Of Six Mediaeval Women (1913)/Roswitha

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A TENTH-CENTURY DRAMATIST, ROSWITHA THE NUN

 

Of Six Mediaeval Women face001.jpg

Photo. Macbeth.

ROSWITHA PRESENTING HER POEM TO THE EMPEROR OTHO I.,
THE ABBESS OF GANDERSHEIM STANDING AT HER SIDE.

A. Dürer, 1501.

To face page 1.

In this age of personal curiosity, politely called psychological interest, when personalities are analysed with all the thoroughness of the dissecting theatre, it seems almost courting failure to try to call to remembrance one whose personality has long since faded away, and of whom, apparently, no contemporary writer has made mention. Of Roswitha, the woman, we know but little, and this little is gathered from her own writings.[1] Presumably the date of her birth was about A.D. 935, and that of her death about A.D. 973. There is a tradition that she was connected with the royal house of Germany, at that time represented by the enlightened Otho the Great. Be this as it may, her life for us begins when, probably at an early age, she entered the Convent of Gandersheim. Gandersheim was a Benedictine nunnery in the Harz Mountains, founded in the ninth century by Liudolf, Duke of Saxony, and important enough to entitle its Abbess to a seat in the Imperial Diet, a right perhaps never exercised except by proxy. The story of its foundation, as told by Roswitha in the unique MS. of her works, is of strange beauty. Listen to her own words as she tells the tale:—

At that time there was, nigh unto the Monastery,[2] a little wood, encircled by shady hills, those same hills by the which we ourselves are surrounded. And there was, moreover, in the wood a small farm where the swineherds of Liudolf were wont to dwell, and within the enclosure of which the men, during the hours of night, composed to rest their weary bodies until the time when they must needs drive forth to pasture the pigs committed to their care. Here, on a time, two days before the Feast of All Saints, these same herdsmen, in the darkness of the night, saw full many bright lights glowing in the wood. And they were astonished at the sight, and marvelled what could be the purport of this strange vision of blazing light cleaving the darkness of the night with its wondrous brilliance. And all trembling with fear, they related unto their Master that which they had seen, showing unto him the place which had been illumined by the light. And he, desiring by very sight thereof to put to proof that which he had heard tell, joined them without the building, and began the following night, without sleeping, to keep watch, closing not his eyes though they were weighed down by the desire of slumber. And after a while he saw the kindling lights, more in number than afore, once again burn with a red glow, in the same place forsooth, but at an hour somewhat earlier. And this glad sign of happy omen he made known so soon as Phœbus shed his first rays from the sky, and the joyous news spread everywhere. And this could not be kept back from the worthy Duke Liudolf, but swifter than speech did it come to his ears. And he, carefully observing on the hallowed eve of the approaching festival whether perchance some further like heavenly vision would clearly show it to be an omen, with much company kept watch on the wood all the night long. And straightway when black night had covered the land with darkness, everywhere throughout the wooded valley in the which the very noble temple was destined to be built, many lights were perceived, the which, with the shining splendour of their exceeding brightness, cleft asunder the shades of the wood and the darkness of the night alike. And thereupon, standing up and rendering praise to God, they all with one accord declared it meet that the place should be sanctified to the worship of Him who had filled it with the light. And, moreover, the Duke, mindful of his duty to Heaven, and with the consent of his dear consort Oda, forthwith ordered the trees to be felled and the brushwood cut away, and the valley to be completely cleared. And this sylvan spot, aforetime the home of fauns and monsters, he thus cleared and made fitting for the glory of God. And then, before obtaining the money needful for the work, he at once set out the lines of a noble church as traced by the splendour of the red light.[3]

