From the Sublime to the Ridiculous in the Works of Hrotsvitha

  • Maud Burnett McInerney
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The preface to Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim’s first work, a collection of six Legends, invites us to imagine the author as a timid young woman, uncertain of her literary skills and anxious about the reception of her book:

I need the help of many to defend this little work now that it is finished, all the more so since at the beginning I was not sustained by much strength of my own; I was not yet mature in years, nor advanced in my studies. But I did not dare to reveal the direction of my intent by asking the advice of someone wiser, for fear that I might be forbidden to write on account of my down-home way of speaking [rusticitas]. So, in total secrecy and almost furtively, struggling alone to write, and sometimes tearing up what was poorly written, I worked away as best I could to put together a text which might be of some slight value, woven from passages of other writings which I gathered together in the granary of our foundation of Gandersheim. (Pref. I: 5–6)1

Rusticitas derives from rus, the Latin word for the countryside, and wakes a series of literary echoes resonating all the way back to Horace, who had written an engaging satire on the adventures of a country mouse and a city mouse, in which the country mouse came out ahead. In the context of most classical Latin rhetoric, however, rusticitas was not a desirable quality. It described speech that was provincial, rural, boorish, uncouth, the antithesis of urbanitas, the polished eloquence to which all rhetors must aspire.2


Male Virgin Direct Speech Unjust Threat Total Secrecy Elaborate Style 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 3.
    Gregory of Tours, Life of St Martin, trans. Raymond van Dam, Saints and their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 201.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Dronke, Women Writers, pp. 65–66; Katharina M. Wilson, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: The Ethics of Authorial Stance (Leiden: Brill, 1988), pp. 4–8.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Aldhelm composes a sort of anti-invocation to the Muses early in the Carmen (ll. 22–30) in which he cites Vergil in order to declare that he will not ask for inspiration from the same sources as the Roman poet, eschewing the Muses for the inspiration of the Word of God. Parenthetical references to Aldhelm’s work are abbreviated as Letter (for the De Virginitate Prosa) and Poem (for the De Virginitate Carmen); the edition is Rufus Ehwald, Aldhelmi Opera Omnia, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi 15 (Berlin: 1919). My translations of Aldhelm are much influenced by Lapidge and Rosier, Aldhelm: The Poetic Works (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985), and by Lapidge and Michael Herren, Aldhelm, The Prose Works (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979).Google Scholar
  4. 16.
    On the distinction, often not absolute, between the kind of institution characterized as canonical and that conceived of as Benedictine, see Suzanne Fonay Wemple, “Monastic Life of Women from the Merovingians to the Ottomans,” in Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Rara Avis in Saxonia? A Collection of Essays, ed. Katharina M. Wilson (Ann Arbor: MARC, 1987), pp. 39–42.Google Scholar
  5. 18.
    Feruccio Bertini, Il “Teatro” di Rosvita con un saggio di traduzione e di interpretazione del Callimaco (Genoa: Tilgher, 1979), pp. 9–10.Google Scholar
  6. 21.
    Edmond-René Labande, “Mirabilia mundi: Essai sur la personnalité d’Otton III,” Cahiers de Civilization Mediévale 6:3 (1963): 302–03. Translation is mine.Google Scholar
  7. 29.
    Katharina Wilson, trans., The Dramas of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (Saskatoon, SA: Peregrina, 1985), p. 7.Google Scholar
  8. 30.
    On the sources, see Homeyer, Opera, pp. 350–52, and Adele Simonetti, “Le fonti agiografiche di due drammi di Rosvita,” Studia Medievale 30.2 (1989): 661–95. Simonetti notes the invention of Antiochus, who is mentioned only in passing in the source (p. 669).Google Scholar
  9. 31.
    Alcuin Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), p. 158.Google Scholar
  10. 38.
    K. J. Leyser, Rule and Conflict in Early Medieval Society: Ottonian Saxony (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), p. 50.Google Scholar
  11. 39.
    On Sophia, see Thangmar, Vita Bernwardi, ed. Georg Pertz, Monumenta Germaniae Historiae 4 for a hostile contemporary view; Labande, “Mirabilia mundi,” pp. 303–04, 455–56; John W. Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in Early Medieval Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) pp. 150–55; and Joseph S. Tunison, Dramatic Traditions of the Dark Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 156–62. Tunison argues that Hrotsvitha and Sophia were “contemporary as nuns” (p. 162) although this is by no means certain and there was in any case at least thirty-five years between them.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Maud Burnett McInerney 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maud Burnett McInerney

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations