Hrotswitha the "Strong Voice of Gandersheim": The Brazen Playwright Nun of Tenth-Century Germany

By Juliette Carbonnier

Published on January 30, 2024
Volume 9, Issue 1

Hrotswitha of Gandersheim was a tenth-century German canoness and playwright who wrote dramatic, Christianized reinterpretations of ancient stories with the goal of encouraging faith, chastity, and salvation among women at the Abbey of Gandersheim.[1] I will examine one of Hrotswitha’s six plays, Abraham, as a case study for themes of physical and spiritual virginity, male authority, neglect, sexuality, despair, and redemption in tenth-century Germany. First, I will introduce the historical context of religious and moral thought about female sexuality and virginity. Then, I will introduce the specific context of the story of Abraham and perform a close reading of the play in light of the themes above. Finally, I will examine Hrotswitha’s own words about herself and her writing. By analyzing Hrotswitha’s intentions as a writer, I intend to determine the extent to which she exercised authorial control. In other words, how much did Hrotswitha change the narrative of Abraham—which was based on a fourth-century story—to support her own beliefs and, furthermore, to disseminate a moral that she approved of? Although Hrotswitha’s play enforced many patriarchal ideas of the time, she nonetheless called attention to the carelessness with which religious men raised young girls and failed to adequately educate women in Christian morality. Hrotswitha took matters into her own hands by presenting herself as a divine messenger and asserting what she believed in; she brazenly criticized men’s shortcomings and encouraged the women of her social circle to aspire to her own version of Christian moral ethics.

Scholarship often concentrates on determining whether Hrotswitha of Gandersheim succeeded at subverting patriarchal norms of female sexuality and morality through her writing.[2] Some argue that Hrotswitha wrote triumphant stories of heroic, brave, courageous women, while others have denied Hrotswitha’s writing any sort of feminist triumph. Either way, scholarship usually concentrates solely on Hrotswitha’s dramatic writing or her prefaces, rarely examining the two in tandem to devise an argument about her authorial control. Specifically, dissecting the ways in which Hrotswitha changed existing narratives to suit her own intentions and shape the way her audiences understood the message of her plays provides deeper insight into Hrotswitha’s power as a writer and moralist. The extent to which Hrotswitha challenged patriarchal norms fails to have much relevance for contemporary understanding of Christian medieval gender relations, without understanding how Hrotswitha viewed her own role as a writer and educator for women in her community. Because there are so few surviving accounts written by women from the early medieval period, Hrotswitha’s autobiographical writings give contemporary readers a unique look into her intentions and motivations as a writer and prove her most radical act to be the way she took authorial control and actively altered existing religious stories.

How Hrotswitha Became Hrotswitha

Learning about Hrotswitha’s community and various privileges is crucial in understanding how she viewed her writing and how she used her authority through her storytelling. Until the early twentieth century, historians assumed that there were no dramatic representations or theatrical performances between the sixth and fourteenth centuries in Europe. The one notable exception turns out to be Hrotswitha, a case made more remarkable by the fact that she was a woman.[3] Hrotswitha was a member of the Abbey of Gandersheim, founded in 850 by Ludolph, the Duke of Saxony, who began the tradition of drawing abbesses from the royal house of Saxony.[4] Most convents in Saxony during the tenth and eleventh centuries were not nunneries, but rather houses of canonesses that did not adhere to strict Benedictine monasticism.[5] As such, the Abbey of Gandersheim was a center of learning and creative, spiritual, and intellectual activity for young women from the upper echelons of society.

Many members of the Abbey were familiar with Christian scriptures as well as the works of the Fathers of the Church, Christian philosophers, and classical writers, such as Plautus, Terence, Virgil, and Ovid.[6] Gandersheim was an independent principality ruled by women, namely an abbess, serving the Ottonian dynasty by allowing unmarried women of royal blood to receive education and protection from marrying princes who might be rivals for the throne.[7] Although nuns took strict monastic vows, canonesses had a number of freedoms, including having their own money, servants, books, guests, and the privilege to come and go without permission.[8] Canonesses were more public-facing than nuns in their form of monasticism; their work was geared towards education and conversion of the public.[9] The surprisingly unrestricted lives of canonesses, paired with the female-centered environment of the Abbey of Gandersheim, created a uniquely fertile ground for elite women to experiment with creative and intellectual pursuits.