In suchwise was the building of our second Monastery to the glory of God begun. But stone suitable for the structure could not be found in those parts, and thus the completion of the sanctuary which had been begun, suffered delay. But the Abbess Hathumoda, trusting to obtain all things from the Lord by faith, oft-times, by serving God both night and day with holy zeal, wore herself out with too abundant labour. And with many of those placed under her care, she besought the solace of speedy help from Heaven, lest the work so well begun should be left unfinished. And of a sudden she became aware that the divine grace which she sought was present, ready to have compassion on her longings. For as she lay one day prostrate nigh unto the altar, fasting and giving herself up to prayer, she was bidden of a gentle voice to go forth and follow a bird she would see sitting on the summit of a certain great rock. And she, embracing the command with ready mind, went forth, putting her trust in it with all her heart. And taking with her very skilled masons, she sped swiftly whither the kindly Spirit led her, until she was come to the noble sanctuary which had been begun. And there she saw, seated on the lofty summit of the self-same rock, a white dove, the which, flying with outspread wings, straightway went before her, tempering its flight in unwonted way so that the virgin, walking with her companions, might be able to follow in a straight course its aerial track. And when the dove in its flight had come to the place which we now know was not wanting in great stones, it descended, and with its beak pierced through the ground,[4] where, beneath the soil, many stones were disclosed. And assured by this sight, the very worthy virgin of Christ bade her companions clear away the heavy mass of earth, and lay the spot bare. And this done, supernal and devout piety presiding over the work, a great wealth of mighty stones was brought to view, whence all the needful material for the walls of the monastery already begun, and of the church, could be obtained. Then, striving ever more and more with all their heart, the builders of the temple destined to be consecrated to the glory of God, laboured at the work by night and by day.

Thus does Roswitha tell how the work of the new Foundation was begun, the Duke Liudolf and his wife having already journeyed to Rome to ask of the Pope his blessing, as well as to beg of him, as a token of his favour, some sacred relics to deposit there. The Pope, giving them his blessing, thus makes answer to their request:—

There were here, aforetime, two mighty rulers the most holy Anastasius who presided over this See, and his co-apostle, the holy Innocent. These, through their services to the Church, were the most famous next after St. Peter and St. Paul. With such care have the illustrious bodies of these two been heretofore preserved by all the rulers of this city, that never has any one been permitted to carry away the least portion of them, and thus their sacred limbs remain undiminished. But forasmuch as it is meet that I yield to your pious request, I will grant you, without recompense, tokens from both these sacred bodies, cut before your very eyes from off the sacred bodies themselves, if so be that you will make solemn oath to me to venerate these relics in your community, of the which you have made mention, preserving them for all time within your Church, sacred hymns being there sung by night and by day, and a light being alway kept burning. And of our apostolic right we ordain, according to your request, that your community be of our See, to the end that it may be secured from all secular rule.

And Liudolf, with glad heart, made promise of this, and returned home with the coveted relics.

The MS., now at Munich, which tells this fascinating story of love and faith, was, it is considered, written about A.D. 1000, and was fortunately preserved in the Benedictine convent of St. Emmeran, Ratisbon, where the scholar and poet, Conrad Celtes, discovered it at the end of the fifteenth century. It also includes metrical legends, a fragment of a panegyric on the Emperor Otho, and six dramas. Of such worth were these latter counted, that when Celtes published the MS. in 1501, Albert Dürer received a commission for an ornamental title-page, and for a frontispiece to each of the plays. It is by these dramas that Roswitha has distinguished herself in the world of letters; for although the legends contain points of interest, and are treated with skill, they are naturally not so unique as the dramas, nor do they reflect her personality in the same way. She herself tells us that the plays were written in imitation of the manner, but not of the matter, of Terence, and that her only desire in writing them was "to make the small talent given her by Heaven to create, under the hammer of devotion, a faint sound to the praise of God."

But before considering her work, let us glance at her own life, and the life of contemporary Saxon nunneries.

Nearly one hundred and fifty years before the supposed date of Roswitha's birth, the hitherto untamed and warlike Saxons had been finally defeated by the mercenaries of Charlemagne, and, as one of the signs of submission, forced to embrace Christianity. But having submitted, they forthwith, and with an aptitude suggestive of the spirit of the modern Japanese, set themselves to appropriate, assimilate, and remodel for their own use, the rudiments of the civilisation with which they found themselves brought into contact. So speedy and so thorough was the transformation, that scarce a century passed ere the once powerful Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne bowed down before the strenuous Saxons, to whom the supreme power was transferred. Their Chief was elected king of the Germans, and some fifty years later their king, Otho the Great, after being crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle, the former centre of Frankish rule, received the Imperial Crown from the Pope in Rome. This displacement of the political centre was naturally followed by a complete displacement of artistic centres. Both these sides of life were fostered by Otho with a keen personal interest the building up of his empire and the encouragement of art going hand in hand. Moreover, owing to his close ties with Italy and the East, and the element of classic tradition inevitably induced by such ties, art received an added stimulus and grace. Oriental monks were to be found in the monasteries. Learned men and artists were summoned from Italy and Constantinople. The number and influence of these were increased when Otho's son, afterwards Otho the Second, married Theophano, a Greek princess, who, bringing many compatriots in her train, sought to reflect in her German home something of the learning and splendour of the Byzantine Court. The ivory, shown in illustration, commemorating this marriage, is an example of the work of some Byzantine craftsman in her employ, whilst the jewelled and gold-wrought cover of the Gospels of St. Emmeran (now at Munich) shows to how high a level the goldsmith's art of the time had been raised by the influences alluded to.

