A playwright’s rhythm and rhyme in the 10th century CE.
9 June, 2014
This week On the Reading Rest I have a play, Pafnutius, by Canoness Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, who lived and wrote in the middle of the 10th century CE. In practice a canoness is an upper-class woman who lives in a cloister without being a nun, i.e. without in this case abiding the Benedictine rules of the convent. Hrotsvit’s six plays are interesting mostly because they were written in the 10th century by a self-confident author prefacing her plays with devotional formula (cf. OtRR 19 August 2013) befitting her social status and power. In the century around 1900 their authenticity was of course doubted, mostly by male researchers. Less gender skeptical female researchers were not equally reluctant to believe that there was once such a thing as a female 10th century playwright. Sometimes as in the case of Marguerite Butler as late as in the 1960s, female researchers were peevishly reviewed with a blind eye to novel contributions, even by women (0). And by the way, if she (Hrotsvit) did write the plays, how can we be sure that they were staged in her life time. There is no description of a performance written by someone who actually saw a performance.
When a contemporary of Hrotsvit’s, Ethelwold of Winchester, wrote instruction guiding the performance of the trope Quem Quaeritis (Who do you seek) during the Easter liturgy, nobody doubted that these instructions were immediately followed nor that performance took place within his life time. Yet there is obviously no substantial proof, i.e. record of a Quem Quaeritis performance during the last decades of the 10th century CE. It would seem that researchers tend to expect a bishop, but not a canoness to be obeyed because they think that bishops have power. Nevertheless, the upper classes, to which Hrotsvit happened to belong, are quite capable of staging their female authors, whatever reforming Ethelwold or 19th and 20th century bourgeoises researchers may think. Today, nevertheless, most researchers are content to say that Hrotsvits plays may well have been staged, but at the same time, they represent a type of drama that wasn’t in vogues in 11th and 12th century Western Europe. Indirectly, the fact that they survived these centuries is a sign of their importance – not many plays did.
Hrotsvit set out to rewrite Terentius’ popular plays, i.e. to reform them so that they would be acceptable to a Christian society. This adaptaion of 2nd c. BCE secular Roman culture, was not the way the Church when it became powerful enough wished to make drama useful. And while mystery plays became popular, Hrotsvit was not staged for centuries.
It so happens that an essential point in dramatic performance described by Ethelwold when he tells us how to perform the scene when the three Marias and the Angel meet at Christ’s sepulcher after he has left it, coincides with a similar point in Hrotsvit’s plays. Having referred to the texts accompanying this scene Ethelwold continues:
This said, let the one, still sitting there (i. e. he who plays the angel sitting on Christ’s grave) and as if recalling them (i.e the three Marias), say the anthem Venite et videte locum—come and see the place. And saying this, let him rise, and lift the veil, and show them the place bare of the cross and only the cloths laid there in which the cross was wrapped. And when they have seen this …(1)
Ethelwold’s point is to let the Marias and the audience look into a secrete room behind the veil and behold that Christ has left it. The audience thus focusses on the material reality of a significant place. This scenic context – looking into a significant room, occurs also in Hrotsvit’s plays Pafnutius. The scene is very prophane, but it attracts the audience in the same way that Ethelwold devised.
In order to bring about the conversion of the harlot Thaïs, the hermit Pafnutius decides to work under cover disguising himself as a lover. In this capacity he asks the whore whether there is a room in her house where the two of them may speak secretly. Thaïs, true to her profession, suggests her cozy bedroom which she points out to Pafnutius. The dramaticality employed by Hrotsvit’s character when she points out her bed to Pafnutius parallels the way Ethelwold’s Angel shows Christ’s grave to the Marias. The point is the dramatic technique which allows the audience to look into a secret place and satisfy their curiosity. It is a truly theatrical technique, an illusion based on the curiousness of the audience allowing it to imagine what’s necessary – Christ’s resurrection as well as Thaïs shagging her costumer. With such techniques at hand, no wonder that Ethelwold was specific when he gave instruction on how to perform the scene at the grave.
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Nevertheless, I read Hrotsvit for technical reasons being interested in the way she wrote dialogue for the stage in the 10th c. when poems in alliterative verse could still be recited and poems in trimeter read aloud. Did she employ a poetic-style dialogue?
Usually researchers agree that Hrotsvit wrote rhythmic prose with rhymes, i.e. not verse, but precisely how she did it and why is seldom discussed. Katherine Wilson is the exception and in her translations of Hrotsvit’s plays she preserves the rhymes (2). Because there may be more to Hrotsvit’s way of using rhymes than meets the eye I have picked out a scene from Pafnutius and looked more formally at its prosody – the way Hrotsvit treats syllables, rhythm, stress and intonation in the speech she writes down as dialogue. I start with a translation.
Pafnutius, Scene II: The forum in Alexandria, translation
01a Paf: There are some young men in the square. I will address them first and ask where I can find the woman I am looking for.
01b Young: Look, there’s one who has lost his way approaching us. Let’s find out what he wants.
02a Paf: Hello youngsters, who are you?
02b Young: Citizens of this township
03a Paf: Good day to you
03b Young: And welcome to you, whether you are local or foreign
04a Paf: A foreigner – I have just arrived
04b Young: Why have you come? What are you looking for?
05a Paf: I am not telling you.
05b Young: Why not?
06a Paf: Because it is my secret.
