[St. Pachomius Library]

Roswitha of Gandersheim

Ancient spellings HROSWITHA and HROTSVIT
X Century
Perhaps the greatest female intellectual of her era, the nun Roswitha wrote ten major poems, six plays, a 35-line précis of the Apocalypse, and other works. A personal friend of the Grecophile German emperor Otto II, she enthusiastically supported his Easternising cultural programme, and many of her writings draw on Byzantine source material.

Little is known about the details of her life: she was probably a continental Saxon aristocrat who spent her entire adult life at Gandersheim Monastery, then a stronghold of the Easternising movement. (Abbess Gerberga II, to whom one of Roswitha's prefaces is addressed, spoke Greek and had lived for years in Constantinople.) There is scant autobiographical content in her writings except for a reference to herself as "Clamor Validus", the Strong Voice, (a pun on the meaning of "Roswitha" and possibly also an allusion to St. John the Baptist, who had appeared in visions to an earlier generation of monastics at Gandersheim.) Her works range widely in subject matter; among the most curious is one in which persecuted early Christians baffle a wicked emperor with difficult mathematics problems! Forgotten after the failure of the "Ottonian Renaissance" and the subsequent estrangement of East and West, she was rediscovered around 1500 by German scholars seeking their nation's literary roots and hailed as "Sappho Germanica"; the first printed edition of her works was illustrated in part by Albrecht Dürer.

--- Norman Hugh Redington


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