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Royal Library, Munich.

COVER OF ST. EMMERAN GOSPELS.

Tenth Century.

To face page 7.

Perhaps the one place which retains in the most varied and concentrated form the traces of this wave of artistic development then passing over Germany, is Hildesheim. This is of interest here because the bishops of Hildesheim were specially appointed to perform the office of consecration of nuns at Gandersheim. It seems hardly possible that Roswitha could have seen its gifted bishop Bernward, himself a painter, and a worker in mosaic and metals, though owing to the uncertainty of the date of her death—one chronicler making it as late as 1002—it is just possible that she may have done so. Bernward's learning and artistic nature attracted the attention of the princess Theophano, who appointed him tutor to her son, the boy-emperor Otho the Third. Brought thus into touch with the many gifts presented on special occasions to the young Emperor by Greek and Oriental princes, as well as by "Scots" (i.e. Irish missionaries and emigrants settled in Germany), he, by taking with him to Court, from the School of Art established in his palace at Hildesheim, apt and talented youths, made use of these rare and beautiful offerings for the encouragement of the study of divers arts. Students also accompanied him when he went farther afield for study, for it is said of him that there was no art which he did not attempt, even if he failed to attain perfection.[5] Hildesheim thus became famous as a working-centre of fine art, especially in metals, and remained so down to the end of the Middle Ages. After a lapse of nearly a thousand years, the result of the labours of this artistic prelate and his pupils may still be seen in situ as it were. Besides jewelled service-books, there are chalices, incense burners, a gold candelabrum, and a jewelled crucifix, fashioned, if not in part by him, at least under his supervision. The entrance to the Cathedral is beautified with delicately wrought bronze doors, modelled, it may be, from those of Sta. Sabina, Rome, themselves considered to be of Oriental origin,[6] and in the transept rises a column adorned with bronze reliefs from the life of Christ, probably designed by the bishop either after his pilgrimage to Rome in 1001, when he had seen Trajan's column, or, as a recent writer suggests, from the "Juppiter and giant columns" of Roman Rhineland.[7]

We are tempted to recall other princesses whose marriages, and even more whose personalities, have influenced art and letters, but two must suffice us the one, the beautiful and cultivated Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard the Second, whose bridal retinue was in reality a small Court of literary and artistic personages; the other, the brilliant Valentine Visconti of Milan, sister-in-law of King Charles the Sixth of France, whose influence in matters of art and literature alone, at a time when England and France were so intimately associated, makes her of special interest to us.

But what bearing, it may be asked, had Court life on the life of the nun Roswitha in the convent of Gandersheim? To answer this question we must recall briefly the position of the early religious houses, and especially those of Saxony. Many of the foundations were royal, and, in return for certain privileges, were obliged to entertain the king and his retinue whenever he journeyed. Such sojourns naturally brought a store of political, intellectual, and other information to the favoured house. Added to this, the abbess of such a house, generally a highborn and influential woman, was, in her position as a ruler of lands as well as of communities, brought into direct contact with the Court and with politics. To her rights of overlordship were attached the same privileges and duties as in the case of any feudal baron. She issued summonses for attendance at her Courts, at which she was represented by a proctor, and, when war was declared, she had to provide the prescribed number of knights. In some cases her influence was supreme, even in imperial affairs, extending also to matters social and literary. Roswitha tells us how much she herself owed to the two successive abbesses under whose rule she lived, for suggestion, information, and encouragement in her literary work.