Hrotswitha was born around 935; she joined the Abbey of Gandersheim in her early twenties and quickly became a canoness.[10] As a canoness of high social standing at Gandersheim, Hrotswitha was in a unique position to read, write, influence other women, and even interact with men of the court. There is no direct evidence that Hrotswitha’s plays were performed, but theatrical readings of her plays likely took place at Gandersheim and at court; the Ottonian court often held ceremonies that involved role playing, charades, and performative rituals.[11] She even garnered enough respect as a writer to be asked to write a history of the emperor Otto I.[12] Hrotswitha specifically wrote for her community; her plays were intended to be read aloud to fellow women at the Abbey.[13] In the preface to her collection of plays, she even referred to herself as “the strong voice of Gandersheim.”[14] Her writing encouraged unwavering faith in God and to assert that all women could achieve salvation. Hrotswitha did this by bringing Christian themes to older stories.

Hrotswitha’s plays reflect the main goals of ecclesiastical reformers in the tenth century: to improve clerical education, maintain classical Latin style and tradition, and appeal to nobility and common people alike through creative representations of liturgical stories.[15] The emphasis on visual, musical, and allegorical religious representations, as well as theatrical ceremony and performance, allowed reformers to introduce liturgy to the public, including those whose knowledge of Latin (and even Christianity) was minimal or nonexistent.[16] By using dramatic language and religious allegory, Hrotswitha rendered her moral lessons accessible to the other nuns in the convent, whose education might have been less than hers.

Hrotswitha explicitly cited Terence, the Roman playwright, as her main inspiration: “There are others who, although they are deeply attached to the sacred writings and have no liking for most pagan productions, make an exception in favour of the works of Terence, and, fascinated by the charm of the manner, risk being corrupted by the wickedness of the matter.”[17] Hrotswitha wished to overturn his scandalous, corrupt “pagan” characters and stories, with moral Christian ones. She used theater as a medium for religious education, taking inspiration from Terence for structure, plot, and linguistic style.[18] In Terence’s plays, young women are often the basis of the plot, but they never play an active role in rescuing themselves, and often do not even speak.[19] They are raped, exploited, and silenced.[20] In Terentian drama, the highest aspiration of a young woman is to get married, whereas Hrotswitha’s plays encourage spiritual union with God above all.[21] Hrotswitha establishes herself to be well-versed in classical literature in order to justify Christianizing pagan stories. She does not shy away from dramatically altering, reconfiguring, and reforming ancient, male-dominated narratives.

Themes in Abraham, the Play

In Abraham, Hrotswitha re-envisions a fourth-century story about a Syrian Christian hermit named St. Abraham of Qidun and the fall and repentance of his niece, Mary.[22] The original text, “Mary, the Niece of Abraham of Qidun,” is attributed to Syrian poet-theologian St Ephrem.[23] The story comes out of the oral storytelling tradition of ascetic desert fathers, who withdrew from society in order to connect with God.[24] The stories were transcribed and translated into Greek and Latin, and eventually became very popular Christian stories.[25] Because I will be using the translation by Christopher St. John (Christopher Marie)—the first ever English translation of Hrotswitha’s writings—I will not analyze specific word choices or syntax, but rather focus on the moments where Hrotswitha shifts the narrative from the original tale—namely when she specifically points to Abraham’s shortcomings. Hrotswitha’s Abraham recounts the life of a young girl named Mary, who is kept in the care of her uncle, Abraham. A man seduces Mary, who is so ashamed that she runs away and becomes a prostitute at a nearby tavern. Ultimately, she redeems herself when her uncle comes to rescue her from the tavern. Throughout the play, Hrotswitha emphasizes the weaknesses of Mary’s male caregivers, Abraham and Ephrem, and insists on Mary’s spiritual purity, despite her sexual sins.

Introduction to Mary’s Character

Hrotswitha introduces Mary through the voice of Abraham, who says to his friend, Ephrem, “I desire with all my heart to see her the spouse of Christ and devoted entirely to His service.”[26] Hrotswitha draws an immediate parallel between Mary, the niece of Abraham, and the Virgin Mary. Upon meeting Mary, Abraham says to her: “Strive to imitate the chastity of the holy Virgin whose name you bear.”[27] Abraham confronts the eight-year-old Mary with an unachievable command: be as pure as the Virgin Mary. This impossibility necessitates the inevitability of Mary’s impure reality.[28] Ephrem tells Mary how to be pious: “By keeping your body unspotted, and your mind pure and holy.”[29] Ephrem and Abraham think that young women must remain unmarried and virginal to be true, pious Christians. As such, they adhere to the argument of church father Jerome in Adversus Jovinianum, who wrote that once a woman has succumbed to lust, not even martyrdom can remove that mark of sin.[30]

In the early medieval period, the church considered women, even the most virtuous of women, to be intricately connected to original sin, sex, and the fallen condition of human nature.[31] Only the Virgin Mary escapes sin, leaving all mortal women to fall short of such a high standard of purity. Faced with the order to emulate the Virgin Mary, who represents an unachievable ideal for women, the character of Mary is doomed to fall short. Abraham tells Mary that her only chance at being a good Christian is to remain a virgin and Mary, being a dutiful child, agrees to his terms: “I put myself under your direction.”[32] The absurd and futile expectations put on Mary by Abraham and Ephrem are important to understand, when the play later shifts to condemn Abraham and Ephrem.

Mary’s Enclosure and Abraham’s Neglect

Abraham locks Mary in a small cell near his own hermitage chamber to keep her from the outside world, in effort to protect her virginity. In doing so he fails to protect her spirituality.

Abraham’s imposition of absolute isolation on Mary, runs contrary to the various freedoms appreciated by the women at Gandersheim.[33] Unlike the women at Gandersheim, Abraham keeps Mary locked away from any sort of education, intellectual or spiritual, in order to protect Mary’s beauty. At the start of the play, Abraham says that his greatest concern is protecting Mary’s outward appearance: “My only care is her radiant beauty! What if it should one day be dimmed by sin.”[34] He and Ephrem are obsessed with Mary’s virginity; they fundamentally distrust her body and fear the possibility of sin that it holds.[35] Abraham and Ephrem are so concerned with Mary’s virginity that they neglect her spiritual and physical well-being, so much so that they fail to prevent her from running away.

Years later, Abraham tells Ephrem that Mary was seduced by a man: “By the wiles of false love. Dressed in a monk’s habit, the hypocrite went to see her often. He succeeded in making the poor ignorant child love him. She leapt from the window of her cell for an evil deed.”[36] Abraham describes the event as though Mary was eager to have sex with him, leaping from her cell.[37] Afterwards, Mary’s anguish is described by Abraham: “When the unhappy girl knew that she was ruined, she beat her breast and dug her nails into her face. She tore her garments, pulled out her hair. Her despairing cries were terrible to hear.”[38] All this we hear in the words of Abraham. We do not get to learn Mary’s side of the story. Abraham then reveals that he ignored and misinterpreted a vision warning him that Mary was in danger: “If I had not been so blind! I ought to have paid more heed to that terrible vision. Yes, I see now that it was sent to warn me.”[39] The “vision” that Abraham ignores seems to insinuate that God was looking out for Mary. Even Ephrem chides Abraham for taking so long—more than a year—to notice that Mary was gone: “You were too tardy in noticing this.”[40] By emphasizing their neglect, Hrotswitha criticizes the way that men in the church overlook the needs of women.[41] By scolding Abraham and Ephrem, Hrotswitha holds them to a higher standard than in the original version of the story, where Abraham and Ephrem are simply heroes who suffer at the hands of Mary’s sins.

Predatory Behavior and Abraham’s Descent into Sin

When Abraham goes to rescue Mary from her life as a prostitute, he becomes her savior, while simultaneously taking advantage of her. Regula Meyer Evitt has argued that viewing Abraham’s behavior towards Mary as incestuous and predatory justifies questioning his moral authority as a character.[42] In the tenth century, the church defined incest as spiritual as well as physical, so Abraham’s explicit voyeurism of his niece falls into the realm of spiritual incest.[43] Amid a time where the clergy was extremely concerned with illicit sexual relations, including incest, Hrotswitha’s portrayal of Abraham and Mary’s closeness would not have gone unnoticed. Mary, unlike Hrotswitha, was not raised in a convent, where she would have been protected from abuse and the lecherous influences of men.[44] Mary is alone without any maternal figures. M.R. Sperberg-McQueen has argued that Mary fits the psychological and social profile of a young woman who has been subject to father-daughter incest: no mother, low self-esteem, self-accusatory, a runaway, and a prostitute.[45]

