Hrotsvit von Gandersheim

Christianity’s first known playwright

Hrotsvit lived in the tenth century (932–1002) as a canoness of the Imperial Saxon Abbey of Gandersheim (Germany). She can best be described by a catalogue of pioneering achievements: she is the first known dramatist of Christianity; the first Saxon poet; the first female Transalpine [north of the Alps] historian; and the author of the only extant Latin epics written by a woman.

According to her own testimony she objected to the great popularity of [Roman author] Terence’s plays, which depicted lascivious pagan women frolicking in the pleasures of the flesh. She wanted to compose dramas substituting the heroines of Christianity: beautiful, chaste virgins, firmly resisting the insidious advances of pagan men. To show “frail Christian virgins” triumph with Christ’s aid was her stated dramatic intent.

Hrotsvit is a polished stylist who doesn’t lack a sense of humor, either. In one of her plays, Dulcitius, the protagonist is a pagan would-be executioner of three Christian virgins. He imprisons them close to the pantry so as to visit and seduce them secretly at night. As he enters the pantry, however, he is miraculously deluded and mistakes the dirty pots and pans for the girls. The scene is related by the girls, who peeping through the keyhole observe the foolish Dulcitius romancing kitchen utensils.

Hrotsvit’s works were rediscovered centuries later by a German scholar, who in 1501 made her texts available for posterity.

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