The convents of Saxony, as many elsewhere in the tenth and eleventh centuries, were centres of culture in the nature of endowed colleges. In some of them women resided permanently, and besides their religious exercises, devoted themselves to learning and the arts, for the Church of the Middle Ages took thought for the intellect as well as for the soul. In others, no irrevocable vows were made, and if desire or necessity arose, the student inmate was free to return to the world. In others again, though residence was permanent, short leave of absence from time to time was granted by the abbess, and the nun was able to sojourn with her friends, or to visit some sister community. But at Gandersheim the rule was strict, and a nun, her vows once taken, had to remain within the convent walls. Yet even so, life there was perhaps far less circumscribed than in many a castle, where the men gave themselves up to war and the chase, and the women perforce spun and embroidered and gossiped, since to venture without the walls was fraught with difficulty and sometimes with danger. Even if there were some who cared to read, and who would fain go in imagination to other scenes and times, MSS. were difficult to come by, and costly withal. Wholly different was it in the religious houses. In these, women associated with their equals, with whom they could interchange ideas, and the library was well furnished with MSS. of classical and Christian writers. One of the first cares of St. Benedict, in the case of every newly founded house, was the formation of the library. So held in honour did this tradition become, and so assiduously was it pursued, that the status of a monastery or a convent, as a centre of learning, came to be estimated by its wealth in MSS. Besides the mass of transcribing which such rivalry occasioned, there was illuminating to be done, musical notation to be studied and prepared for the services of the Church, chants and choir-singing to be practised, and the needful time to be devoted to weaving and embroidery—a part of every woman's education. Weaving had of necessity to be done in every convent in order to provide the requisite clothing for its inmates, and the large and often elaborate hangings used for covering the walls. Embroidery, on the other hand, was no mere occupation, or even a craft, but in truth a fine art. The few specimens still preserved give some idea of the quality of the work, whilst old inventories attest the quantity. Illuminated MSS. of the Gospels and the Apocalypse were lent from royal treasuries, and their miniatures were copied, with needle and silk, to adorn vestments and altar hangings. Then at Gandersheim, as we have already said, the occasional visits of princely travellers brought interest and diversion from the outside world. It was in an atmosphere such as this that Roswitha passed her days.

Of her work, the metrical legends seem her earliest effort. In these, though they are mainly based on well-known themes, Roswitha shows much originality in description. Whilst they need not detain us, passing reference may be made to two of them—the Passion of St. Pelagius of Cordova, and the Fall and Conversion of Theophilus—since their subject matter is of value to us to-day. The one interests us because, in relating that the story was told her by an eye-witness of the martyrdom in A.D. 925 (Acta SS. Jun. V.), she shows that communication existed between that great intellectual centre, Cordova, and Germany, a fact that must have had considerable influence on art and literature; the other as being the story out of which the Faust legend was developed.

After these legends, we turn to her panegyric on the Emperor Otho. This she opens by acknowledging her debt to the Abbess Gerberg, niece of Otho the Great, for aiding her in her literary work with her superior knowledge, and for giving her the necessary information concerning the royal doings. Then by humbly likening her mental perplexity and fear on entering upon so vast a subject to the feelings of one who has to cross a forest in winter when snow has obliterated the track, she in a few words pictures for us the natural wooded surroundings of the convent. Her poem—for such it really is—then sets forth the personal history of this monarch and his predecessors, rather than public events, and is thus of value more on account of its poetical than its historical quality. But one episode, picturesque in its quaint setting, and interesting historically because its stirring details are not to be found elsewhere, is worthy of record. It centres round Adelheid, the young and beautiful widow of Lothair, a Lombard king. Taken prisoner by his successor, the tyrant Berengarius, she is immured in a castle on the Lago di Garda, and threatened with a forced marriage with the son of her oppressor. This threat seems to endow her with superhuman power. Bidding defiance to all difficulty and danger, she contrives gradually to dig a secret way through the soft earth, and suddenly finds herself free. Dawn is just breaking. But how can she make use of her freedom before her guards awake and discover her escape? Quickly is her mind made up. But let Roswitha herself tell the story:—

As soon as black night yielded to the twilight, and the heavens began to pale before the rays of the sun, warily hiding herself in secluded caves, now she wanders in the woods, now lurks in the furrows amongst the ripe ears of Ceres, until returning night, clothed in its wonted gloom, again veils the earth in darkness. Then once more is she diligent to pursue her way begun. And her guards, not finding her, all-trembling make it known to the officer charged with the safe keeping of the lady. And he, struck to the heart with the terror of grievous fear, set forth with much company to make diligent search for her, and when he failed, and moreover could not discover whither the most illustrious queen had turned her steps, fearful, he made report of the matter to King Berengarius. And he, at once filled with exceeding wrath, forthwith sent his dependants everywhere around, commanding them not to overlook any small place, but cautiously to examine every hiding-place, lest perchance the queen might be lying hid in any an one. And he himself followed with a band of stout-hearted troops as if to overcome some fierce enemy in battle. And rapidly did he pass on his way through the self-same corn-field in the which the lady whom he sought was lurking in the bent-back furrows, hidden beneath the wings of Ceres. Hither and thither forsooth he traversed the very spot where she lay, burdened with no little fear, and although, with great effort, he essayed with outstretched spear to part the corn around, yet he discovered not her whom by the grace of Christ it concealed.

