Hrotsvitha: Secular canoness, dramatist, and poet | Biography, Facts, Information, Career, Wiki, Life
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Secular canoness, dramatist, and poet


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Intro Secular canoness, dramatist, and poet
Is Writer Playwright Poet Biographer
From Germany
Field Film, TV, Stage & Radio Literature Science
Gender female
Death Bad Gandersheim
The details (from wikipedia)


Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (Latin: Hrotsvitha Gandeshemensis; c. 935 – after 973) was a 10th-century German secular canoness, dramatist and poet who lived at Gandersheim Abbey (in modern-day Bad Gandersheim, Lower Saxony), established by the Ottonian dynasty. She wrote in Latin, and is considered by some to be the first person since antiquity to compose drama in the Latin West. She has been called "the most remarkable woman of her time".
Hrotsvitha's name appears variously in the forms Hrosvite, Hroswitha, Hroswithe, Rhotswitha, Roswit and is modernized as Roswitha but the proper pronunciation is Hrotsuit. The name is Old Saxon for "strong honour", which she rather adventurously re-interpreted to mean "a clarion voice".

Life and background

Gandersheim abbey church

Hrotsvitha's family lineage, at what time she entered the nunnery, and what reasons led her to take the veil are unknown. There is no direct evidence concerning the dates of her birth, consecration, and death. Hrotsvitha’s biography largely depends on her own accounts or results of inferential reasoning. For instance, in her historical poem, “Carmen de Primordiis Coenobii Gandersheimensis”, she tells us that she entered the world a long while after the death of Saxon duke Otto the Illustrious (the father of King Henry the Fowler), which occurred in 912.

From the overall disposition of her works, scholars are sure she lived at Gandersheim, and they infer that she was born into the Saxon nobility. Due to the depth of her point of view in her writings, it is widely believed that she took the veil later in life. Some scholars also infer that she may have personal experience with the love and renunciation that permeates her work.

She studied under Rikkardis and Gerberga, a daughter of Duke Henry I of Bavaria and niece of Emperor Otto the Great (912–973), who became Abbess of Gandersheim in 956. Hrotsvitha was noted for her great learning and was introduced to Roman writers by Gerberga. Hrotsvitha's work shows familiarity not only with the Church fathers, but also with classical poets, including Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Plautus and Terence (on whom her own verse was modeled). Several of her plays draw on the so-called apocryphal gospels. Her works form part of the Ottonian Renaissance.

Under Gerberga's leadership, the Ottonian house monastery of Gandersheim rivalled with the abbeys of Quedlinburg and Memleben for the favour of the emperor. Otto penned a history that became one of Hrotsvitha's poetical subjects, in her Carmen de Gestis Oddonis Imperatoris ("Deeds of Emperor Otto"), which encompasses the period up to his coronation in 962. Hrotsvitha believed that Otto's affinity for Italy arose from romances set there similar to the story of Jaufre Rudel, when pilgrims returned commending the troubled fate of Queen Adelaide.


Roswitha of Gandersheim

Scholars have questioned the authenticity of Hrotsvitha's works. Extensive studies attempting to detect the presence or lack of discrepancies or patterns among them can provide evidence of their authenticity. Thus, analysis of Hrotsvitha's works are important to the discussion of what influence Hrotsvitha, especially as a woman, and her writing may have actually had on society at that time.

Hrosvitha divided her work into three books:

A. Liber Primus

1. Prose introduction
2. Verse dedication to the Abbess Gerberg
3. Eight legends
a. Maria
b. Ascensio
c. Gongolfus
d. Pelagius
e. Theophilus (a "deal with the Devil" legend)
f. Basilius
g. Dionysius
h. Agnes
4. Prose conclusion

B. Liber Secundus

1. Prose introduction
2. Epistola eiusdem ad quosdam sapientes huius libri fautores
3. Six dramas
a. Gallicanus
b. Dulcitius
c. Calimachus
d. Abraham
e. Pafnutius
f. Sapientia
4. Poem on a Vision of St. John (35 lines). Another briefer poem in the Codex is not by Hrotsvitha

C. Liber Tertius

1. Prose introduction
2. Verse dedications to Otto I and Otto II
3. Gesta Oddonis
4. Verse introduction
5. Primordia Coenobii Gandeshemensis

Hrothsvitha's works fell under the categories of legends, comedies, and plays. Cardinal Gasquet said her works have "a claim to an eminent place in medieval literature, and do honor to her sex, to the age in which she lived, and to the vocation which she followed."


The Book of Legends is a collection of eight legends, all of which are written in Leonine hexameter—with the exception of Gongolph, which was written in rhymed distichs. Hrotsvitha penned a number of legends in verse, including those of Gongolfus and Theophilus, and it is evident that there is a theme of religion throughout and within this book. The fifth and sixth legends, "Theophilus" and "Basilius", are both based on Latin translations of the vitae of Greek saints. The legends speak about the Faustian tradition in the West, in which sinners sell their souls to Satan.

