Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hrotsvita of Gandersheim, a "Strong Voice" in the Tenth Century

Hrotsvita of Gandersheim (23 November 912)


First, an explanation of why I am posting today about Hrotsvita and the relevance of 23 November 912.

We don't actually know the birth and death dates for Hrotsvita (or Hrotsvit, Hrotsvitha, or Roswit, among other variant spellings). She may have been born about 935 and she may have died about 975 or as late as 1002. But we do know that she was a canoness at the imperial abbey of Gandersheim and among her works is a life of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, "Otto the Great," who was born on 23 November 912. So there you go.

In his 1501 woodcut, 
Albrecht Dürer imagines Hrostvita,
on her knees, presenting her story 
of his life to the emperor, Otto, with
Abbess Gerberga looking on
We have no real evidence about Hrotsvit's family, although, given her place in Gandersheim, an important imperial family institution, she is likely to have been a member of a noble Saxon family. As her editor Katharina Wilson notes, "only daughters of the aristocracy were admitted to Gandersheim." 

The abbey became an extraordinary center for learning; in Wilson's words, it was "an oasis of intellectual and spiritual activity." It was also something of the all-female space we have seen before, a kind of "city of ladies": Gandersheim was a "free abbey," one in which Otto I "gave the abbess the authority to have her own court of law, keep her own army, coin her own money, and hold a seat in the Imperial Diet." 

In this remarkable setting, Hrotsvita received the kind of education, freedom, and support to produce a body of work, all of it composed in Latin: eight verse legends, six plays, and two epic poems. Several of her letters also survive.  

Hrotsvita organized her work into three books. The first contained her legends, prefaced by an introduction and dedication to her abbess, Gerberga. 

The second book contains the works for which Hrotsvita is best known today, her six comedies modeled on those of the Roman writer Terence. When I studied literature as an undergraduate and graduate, the "history" of drama that I was taught repeated the same story--classical drama was "lost" during the Middle Ages and not recovered until it was "reborn" in the Renaissance.

But Hrotsvita is the exception--not only was classical drama not lost, but here was a writer--a woman writer--composing original plays, based on the model of Terence, in the tenth century. 

The third book contains her two epic poems, the Carmen de gestis Oddonis imperatoris (Poem of the Deeds of the Emperor Otto) and De primordiis et fundatoribus coenobii Gandersheimensis (History of the Foundation of the Community of Gandersheim). There is also a shorter poem on the Apocalypse of St. John in this third book.

Here is the opening of her "Preface to the Legends":
I offer this little book,
small in stylistic merits, but not small in the efforts it took
to the good will of the wise
for correction and advice
at least to those who don't enjoy to rail
against authors who fail
but, rather, prefer to correct the work's flaws. . . .
However difficult and arduous and complex
metrical composition may appear for the fragile female sex,
I, persisting
with no one assisting
still put together my poems in this little work
not relying on my own powers and talents as a clerk
but always trusting in heavenly grace's aid
for which I prayed. . . . 
There are several excellent critical studies of Hrotsvita, but I recommend starting with her work, available in Wilson's Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: A Florilegium of Her Works.

Oh! One more thing--when Hrotsvita's works were discovered in 1494 and then published in Nuremberg in 1501 (the first edition contained several woodcuts, including the one by Dürer, above), she was praised as, you guessed it, a "tenth muse" and as a Christian Sappho. Sheesh.