A celebrated nun-poetess of the tenth century, whose name has been
given in various forms, ROSWITHA, HROTSWITHA, HROSVITHA, and
HROTSUIT; born probably between 930 and 940, died about 1002. The
interpretation of the name as clamor validus contains no doubt a
reference to the bearer herself; this accounts for her being also
called "the mighty voice" and sometimes even the "Nightingale of
Gandersheim". In all probability she was of aristocratic birth;
her name appears on an old wood engraving as "Helena von Rossow."
She seems to have been still in her earliest youth when she
entered the convent of Gandersheim, then highly famed for its
asceticism and learned pursuits. Her extraordinary talents found
here wise and judicious cultivation, first under guidance of her
teacher Rikkardis, then under the special care and direction of
Gerberg, a niece of Otto I and the most accomplished woman of her
time, who was later to become her abbess (959-1001). The latter
took particular interest in the development of her muse, by the
training of which she hoped "to contribute something to the glory
This is about all that is known of the external life of the first
German poetess. Hroswitha shares the lot in this respect of all
the poets of olden time: we are far better acquainted with her
works than with her personality. Furthermore, the Latin poems of
this unassuming nun have had a curious history. After centuries of
neglect, they were discovered, as is well known, by the poet
laureate Conrad Celtes in the Benedictine monastery of St. Emmeram
at Ratisbon, and were published in 1501 to the great delight of
all lovers of poetry. The poetic work of the childlike, pious
religious took at first the epic form; there appeared two Biblical
poems and six legends. For these she drew upon Latin sources, and
used her poetic freedom in the psychological treatment of her
characters and their actions. The material of her "Leben Mariens"
(859 hexameters) was taken from the Holy Bible, and from the
apocryphal Gospel of St. James. This life of Mary was rather
closely connected with her poem "Von der Himmelfahrt des Herrn"
(150 hexameters). On the other hand the themes of her six legends
are quite varied: "The Martyrdom of St. Gangolf" (582 distichs), a
Burgundian prince; "The youthful St. Pelagius" of Cordoba, whose
recent martyrdom she relates in 414 verses in accordance with
reports gathered f rom eyewitnesses, was a contemporary of hers,
hence the realism and impressiveness of the picture; the legend of
"Theophilus" (455 verses) is the earliest poetical treatment of
the medieval legend of Faust; of a similar tenor is the legend of
St. Basil (259 verses), in which an unhappy youth is saved from a
diabolical pact; the list closes with the martyrdom of St.
Dionysius (266 verses) and that of St. Agnes (459 verses). This
last poem, which is based on the biography of the saint ascribed
to St. Ambrose, is written with great fervour. The language is
simple but smooth, and frequently even melodious.
But her poetical reputation rests, properly speaking, on her
dramatic works. As regards her motives in adopting this form of
literary expression she herself gives sufficient explanation.
Lamenting the fact that many Christians, carried away by the
beauty of the play, take delight in the comedies of Terence and
thereby learn many impure things, she determines to copy closely
his style, in order to adapt the same methods to the extolling of
triumphant purity in saintly virgins, as he has used to depict the
victory of vice. A blush often mounted to her cheeks when in
obedience to the laws of her chosen form of poetical expressions
she was compelled to portray the detestable madness of unholy
This last remark applies peculiarly to the case of five of her
dramas, the theme of which is sensual love. The pious nun's
treatment of her subject is of course on a higher moral plane, and
she is skilled in demonstrating the principle, in the midst of
rather bold situations, that the greater the force of temptation
the more admirable is the final triumph of virtue.
The most popular work, judging at least from the numerous
transcripts thereof, is the "Gallicanus". This general of
Constantine the Great, while still a pagan, seeks in marriage the
emperor's daughter, Constantia, who however has long since
consecrated herself as a spouse to the Lord; the suitor becomes
converted and suffers a martyr's death.
Her second drama is a most singular composition, in which
humour and gravity are strangely compounded. "Dulcitius", a
prefect under Diocletian, wishes to force three unwilling
Christian maidens into marriage with high dignitaries of the
Court, he has his victims imprisoned in a kitchen and with evil
intention makes his silent way towards them under cover of the
night; but God punishes him with blindness, and the prefect
embraces but sooty pots and pans. Though he does not know it, his
appearance as he emerges is that of a charcoal burner, and his
utter discomfiture is led up to in the merriest of scenes; the
three maidens win the palm of martyrdom.
In "Callimachus" the violence of passion is carried to a
threatened profanation of the dead which however is miraculously
averted. Here indeed is the boldest situation of all, which
reminds one of Goethe's "Braut von Corinth".
The two succeeding plays, "Abraham" and "Paphnutius", tell in a
touching manner of a fallen woman's conversion.
Finally, the last drama relates in a plain and simple way the
legend of the martyrdom of the three sisters Faith, Hope, and
Charity, daughters of Wisdom.
The literary significance of Hroswitha's dramas has been expressed
in a comparison which likens them to snowdrops: "In the very midst
of winter they lift their white heads, but they die long ere the
advent of spring, and there is none to remember them."
Her prolific career as a poetess closed with two greater epics,
the one singing the achievements of Otto I (Taten Ottos I) down to
the year 962, and the other celebrating the foundation of the
monastery of Gandersheim (Die xxxx des Klosters Gandersheim).
Quite a romantic touch is given to this last composition by the
number of legends which the author has skilfully woven into it.
The eulogy of Otto I, on the other hand, is highly prized by
historians who "find the account given to the poetess of direct
assistance in historic work". The poem was written in 967 and was
dedicated to the emperor. In addition to that of Celtes, the
following are the chief editions of Hroswitha's works: Barack,
"Die Werke der Hroswitha" (Nuremberg, 1858); Schurzfleisch
(Wittenberg, 1707); Migne, P. L. CXXXVII, 939- 1196; de
Winterfell, "Hrosvithae opera" (Berlin, 1902).
Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkler
From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the
Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by
New Advent, Inc.
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