image of Grammatica (by Abbess Herrad)

Week 14: Hrotsvitha.

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Background Information


The play you are going to read this week belongs to the medieval dramas of the nun Hrotsvitha. Her name is also sometimes spelled Roswitha or Hrotsuit. Hrotsvitha was born around the year 935 and died sometime after 970 (perhaps as late as 1002) in Gandersheim Germany where she was the abbess of the Benedictine nunnery (Gandersheim is a village in Lower Saxony, central Germany, near Göttingen). Hrotsvitha's plays are the first dramas known to have been written by a woman. Although the plays are on Christian themes, Hrotsvitha shows a knowledge of classical Latin literature and uses a simple but artful style (with a great deal of rhyming). She was familiar with the Roman comedies of Terence and writes about her indebtedness to this Roman model, as well as her ambition to create Christian dramas based on this pagan model. In addition to her plays, Hrotsvitha wrote several lives of the saints in verse and other religious poetry.

The Other Plays

In the play called Gallicanus, the main female character is Constantia, the daughter of the emperor Constantine. Gallicanus is a pagan, one of Constantine's generals. Although she has taken a vow of perpetual virginity, she is induced to agree to a marriage with Gallicanus before he marches out to battle the Scythians. While in battle, Gallicanus converts to Christianity. He renounces his desire to marry Constantia and dies as a martyr in self-imposed exile.

In the play called Callimachus, the main female character is Drusiana, whom Callimachus is trying to seduce. Drusiana prays for death in order to escape Callimachus's advances. Callimachus is so madly in love with her that he follows her into the tomb where he too meets hid death (shades of Romeo and Juliet!). By the power of Saint John they are raised from the dead and lead a Christian life.

In Paphnutius, the central female character is Thais, a prostitute and agent of the devil who is redeemed by the ascetic practices imparted to her by the holy man Paphnutius. The play Abraham also deals with the motif of a fallen woman redeemed by a holy man's piety; in this case, the holy man is the woman's father.

Sapientia (Wisdom) is a play about three young girls named Fides, Spes, and Karitas (Faith, Hope and Charity) who defy the persecutions of the Emperor Hadrian. Although they are subjected to horrifying tortures they remain steadfast in their faith, urged on by the loyal devotion of their mother, Wisdom.


The play you will be reading this week (you are reading about 70% of the play) is also about three sisters, named Agapes (Agape), Chionia, and Hirena (Irene). According to the legendary lives of the saints, these women were martyred in the Greek city of Thessaloniki under the emperor Diocletian in the year 304. In the play, you will see the three sisters debating with the emperor Diocletian. They will then have to fend off the amorous intentions of Dulcitius, Diocletian's commanding general. Then they will have to content with Sisinnius, another one of the agent's of Diocletian. The play is more broadly comic than Hrotsvitha's other plays, and for this reason has been the most popular play for modern readers.

Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM