Hrotsvit of Gandersheim and Her Christian Plays

Hrotsvit lived at the time when the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (912-973) aspired to bring about a cultural renaissance in Saxony.

Of all the ancient writers, she particularly liked Terence. She loved his wit and eloquent style, but had some problems with his overall message. Christianity had drastically changed the world by restoring dignity to all human beings as made in the image of God, and by emphasizing humility, compassion, and self-sacrifice. Why couldn’t there be some equally stirring plays, written from a Christian perspective? she wondered. 

 

Anyone who is familiar with the works of the Roman playwright Terence (185-159 BC) knows that they are an interesting depiction of the realities of his day. They are comedies, and generally end with a marriage or reconciliation. They could easily find their way into our movie theaters, if some of their ethics didn’t rub against the grain of most viewers – even in our permissive society.

In one of his plays (Hècyra), for example, a woman gives birth to a baby she believes to be a fruit of rape. In the end, they discover the rapist was really her husband who, in the dark of the night, had assaulted a young lady he could not clearly see. The proof was a ring he had taken from her, which turned out to belong to his wife.

This was, for Terence and his viewers, a happy ending. All was well, everyone was reconciled, and life went on. Other plays have similar plots, often involving rape, and similar conclusions.

If we see a problem with these happy endings, we are not alone. So did Hrotsvit (935-1002), a canoness at the abbey in Gandersheim, in the German region of Saxony.

An Ambitious Project

Hrotsvit lived at the time when the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (912-973) aspired to bring about a cultural renaissance in Saxony, similar to what Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) had produced a century earlier in Aachen (on today’s border between Germany and Belgium). Most likely, she was a member of a noble family and had begun her life at court. Because of this, she was acquainted with the classics and had learned to appreciate their literary value.

A canoness could live in a convent or abbey without taking the same vows as nuns. This allowed her to travel freely, receive visitors, own property, keep servants, buy books, and – if desired – permanently leave the convent.

Gandersheim was an exclusive abbey – a community of noble women run by Gerberga II (c. 940–1001), the emperor’s niece. There, Hrotsvit was able to continue her education and cultivate her passion for literature and writing.

Of all the ancient writers, she particularly liked Terence. She loved his wit and eloquent style, but had some problems with his overall message. Christianity had drastically changed the world by restoring dignity to all human beings as made in the image of God, and by emphasizing humility, compassion, and self-sacrifice.

Why couldn’t there be some equally stirring plays, written from a Christian perspective? she wondered. As many authors do when they wish for a book that is nowhere in print, she decided to write her own.

The very idea was revolutionary and ambitious. No one had written a play in centuries, and no woman in known history had ever embraced that genre.

She sent her work to some scholars to review and correct, and to Gerberga for approval. She explained the source of her stories: mostly ancient accounts, except for the story of a Spanish martyr named Pelagius (not to be confused with Augustine’s theological opponent), which she had heard from an eyewitness.

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