06b Young: It would be better if you told us. Since if you are not one of ours, then you will hardly be able to do any business among us without following the residents’ advice.
07a Paf: But if I tell it, then by saying something I might have built myself a hindrance.
07b Young: Not among us.
08a Paf: Happy with that promise and your trust, I will proceed with confidence and explain my secret.
08b Young: No unfaithfulness on our part, no opposition shall prevent you.
09a Paf: I have been told for certain that a woman staying among you is lovable to everybody – kind to everybody.
09b Young: Do you know her name?
10a Paf: I do!
10b Young: What is she called?
11a Paf: Thaïs.
11b Young: She is fire among us.
12a Paf: They declared this woman very beautiful – and being most attractive to all.
12b Young: Telling you this, they made no mistake.
13a Paf: For this difficult matter I have traveled long-winding roads, I have come just to see her.
13b Young: Nothing prevents you from seeing her
14a Paf: Where does she live?
14b Young: Here in the house next to us
15a Paf: The one you point to?
15b Young: The same
16a Paf: I will go there
16b Young: If you like, we can go with you.
17a Paf: I’d rather go alone.
17b Young: As you please.
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If we divide the dialogue into prosodic sections and define the syllables involved with the rhyming as relatively speaking short (blue) in relation to the long (red) ones, and sometimes as semi-long (green) then we get a perspective on Hrotsvit’s poetic technique. Several of the short syllables could be considered semi-long, but since it is the relation to the long ones and the rhythmic parallelism between the rhymes that matters, most semi-long syllables are in effect short.
Comments on rhymes, rhythm and lines may center on a handful of Points:
In these cases the rhymes mark the end of a sentence, or a part of a sentence or it creates a pause.
These are the standard variations resulting in the main or formal style of the dialogue, but there are lots of deviances from these patterns used to give the dialogue a less formal style, such as:
Rhyming speech (using the standard structures 1 to 5) is a sign of well-formulated and organized speech. Deviances (such as A to D) are caused by context and they add a bit of life to the scenes.
The prosody is relatively free with the rhyming relatively speaking short syllables nearly always falling after a long one:
Although there are more examples of not-so-clear- rhymes, Hrotsvit, nevertheless, treated prosody in a structured way free. This approach to form also governs the length of the prosodic lines as it can be seen if we sort them in (1) lines with no rhymes; (2) lines with two rhymes and (3) lines with three rhymes.
Lines with no rhyme are usually short. The ‘long one’, 8 syllables, was probably supposed to generate an answer rhyming with the question: Haec quam indice proditis? But the urban youngsters, whom Hrotsvit has made a bit toplofty, albeit nice to country cousins, can’t be bothered. This hints that Hrotsvit used rhyme and line length consciously.
On average, when a pair of lines are rhyming the lines become longer and although there are pairs consisting of a long and a short line, most pairs consist of lines being equally long, irrespective of their length. The average pair consists of lines that are c. 9 syllables long and circa half the paired lines have a length between 7 and 10 syllables. By and large the trend in line length is slightly exponential.
Although there are only two cases of three lines rhyming in the same way these cases consist of longer lines that the rhyming pairs or the un-rhyming lines. There are two principles at work in these sections. First rhymes are a way of keeping lines together. Second, when much needs to be said within one sequence of the dialogue the rhymes cannot be allowed to interfere with the message, i.e. the actual meaning of the words spoken. Nor must they be forgotten. This means that on average line length, although varied, will grow and rhyme become less regular.
By and large rhymes are related to a general pace in the dialogue. Moreover, variation in line length and rhymes are used to make the dialogue more lively. Hrotsvit doesn’t count stress, being uninterested in alliteration, but well length and rhythm. Parallel rhythmic patterns in the syllables leading up the rhymes seems to be as important. Rhythmic patterns, therefore, signal the rhymes.
How then would Hrotsvit let Thaïs speak and use rhyme when she shows Pafnutius her bedroom? The scene is significant, but not many words are needed to point it out so Hrotsvit decides to symbolize the elegance or coziness of the room by means of rhythm and rhyme:
A true saleswoman pointing out a piece of real estate up for short-term rent, she decorates her speech with rhymes. She starts with two seemingly not-rhyming short lines. The second and shorter line is a calm and simple rhythmic repetition, which answers the first slightly more lively line. The last lines are longer and full of short syllables. The rhymes and no less than six short syllables, lead up to the final, long, syllable that announces the second rhyme.
To a modern ear Thaïs may not be convincing, Hrotsvit, nevertheless seems to have been careful when she constructed her speech, letting rhythm and rhyme interact with the meaning of the words spoken by Thaïs. If Hrotsvit had insisted on true rhymes the lines would have been tedious, instead her rhyme and rhythm creates a kind of harmony and gentle pace.
(0) In 1960 Marguerite Butler called her book Hrotsvitha: the theatricality of her plays. Searching the JSTOR database for ‘Marguerite Butler’ will lead the reader to several outdated reviews.
(1) quoted after Glynne Wickham. The Medieval Theater, 3rd ed. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1987:38.
(2) If one wants to acquaint oneself with Hrotsvit plays Katherine Wilson’s books are a good point of departure e.g. Katherine M. Wilson (introduction and translation): The plays of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim.New York, Garland Publishing. 1989. And KatherineM. Wilson: Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: The Ethics of Authorial Stance. Leiden, E.J. Brill. 1988.