- Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Contexts, Identities, Affinities, and Performances
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Hrotsvit of Gandersheim was a 10th-century Saxon nun who wrote poetry and plays to glorify Christianity. She has remained relatively obscure for the past thousand years, though she has achieved recognition as the first woman playwright. Sue-Ellen Case writes in Feminism and Theatre that Hrotsvit's "identity [...] has yet to be placed within a critical and historical context" (32). Editors Phyllis R. Brown, Linda A. McMillin, and Katharina Wilson have answered her call, and their collection of essays provides a spectrum of approaches to Hrotsvit's work. The essays are divided into four sections, as the subtitle indicates. All are highly readable and well researched, and they balance each other beautifully. As Wilson explains in her introduction, each study grew out of a 1997 NEH Summer Institute and a subsequent symposium, so the contributors knew each other's work and developed their arguments accordingly. The unity of the collection is further underscored by a comprehensive index and list of works cited, and by the consistency of quoting Hrotsvit in her original Latin throughout. All authors then provide an English version, usually citing Wilson's poetic translations.
Section I establishes Hrotsvit as a nun with an unexpected worldly knowledge of politics and the law, and as a writer deft enough to weave these elements into poetry while exalting her religion. Jay T. Lees writes that in the epic Gesta Ottonis, written in support of Emperor Otto I, Hrotsvit demonstrates a command of the laws of royal succession; furthermore, at one point in the epic she bravely voices "what for her would have been a dangerous idea" (that Otto's brother Henry is equally deserving of dignity ). The theme of Hrotsvit's bravery recurs throughout the collection, notably in Linda A. McMillin's essay about Muslim portrayals in Pelagius. In her retelling of the legend, Hrotsvit has changed some key elements; most significantly, rather than leave the evil ruler anonymous (as he is in Spanish versions), she explicitly names him, thereby mocking and casting aspersions on a contemporary political figure and a threat to Otto I. "Thus the greatest Muslim leader of Hrotsvit's day, with whom even Otto had to reckon, can be humiliated and defeated by one small but brave Christian boy" (53). Lest one mistake Hrotsvit for a nun naïvely stepping into the fray, David Day argues, in the most compelling essay in the book, that her writing of the legend Basilius indicates a "strikingly firm grasp of legal practice" (37) which she uses to indict Satan. While forcing Satan to conform to his own litigious rules, she treats the Christian characters with "broad principles of fairness and equity" (37), thus establishing a division between morality and legality that echoes throughout time.
Hrotsvit's worldly knowledge further extends to sex, the subject of Section 2. Two essays explore how she subverts sexual stereotypes: Florence Newman arguing that Hrotsvit "evokes the erotic [...] in order to de-eroticize the female body" (59) and Ulrike Wiethaus explaining this technique in terms of history and economics. Wiethaus's analysis of Hrotsvit's identification with the power structure and with her heroines is particularly intriguing and complements Ronald Stottlemyer's close reading of Hrotsvit's "desiring subject"—that is, the authorial voice that emerges from the epics. Also in this section is Daniel T. Kline's analysis of the play Sapienta, in which he argues that the Christian daughters' youth overshadows even their gender as they "make a fool of the powerful Roman emperor" (89), thus presenting the play as less polarized and simplistic than previous readings have suggested.
The theme of subversion continues in Section 3 as four essays examine how Hrotsvit adapted ancient texts to serve her religious purposes. Robert Talbot illuminates parallels between Hrotsvit and Terence, and he presents a fascinating [End Page 193] point, that Hrotsvit rewrote Terence to undo him: "If [...] Hrotsvit rereads Terence...