The Plays of Roswitha
TRANSLATED BY CHRISTOPHER ST. JOHN
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY CARDINAL CASQUET AND A CRITICAL PREFACE BY THE
by His Eminence Cardinal Gasquet
Whatever may be thought of the precise merits of these six
short dramas, now translated into English for the very first time, * it will be conceded that a collection of plays bearing the date of the 10th century,
authenticated as the work of a woman, and a nun, is a remarkable phenomenon, interesting
to students of monasticism and of the drama alike.
At one time, it was interesting to note, it was suggested that the author of these
dramas was an Englishwoman. In fact, the English scholar, Laurence Humfrey, who first
introduced them to notice in this century, endeavoured to prove that Roswitha was no other
that St. Hilda of Northumbria. His theory, of course, can not be maintained; but the very
anxiety shown to identify this talented poetess and dramatist as a native of this country
is evidence of the high estimation in which her compositions were held in the 16th
century, the time when Laurence Humfrey, an exile from England for his religion, learned
to know them in Germany. It is now an established fact that the plays are the work of a
Benedictine nun of Gandersheim, in Saxony, and their merits certainly justify her
biographer's exclaimation of: "rara avis in Saxonia visa est."
It is to be assumed that between the 6th and 12th century, all dramatic presentations
ceased, but each of these centuries when patiently searched has yielded some dramatic
texts. The fuedal period, reckoned the most barbarous, and Germaina, set down then, as
later in history, as the least civilized of countries, have produced the most considerable
and least imperfect of these texts in the plays of Hrotsuitha, or Rowitha, a nun of the
Order of St. Benedict, who spent her religous life in the convent of Gandersheim.
There is a marked difference between her plays ans such dramas as The Mystery of the
Wise and Foolish Virgins, which is little more than an amplicifation of the sequence
of the liturgy. We find here an author not only familiar with the Scriptures, the works of
the Fathers of the Church, agiographers, and of the Christian philosophers, but with
Plautus, Terence, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid -- an author who, on her own confession, took
the theatre of Terence as her own model.
The abbey of Gandersheim, where these plays were written, was founded about the year
850 by Luldolph, Duke of Saxony, at the request of his wife Oda, a Frankish princess.
Although these were what men call "the dark ages", the darkness was comparative.
The Saxon court at this time was enlightened, and the Abbeys of Saxony, notably that of
Corbei, were centres of learning and civilization. Gandersheim was one of the "free
abbeys," that is to say its Abbess held it in direct from the King. Her rights of
overlordship extended for many miles; she had her own law courts, and sent her men-at-arms
into the field. In fact, she enjoyed the usual privileges and undertook the usual
responsibilites of a feudal baron, and as such had the right to a seat in the Imperial
Diet. Coins are extant, struck by the Abbess of Gandersheim, whose portraits they bear.
During the 10th and 11th centuries these Abbesses were drawn chiefly from the royal
house of Saxony, which had been raised to the dignity of the Imperial throne of Germania.
Leuckfeld, in his voluminous history of Gandersheim, quotes a contemporary chroniciler who
praises the royal nuns for keeping all luxury and state ouf ot eh life of the community,
and for observing the Rule of St. Benedict strictly. "They were forbidden," says
the chronicler, "to eat away from the common table at the appointed times, except in
case of sickness. They slept together, and came together to celebrate the canonical hours.
And they set to work together whenever work had to be done." The Abbess who ruled the
community in Roswitha's time was Gerberg, or Gerberga, a niece of the Emperor Otho I.
Gerberg was a good classical scholar, and Roswitha tells us in one of the introductory
prefaces with which, fortunately for posterity, her works are freely sprinkled, how much
she owed to the tuition of the Abbess, "younger in years than I, but far older in
It is from such sentences as this that we are able to gain a little information about
Rowitha's life. Her mention of certain historical events and personages proves that she
was born after the year 912 and before the year 940 (the known date of Gerberg's birth).
