of the Langobards, and was afterwards married to Otto I. Her flight and imprisonment in Italy previous to her second marriage are unrecorded except by Hrotsvith.

The last work of the nun was probably that on the foundation and early history of Gandersheim, in which, as in the history of Otto, Hrotsvith enlarges more on persons than on events, and gives a detailed account of Duke Liudolf, his wife and daughters. Many details referred to above, in our chapter on the early history of the settlement, are taken from this account, which is in many ways the most finished and beautiful of Hrotsvith's compositions.

The interest in Hrotsvith's writings lay dormant for several centuries. It was revived at the close of the 15th century when the learned abbot Tritheim wrote of her, and the poet Celtes caused her dramas to appear in print. During the last thirty years many writers have treated of her, an appreciative and attractive account of her was written by Köpke,[39*] and different views have been expressed as to her merits as a poet, a dramatist and a historian.[40*] Whatever place be ultimately assigned to Hrotsvith, the reader of her writings cannot fail to be attracted by her modesty, her perseverance, her loftiness of thought, and the directness of purpose which underlies all her work. She stands nearly alone in Saxony, and by her very solitariness increases our respect for her powers, and for the system of education which made the development of these powers possible.


[1*] Hrotsvith, Opera, edit. Barack, 1858; Ebert, Ad., Allgemeine Geschichte der Litterahr des Abendiandes, 1887, Vol 3, p. 285 ff.

[2*] Opera, edit. Barack, Einleitung, p. 6.

[3*] Piltz, O., Die Dramen der Roswitha, no date; Magnin, Theatre de Hrotsvitha, 1845.

[4*] Köpke, R., Deutschlands älteste Dichterin, 1869, p. 8.

[5*] Hrotsvith, Opera, edit. Barack, Einleitung, p. 54.

[6*] 'Maria,' Opera, p. 7.

[7*] Opera, edit. Barack, p. 2.

[8*] 'Ascensio Domini,' Opera, p. 37.

[9*] Opera, edit. Barack, Einleitung, p. 48.

[10*] 'Gongolf,' Opera, p. 43.

[11*] Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichteder Litteratur des Abendlandes, 1887, vol. 3, p. 290.

[12*] Pelagius,' Opera, p. 63.

[13*] Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Litteratur des Abendlandes,1887, vol. 3, p. 205.

[14*] 'Theophilus,' Opera, p. 79.

[15*] 'Proterius,' Opera, p. 97.

[16*] 'Dionysius,' Opera, p. 107.

[17*] Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Litteratur des Abendlandes, 1887, vol. 3, p. 300.

[18*] Agnes,Opera, p. 117.

[19*] Opera, p. 133.

[20*] Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Litteratur des Abendlandes, 1887, vol. 3, p. 301.

[21*] Opera, p. 95.

[22*] Opera, p. 137.

[23*] Hudson, W. H., 'Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim,' English Historical Review, 1888.

[24*] 'Gallicanus,' Opera, p. 143.

[25*] Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Litteratur des Abendlandes, 1887, vol. 3, p. 316.

[26*] 'Dulcetius,'` p. 174.

[27*] 'Calimachus,' Opera, p. 191.

[28*] Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Litteratur des Abendlandes, 1887, vol. 3, p. 321.

[29*] 'Abraham,' Opera, p. 213.

[30*] Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Litteratur des Abendlandes, 1887, vol. 3, p. 323.

[31*] 'Paphnutius,' Opera, p. 237.

[32*] Piltz, O., Dramen der Roswitha (no date), p. 178, refers to Boëthius, In Categorias Aristotelis, liber I, 'de substantia';' and to De musica, liber I.

[33*] The ancient course of university study included the seven 'liberal arts' and was divided into the Trivium including grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, and the Quadrivium including arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The Trivium was sometimes designated as logic and the Quadrivium as physic.

[34*] 'Sapientia,' Opera, p. 27.

[35*] Piltz, Die Dramen der Roszvitha, p. 181, refers to Boëthius, De Arithmetica, liher I, cc. 9--22.

[36*] 'whoo favoured and improved these works before they were sent forth,' additional words of some manuscripts; Opera, edit. Barak, p. 140 footnote.

[37*] Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Litteratur des Abendlandes, 1887, vol. 3, p. 305.

[38*] Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Litteratur des Abendlandes, 1887, vol. 3, p. 311.

[39*] Köpke, Die älteste deutsche Dichterin, 1869.

[40*] Comp. Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, article 'Roswitha.'

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