In 1493 while researching in the library of the monastery at St. Emmaram, German humanist Conrad Celtis made an extraordinary discovery. He found an incomplete manuscript of a previously unknown 10th century German, female author – Hrotsvit, a name that aptly translates to “strong voice.”
He published her works in 1501 in what is called the Emmaram-Munich Codex and faced a firestorm of criticism: the work was far more advanced than other works from the 10th century. How could this be the work of a woman’s hand? It was obviously a fraud! Celtis was suspected of forgery.
However, in 1902, another scholar found and published another manuscript also from Hrotsvit. After that, other fragments of her writing came to light. In total, Hrotsvit (also known as Hrosvitha, Hroswitha, Roswitha and Hrotsuit) is credited with eight narrative poems, six plays and two historical works. She is now lauded as the first known Christian dramatist, the first Saxon poet, and the first female historian in Germany.
But who is she and why did it take ten centuries for her story to finally see the light of day?
Believed to have been born into an aristocratic family, Hrotsvit entered the Benedictine abbey at Gandersheim in South Germany in 949 after spending her childhood in the Ottonian court. As a secular canoness, Hrotsvit would have enjoyed many more freedoms than cloistered nuns. Canonesses did not take a vow of poverty and could retain property, could come and go as they pleased, and maintained a position within their prominent families. The daughters of nobility came to the Abbey at Gandersheim for more than religious devotion; they came for an outstanding education.
The Abbey at Gandersheim was the epicenter of learning in the region and its library housed an impressive collection of philosophical, theological and secular texts including classical Greek and Roman manuscripts. Hrotsvit would have had access to the same books as the male religious clerics also studying at the abbey. In evaluating her writings, historians have determined that she was well versed in classical poets like Ovid, Terrance, Virgil as well as with philosophers like Augustine and Boethius.
Her writing is unquestionably religious and hagiographic; the theme of purity and virtue versus wickedness and evil permeates all of her dramas, but she is also gifted with wit and many historians conclude that she was influenced by the Roman comedian Terrance. But, her ability to subvert gender dynamics emphasizing feminine strength is entirely her own.
The discovery of Hrotsvit’s dramatic works disrupted the prevailing narrative of medieval theatre history. It had been commonly believed that between the seventh to thirteenth centuries, theatrical activity was essentially outlawed by the Roman Catholic Church, but it ironically was reborn in the church as a way to embellish the mass. Very slowly over hundreds of years, church leaders added more elements of theatre back into mass until the creation of Miracle and Mystery plays were developed as a way to dramatize the life of a saint, a bible story, and a religious idea. These dramas reached their height in popularity in the 15th century — this is when Hrotsvit’s works were first discovered, but not when she lived and wrote.
One of Hrotsvit’s dramas — Dulcitius — fits under the definition of a Miracle play as it dramatizes the Martyrdom of Agape, Chionia and Hirena (Love, Purity and Peace) of Thessalonica in 290. In the play, the three virgins face and refuse male authority represented by three male characters: Diocletian, Dulcitious and Sissinus (Lust, Arrogance and Cruelty). The play begins with the girls refusing an order from Diocletian; he wants them to marry men he has selected for them, and they resolutely refuse insisting they are already married to Jesus Christ, and so they are locked up. Later, Dulcitious, comes to rape them for their insolence, but instead of women, he finds himself embracing pots and pans. Furious that the virgins used witchcraft to trick and humiliated him, he orders that they be stripped of their clothes and paraded around town. Diocletian angrily adds that they should be burnt at the stake for making a mockery of not just Dulcitious but also the gods they worship. Agape and Chionia are set on fire, but a miracle occurs and the flames do no harm whatsoever to their bodies. This enrages the men even more and Sissinus sets his vengeance on Hirena. He orders her to a brothel so that her body “will be shamefully defiled” (line 168). However, Hirena is swept away by the divine to the top of a mountain where she proclaims that Sissinus “shall be damned in Tartarus for your cruelty” (line 235).
This brief drama (only 238 lines) may have been meant simply to illustrate Christian salvation and pagan damnation, but the modern reader cannot help but see the tenacity and strength of these women who demand control of their lives and bodies. They are not depicted as the weaker sex, the typical stereotype in other works of the medieval era and previous eras. Instead Agape, Chionia and Hirena actively defy, argue and act with a calm dignity and clarity that is in sharp contrast to the men in the play, whose anger escalates to excessive violence when they do not get what they want.
It is not known if this play was ever performed during Hrotsvit’s life. Given the church’s views on theatrical activity during this time, it was probably only read with the other canoness of the abbey before it was lost for five-hundred years. Though her words were thought to be too erudite and clever for her time and place and therefore rejected, today we know the truth, and Hrotsvit’s strong voice in poetry, history and drama is finally celebrated.