Hrosvitha of Gandersheim wrote her six short comedies in a German convent. An educated woman, she constructed the theatre pieces in response to the “licentious” women depicted in the plays of the Roman playwright Terence. By her own admission she imitated his style: “I . . . have not hesitated to imitate in my writings a poet whose works are so widely read, my object being to glorify . . . the laudable chastity of Christian virgins in that self-same form of composition which has been used to describe the shameless acts of licentious women.”
Hrosvitha’s women are marked by more than their virtue. In Hrosvitha’s “pious comedies,” the heroines wield humor in defense of good, chiding men so that their lust and bullying seems ridiculous. Martyrdom, wisdom, and good humor win out over carnality and paganism.
Hrosvitha obviously relished portraying her heroines as victorious. Her heroines always win the day—even posthumously. Their male antagonists are either punished or joyfully accept a life of celibacy. In the preface to her plays, she remarks that “for the more seductive the blandishments of lovers the more wonderful the divine succour and the greater the merit of those who resist, especially when it is fragile woman who is victorious and strong man who is routed with confusion.”
Constance, the central character of Gallicanus, is typically victorious. She prefers to keep her vow of chastity rather than accept a marriage proposal: “I will keep my vow inviolate. Nobody can ever force me to break it.” Not only does Constance keep her vow, she influences her suitor, Gallicanus, and his two young daughters to do likewise.
Hrosvitha’s heroines laugh even at death. Her central characters almost seem to take pleasure in sacrificing their lives for virtue. Callimachus, Dulcitius, and Sapientia portray women as martyrs for their virginity or their fidelity to the Faith. The heroine of Callimachus, Drusiana, begs for death rather than lose her virginity. God immediately grants her wish. In the end, God resurrects Drusiana, and even the villain Callimachus repents and accepts Christ.
In Dulcitius, the three “holy virgins” are put to death for their refusal to marry and to obey pagan gods. They meet their fate joyfully. Agape, one of the sisters, boldly proclaims to the Emperor Diocletian, “Be not concerned with us, nor with the preparations for our marriage, for nothing in the world can force us to renounce a Name that we are called upon to defend, nor to sully our virginal purity.”
After several comic scenes depicting the Emperor and his soldiers as buffoons, the three young women are put to death. The last sister to die has the final word, pronouncing that she will “receive the martyr’s palm and the crown of virginity.”
In Sapientia, the mother urges her three daughters—Faith, Hope, and Charity—to suffer death wearing “the crown of unspotted virginity” rather than worship pagan gods. All sisters meet their martyrdom with good humor. After several scenes where the men are made to look foolish for their insistence on paganism, the sisters accept their executions resolutely and cheerfully. When the Emperor Hadrian orders Hope to submit to pagan gods, the young woman is amused by his audacity: “How can I help laughing? Such a lack of wisdom is ludicrous.”
Not all Hrosvitha’s heroines were virgins: Two plays feature women who repent and return to a life of chastity. Abraham is concerned with the efforts of a holy man to reclaim his niece and protégée, Mary, from prostitution. Posing as a lover in order to speak with her privately, he is so successful in converting Mary that she then attempts to influence the lives of the men she has tempted. Abraham says, “She prays continually for the men who through her were tempted to sin, and begs that she who was their ruin may be their salvation.”
The plot of Paphnutius revolves around the attempts of another holy man to convert the famous courtesan Thais. Again, Hrosvitha disguises her holy man as a lover. Father Paphnutius persuades Thais not only to convert but to see beyond the salvation of her own soul into the welfare of the souls of others: “I weep over your sinfulness because, knowing such things, you have dragged so many souls to ruin.” Thais’ story later inspired Anatole France’s novel, Thais, and Massenet’s opera.
Theatrically, of course, the “weaker sex” wielding power over the supposedly stronger is hardly unique. Aristophanes poked fun at Greek society by having Lysistrata and her female followers demand that their men stop warring by withholding sex. In Molière’s Tartuffe, or the Imposter, the virtuous wife Elmire responds to the advances of the despicable villain with scathing derision: “Good wives laugh off such trifles and forget them.” Ridicule remains the best defense.
Kaye DeMetz is Professor of Performing Arts at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from Florida State University and has published and presented internationally on the influence of theatre on society.