She seems to have entered the religous life at Gandersheim when she was about twenty-three
years old. She tells us nothing about her antecedents, but as Gandersheim was an exclusive
house we may assume that she was of gentle birth. What education or experience of the
world she had before she became a nun is a matter of guesswork.
Roswitha wrote in Latin, the only language used in the 10th century in the West for
literary composition. Conrad Celtes, the well-known humanist, discovered the manuscript,
the writing of which cannot be earlier than the 9th, or later than the 10th century, in
the library of the Benedictine monastery of St. Emmeran, Ratisbon, in the last days of the
15th century. In the year 1505, it was printed. This first edition has an interesting
frontispiece representing the nun poet and dramatist presenting her works to the Emperor
Otho II, in the presence of her Abbess Gerberg, who wears the crown of a
"Frstbtin." This and the other plates illustrating incidents in the
plays have been attributed to both Drer and Cranach, but they are not signed.
Another edition, that of Schurzfleisch, in nearly all respects a reprint of the first, was
issued in 1707, augmented with biographical and philological notes. The text given in the
Latin Patrology (Migne, Tomus 137) is taken from the Schurzfleisch edition. More valuable
to the student is Magnin's edition. The French commentator collated the Celtes and
Schurzfleisch texts with the original manuscript, which in 1803 had been moved from St.
Emmeran to the Munich library, and found one or two readings preferable to those of
Celtes. Maginin also restored some stage directions omitted by Celtes, one of which, in
the eighth scene of Callimachus, affords, as the English translator notes, valuable
evidence that the play was acted, or at least intended for representation.
The original manuscript is divided into three parts. The first contains eight poems or
metrical legends of the Saints in which reliable authorities are carefully followed, much
skill being shown, however, in the arrangement of the material and in the handling of the
"leonine hexameter." The second part consists of the six plays here given in
English; the third, of a long unfinished poem called "Panegyric of the Othos."
Celtes changed the order, which is to be regretted, as it is obviously chronological.
Roswitha's preface to Part III shows more confidence than the preface to the plays, and
very much more than the diffident preface to the poems. One of these poems, "Passio
Sancti Pelagii," once enjoyed a very high repuation, and is often quoted by Spanish
and Portuguese agiographers. The Bollandists print it entire in the Acta Sanctorum.
It has another interest in that Roswitha tells us that she obtained her facts from a
witness of the saint's martyrdom.
Although Roswitha claims Terence as her master in the art of play-writing, it cannot be
said that she imitates him closely. When Paphnutius was acted in London in 1914 the
dramatic critic of The Times was justified from one point of view in asserting that
Roswitha's style is "not in the least Terentian." For one thing she is quite
indifferent to the "unities" and transports us from place to place with
bewildering abruptness. Her relation to Terence, as she herself insists, is one of moral
contrasts rather than of literary parallels. The "situation" in Terence's
comedies almost invariably turns on the fraility of women; in Roswitha's plays as
invariably on their heroic adherence to chastity. Although considerable variety is shown
in the treatment of each story, the motive is always the same -- to glorify uncompromising
fidelity to the vow of virginity. This nun dramatist deals courageously, but, it must be
added, delicately, when it is remembered that she lived in an age when even the best
eduacted were neither fastidious nor restrained in manners or conversation, with the
temptations which her characters overcome. The preface to her plays shows that it was not
without some qualms of conscience that she wrote of things "which should not even be
named among us." But the purity of her intentions, which was obviously recognized by
her religious superiors, should induce the most prudish reader to refrain from charges of
impropriety. With all their shortcomings, Roswitha's works have a claim to an eminent
place in medieval literature, and do honour to her sex, to the age in which she lived, and
to the vocation which she followed.
* Since this was written,
any English translation of one of the plays, Abraham, has been issued by a private
Hrotsvitha, ca. 935-ca. 975. The Plays of Roswitha. Translated by Christopher
St. John, with an introduction by Cardinal Gasquet and a critical preface by the
translator.(London, Chatto & Windus, 1923)
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Paul Halsall, October 1999