Abraham disguises himself to visit the tavern where Mary works as a prostitute. He tells Ephrem that he must not refuse “flesh, meat and wine” should it be offered to him to avoid raising suspicion.[46] Ephrem approves of his decision, saying that God forgives men who relax their moral codes for a time in order to “[descend] to the level of weaker mortals” with the goal of “rescuing an errant soul.”[47] With this exchange, Hrotswitha emphasizes the hypocrisy of sin and those who are granted leniency. In the tavern, Abraham initiates sexual activity with Mary almost immediately: “Come nearer, Mary, and give me a kiss.”[48] Only after his provocation does Mary say, “I will give you more than a kiss. I will take your head in my arms and stroke your neck.”[49] Regula Meyer Evitt determined that Abraham’s disguise as a lover in the tavern reveals a potentially sexually motivated desire to lock Mary in his monastic cell in the first place and marks the moment when Abraham’s spiritually incestuous relationship with his niece becomes literal incest.”[50] After embracing Abraham, Mary begins to cry: “Wretch that I am! To what have I fallen! In what pit am I sunk!”[51] Although Mary does not recognize her uncle, she subconsciously senses that something is wrong. Abraham reproaches Mary: “I came here to make love to you, not to weep with you over your sins.”[52] Mary resigns and takes Abraham to bed.

When Abraham and Mary are finally alone, Abraham confronts Mary and chides her for not recognizing her adoptive father: “Oh, my daughter! Oh, Mary, you who are part of my soul! Look at me. Do you not know me?”[53] Abraham berates Mary with questions:

ABRAHAM. Who deceived you? Who led you astray?

MARY. Who deceived our first parents?

ABRAHAM. Have you forgotten that once you lived like an angel on earth!

MARY. All that is over.

ABRAHAM. What has become of your virginal modesty? Your beautiful purity?

MARY. Lost. Gone!

ABRAHAM. Oh, Mary, think what you have thrown away! Think what a reward you had earned by your fasting, and prayers, and vigils. What can they avail you now! You have hurled yourself from heavenly heights into the depths of hell![54]

Abraham accuses Mary of purposefully destroying her “beautiful purity.” After profusely chiding her, Abraham tells Mary that she can still rise to redemption: “Oh, Mary, do not let apathy prevent your seizing the moment for repentance. It matters not how wickedness has flourished. Divine grace can flourish still more abundantly!”[55] Mary agrees to return to her cell and she expresses gratitude for Abraham’s kindness: “Let me try all my life to thank you! I was not worth pity, yet you have shown me no harshness; you have led me to repent not by threats but by gentleness and love.”[56] Mary does not hold Abraham accountable, nor does she resent him for his role in her moral erring. She remains humble, faithful, and kind. Despite Mary’s sins, her extremely modest dialogue demonstrates that her spirit has remained pure and she is, therefore, irrefutably worthy of salvation. Hrotswitha does not spare Mary from Abraham’s punishments, but Mary’s character—unlike Abraham’s character—remains unblemished and virtuous.

Mary’s Repentance and Virginity as Spiritual

In Hrotswitha’s play, Mary is furthest from salvation when she despairs in God, rather than in her moments of sexual sin.[57] Abraham warns Mary against abandoning God and encourages her to trust “divine grace.” Stephen Wailes has argued that Mary’s despair reflects poorly on Abraham, indicating that he did not raise her to understand and trust the Christian doctrines of forgiveness and hope.[58] Wailes determined that Abraham is too obsessed with Mary’s sexuality instead of seeing her “as God’s creature of spirit as well as flesh.”[59] If Mary had been adequately educated in the Christian faith, as Hrotswitha was, then perhaps Mary would have assumed God to be merciful, loving, and willing to forgive sin. Maybe she would have sought forgiveness after her initial encounter with her seducer, rather than accepting her fate as doomed and resigning herself to becoming a prostitute. Instead Mary is consumed with shame and anxiety about sexuality and her body.[60] Rather than blaming Mary as a person, Hrotswitha faults Mary’s lack of autonomous Christian morals and her reliance on two incompetent and ignorant advisors.