From the sheltering corn Adelheid effects her escape, and after weary wandering, reaches the Castle of Canossa, the stronghold of the Counts of Tuscany. Any one who has visited this now ruined castle, some twenty miles from Parma, will remember the threadlike way between rocks covered with brambles, by which its eyrie height is approached. Up this steep track the queen, fearful of any pause, hastens, and finds a welcome and ready help. The Count becomes her champion, and appeals on her behalf to the Emperor Otho. The latter, glad of an excuse to further his cause in Italy, descends with his troops into the Lombard plain, weds the beautiful Adelheid, and receives the formal cession of the so-called kingdom of Italy from Berengarius and his son, whose power had ebbed away in their futile attempts to control their feudatories.

Roswitha's thrilling narrative is amplified by the graphic account recorded by St. Odilo, Abbot of Cluny, Queen Adelheid's friend and one-time confessor. In this he tells us that during Adelheid's imprisonment in a castle on the Lago di Garda, her chaplain Martin succeeds in making a hole in the wall, through which the queen and her maidservant, disguised as men, creep. He does not recount the episode of the hiding in the corn, but relates another equally stirring adventure. He tells us that, in fleeing from their persecutor to the safety of Canossa, the fugitives become involved in a swamp. After two days, they are rescued from their perilous position by a fisherman who, passing near by, and hearing sounds of distress, goes to their aid. Their deliverer, finding them faint with hunger and cold, lights a fire with the flint he carries in his wallet, and cooks some small fish, the only food he has to offer them. Once more they start on their way, and eventually reach Canossa. But hardly do they gain admittance, ere the castle is surrounded by the soldiery of the outwitted and wrathful Berengarius. A knight, carrying a message from the Emperor Otho of promised deliverance, essays to enter the castle, but finding this impossible owing to the hostile troops encamped around, he fastens the letter to an arrow, and shoots it over the wall. A strong force sent by Otho is near at hand, and speedily puts the enemy to flight. Adelheid is rescued, and is brought with rejoicing to Pavia, her dower city, which had already opened its gates to the Emperor, and she and the Emperor enter the city together in triumph. Much has been written of the illustrious Adelheid, but perhaps she would best like to be remembered by the eulogy of hex confessor—the saintly Odilo—that she never forgot a kindness, or remembered an injury.

It is in a spirit far different from that of her panegyric on the emperor Otho that Roswitha writes her dramas. Fear and mental perplexity no longer possess her. Though humbly begging the reader not to "despise these strains drawn from a fragile reed," she has no misgiving, for she feels that herein lies her mission. She explains her reason for using the dramatic form, and for taking Terence as her model. There are many, she says,—and she does not entirely exonerate herself,—who, beguiled by the elegant diction of the Classics, prefer them to religious writings, whilst there are others who, though generally condemning heathen works, eagerly peruse the poetic creations of Terence because of the special beauty of his language. She further expresses the hope that by trying to imitate his manner, and by at the same time dramatising legends calculated to edify, she may induce readers to turn from the "godless contents of his works" to the contemplation of virtuous living. Emboldened by this pious hope, Roswitha shrinks from no difficulties or details, details which might well have made her hesitate, and which, betraying a knowledge of the world, have raised the question as to whether she made her profession as early as was customary. This solicitude of Roswitha for the welfare of frail and all too human mankind recalls St. Bernard's condemnation, some hundred and fifty years later, of all carving in church or cloister, when he says, "one reads with more pleasure what is carven in stones than what is written in books, and would rather gaze all day upon these singular creations than meditate upon the Divine Word."

