Hrotsvit – la religieuse a écrit en vers sans le savoir (0)
11 May, 2015
This week on the Reading Rest I have a short text by Hotrsvit of Gandersheim (cf. OtRR 9 juni 2014): Her 35 hexameters describing scenes related to the Apocalypse of St John.
Research concerning Hrotsvit and her plays is characterized by a remarkable reluctance to make head and tails of the 10th century dramatic texts that Hrotsvit included in the manuscript called Clm 14885 (1). Originally Codices latini monacenses 14885 was a book produced at the Gandersheim canoness abbey where Hrotsvit lived. The book was sent to St. Emmeram’s in Regensburg some time between 968 and 993 ce and sent to Regensburg where it is known to have been 993. Originally the book comprising 346 pages. It was divided into three parts, and it was a purposeful collection composed by the author. The first part of the book consists of eight saints’ legends, the second of eight dramatic texts and the last one is a long poem Gesta Ottonis describing the life of Otto the Great until 965 CE.
The origin of the scholarly ‘Hrotsvit problem’ is rooted in the question: how can a nun in a cloister write plays? And if she did how could they be staged in a nunnery, not least when prostitutes and their clients figure in the plays with very realistic and even ironic lines?
Today, seven of the plays are accepted as indeed plays and Hrotsvit’s very existence is no longer doubted, but most researches aren’t sure that the plays were ever staged. Some, moreover, are convinced that Hrotsvit never expected them to be staged because it would be technically impossible especially in a nunnery. During the last 150 years scholars have asymptotically resisted accepting her plays. Nevertheless, as Katherina Wilson pointed out in the introduction to her translation of the second part of Clm 14885: most Hrotsvit scholars now agree that they [i.e. the plays] were eminently performable. (2)
Performable or performed? One wonders, because looking into the research history from the mid-19th century and onwards, it stands to reason that this question – performed or performable? – would not have been an issue had Hrotsvit been a man. Typical of the Hrotsvit research, her works are dismissed as not being actual theatre if one can suspect that they do not fit or influence a common-place understanding of the development of drama or a common-place understanding of religious institution.
To complicate matters there is the Apocalypse of St John, which Hrotsvit included among the plays. Actually, the last of the seven dialogical plays comes to an end on folio 129 recto leaving the next page, folio 129 verso, empty before the Apocalypse of John commences at the top of folio 130 recto with a first line that is also a revealing title:
John, the male virgin, saw the Heavens disclosed
Instead of letting folio 129 verso be an empty page, a quotation from Bede, four elegiac distics, the very end of a hymn in which the first letters forms the word AMEN, has been inserted to fill the blank and otherwise wasted page. The hymn, moreover, points out female chastity which is a central theme in the plays. The added comment about those who walk the road to salvation points in the same direction – perhaps too pedagogically. As a way of making use of a superfluous page of parchment the solution and is nevertheless relatively elegant since someone – probably with an alert feminine mind – must immediately have understood what to do and advised the a canoness Gandersheim scribe to continue with ‘John’ on top of folio 130 recto – and something dramatic, albeit completely different.
The hexameters concerning the Apocalypse of St John stand out as comments that someone guiding a group of people could read aloud while pointing at a number of pictures with motives from the Book of Revelation. This text, therefore, is not an obvous play – for instance, there is not dialogue – and so one may wonder why it was included among the plays, i.e. the drama section. Guided by Helene Homeyer’s edition (3) and Katherina Wilson translation one could begin with establishing a text and its structure:
1 The virgin John saw the heavens open
and beheld the Father of all on His resplendent throne,
Surrounded by a row of twice twelve elder
Who glittered with gleaming crowns,
5 All dressed in robes of gleaming white;
He also saw at the enthroned King’s right hand
A book whose secret no man can learn.
This angel here, seeking a worthy man, finds none
Who could solve the seal of the secret book.
10 He consoles John who is weeping
As he explains that the lamb can solve the seals.
Behold the secrets of the book lay open for the slain lamb
Whose praise Heaven’s citizens soon sing;
Behold the Faith’s martyrs bearing witness near the altar with clear voices.
15 They receive robes glittering with gleaming whiteness.
The angel, arriving from the direction of the rosy sunrise,
Marks the Eternal King’s servants on their foreheads
Afterwards John beheld many standing there in white,
Praising the lamb, and carrying palm leaves in hand.
20 Behold Heaven’s citizens are silent for half an hour.
He stood at the sacred altar with a censer
And carried incense, symbolizing the faithful’s holy prayers.
Behold, a woman glitters surrounded by the splendid sun.
Adorned with a gleaming crown of twice twelve stars
25 A snake wants to devour her tender young son,
But the dragon is defeated, the boy is lifted to the Lord*
And the dragon has fallen from Heaven and is cast to earth.
Behold the lamb standing here on the Mount the Zion,
And the company of virgins singing new songs.
30 The beast attacks the saint with all the dragon’s might;
But Truth† has laid him low; arriving on a white steed,
He whips the ancient snake to savage Tartarus‡
Behold the books of life are held open to the dead
And alive they rise freed from the chains of death
35 Soon all receive their due according to their merits.
* I have supplied this line since it was lost in Wilson 1989:152.
† Actually Verax – i.e. truth personified.
‡ The line Iste ligat veterem ‘ sub Tartara saeva draconem or in plain
prose: Iste ligat sub Tartara veterem saeva draconem means:
‘He binds under Tartarus the ancient furious dragon’. As it says in
Relevation 20:2-3: ‘ And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent,
which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
 And cast him into the bottomless pit, ….’ Tartarus is a deep
mythological ancient Greek abyss.
The hexameters are a kind of stage directions and pedagogical information pointed out to listeners and spectators, descriptions and information that a guide will tell an audience when guiding it through a series of tableaus illustrating parts of the Apocalypse of John.