Mary does not have access to Christian teachings beyond what Abraham offered her. Abraham instructed Mary to preserve her virginity, without explaining the significance of her spiritual faith. He did not emphasize Christianity as a religion of conversion, repentance, and forgiveness; a faith that allows redemption for sinners, even prostitutes. Hrotswitha insinuates that Abraham’s decision to lock up Mary was misguided, ignorant, and even dangerous.[61] Hrotswitha makes it clear that Mary does, in fact, sin, but she asks us to reconsider whether her sin also results from Abraham’s neglect and misguided priorities. Mary agrees to everything Abraham tells her to do, without understanding the implications:

ABRAHAM. She wears a hair shirt, and subdues her flesh with continual vigils and fasts. She is making the poor frail body obey the spirit by the most rigorous discipline.

EPHREM. Only through such a severe penance can the stains left by the pleasures of the flesh be washed away.

ABRAHAM. Those who hear her sobs are cut to the heart, and the tale of her repentance has turned many from their sins.

EPHREM. It is often so.

ABRAHAM. She prays continually for the men who through her were tempted to sin, and begs that she who was their ruin may be their salvation.[62]

In order to redeem herself, Mary must approach death by physically tormenting herself, so as to attempt to rid herself of her body, the cause of her ruin. Mary atones for her sins by denying her sexuality, femininity, and physical well-being.[63] In the end, Mary remains at the mercy of male authority and at the mercy of her condemned female body.

Hrotswitha rejects the idea that a woman’s sexual past would prevent her from reaching salvation and aligns herself with the Augustinian idea that physical virginity alone is not enough to guarantee salvation. Augustine specifically wrote that women who were not virgins could still become martyrs and could still be pure, since virginity was in the realm of the moral and spiritual, not just the physical.[64] Hrotswitha certainly views virginity as the ideal state for Christian women, but by prioritizing spiritual chastity Hrotswitha allows Mary the opportunity to be redeemed through spiritual and moral recovery. By emphasizing Abraham’s moral hypocrisy and misdeeds above and beyond the original story, Hrotswitha displaces some of the blame from Mary. However, Hrotswitha’s variations stop there and Mary gets locked away, subject to self-inflicted torture, for the rest of her life. Perhaps Hrotswitha’s interpretation could only go so far, or perhaps Hrotswitha felt that a harsh punishment was necessary to prove Mary’s devoutness. Maybe Hrotswitha embraced the early medieval, Christian idea that women were physiologically, spiritually, and morally weaker, but equal in capacity for salvation.[65] Or perhaps the severity of Mary’s punishment, as described by Abraham and Ephrem, can be interpreted as a parody of reality, intended to mock the standard of female salvation. Or perhaps Hrotswitha viewed Mary’s atonement, no matter how brutal, as a triumph and a testament to the possibilities of Christian redemption.

Hrotswitha as an Author

Abraham paints a complicated picture of young Christian women and their ability to rescue themselves from sin. The character of Mary could be interpreted as a heroic martyr who redeems herself through spirituality, despite her neglectful upbringing and lack of a proper Christian moral education. Alternatively, she could be seen as a miserable woman forced to live in pain and grapple with her sins for the rest of her life while her guardian, Abraham, escapes unpunished. Contemporary readings of Abraham may suggest one or the other, but ultimately Hrotswitha’s most revolutionary act was to alter the ancient story of Mary and Abraham for her own purposes. The character Mary, although not particularly assertive or independent, is treated with complexity in terms of her chastity, sexuality, and faith. The elements of Hrotswitha’s writing that enforce and even enhance patriarchal ideas, must be considered within the context of a community that considered the virgin body, physical and spiritual, as the only path to spiritual autonomy for women.[66] Elaine Showalter has argued that contemporary and historical women alike “must mediate their beliefs through the allowable forms of dominant structures,” when even allowed to express their own beliefs at all.[67] Hrotswitha’s authorial transgressions extend beyond the themes of Abraham and into the way she unabashedly asserted herself as a writer and teacher with self-sustained authorial power.

