Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim

The cover of the Standard Ebooks edition of Plays by Roswitha of Gandersheim

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim was a tenth-century German canoness, dramatist, and poet (a canoness is basically like a nun, but with less strict vows). Hrotsvitha is remarkable: she has been called the first Western playwright since antiquity, as well as the first known woman playwright.

I first came across her work in a theatre history class back in college, and I’ve reread her plays several times since. I’m a big fan of them. Despite being over 1,000 years old, her plays are interesting, meaningful, and funny.

Hrotsvitha wrote six plays in Latin, in which she attempts to Christianize the work of Terence, the Roman comic playwright. In the preface to her plays, Hrotsvitha says that the nuns of Gandersheim Abbey enjoyed reading Terence for his beautiful Latin and his comedy, although they were horrified by the immoral content of his work. She writes:

There are many Catholics, and we cannot entirely acquit ourselves of the charge, who, attracted by the polished elegance of the style of pagan writers, prefer their works to the holy scriptures. There are others who, although they are deeply attached to the sacred writings and have no liking for most pagan productions, make an exception in favour of the works of Terence, and, fascinated by the charm of the manner, risk being corrupted by the wickedness of the matter.

Reading Hrotsvitha’s preface always makes me chuckle — imagine medieval nuns secretly reading raunchy Roman comedies! But in all seriousness, it is easy to imagine why the nuns would feel conflicted reading his work. Terence’s plays offend both medieval and modern sensibilities; his play The Eunuch, for example, is a deeply problematic comedy about rape. In her six plays, Hrotsvitha takes comic tropes used by Terence and reworks them into plays that not only glorify God, but also deeply honor faith, celibacy, and women.

Hrotsvitha’s plays are funny. Some of the humor is intended. For example, in her play Dulcitius, a man attempts to rape three Christian virgins but, through the grace of God, mistakes dirty pots and pans for the women. He covers himself in soot, such that his own soldiers fail to recognize him. Some of the humor in Hrotsvitha’s plays, though, is created through the act of reading medieval plays with modern sensibilities — the characters often seem simple, naive, and overly zealous in their faith (as well as overly excited by the prospect of martyrdom).

Although Hrotsvitha is deeply committed to medieval values (particularly celibacy), she is, in many ways, a good contemporary feminist. She doesn’t worship a harsh God of rules, as we might imagine of medieval Christianity. In her plays, the paramount sin is despair — losing faith in the immensity of God’s forgiveness, love, and grace. While Hrotsvitha’s plays do look down upon prostitution, she doesn’t stigmatize or look down upon prostitutes. She treats all her women characters (prostitutes and virgins alike) with respect and admiration. And ultimately, the true heroes of Hrotsvitha’s plays are women, not men.

An English translation of Hrotsvitha’s plays was published in 1923, and this year that translation has finally and unequivocally entered the public domain in the United States. You can now find page scans of the 1923 text at the Internet Archive, transcriptions at Project Gutenberg, and a carefully designed ebook at Standard Ebooks. I was responsible for producing the latter two, and it brings me great joy to be able to share them with the world, as well as to campaign for the canonization of Hrotsvitha.

I think more people should know about Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, and I want more people to read her plays. So here’s my challenge to you: gather some friends for an evening and read her plays together. During my JV year, I had my community read her plays for a spirituality night, and we had a lot of fun. I highly recommend you give it a try.

About Cam N. Coulter

Cam N. Coulter thinks incessantly about speculative fiction, gender, and intentional communities. His poetry has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer and Eye to the Telescope. His academic nonfiction has appeared in the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal. He reviews short genre fiction for Skiffy and Fanty and also contributes to The Ruined Report. After his year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. He currently works with adults with developmental disabilities in the SF Bay Area. Cam can be found on his website or on Twitter @camncoulter.