Spotlight on Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim

Who is she?
Hrosvitha (AKA Rosvita, Hrotsvit, Hroswitha, Roswitha, Hrotsuit plus many other variations) was a canoness* from Germany who lived in the mid to late tenth century. We don’t know her exact date of birth or death, but she was most active around the 960s to 970s. As her name implies, Hrotsvitha lived at Gandersheim, a monastic foundation for women in Saxony. Gandersheim had links to the Ottonian family through its abbess Gerberga, who was the niece of Emperor Otto I. While we know nothing about Hrotsvitha’s family, she was most likely to have been of high birth, as women in houses of canonesses like Gandersheim were usually drawn from noble families. It has been suggested that she was distantly related to the Ottonians themselves, although there’s no direct proof of this. We do know from Hrotsvitha herself that she studied under another woman at Gandersheim, Richardis, and she says that she also received instruction from Gerberga (who was likely only in her mid to late teens when she became abbess). Hrotsvitha, punning on the Old Saxon meaning of her name, also called herself “The Strong Voice of Gandersheim”.

What’s she famous for?
Her writing! A prolific author, Hrotsvitha is the first known female poet since Sappho and first known female dramatist. Not only did she write hagiographical lives of saints, an appropriate topic for a monastic woman, she also famously adapted the bawdy comedies of Terence for a Christian audience so that ‘in that selfsame form of composition in which the shameless acts of lascivious women were phrased/ the laudable chastity of sacred virgins be praised’. Some highlights include a nobleman who, while trying to seduce some holy virgins, was tricked into fondling dirty pots and pans instead while the women look on and laugh; and a young man who is so intent on sleeping with a married Christian woman that he dies while trying to enter her tomb and satisfy his lust through necrophilia. The miraculous revivification of the pair was shortly followed by the furious man asking to die again when he realised that the object of his lust still wouldn’t have sex with him.

Hrotsvitha is also one of the most important sources we have for the history of the early Ottonian family. She wrote the Gesta Ottonis (The Deeds of Otto) which not only outlined the actions of the emperor, but also included plenty of detail about the other members in his family, including his second wife Adelheid and her spectacular escape from imprisonment by Berengar II of Italy by tunnelling out of prison and hiding in a field of wheat. Her Primordia (The Origins of the Convent of Gandersheim) also includes some of the most detailed depictions of the earliest members of the Ottonian family before they had seized the throne.

Oh, and she also has an asteroid named after her as well.

*Canonesses were women who chose to live a religious life in a monastic institution, but had more freedom than nuns living according to the strict Benedictine rule. They were allowed to live in separate dwellings within the monastery, to have servants, to own their own property and keep the profits from it, to eat meat and any other foods they liked, and they could wear more elaborate clothes.

Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer of Hrotsvitha presenting Otto I with her book while Abbess Gerberga looks on (in a rather splendid tiara). From Roswitha editio princeps 1501 Phantasiedarstellung

English translations of Hrotsvitha’s works
– ‘Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, The Establishment of the Monastery of Gandersheim, originally translated by Mary Bernadine Bergman’ in Thomas Head, ed., Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, New York, 2001, 236-254.
– Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: A Florilegium of Her Works, ed. Katharina Wilson, Cambridge, 1998.
– The Plays of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, ed., Katharina Wilson, New York, 1998.
– Hrosvithae Liber Tertius: A Text with Translation, Introduction and Commentary, ed., Mary Bernadine Bergman, Covington, 1943.

Want to know more?
– Phyllis R. Brown and Stephen L. Wailes, eds, A Companion to Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (fl. 960): Contextual and Interpretative Approaches, Leiden, 2013.
– Stephen L. Wailes, Spirituality and Politics in the Works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, 2006.
– Phyllis R. Brown, Katharina M. Wilson, Linda A. McMillin, eds, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Contexts, Identities, Affinities, and Performances, Toronto 2004.
– Peter Dronke, ‘Hrosvitha’ in Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (203) to Marguerite Porete (1310). Cambridge, 1984, 55-83.

Photo of 1962 memorial to Hrotsvitha at Gandersheim. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of 1962 memorial to Hrotsvitha at Gandersheim. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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