Academic journal article Magistra

"Clamor Validus": The Virgin's Voice in Hrotsvit's Drama

Academic journal article Magistra

"Clamor Validus": The Virgin's Voice in Hrotsvit's Drama

Article excerpt

When a pagan virgin faced a tyrant's interrogation about the Pythagorean secret, she bit off her own tongue to avoid revealing it and breaking the Pythagorean rites, according to an anecdote related in St. Ambrose's tract on virginity. Despite her preservation of the secret, she apparently succumbed to the king's seduction; as Ambrose laments, "How she would desire that her speech had existed as a defence of her chastity!"1

By contrast, a Christian virgin martyr "did not destroy her tongue through fear, but kept it for a trophy. For there was nothing in her which she feared to betray, since that which she acknowledged was holy, not sinful. And so the former merely concealed her secret, the latter bore witness to the Lord, and confessed Him in her body."2 Ambrose viscerally portrays the virgin's power for speech as a primary method of expressing her chastity and spirituality. The tenth-century nun and playwright Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, an immediate inheritor to the patristic tradition on holy virginity, highlights her virgins' strong speech in the interrogation scenes that initiate her dramas.

Flourishing in the cultural milieu of the Ottonian Empire,3 Hrotsvit was a nun at the Gandershiem Abbey in Saxony.4 fHrotsvit composed six plays, in imitation of the prurient Roman playwright Terence, with an eye to supplant him for Christian audiences. As she notes in her own preface to her plays, the focus of her drama is upon sexuality, particularly that of chaste women, "quo eodem dictationis genere, quo turpia lascivarum incesta feminarum recitabantur, laudabilis sacrarum castimonia virginum iuxta mei facultatem ingenioli celebraretur" ["the praiseworthy chastity of holy virgins is celebrated with the same style of dictation as those dramas where the foul lewdness of lascivious women is recounted."]5

This is especially the case in Dulcitius and Sapientia, where the faith of sworn virgins is tested by pagan men threatening various physical tortures with sexual overtones. While the "sexy" scenes of torture and martyrdom have been studied at length by scholars of virgin martyrdom,6 less attention has been paid to the crucial scenes in which the virgins heroically verbally resist the authorities trying to persuade them to apostotize. Hrotsvit begins both Dulcitius and Sapientia with such scenes, which play a key role in Hrotsvit's portrayal of feminine heroism and chastity.

Karen Winstead includes such episodes in her description of the generic virgin martyr story: "The saint refuses to participate in pagan sacrifices, debates her antagonist, affirms the fundamental tenets of Christianity, destroys idols, performs miracles, and endures excruciating torments."7

Winstead notes, however, that a major difference between the passion narratives of female martyrs and male martyrs is "a preoccupation with gender and sexuality."8 Winstead mostly discusses later English sources in her monograph and focuses on the aspects of bodily torture in virgin martyrdoms.9 What she does not observe in the English sources is imperative to understand in Hrotsvit's dramas: the virgins' responses to their interrogation, wherein they "debate their antagonists," are an essential aspect of their performance of chastity.

In Dulcitius and Sapientia, the pagan men expect to persuade the women to apostasy through flattery or seductive speech ("blandimenta," in Hrotsvit's phrasing) due to their particular weakness as females. The women's imperviousness to this seductive flattery through their verbal resistance, and the subversiveness of their argumentation, parallels their physical resistance as virgins to violations of their chastity and implicit challenge to the established political order through their defiantly continent sexuality.10 Hence in the interrogation scenes in Dulcitius and Sapientia, the virgin martyrs perform their virginity through subversive speech, a brand of heroism only enabled by their position as women.

Through such speech and chastity, the women overturn the expected power dynamics of politics and gender. …

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