There are two elements in these hexameters: the tableaus and the action and movements referred to as happening in them. But there is one tableau without action and some action that doesn’t take place in a scene. These element constitute the beginning of the text – that is the first 11 hexameters. To begin with we see a tableau with no movement, then an angel walks out of it with a book looking for someone. The angel finds John who leads her to next tableau which consequently is a tableau more vivant.
The second tableau or scene is built around an altar in a church.
In the end of the second scene there is the 30 minute intermission, after the opening of the seventh seal, which in practice will allow the audience to leave the church while John is symbolizing payers.
The third scene is outdoors, but before we leave the church there is a point in imagining how the church scenes could be realized. If we look at the plan of a 9/10th c. church, these revelation will make sense.
What happens in the first 22 Hexameters is tied together by bringing a book from the throne of the Lord to a crucifix – or a representation of Christ – at the altar in the other end of the church and later to create a pause in which the audience can leave the church and go outside to the next tableau-vivant, which is a performance divided into two scenes. One is an ascension the other Judgement day.
It is the beast that binds together the last scenes. It may seem difficult to arrange these tableaus, such as illustrating the dead who rise on Judgement Day, but given that there are quite a number of prehistoric inhumation cemeteries next to settlements, it is not impossible to let the dead rise as individuated human being – and that would make quite an impression. Complications such as Christ standing at Mount Zion and at the same time slaying the beast are solved by introducing Verax on the white steed. The beast of course shall have to be masked and dressed up like a beast/dragon/snake and eventually thrown into a pit in order to disappear.
The Ganderheim Abbey, which was a very large estate and engaged in high-quality education of upper-class girls, would not have had any economic problems creating the tableaus. White, symbolically important in the tableaus, was the favourite colour of the church clothes in Gandersheim and a very good contrast to the beast.
The Apocalypse of John is not a theatre play. Instead its affinities with passion plays is obvious. The second part of Clm 14485 therefore blends plays with an affinity to pre-Christian Rome, the first 7 plays, with an example of the more orthodox performances usually seen as typically Medieval. Although the Apocalypse of John is extravagant, it may nevertheless have entertained the Imperial court on its visits to Gandersheim. A central educational institution in the Holy Roman Empire could very well afford the installation, not least why there was quite a lot of singing in the scenes and song education was central to the canoness abbeys.
There is absolutely no reason why these tableaus and small scenes should not have be staged and performed. The poetical value of these matter-of-fact hexameters is negligible since they have no other purpose than guiding and informing someone looking at the tableaus or wanting to build them. Because the performance puts the two sides of Christ – the valiant dragon slayed and the slain lamb – into a meaningful context, they are pedagogically essential in a transitional religious phase. The last scene, to which the others built up, starting with a visions in the church ending with the dead actually rising in the open on Judgement day, is genuinely theatrical and dramatic – that’s Hrotsvit for you, always acutely aware of a dramatic situation and its climax. The monster slayer arriving on the white horse is spectacular, and the idea of ‘holding the books of life open to the dead’, that is above their graves for them to see, rather than just opening them as it says in the Apocalypse (Rev 20:12) is a significant example, since it creates something as mundane a cause and effect situation to the belief that the dead will rise to receive their due. The emphasis on what it says in books — on knowledge and the reproduction of correct knowledge is central to the Apocalypse of John (4).
Even today, similarly to what Chasles did in the 1870s, one finds some very conscious compositions when studying Hrotsvit. Her consciousness must not be overlooked and she must be taken serious, since it is unlikely that we have detected structures and meanings that she never thought of.
Hrotsvit research has for quite a while managed to overlook significant details, and chosen actively to hide behind some suitable kind of doubt rather than accepting the greater pattern of her work and writings. The Apocalypse of St. John, therefore, is seldom mentioned or analyzed in an unprejudiced way. Nobody has though that Bede’s AMEN was a conscious part of the composition of Clm 14485. That book in its turn was not considered a literary work in its own right.
The scholarly treatment of Hrotsvit is one of a most impressive and naïvely unconscious downgrades of a very structured female authorship – even by most of those who see themselves as her advocates.
(0) This is an old quotation from Chasles (1876:306), who after having understood that Hrotsvit’s plays were rhymed concluded: Peut-on nommer cela de la prose? Evidemment la religieuse a écrit en vers sans le savoir—‘Can one call this prose? Apparently the religious (fem.) has written in verse without knowing it’. Evidently, Chasles was puzzled by the chimera that emerged when something, which he himself had cleverly figured out, albeit with some difficulty, might perhaps have been intended by a nun 900 years earlier. Chasles, Philarète 1876. Le Moyen Age. Paris. Charpentier et Cie.
(1) Today at WWW one can look at this manuscript from St. Emmeram’s monastery in Regensburg, kept in the collections of the Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek München
on the web at this address:
(2) See Wilson (1989:xxx) in Wilson, Katherina M. 1989. The plays of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim. New York. Garland Publishing.
(3) Homeyer (1970:376-80) is indispensable. See Homeyer, Helene. 1970. Hrotsvithae Opera. Mit Einleitung und Kommentar. München, Paderborn, Wien. Ferdinand Schöningh.
(4) Lately Julia Becker has discussed the importance of precise knowledge and its transfer in the 9th century – the library at Lorsch being her example. Becker, Julia. 2015. Präsenz, Normierung und Transfer von Wissen: Lorsch als „patristische Zentralbibliothek“. In: Julia Becker, Tino Licht, and Stefan Weinfurter (eds). Karolingische Klöster: Wissenstransfer und Kulturelle Innovation. Walter De Gruyter. Berlin. Pp. 71-87.