Hroswitha of Gandersheim is considered Germany's first woman literary writer. Among philosophers she is known as a female 'lover of wisdom' during a time when few Europeans were engaged in the intellectual life. It should be noted that her name is sometimes spelled Roswith, Roswitha or Hrosuit.
Gandersheim Monastery was founded in 850 CE by Duke Liudolf, his wife Oda and Aeda who was Oda's mother. It should be noted that although Germany was considered to be amidst the "Dark Ages" during these years, the monasteries in Saxony were centers of culture and learning. Duke Liudolf founded a number of convents but the one at Gandersheim became the most famous. It was a political and cultural center in Germany.
The Abbesses of Gandersheim were generally selected from the Royal House of Saxony and what is remarkable is that they kept the Benedictine Rule and did not allow the secular court to enter into monastic daily practices. So the monastery remained a real spiritual center as well a political and cultural one.
Originally the Abbess of Gandersheim did not have full freedom and control of the monastery but by Hrosewitha of Gandersheim's time the Abbess not only had complete control of the Abbey but she held political power through a seat in the Imperial Diet. She also had her own court of law, her own army, and a mint. The Abbess of Gandersheim, like the Abbesses of many monasteries in Europe exerted enormous power both temporal and spiritual.
Her life and works
We are fairly certain of Hroswitha of Gandersheim's date of birth but know nothing of her early years. There appears to be no record of the date she entered the Benedictine monastery at Gandersheim . Since this monastery only accepted novices from noble families, Hroswitha of Gandersheim may have started her education at home or at the monastery where she was a Cannoness, and not a monastic nun.
It should be noted that when Hroswitha entered this monastery, she entered as a Cannoness and not as a nun. The practical implication of this is that as a Cannoness, she would have taken vows of chastity and obedience but not poverty.
As a Cannoness in the Abbey of Gandersheim, Hroswitha would have been "allowed to receive guests, to come and go with permission, to own books, to own property, and were [sic] permitted to have servants, although they lived a communal life and took part in the daily recitation of the Divine Office" [Source: Ann Lyon Haight. Hroswitha of Gandersheim: Her Life, Her Times, Her Works p. 11]
It is clear that she enjoyed an outstanding education and read the Latin classics as well as Christian authors.
The Abbess at Gandersheim during the time that Hroswitha of Gandersheim was there was named Gerberg, (or Gerberga). She was a neice of Otto I. Gerberg followed in the tradition of Benedictine scholars and she not only encouraged Hroswitha of Gandersheim but appears to have mentored her in her studies. We have a letter To Greberg which shows her admiration and gratitude to this Abbess.
As typical in a monastery of that time, Hroswitha's works were composed at the request of her abbess. Gerberg was connected with the court and she asked Hroswitha to write a heroic poem in honor of the Emperor of Otho I. The cannoness complied. She also wrote a history of the Gandersheim monastery and a series of plays and a number of poems. It is clear from Hroswitha of Gandersheim's own words that she saw her writing as part of the activity of her religious commitment.
To read more details about her life and work, go to Cardinal Gasquet's Introduction to the Works of Roswitha of Gandersheim
Further, her preface to her Poetical works, The Life Story of the Blessed Virgin, The Fall and Conversion of Theophilus, The Martyrdom of Saint Agnes, Poems concerning the First Cenobites at Gandersheim, The Acts of Otho I, etc. can be read at: Preface to the Poetical Works
Her short preface to her Complete Works can be found along with a note on the acting of the plays can be found at Preface to the Complete Works of Hroswitha of Gandersheim - including a note on the acting of the Plays
The Works as Philosophy
Hroswitha's of Gandersheim's philosophy is embedded in her works. In her play, Sapientiae [Latin for 'Wisdom'] includes a discussion of number theory and a number of references to Christian wisdom.
Her play Dulcities offers pieces of logic and argumentation. The opening sets the stage.
Diocletian labels the Christian women mad when they disagree with him and his use of this common fallacy "ad hominem" sets the stage for all that follows. Later, when Sisinnius is trying to convince Irena to worship the gods he threatens her with a long, extensive death and then dishonor by forcing her into prostitution. Irena, engages him in argument. She makes careful distinctions and explains that it is the orientation of the will and the direction of intention that define the ethical character of an action and not merely the action itself - especially when one does not have control over the action. And Hrosthwitha of Gandersheim embeds this logic and discussion of ethics in a plot that employs the miraculous and the fantastic. As such, the play can be compared with some of the Medieval morality plays that we find in the corpus of English literature.
In Gallicanus, found at Gallicanus She addresses women's power and choice over their own lives. The plot places Constance, daughter of Constantine, who has chosen to make the vow of a consecrated virgin, at risk of being given political marriage. She agrees to allow her father to promise her in marriage and trusts two men, John and Paul, to bring about a change of mind and intention of the potential husband, Gallicanus.
The play under the guise of the ancient setting addresses the contemporary question of arranged political marriage, and the power of women to live "lives of choice" rather than "family arrangement". And it clear that the life of 'consecrated virginity', be it lived in family or in the monastery is argued as a worthwhile option for women who do not want the bonds of marriage.
You may also be interested in reading this: Introduction to the works of Hroswitha of Gandersheim
This page was last updated 12/12/14.