It has been maintained that the classic theatre decayed and disappeared as Christianity became all-powerful in Europe, and that the modern theatre seemingly arose in the twelfth century out of the services of the Church, and owed no debt to the past. But neither Nature nor Art works in this way except to our own unperceiving minds. After the fall of the Roman Empire, and the consequent disruption of society, classic civilisation gradually withdrew into the security of the religious communities, seeking, like distraught humanity, shelter and protection. It was in such tranquil atmosphere as this that Latin drama, though condemned in substance, was fostered and favoured as an education in style. Roswitha's plays may, as has been said, have been the last ray of classical antiquity, but if so, it was a ray, like the pillar of fire, bright enough to guide through the dark night of feudalism to the coming day.

Whether her dramatic efforts were an isolated phenomenon or not, must remain undecided, but it is reasonable to assume that any work surviving to the present day is but a sample of much else of the same sort that has disappeared in the course of time. Still all we would claim for them, apart from their intrinsic value and interest, is that they helped to keep up continuity in the tradition of drama. The gradual movement in the Church towards elaboration in its services which began in the ninth century,—a movement which led to the dramatising of the Mass, out of which the liturgical drama, and eventually the miracle-play, were evolved,—was a popular movement. To a people ignorant of Latin, yet fond of shows, it provided instruction and diversion alike. Roswitha, on the other hand, avowedly wrote for the literary world, and with a special end in view as regards that world. To attain this end, she set before her, as her master in style, Terence, who himself had aimed at a high ideal of artistic perfection, and of whom it has been said that he perpetuated the art and genius of Menander just as a master engraver perpetuates the designs of a great painter whose works have since perished. Still, in spite of the glamour of the style to which she aspires, and poetess though she is by nature, her plays reflect the handiwork of the moralist rather than that of the artist, for though beauty charms her by the way, her goal is moral truth, and to this all else must yield. If we would see the beauty of holiness as she saw it, we must enter in spirit within the shrine of her thought and feeling, just as the traveller, standing without the simple brick exterior of the tomb of Galla Placidia, at Ravenna, must penetrate within if he would know of the beauty there enshrined. "Il faut être saint, pour comprendre la sainteté."

The subject which dominates her horizon is that of Chastity. Treated by her with didactic intent, this really resolves itself into a conflict between Christianity and Paganism,—in other words, between Chastity and Passion,—in which Christianity triumphs through the virtue of Woman. But at the same time Roswitha neither contemns marriage nor generally advocates celibacy. She merely counsels, as the more blessed, the unmarried state. Yet even so, we feel that beneath her nun's garb there beats the heart of a sympathetic woman, whose emotional self-expression is but tempered by the ideals of her time and her surroundings.

Another important element to be taken into account in her plays is the part she assigns to the supernatural. It is impossible to develop character with any continuity when the supernatural, like some sword of Damocles, hovers continually overhead, ready to descend at any moment and sever cause from effect. Such a sword was the Divine Presence to Roswitha. When her plot requires it, she introduces a miracle, converting a character, at a moment's notice, and in a way that no evolution could possibly effect, into one of a totally different kind. Still to her audience such a dénouement would be quite satisfactory. With her, sudden changes and conversions but reflect the ideas which possessed the minds of her contemporaries, who realised God more in deviations from, than in manifestations of, law and order.

Were her plays ever performed? To this question no certain answer can be given, since no record has yet been found of their performance, and the best critics are at variance on the subject. But judging from analogy, there seems to be no reason why they should not have been. We know that as early as the fifth and sixth centuries the monks played Terence, probably on some fête-day, or before their scholars as a means of instruction, and doubtless Roswitha's plays were also acted on special occasions, such as when the Emperor sojourned at Gandersheim, or the Bishop made a visitation. As they were written in Latin, the literary language of the time, this in itself, even if their themes had appealed to the people, would have prevented them from being performed save before the educated few. So if we would picture to ourselves a performance of one of them by her companion nuns in the Chapter House, or it may be in the refectory, it must be before the Bishop and his clergy, and perhaps also some members of the Imperial family, and lords and ladies of the Court. How refreshing must such an entertainment have been to this distinguished company as it found itself carried away into an atmosphere of poetry and passion, of movement and colour, in place of the sobriety induced by the stiff liturgical dramas that probably formed the usual diversion! Such a drama was that of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, a specially favourite old-world dramatic exercise, dispensed as a sort of religious tonic to womankind, calculated to arouse slumbering souls, or to quicken to still further effort those that did not slumber. For us, its chief interest lies in the antiphonic arrangement of the dialogue, in which we may trace the first germs of characterisation, and in the music, the refrains of which contain the first suggestions, as far as we know, of the principle of the leitmotiv, a principle carried to its most complete development by Wagner. Although the earliest known MS. of it is of the eleventh century, so finished, yet so simple, are its dialogues and refrains, that it seems not unreasonable to infer that the form of the play was well known, either through some earlier MS. or through oral tradition. It is only a slight development of the elegy in dialogue which was performed in A.D. 874, at the funeral of Hathumoda, the first abbess of Gandersheim. This dialogue takes place between the sorrow-stricken nuns, who speak in chorus of their loss, and the monk Wichbert, who acts as consoler. Although its form is liturgical, its subject entitles it to be considered the earliest known mediæval dramatic work extant.