In her preface to her patrons, Hrotswitha asserts herself as the representative of her community: “I, the strong voice of Gandersheim.”[68] She continues to explain that she feels responsible for spreading Christian morals: “I strive only, although my power is not equal to my desire, to use what talent I have for the glory of Him Who gave it to me.”[69] Although we cannot know for sure whether Hrotswitha’s plays were presented publicly, Hrotswitha’s preface to her patrons indicates that her plays were part of Gandersheim ceremonies and theatrical events.[70] Hrotswitha used her platform to encourage her community to scrutinize the shortcomings of male authority, improve the quality of moral education for young women, and consider that salvation is possible for fallen women. Hrotswitha embraced her role as a divine messenger, with writing as her tool to spread Christianity:

I rejoice from the depths of my soul that the God through Whose grace alone I am what I am should be praised in me, but I am afraid of being thought greater than I am. I know that it is as wrong to deny a divine gift as to pretend falsely that we have received it. So I will not deny that through the grace of the Creator I have acquired some knowledge of the arts. He has given me the ability to learn—I am a teachable creature—yet of myself I should know nothing.[71]

Hrotswitha embraces Christ’s mission to spread Christianity through her writing, which serves as her way to preach.[72] By claiming that her writing abilities are a “divine gift,” Hrotswitha presents herself as God’s instrument.[73] Katharina Wilson has argued that Hrotswitha goes so far as to compare her writing to the act of divine creation.[74] Hrotswitha uses self-deprecation to humble herself, claiming she “know[s] nothing.” However this feels more like a posture, rather than a reflection of her own marginalized experience, since she was fortunate enough to be extremely well-read and knowledgeable.[75] As a woman in a privileged position at the Abbey of Gandersheim, Hrotswitha was able to assert herself more than most women of the time.

Scholars often pigeonhole Hrotswitha into one of two categories: a woman who gained power by playing into patriarchal ideals of female inferiority, or a “failed precursor of feminist thought,” in the words of Barbara K. Gold.[76] These two categories deny Hrotswitha any complexity as an author. Hrotswitha reclaimed traditional stories for a female audience, reversing the gaze so that, for once, the stories were written by a woman, for other women.[77] Hrotswitha strove to render stories of female redemption more accessible, granting the subject of sexual misbehavior and sin unprecedented nuance and maturity. Furthermore, she altered existing narratives to assert her own beliefs and condemned problematic elements of society. Hrotswitha was the author of her own worlds, a creator of sorts, rebelling against the notion that only men should be writing about women, morality, and Christianity. Hrotswitha’s writing suggests that, despite a patriarchal Christian code of ethics, there were women who clearly saw the hypocrisy of religious men and resisted the idea that innocent young women pay for the misdeeds of their male authority figures. Most women did not have the education or reach that Hrotswitha had, but Hrotswitha’s brazen writing proves the existence of women’s fierce insight criticism against society. Perhaps tenth century women were unable to fix the problems of their times—although who knows what impact Hrotswitha’s writing had at the time—but Hrotswitha’s writing stands as a testament to the clarity with which these women viewed themselves and their lives, and the voracity with which women asserted their opinions, when given the chance.


Primary Sources

Ephraem. Sancti Ephraem Syri Hymni et sermones. Translated by Thomas Joseph Lamy. Mechlin, Belgium: H. Dessain, 1886. Quoted in Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s “Mary, the Niece of Abraham of Qidun.” In Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 27-39. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Roswitha of Gandersheim. The Plays of Roswitha. Translated by Christopher St. John. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.

Secondary Sources

Gandersheim Christianizes Terence.” In A Companion to Terence,” edited by Antony Augoustakis and Ariana Traill, 397-409. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Brock, Sebastian P., and Susan Ashbrook Harvey. “Mary, the Niece of Abraham of Qidun.” In Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 27-39. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. “Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing.” In Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, 110-169. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Classen, Albrecht. “Sex on the Stage (and in the Library) of an Early Medieval Convent: Hrotsvit of Gandersheim.” Orbis Litterarum 65, no. 3 (2010): 167-200.

Dronke, Peter. “Hrotsvitha.” In Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete, 55-83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Elliott, Dylan. Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Evitt, Regula Meyer. “Incest Disguised: Ottoman Influence at Gandersheim and Hrotsvit’s Abraham.” Comparative Drama 41, no. 3 (2007): 349-69.