The story of Theophilus was one of the most popular written in any language. It describes how the young and ambitious archdeacon Theophilus, raised by his uncle in sixth century Antioch, is overcome by disappointment about his lack of promotion in the church. He consults a Jewish sorcerer and is taken to a meeting of devils. Theophilus renounces God in a written document and joins hands with Satan. He gains a position of high influence, and is happy with his power until he begins to repent the sin he has committed. Theophilus requests help from the Virgin Mary in order to reverse his contract with the devil, and ultimately the good trumps the evil, and the contract is terminated. Hrotsvitha supplements the story with her description of Theophilus in The Seven Arts:- De sophiae rivis septeno fonte manantis.

A common theme throughout this legend, which is also applicable to some of the other legends, is the presence of the devil and the constant battle between good and evil. Theophilus's choice to side with the devil but then turn against him is a primary example of this in the text- the good always win. The devil is a common presence in many of Hrosvitha's works, and she characterizes him according to the conventions of her time. Even when the devil himself is not present, she often incorporates his sinful characteristics into another character in the work.

Another example from the Book of Legends is the legend of Basilius. Basilius, a fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, exuded the traits of goodness and the power of Christ on earth by defeating Satan in a physical and verbal struggle for the soul of a servant who had fallen in love with his master’s daughter. Satan causes the couple to “burn in mad desire” in order to turn Christians away from Christ. This man renounces Christ in return for marriage to the daughter. This legend sums up all of the religious themes present in the previous examples mentioned. It includes a battle between good and evil or Christ and Satan, in which she illustrates the powers of Satan to be similar to if not equal to those of Christ in causing a person to do evil, whereas Christ would have them doing good.

In her seventh and eighth poems, "Dionysius" and "St. Agnes", Hrotsvitha recounts the martyrdoms of early Christians. These are only a few examples from the Book of Legends; in the other poems she expresses similar themes of martyrdom, religion and spirituality.


The most well known and original of the works of Hrotsvitha is her imitation of Terence. It was written in prose as six comedies. She writes in her preface that her writing will appeal to many who are attracted by the charm of style.

The comedies of Hrotsvitha took the place of Terence in the studies of Gandersheim. Her themes remained love stories. Among them include Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Callimachus, Abraham, Paphnutius, and Sapientia. The reader will note Dulcitius being stricken with illusion, embracing the pots and kettles in the kitchen. In the meantime three lovely maidens, Agape, Chionia, and Hirena, are rescued from his villainy. Dulcitius is the only one of Hrotsvitha's comedies that could really fit the modern sense of the word.

Plays and Drama

In general, Hrosvitha's plays were works of hagiography. Her plays contrast the chastity and perseverance of Christian women with Latin women who are portrayed as weak and emotional. Her Passio Sancti Pelagii is derived, she says, from an eyewitness to the martyrdom of Pelagius of Cordova.

The Book of Drama presents a Roman Catholic alternative to Terence. These are the six plays, that are not so much drama as "dialogues", and are a medieval example of closet drama.

One of the biggest debates over Hrosvitha's plays is over whether they were ever performed while she was alive. However, they are known to have been performed many times since her death, the earliest confirmation of which was in Paris in 1888.

One of Hrotsvitha's most well known plays was Gallicanus. It was also the first drama she wrote and, like another of her dramas, Calimachus, focuses on the theme of conversion. The central woman in the story is the Emperor Constantine's daughter, Constance. Constance is a consecrated Virgin, while Gallicanus is the Commander-in-Chief of Constantine's army. When Gallicanus tells Constantine that he wants to marry his daughter, Constantine goes to Constance and tells her of Gallicanus' wishes. But Constance is strong in her convictions of chastity, and Constantine supports his daughter's wishes.

Constance has a plan for her father to avoid her having to marry Gallicanus, which he happily goes along with. The conversion part comes in when they plan to have Gallicanus convert to Christianity. Constance's Grand Almoners, John and Paul, see to it that Gallicanus wants to convert when he thinks he might lose a battle, and after his victory Gallicanus has himself baptized and takes a vow of celibacy. Likewise, he informs Constantine that he can no longer marry his daughter, like Constance had planned. Constance is portrayed as an intelligent girl who has dedication and a vow of chastity, a common theme in Hrotsvitha's plays. Her faith is emphasized, as is her perseverance.

Gallicanus is comparable to one of Hrosvitha's eight legends, Agnes. Both highlight the preservation of the main female's virginity and her faithfulness to God, even though the marriage she is being offered is an honorable one. Both also deal with conversion in a very similar way, with the man seeking to marry her eventually converting himself and becoming a follower of Christ. In all of Hrovitha's works that include the preserving of one's virginity, there seems to be a pattern of it being only a female virtue.