Of Roswitha's dramas, three seem to stand out as of special interest—Abraham, Callimachus, and Paphnutius. All of these are more or less patchwork adaptations from the legendary debris of antiquity. The first appears to have been taken by Roswitha from a Latin translation of a fourth-century Greek legend.[8] Whilst she does not display any originality in elaborating the story, but keeps carefully to the text—so much so that at times she merely transcribes—she reveals her artistic as well as her psychological instinct by concentrating the essentials, thereby transforming a rather discursive composition into a poignant picture. The subtle touches, the sentiment, and the dialogue so pathetic and so true to nature, make this drama verily her masterpiece, and one worthy of a place beside the delicate and dramatic miniatures of the time. In a few words, here is the story. A holy man, by name Abraham, has abandoned a life of solitude in order to take care of his young orphaned niece. After a few years, she is tempted to a house of ill fame. Some two years later, her uncle, having discovered her whereabouts, determines to exchange his hermit garb for that of a man of the world, and go to the house in the guise of a lover, so as to get an opportunity of speaking with his niece alone. Of course she does not recognise him in his change of costume, and when he asks for a kiss, she puts her arms round his neck, and suddenly detects a strange perfume. Instantly a change comes over her. The scent recalls to her her former unsullied life, and tears fill her eyes. At the fitting moment the uncle makes himself known, and showing her with sweet words of sympathy and encouragement that sin is natural to humanity, and that what is evil is to continue in it, takes her back with him to begin afresh the simple good life.

The second play recounts an incident taken from the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, supposed to take place in the first century. A young heathen, Callimachus, falls in love with a young married woman, a Christian. She dies, and is buried the same day. That night Callimachus goes to the grave, and with the help of a slave disinters the body. Holding it in his arms, and triumphing in the embrace denied to him in life, he suddenly falls dead. In the morning the husband and St. John, coming to the cemetery to pray for her soul, see the rifled grave and the two dead bodies. St. John, at the command of Christ, who appears for but a moment, restores them both to life, and brings to repentance the young man, who, in further amendment of his ways, becomes a Christian. This mere outline of the play is given to suggest points of resemblance between it—the first sketch of this kind of drama of passion, the frenzy of the soul and senses—and the masterpiece of this type, Romeo and Juliet.

Many passages in the plays of Roswitha remind us of Shakespeare, but it is not possible to deal adequately with them here, nor does it seem material to do so. There is no reason why Shakespeare should not have seen a printed collection of her dramas. He, like Dante, seems to have had the power of attracting material from every possible source, and it should not be forgotten what a sensation was caused by Celtes printing in 1501 Roswitha's MS. But, on the other hand, the similarities we notice may be a mere coincidence, or, as is much more likely, the details in each case may have been common property handed down from one generation to another.

