Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Incest Disguised: Ottonian Influence at Gandersheim and Hrotsvit's Abraham

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Incest Disguised: Ottonian Influence at Gandersheim and Hrotsvit's Abraham

Article excerpt

"Unde ego Clamor Validus Gandeshemensis non recusavi illum imitari dictando dum alii colunt legendo quo eodem dictationis genere quo turpia lascivarum incesta feminarum recitabantur laudabilis sacrarum castimonia virginum iuxta mei facultatem ingenioli celebraraetur."

(Therefore I, the strong voice of Gandersheim, have not refused to imitate him in writing / whom others laud in reading, / so that in that selfsame form of composition in which the shameless acts of lascivious women were phrased / the laudable chastity of sacred virgins may be praised / within the limits of my little talent.) (1)

I. The Social Context

To date, translators of the prologue to Hrotsvit of Gandersheim's plays have paraphrased incesta feminarum in the passage cited above using metaphorical equivalents like "shameless act" to eschew a literal reading of incesta as "incest." (2) I would like to suggest that a conception of incest more nuanced than either of these alternatives (metaphorical or literal) prevailed in tenth-century Northern Europe--one that will allow us to reconsider Hrotsvit's Fall and Redemption of Mary (a.k.a. Abraham) as a play that grows out of the politics of incest at the Ottonian court and Gandersheim. Of specific importance is the expansion of the definition of literal incest to spiritual or theo-political incest. Early medieval canon law on incest initially followed Roman civil law in determining acceptable proximity between family members who wished to marry. During the first half of the ninth century, however, "both the number of forbidden degrees (of relation) was increased--from four to seven--and the method of calculating degrees was changed." (3) The result was an exponential increase in marriage contracts that would have been viable under earlier definitions of incest but that were prohibited under the new canon law restrictions. Within a generation, Constance Bouchard observes, "a flood of marriages" that would have been permitted were prohibited by the Church on grounds of consanguinity. (4) Carolingian reforms followed by later monastic and papal reforms reveal increasing ecclesiastical fear of incestuous relationships between the ninth through eleventh centuries, as do the corresponding popular legends and hagiographic literature from that period--legends like "Charlemagne's Sin" and the Vitae of Saint Wiborda of Gaul. (5) Incest prohibitions in the Middle Ages were at their most draconian between the tenth and twelfth centuries, with a ban on sexual intercourse not only between consanguineous relatives to the seventh degree but also between persons linked by compaternity or spiritual affinity to the fourth degree. (6) Not coincidentally, this period also saw a flourishing in Northern Europe of the founding of women's religious houses, with Hrotsvit's Gandersheim among the forty-eight founded in Saxony alone between the ninth and tenth centuries. (7)

Historians agree that the Saxon nobility established female religious communities during this period to create safe havens for unmarried girls threatened by a host of social ills including nonconsensual sexual relations with family members. (8) That these houses also provided Ottonian nobility with a strategic vehicle for nuptial control to consolidate their dynastic ambitions--what Daniel Kline describes as opportunities to forestall "political alliances through sequestration of their daughters" (9)--is beyond the shadow of doubt. However, as Bouchard emphasizes in her study of consanguinity and noble marriages in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Church's expanded definition of incest during this period meant that nobility not only in England and France, but in Germany as well, were regularly in danger of making endogamous unions which the Church could reject as incestuous. (10) The nobility of Northern Europe had simply become too closely related to intermarry. Kings might secure princesses "in the purple" from Byzantium and Russia for princely sons in need of Church-approved exogamous marriages--sons who had been identified as likely heirs to their fathers' dynasties. …

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