Other Works

The third book comprised two historical writings in Latin hexameters: the Gesta Ottonis (a history of the Ottonian houses 919–65) and the Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis (a history of her order from 846–919).

The most important manuscript of her works, containing all the texts other than Primordia, is the Codex Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) Clm 14485, a manuscript written by several, different hands in Gandersehim toward the end of the 10th or start of the 11th centuries. It was discovered by the humanist Conrad Celtis in 1493/94 in the Cloister of St. Emmeram in Regensburg and formed the first edition (illustrated by Albrecht Dürer).

Lasting legacy


As the earliest known woman writer in the German lands, Hrotsvitha was strongly aware that her gender made her less likely to be taken seriously in her contemporary society, and she used a number of strategies to counter this. Generally, she accepts the view of her time that women are less suited to writing than men - it would be several centuries before female writers would seriously attempt to argue otherwise - but argues that she is a divinely inspired exception. God has given her a perspicax ingenium - a perceptive intellect, and her (cheekily misleading) etymologizing of her own name is used to back this up. She said she “put womanly weakness aside and summoned manly strength to her prudent heart.” She did not want to be discredited by people because she was a woman, and she said she had the strength of a man within her heart. In the prologue to The Book Of Legends, Hrotsvitha says that “Scorn he should not render at the writer’s weaker gender/ Who these small lines had sung with a woman’s untutored tongue/ But rather should he praise the Lord’s celestial grace”. However, despite her role as a “clarion voice,” Hrotsvit still felt compelled to submit her works “to the examination of learned clerks” for approval, invoking a "testimony of three... to constitute truth." This mitigates her assertions of herself as a woman poet - as well as the influence of God in her work - considering that she still drew her authority from the male hierarchical power of the time.

Modern perceptions of Hrotsvitha

Since Hrotsvitha's writings were rediscovered and published by the Renaissance humanist Conrad Celtes (1459–1508), her historical picture, as well as her image as a woman depended on contemporary interpretation. Celtes portrayed her as an icon of humanist values and educational ideals, emphasizing her alleged knowledge of the Ancient Greek language and comprehensive quadrivium education by largely ignoring her religiousness.

Texts and Translations

  • Winterfeld, Paul von (ed.) (1902) Hrotsvithae opera. (Monumenta Germaniae Historica; SS. rer. Germanicarum) Available from Digital MGH online.
  • Strecker, Karl (ed.) (1902) Hrotsvithae opera.
  • Berschin, Walter (ed.). Hrotsvit: Opera Omnia. Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana. Munich/Leipzig, 2001. ISBN 3-598-71912-4
  • Pelagius in Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda, ed. (1986) Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, pp 114–24. ISBN 0-19-503712-X
  • Abraham in Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda, ed. (1986) Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, pp 124–35. ISBN 0-19-503712-X
  • Hrotsvit von Gandersheim, Sämtliche Dichtungen; aus dem Mittellateinischen übertragen von Otto Baumhauer, Jacob Bendixen und Theodor Gottfried Pfund; mit einer Einführung von Berg Nagel. München: Winkler, 1966.
  • Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim. Munich, 1973 (German translations by H. Hohmeyer).
  • Hrotsvitha Gandeshemensis, Gesta Ottonis Imperatoris. Lotte, drammi e trionfi nel destino di un imperatore. A cura di Maria Pasqualina Pillolla, Firenze, SISMEL Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2003
  • The Plays of Hrotswitha of Gandersheim: bilingual edition / translated by Larissa Bonfante; edited by Robert Chipok. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2013. [Latin and English on facing pages.] ISBN 978-0-86516-783-4
  • Roswitha of Gandersheim. The Plays of Roswitha. Trans. Christopher St. John. London: Chatto, 1923. ISBN 978-1296739898.

Contemporary references

Hrotsvitha fountain, Gandersheim

Since 1973 Bad Gandersheim has annually awarded the Roswitha Prize, named for Hrosvitha, to female writers; since 1974 the Roswitha Ring has been awarded at the close of each summer season of the Gandersheimer Domfestspiele to the outstanding actress.

The artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Hrosvitha.

In 2006, American feminist drama group Guerrilla Girls On Tour issued the "First Annual Hrosvitha Challenge" on their website, announcing that they would bestow the First Annual Hrosvitha Award on whichever professional theater decides "to scrap their plans of producing yet another production of a Greek tragedy and instead produce a play by Hrosvitha, the first female playwright".

Hrotsvitha is frequently referred to in John Kennedy Toole's comic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces, in which she is called Hroswitha.

Asteroid 615 Roswitha is named in her honour.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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