Plays by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim

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Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, a tenth-century German nun, is the first known female playwright. As you’d expect from a nun, her plays often praise virginity and martyrdom.

I felt the dialogue was rather simple with characters frequently agreeing with each other and repeatedly saying things like, “That’s true.” Since the characters are often either pure good or pure evil, they aren’t very interesting as people. The scenes often feel too short and the plays overall go by quickly without enough time to build up any tension.

In Gallicanus, a Roman converts to Christianity, and gets martyred off stage. Dulcitius problematically equates black skin with sinfulness and ends abruptly. The fact the Christian characters rejoice at the prospect of being tortured and killed makes their deaths seem more like suicide than martyrdom.

I found Callimachus more interesting, perhaps because I was already familiar with the story (it’s found in the second-century Acts of John). Having the main character be a repentant sinner makes him less two-dimensional than the typical hero or villain we’ve seen so far.

In Abraham, the title character convinces his eight-year-old niece to be a lifelong virgin. However, once she gets older, she gets seduced and becomes a harlot, before finally being redeemed. Torturing yourself by doing things like wearing a hair shirt are praised, which makes me wonder if the playwright herself engaged in such activities.

Paphnutius felt like a rewrite of Abraham. As in the previous story, a hermit disguises himself as a lover to redeem a harlot. It’s longer than the previous plays due to some philosophical musings thrown in. The harlot is punished by being confined to a cell no wider than a grave to wallow in her own filth for three years. Unlike the necrophile Callimachus who is forgiven instantly, former harlots apparently need to suffer for quite a while before they can be forgiven.

In Sapienta, a Roman emperor martyrs a woman and her virgin daughters for preaching Christianity. There’s a long mathematical discussion thrown in for no reason. Perhaps the playwright just wanted to impress the audience with how clever she was. Virginity is once again praised, and martyrdom eagerly anticipated. It’s surprising that the torture takes place on stage and that most of it is directed at children. Sapienta is gleeful when her child gets beheaded because that means she’s in heaven now.

The writer of the preface is insistent that these plays were meant to be performed, not just read, which makes me wonder how they did the torture scenes. There’s more over-the-top violence when we’re told five thousand men off stage somehow die from being near a furnace.

None of these plays are what I would call masterpieces, but they are still a significant piece of literary history and give us a window into the way people from a previous era thought.

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