Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thoughts on Hrotsvitha

Hostility between the theatre and the Christian church during the waning days of the Roman Empire led to a break in the European tradition of drama. Greek and Roman plays were largely forgotten and scholars had to rediscover them during the Renaissance. Dramatic traditions are rarely completely forgotten, though, and such was the case in medieval Europe. Monasteries and convents continued to preserve some classical plays, particularly those of Terence. During the 10th century, in the Gandersheim Abbey in what is now Germany, one woman even took it upon herself to write new Latin plays modeled on the works of Terence.

This extraordinary writer was named Hrotsvitha, which means "strong voice" in Old Saxon. A secular canoness rather than a nun, she remained celibate and lived in the Abbey but took no vows of poverty or obedience. Such women were frequently aristocrats, and hence well educated. Hrotsvitha had to answer to her Abbess, but Gandersheim Abbey remained outside the domain of secular authorities, a right for which the canonesses had to fight during Hrotsvitha's time.

Just as Terence had written six plays, Hrotsvitha also composed six dramas, Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Callimachus, Abraham, Paphnutius, and Sapentia. Instead of portraying women as loose courtesans or sexually available young daughters, she presented strong women who rejected attempts by men to exploit them and who clung to their own sense of virtue, even if it meant martyrdom. In Gallicanus, for instance, the strong-minded Constance is betrothed to the soldier Gallicanus in spite of the fact that she has vowed to retain her virginity. When a battle looks as if it will turn against him, Gallicanus vows to convert to Christianity if he wins. After he is victorious, Gallicanus too, takes up a life of chastity, preserving Constance's vow.

Dulcitius, Callimachus, and Sapentia all feature the miraculous preservation of virtuous women whose faith and honor are threatened by pagan men. Both Abraham and Paphnutius, on the other hand, deal with fallen prostitutes who turn their backs on their sinful lives and accept godly lives of chastity. Though the plays feature both women and men, Hrotsvitha's emphasis is usually on the female characters.

It is doubtful that any of Hrotsvitha's plays were performed during her lifetime, though it is possible they were read aloud or even acted out by the canonesses for their own amusement. Her works were not published until 1501, when interest in classical models had begun to grow. Consequently, Hrotsvitha's plays, however fascinating they may be, had little impact on the development of medieval theatre.