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Woodcut image of a kneeling female dressed in a monastic habit and presenting a book to a crowned old man with a large beard, who is sitting on a throne. Behind him stands a woman with a large crown, who holds a large staff (crozier) in her hand.
Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (ca. 935–ca. 975). Opera Hrosvite illustris virginis et monialis germane gente saxonica orte nuper a Conrado Celte inventa. Nuremberg: Sodalitas Celticae, 1501. Rosenwald 589. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The First Known Female Playwright

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The famous formula for a feudal society includes three orders: those who pray, those who work, and those who fight. The first recorded use of this idea is thought to have been a late ninth-century translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and it is still popular a millennium later. A more nuanced understanding of life in medieval Europe, however, becomes available with the introduction of another category: women.

The first known female playwright, Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, lived in Lower Saxony in the late tenth century, and she can be described well by none of the three orders listed above. Though she lived in a religious community, she was not a professed nun. Gandersheim Abbey was an imperial abbey of secular canonesses who were well-educated, wealthy, unmarried daughters of the Ottonian dynasty that came into power after the collapse of the Carolingian Empire. Members of the Ottonian nobility were able to maintain a certain amount of dynastic control by placing their dowered daughters in this religious sequestration that did not require the permanent profession of a monastic vocation.

An engraved image of a large church with two towers and a fence with other buildings.
Engraving of the later church at Gandersheim from Johann Georg Leuckfeld’s AntiquitatesGandersheimenses, Woldenbuttel, 1709. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/25004659.

As a consequence, Gandersheim Abbey flourished as a female cultural and political center. In 947 Emperor Otto I (r. 962–73) provided his niece, the Abbess Gerberga II, with an independent princedom distinct from royal control. Gandersheim was therefore able to hold its own court of law, keep its own military, mint its own coins, send its own political ambassadors, and answer directly to the papacy without local ecclesial interference. In this setting Hrotsvitha composed six plays, eight legends, and two historical epic poems all of which she wrote in Latin. Complaining that the poet Terence did not represent virtuous women in his plays, Hrotsvitha wrote corrective narratives with strong female leads, who often chose martyrdom instead of dishonor.

The oldest known and most complete manuscript of Hrotsvitha’s work is preserved in the Emmeram-Munich Codex (Clm 14485) that was discovered by the German humanist Conrad Celtes in 1493/1494 in the monastery library of Saint Emmeram at Regensburg. He edited and rearranged Hrotsvitha’s writings and published her first oeuvre in 1501. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division has a first issue of this printing in the Rosenwald Collection. The woodcut image below is one of two in this book by the artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). In this imagined scene, Hrotsvitha presents her literary work to the Emperor Otto I, while her teacher, the crowned Abbess Gerberga II, observes from her position of authority with her abbess’ staff (crosier) in her hand.

Woodcut image of a kneeling female dressed in a monastic habit and presenting a book to a crowned old man with a large beard, who is sitting on a throne. Behind him stands a woman with a large crown, who holds a large staff (crozier) in her hand.
Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (ca. 935–ca. 975). Opera Hrosvite illustris virginis et monialis germane gente saxonica orte nuper a Conrado Celte inventa. Nuremberg: Sodalitas Celticae, 1501. Rosenwald 589. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/65059119

The discovery of Hrosvitha’s writing was celebrated in the spirit of Renaissance humanism and monumentalized in the 1501 printing as the discovery of the earliest-known German poet. In the dedication, Hrosvitha is called the eleventh muse, and she is compared to the ancient Greek poet Sappho, the earliest known female poet whom Plato famously named the tenth muse. Written for the humanist audience of the early sixteenth century, the prefatory material conveys more about the literary and patriotic interests of the German humanist movement at that time than it does about the singularity of Hrosvitha’s work in her own period. 

Inspired by Terence and other classical authors, Hrosvitha—the first post-classical playwright of any gender—wrote from within and for her community at Gandersheim, crafting sophisticated literary works for an audience of woman. Subverting rhetorical motifs of weakness and strength, Hrosvitha used the depth of her training in classical literature as well as her monastic context to create plays reimagining the acceptability of the violence and brutality toward women that permeated many of her source texts. The 1501 printing of Hrosvitha’s works is a multilayered study of textual interpretation that challenges its readers to question broader historical narratives and delve into particulars. 

 

RESOURCES

Epistolæ: Medieval Women’s Letters. https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/

Hrotsvitha’s Poems in the World Digital Library. https://www.loc.gov/item/2021667975

“Gandersheim” in Monastic Matrix. https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/monasticmatrix/monasticon/gandersheim

Library of Congress Authorities. https://lccn.loc.gov/n79122347

Virtual International Authority File (VIAF). http://viaf.org/viaf/9927322

 

FURTHER READING

Brown, Phyllis R., Linda A. McMillin, and Katharina M. Wilson, eds. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Contexts, Identities, Affinities, and Performances. University of Toronto Press, 2004. https://lccn.loc.gov/2004295371

Boethius. The Old English Boethius. Edited and translated by Susan Irvine and Malcolm Godden. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, c2012. https://lccn.loc.gov/2012008658

Butler, Mary Marguerite. Hrotsvitha: The Theatricality of her Plays. New York, Philosophical Library [1960]. https://lccn.loc.gov/60013637

Carlson, Marla. “Impassive Bodies: Hrotsvit Stages Martyrdom.” Theatre Journal 50, no. 4 (1998): 473–87. https://lccn.loc.gov/79643622

Case, Sue-Ellen. “Re-Viewing Hrotsvit.” Theatre Journal 35, no. 4 (1983): 533–42. https://lccn.loc.gov/79643622

Cohen, Adam S., and Anne Derbes. “Bernward and Eve at Hildesheim.” Gesta 40, no. 1 (2001): 19–38. https://eresources.loc.gov/record=b1094172~S2

Hrotsvit of Gandersheim : A Florilegium of her Works. Translated with introduction, interpretative essay and notes by Katharina M. Wilson. Woodbridge, Suffolk ; Rochester, NY : D.S. Brewer, 1998. https://lccn.loc.gov/97051129

Hrotsvit Opera Omnia. Edited by Walter Berschin. Monachii : Saur, 2001. https://lccn.loc.gov/2001350703

Payne, F. Anne. King Alfred & Boethius : an Analysis of the Old English Version of the Consolation of Philosophy. Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. https://lccn.loc.gov/68009834

Powell, Timothy E. “The ‘Three Orders’ of Society in Anglo-Saxon England.” Anglo-Saxon England 23 (1994): 103–32. https://eresources.loc.gov/record=b1177025~S2

Stevenson, Jane. Women Latin Poets : Language, Gender, and Authority, From antiquity to the Eighteenth Century. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2005. https://lccn.loc.gov/2004029384

Wailes, Stephen L.. “Beyond Virginity: Flesh and Spirit in the Plays of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim.” Speculum 76, no. 1 (2001): 1–27. https://lccn.loc.gov/27015446

Wiethaus, Ulrike. “Body and Empire in the Works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34, no. 1 (2004): 41-63. https://lccn.loc.gov/96660068

Women and Gender in Medieval Europe : An Encyclopedia. Edited by Margaret Schaus. New York : Routledge, c2006. https://lccn.loc.gov/2006048638

Zophy, Jonathan W.. An Annotated Bibliography of the Holy Roman Empire. New York : Greenwood Press, 1986. https://lccn.loc.gov/85030210 

 

 

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