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Hrosvitha

HrosvithaBorn: c. 935 AD
Died: c. 1000 AD
Location of death: Gandersheim, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Female
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Playwright, Historian, Poet

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Female medieval dramatist

Hrosvitha, frequently Roswitha, properly Hrotsuit), early medieval dramatist and chronicler, occupies a very notable position in the history of modern European literature. Her endeavors formed part of the literary activity by which the age of the emperor Otto the Great sought to emulate that of Charles the Great. The famous nun of Gandersheim has occasionally been confounded with her namesake, a learned abbess of the same convent, who must have died at least half a century earlier. The younger Hrosvitha was born in all probability about the year 935; and, if the statement be correct that she sang the praises of the three Ottos, she must have lived to near the close of tht century. Sometime before the year 959 she entered the Benedictine nunnery of Gandersheim, a foundation which was confined to ladies of German birth, and was highly favored by the Saxon dynasty. In 959 Gerberga, daughter of Duke Henry of Bavaria and niece of the emperor Otto I, was consecrated abbess of Gandersheim; and the earlier literary efforts of the youthful Hrosvitha (whose own connection with the royal family appears to be an unauthenticated tradition) were encouraged by the still more youthful abbess, and by a nun of the name of Richarda.

The literary works of Hrosvitha, all of which were as a matter of course in Latin, divide themselves into three groups. Of these the first and least important comprises eight narrative religious poems, in leonine hexameters or distichs. Their subjects are the Nativity of the Virgin (from the apocryphal gospel of St. James, the brother of our Lord), the Ascension and a series of legends of saints (Gandolph, Pelagius, Theophilus, Basil, Denis, Agnes). Like these narrative poems, the dramas to which above all Hrosvitha owes her fame seem to have been designed for reading aloud or recitation by sisters of the convent. For though there are indications that the idea of their representation was at least present in her mind, the fact of such a representation appears to be an unwarrantable assumption. The comedies of Hrosvitha are six in number, being doubtless in this respect also intended to recall their nominal model, the comedies of Terence. They were devised on the simple principle that the world, the flesh and the devil should not have all the good plays to themselves. The experiment upon which the young Christian dramatist ventured was accordingly, although not absolutely novel, audacious enough. In form the dramas of "the strong voice of Gandersheim", as Hrosvitha (possibly alluding to a supposed etymology of her name) calls herself, are by no means Terentian. They are written in prose, with an element of something like rhythm, and an occasional admixture of rhyme. In their themes, and in the treatment of these, they are what they were intended to be, the direct opposites of the lightsome adapter of Menander. They are founded upon legends of the saints, selected with a view to a glorification of religion in its supremest efforts and most transcendental aspects. The emperor Constantine's daughter, for example, Constantia, gives her hand in marriage to Gallicanus, just before he starts on a Scythian campaign, though she has already taken a vow of perpetual maidenhood. In the hour of battle he is himself converted, and, having on his return like his virgin bride chosen the more blessed unmarried state, dies as a Christian martyr in exile. The three holy maidens, Agape, Chionia and Irene, are preserved by a humorous miracle from the evil designs of Dulcitius, to offer up their pure lives as a sacrifice under Diocletian's persecutions. Callimachus, who has Romeo-like carried his earthly passion for the saintly Drusiana into her tomb, and among its horrors has met with his own death, is by the mediation of St. John raised with her from the dead to a Christian life. All these themes are treated with both spirit and skill, often with instinctive knowledge of dramatic effect -- often with genuine touches of pathos and undeniable felicities of expression. In Dulcitius there is also an element of comedy, or rather of farce. How far Hrosvitha's comedies were an isolated phenomenon of their age in Germany must remain undecided; in the general history of the drama they form the visible bridge between the few earlier attempts at utilizing the forms of the classical drama for Christian purposes and the miracle plays. They are in any case the productions of genius; nor has Hrosvitha missed the usual tribute of the supposition that Shakespeare has borrowed from her writings.

The third and last group of the writings of Hrosvitha is that of her versified historical chronicles. At the request of the abbess Gerberga, she composed her Carmen de gestis Oddonis, an epic attempting in some degree to follow the great Roman model. It was completed by the year 968, and presented by the author to both the old emperor and his son (then already crowned as) Otto II. This poem so closely adheres to the materials supplied to the author by members of the imperial family that, notwithstanding its courtly omissions, it is regarded as a historical authority. Unfortunately only half of it remains; the part treating of the period from 953 to 962 is lost with the exception of a few fragments, and the period from 962 to 967 is summarized only. Subsequently, in a poem (of 837 hexameters) De primordiis et fundatoribus coenobii Gandersheimensis, Hrosvitha narrated the beginnings of her own convent, and its history up to the year 919.



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