1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hrosvitha
HROSVITHA (frequently Roswitha, and properly Hrotsuit), early medieval dramatist and chronicler, occupies a very notable position in the history of modern European literature. Her endeavours 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 93%. and, if the statement be correct that she sang the praises of the three Ottos, she must ham li ed to near the close of the century. Some time before the year 959 she entered the Benedictine nunnery of Gandersheim, a foundation which was confined to ladies of German birth, and was highly favoured 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 connexion 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 to the mind of the authoress, 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 authoress 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 authoress by members of the imperial family that, notwithstanding its courtly omissions, it is regarded as an 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.
The Munich MS., which contains all the works enumerated above except the Chronicle of Gandersheim, was edited by the great Vienna humanist, Conrad Celtes, in 1501. The edition of Celtes was published at Nuremberg, with eight wood-cuts by Albrecht Dürer. It was re-edited by H. L. Schurzfleisch and published at Wittenberg in 1707. The comedies have been edited and translated into German by J. Bendixen (Lübeck, 1857), and into French by C. Magnin (Paris, 1845), whose introduction gives a full account of the authoress and her works. See also her Poésies latines, with a translation into French verse by V. Rétif de la Bretonne (Paris, 1854). A copious analysis of her plays will be found in Klein, Geschichte des Dramas, iii. 665–754. See also W. Creizenach, Geschichte des neueren Dramas, i. 17 sqq. (Halle, 1893), and A. W. Ward, History of English Dramatic Literature, i. 6 sqq. (Cambridge, 1899). Gustav Freytag wrote a dissertation, De Rosuitha poëtria (Breslau, 1839), to qualify himself as an academical teacher, which, as he records (Erinnerungen aus meinem Leben, Leipzig, 1887, p. 1839), showed “how impossible it was to the German, a thousand years since, to compose dramatically”; and at the beginning of Albert Cohn’s Shakespeare in Germany (Berlin, 1865) Shakespearean parallels are suggested to certain passages in Hrosvitha’s dramas. Her two chronicles in verse were edited by Z. H. Pertz in the Monumenta Germaniae, iv. 306–335 (Hanover, 1841). See also J. P. Migne, Patrologiae curs. compl. (Paris, 1853, vol. 137). The Carmen was included by Leibnitz in his Scriptores rer. Brunsvic. (Hanover, 1707–1711). For other early editions of these see A. Potthast, Bibliotheca historica medii aevi (supplement, Berlin, 1862–1868); and for an appreciation of them see Wattenbach, Geschichtsquellen, pp. 214–216, and Giesebrecht, Deutsche Kaiserzeit, i. 780, who mentions a German translation by Pfund (1860). There is a complete edition of the works of Hrosvitha by K. A. Barack (Nürnberg, 1858). J. Aschbach (1867) attempted to prove that Celtes had forged the productions which he published under the name of Hrosvitha, but he was refuted by R. Köpke (Berlin, 1869). Anatole France, La Vie littéraire (3ème série, Paris, 1891), cited by Creienach, mentions a curious recent experiment, the performance of Hrosvitha’s comedies in the Théâtre des Marionettes at Paris. (A. W. W.)