Ferrante, Joan M. To the Glory of Her Sex: Women’s Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Forse, James H. “Religious Drama and Ecclesiastical Reform in the Tenth Century.” Early Theater 5, no. 2 (2002): 47-70.

Gasquet, Francis Aidan. Introduction to The Plays of Roswitha, translated by Christopher St. John. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.


[1] Alternate spellings of the name “Hrotswitha” include: Hrosvit, Hroswitha, Hrotsvit, Hrotsvitha, Rosvita and Roswitha. For the sake of clarity, I will use the spelling “Hrotswitha” throughout this paper.

[2] Examples of brilliant scholarship on Hrotswitha and her plays includes Regula Meyer Evitt, “Incest Disguised: Ottoman Influence at Gandersheim and Hrotsvit’s Abraham,” Comparative Drama 41, no. 3 (2007): 349–69; Barbara K. Gold, “Hrotswitha Writes Herself: Clamor Validus Gandeshemensis,” in Sex and Gender: in Medieval and Renaissance Texts: The Latin Tradition, ed. Barbara K. Gold, Paul Allen Miller, and Charles Platter (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 41–70; Stephen L. Wailes, “Beyond Virginity: Flesh and Spirit in the Plays of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim,” Spectrum 76, no. 1 (2001): 1–27.

[3] Francis Aidan Gasquet, introduction to Roswitha of Gandersheim’s The Plays of Roswitha, trans. Christopher St John (London: Chatto & Windus, 1923), vii.

[4] Gasquet, introduction to Roswitha of Gandersheim’s The Plays of Roswitha, viii-ix.

[5] Sarah Greer, “Saxon Female Monasticism c. 852-1024,” in Commemorating Power in Early Medieval Saxony: Writing and Rewriting the Past at Gandersheim and Quedlinburg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 26-27.

[6] Gasquet, introduction to Roswitha of Gandersheim’s The Plays of Roswitha, viii-ix.

[7] Peter Dronke, “Hrotsvitha,” in Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 56.

[8] Dronke, “Hrotsvitha,” 56.

[9] Greer, “Saxon Female Monasticism c. 852-1024,” 28.

[10] Dronke, “Hrotsvitha,” 56.

[11] Dronke, “Hrotsvitha,” 58-59.

[12] Joan M. Ferrante, To the Glory of Her Sex: Women’s Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1997), 176.

[13] James H. Forse, “Religious Drama and Ecclesiastical Reform in the Tenth Century,” Early Theater 5, no. 2 (2002): 66.

[14] Roswitha of Gandersheim, preface to The Plays of Roswitha, trans. Christopher St. John.

[15] Forse, “Religious Drama and Ecclesiastical Reform in the Tenth Century,” 52-53.

[16] Forse, “Religious Drama and Ecclesiastical Reform in the Tenth Century,” 55.

[17] Roswitha of Gandersheim, preface to The Plays of Roswitha, trans. Christopher St. John.

[18] Forse, “Religious Drama and Ecclesiastical Reform in the Tenth Century,” 63.

[19] Carole E. Newlands, “Hroswitha’s Debt to Terence,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 116 (1986): 372.

[20] M.R. Sperberg-McQueen, “Whose Body is It? Chaste Strategies and the Reinforcement of Patriarchy in Three Plays by Hrotswitha von Gandersheim,” Women in German Yearbook 8 (1992): 49.

[21] Newlands, “Hroswitha’s Debt to Terence,” 374. Also see Antony Augoustakis, “Hrotsvit of Gandersheim Christianizes Terence,” in A Companion to Terence, ed. Antony Augoustakis and Ariana Traill (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 402.

[22] Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Mary, the Niece of Abraham of Qidun,” in Holy Women of the Syrian Orient (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 27.

[23] Brock and Harvey, “Mary, the Niece of Abraham of Qidun,” 29.

[24] Benedicta Ward, foreword to The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1975), xxiii.

[25] Brock and Harvey, “Mary, the Niece of Abraham of Qidun,” 28.

[26] For quotes from the play, Abraham, I will note the scene number, for the reader's convenience. Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 1.

[27] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 2.

[28] Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 2.

[29] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 2.

[30] Gary Macy, “Hrotsvit’s Theology of Virginity and Continence,” in A Companion to Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (fl. 960): Contextual and Interpretive Approaches, ed. Phyllis R. Brown and Stephen L. Wailes (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 68-70.

