Hrotsvit (also Hrotsvitha or Hroswitha or Roswitha) of Gandersheim was one of the most talented writers of the Middle Ages. She lived in tenth-century Saxony during the peak of the Ottonian Renaissance. She wrote eight legends (saints’ lives), six plays, and a pair of epics. Hrotsvit has earned the multiple distinctions of being “the first poet of Saxony, the first female German poet, the first dramatist of Germany, the first female German historian, and the first person in Germany to employ the Faust theme” (Wilson, Plays, pp. xii-xiii).
Little is known about this amazing woman. Even her name was a subject of dispute until a recent translator pointed out that the medieval writer “records the nominative form of her name as being Hrotsvit and the inflected forms as Hrotsvitham and Hrotsvithae” (Wilson, Medieval Women Writers, pp. 30–31). Hrotsvit’s birth date is unknown, but since she writes that she was born long after the death of Duke Otto of Saxony (912) and before her abbess, Gerberga II (c. 940), it has been surmised that she was born shortly before the fourth decade of the tenth century. Hrotsvit was a canoness in the Saxon Imperial Abbey of Gandersheim, an abbey established for noblewomen in 850 by the Saxon nobleman Liudolf and his wife Oda. Thus, it is almost certain that Hrotsvit was of noble birth. Abbess Gerberga II, under whose rule Hrotsvit lived, was niece to Emperor Otto the Great (Wemple, p. 44). It seems likely that Hrotsvit received her excellent education at the abbey although she could have received additional instruction at Otto’s court (Dronke, p. 56). Since Hrotsvit was a canoness, she probably lived under a Benedictine Rule but also would have enjoyed more liberties, including the right to keep property.
It is unclear whether Hrotsvit’s writings had any effect on later medieval authors. Apparently, she had been forgotten by 1493, the year in which poet-humanist Conrad Celtis claimed credit for “discovering” the codex of writings in the Emmeram monastery in Regensburg, Germany. In 1501, Celtis published an edition of Hrotsvit’s Opera [Works], and it was the only complete
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Publication information: Book title: Catholic Women Writers:A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Contributors: Mary R. Reichardt - Editor. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of publication: Westport, CT. Publication year: 2001. Page number: 169.
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