In her play of Paphnutius, Roswitha made use of a story taken from the Historia Monachorum of Rufinus, a contemporary of St. Jerome, who had journeyed through Palestine and Egypt to visit the Hermits of the Desert. The mention, too, at the beginning of Rufinus's account, of a musician who tells of his retirement to a hermitage in order to change the harmony of music into that of the spirit, evidently suggested to her a discussion on music and harmony, probably adapted from Boëthius's De Musica. In this discussion lies the chief interest of the play as giving us some idea of the sort of intellectual exercises probably practised by women in convents in the tenth century. The play opens with a truly mediæval scene,—a disputation between a hermit and his disciples on the question of harmony between soul and body, suggested by the want of it in the life of the courtesan Thais. Such harmony should exist, says the holy man, for though the soul is not mortal like the body, nor the body spiritual like the soul, we shall, if we follow the method of the dialecticians, find that such differences do not necessarily render the two inharmonious. Harmony cannot be produced from like elements or like sounds, but only by the right adjustment of those which are dissimilar. This discussion on harmony naturally leads to one on music, which is divided, according to the then received writers on the subject, into three kinds—celestial, human, and instrumental. Music, in the Middle Ages, was, for dialectical purposes, treated in accordance with the Pythagorean theory as interpreted by Cicero in his Somnium Scipionis, who represented the eight revolving spheres of heaven—the Earth being fixed—as forming a complete musical octave. Such celestial music forms the subject of the argument in Roswitha's play, the music of Earth being merely touched upon. Why, it is asked, do we not hear this music of the spheres if it exists? To this comes the answer that some think it is because of its continuity, others because of the density of the atmosphere, and others again because the volume of sound cannot penetrate the narrow passage of the human ear. And so with subtle argument, the music of Heaven was often drowned in the din of Earth. Dante, in the Paradiso, lifted the idea once more from Earth to Heaven, and clothed it in a wealth of gorgeous imagery. But it is Shakespeare who, with the magic of a few words, has given the thought immortality.

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,

*****

Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

In judging of Roswitha's dramatic work it must be remembered that, in true mediæval spirit fearing to profane what she venerates, she allows herself but little licence with the legends she dramatises. Nevertheless, as has been said, she from time to time shows, in psychological touches, a capacity for originality quite phenomenal for her time and for the literature of the cloister. Still her plays express but a very small part of the whole gamut of human emotions and experiences, just as her life was lived in an intellectual world narrow from the point of view of to-day or of the great intellectual age of antiquity. Many causes contributed to this. Intellectually, the Christian world shrank as Paganism was superseded by Christianity, a supersession by no means complete in Roswitha's day. Of course this nascent Christianity was inconsistent with much of the intellectual life of the ancient world, which was either inextricably interwoven with Paganism, or essentially anti-religious. With its task of laying afresh the foundations of education, politics, and morality, it had to take root and become established in a relatively narrow intellectual field, the boundaries of which had gradually to be broken down, sometimes with violence.

Time, like some lens which clears our vision, makes it an easy task to criticise and condemn a phase of religious life which, having essayed to tranquillise and sweeten existence, was, under altered conditions of civilisation, bound to pass away. We of to-day pride ourselves on a wider view of life, on a higher conception of duty, expressed in lives dedicated to public work as a necessary complement to private virtue. Still, if we would judge fairly this age of contemplation and faith within the convent walls, and all that, even if done mistakenly and imperfectly, it aspired to do, we must realise, as best we can, the world without those walls. One of our poets has vividly reflected it for us when he speaks of man's life as made up of "whole centuries of folly, noise, and sin." So bitter was life then and even later, that by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when mysticism had claimed many votaries, eternal rest, even at the cost of personal annihilation, was the whispered desire of many devout souls.

"A Simple Stillness." "An Eternal Silence." These are the words that float across the centuries to us, like echoes from troubled, longing hearts. These are the words that give us the key to the understanding of the choice of vocation of the mediæval woman. The spiritual need for harmony and peace may have been great; the practical need was perhaps even greater; for in its accomplishment the spiritual found its consummation.

 

  1. The authenticity of these has been called in question by some critics, but apparently upon insufficient data.
  2. The first foundation, afterwards removed to Gandersheim.
  3. For other instances of churches laid out on lines said to have been revealed in dreams or visions, see Didron, Christian Iconography, vol. i. (1886) pp. 381, 382, 460, and Sta. Maria Maggiore, Rome.
  4. The intervention of a bird to aid in discovery was a favourite tradition derived from antiquity. We may recall, amongst many variants of the theme, the story of the celebrated expedition of the Athenians to the Island of Scyros to find and recover the body of Theseus. Theseus, being a hero, the agent employed in the quest must likewise be distinguished, and so the eagle, Zeus's bird, is alone thought worthy to peck the earth and indicate the resting-place of the demi-god.
  5. Thangmarus, "Vita Sti. Bernwardi," Migne, Patrol. Lat. 140, col. 397. 6.
  6. Michel, Histoire de l' Art, 1905, Tome I. i. p. 258.
  7. Journal of Roman Studies, vol. i. part i., 1911, article by E. Strong, p. 24.
  8. Migne, Patrol. Lat. lxxiii.