[31] Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies, 2.

[32] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 2.

[33] Evitt, “Incest Disguised,” 359.

[34] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 1.

[35] Jane Tibbetts Schulenberg, Forgetful of their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998), 288, quoted in Evitt, “Incest Disguised,” 359.

[36] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 3.

[37] The original story describes the seduction moment as orchestrated by Satan. Mary resists the false monk for a year; the emphasis is on the lustful man and his aggressive pursuit of Mary. Furthermore, the wording of the encounter is ambiguous, insinuating that Mary was assaulted. See Ephraem, Sancti Ephraem Syri Hymni et sermones, trans. Thomas Joseph Lamy (Mechlin: H. Dessain, 1886), quoted in Brock and Harvey, “Mary, the Niece of Abraham of Qidun,” 31.

[38] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 3.

[39] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 3.

[40] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 3.

[41] Ferrante, To the Glory of Her Sex, 182.

[42] Evitt, “Incest Disguised,” 355.

[43] Evitt, “Incest Disguised,” 355-57.

[44] David T. Kline, “Kids Say the Darndest Things: Irascible Children in Hrotsvit’s Sapientia,” in Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Contexts, Identities, Affinities, and Performances, ed. Phyllis R. Brown, Linda McMillin, and Katharina M. Wilson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 78.

[45] Sperberg-McQueen, “Whose Body is It?,” 58.

[46] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 3.

[47] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 3.

[48] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 6.

[49] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 6.

[50] Evitt, “Incest Disguised,” 354-5. Also see Katharina Wilson’s “Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, The Fall and Repentance of Mary (Abraham),” in Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: A Florilegium of Her Works, trans. Katharina Wilson (Cambridge: Brewer, 1998).

[51] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 6.

[52] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 6.

[53] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 7. In the original story, Abraham reveals himself to Mary and the first thing he asks her is why she did not trust him and confess her sins to him: “I brought you up as my daughter: why didn’t you tell me when you committed the sin?” Abraham reassures Mary: “Who is without sin, apart from God alone?” Abraham is parental, sweet, kind and reassuring, not at all like Hrotswitha’s Abraham who is more aggressive and confrontational. See Ephraem, Sancti Ephraem Syri Hymni et sermones, quoted in Brock and Harvey, “Mary, the Niece of Abraham of Qidun,” 34.

[54] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 7.

[55] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 7.

[56] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 7.

[57] Wailes, “Beyond Virginity,” 3.

[58] Wailes, “Beyond Virginity,” 17.

[59] Wailes, “Beyond Virginity,” 17.

[60] Wailes, “Beyond Virginity,” 17.

[61] Wailes, “Beyond Virginity,” 20.

[62] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Abraham, Scene 9.

[63] Ruth Mazo Karras, “Holy Harlots: Prostitute Saints in Medieval Legend,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1, no. 1 (1990): 31.

[64] Maud Burnett McInerney, Eloquent Virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 81.

[65] Caroline Walker Bynum, “Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing,” in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 139.

[66] McInerney, Eloquent Virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc, 165.

[67] Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 30, quoted in Sperberg-McQueen, “Whose Body is It?,” 49.

[68] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Preface to The Plays of Roswitha, xxvi.

[69] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Preface to The Plays of Roswitha, xxvii.

[70] Dronke, “Hrotsvitha,” 58-59.

[71] Roswitha of Gandersheim, Preface to The Plays of Roswitha, xxix.

[72] Katharina M. Wilson, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: The Ethics of Authorial Stance (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988), 5.

[73] Wilson, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, 9.

[74] Wilson, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, 16-17.

[75] Ulrike Wiethaus, “Body and Empire in the Works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34, no. 1 (2004): 44.

[76] Gold, “Hrotswitha Writes Herself,” 44.

[77] Gold, “Hrotswitha Writes Herself,” 44.

About the Author

Juliette Carbonnier is a student in the Class of 2024 concentrating in English with certificates in Theater, Creative Writing, and Music Theater. Her academic and research interests include the history of medicine and science, the history of gender and the body, phenomenology, feminist theory, race and ethnicity studies, and literature and close reading. She is currently working on two thesis projects: a dark comedy play entitled Bodywork about pain and gender, and a poetry collection.