The 10th century canoness Hrotsvit (or Hroswitha – spellings of her name vary) is an important figure in literary history because, as Anne Lyon Haight remarks in her reference volume, Hroswitha of Gandersheim, ‘she was the earliest poet known in Germany and the first dramatist after the fall of the ancient stage of classical times’. For centuries Hrotsvit’s works lay in obscurity until an incomplete manuscript of her writings was found in the monastery of St. Emmeran at Regensburg in 1494 by the humanist Conrad Celtes and published in 1501.
Born to noble parents around the year 935, it is thought Hrotsvit became a canoness at the abbey of Gandersheim while quite young. Unlike nuns, canonesses were obliged to take vows of chastity and obedience, but not of poverty. The abbey of Gandersheim was renowned for its learning, the quality of its library and the excellence of its teachers. One of Hrotsvit’s instructors – the Abbess Gerberga II – encouraged the young canoness to explore the abbey’s library. Drawing on the materials at her disposal, Hrotsvit wrote many works, including plays, histories and legends of the saints. ‘Relying in my own strength,’ declared the poet in the preface to the first five legends in a collection of eight dedicated to Gerberga II, ‘I have attempted to sing the songs of this little collection … solicitous that the slight talent of ability given me by Heaven should not lie idle in the dark recesses of the mind’.
The final three legends in that collection are prefaced by an additional dedication to the Abbess. The first legend in this group, Basilius, happened to be the first of Hrotvit’s works I read. In the story, a young servant falls in love with the beautiful daughter of his master, Proterius, ‘a man of illustrious race’. Proterius, however, intends to to associate his daughter ‘with the holy maidens who were consecrated to Christ by the sacred veil of virginity and protected in the narrow enclosure of the monastery’. The (unnamed) servant searches high and low until he finds a magician whom he hopes can make Proterius’ daughter desire him. Unable to force the young woman’s will himself, the magician pens a note to the Devil, explaining that his client is a baptised Christian. The magician tells the servant to hold the note over the tomb of a certain heathen at night. When the servant takes the magician’s note to the heathen tomb, the Devil appears, reads the note and roars like a lion. The servant signs a contract promising his soul to the Devil who arranges for the virgin to burn in sinful passion.
Impelled by desire, the young woman informs her father that she wants to marry the servant. When Proterius withholds his consent, his daughter threatens to kill herself. Relenting, the old man provides the couple with a substantial dowry. After the marriage, however, gossips tell the young wife that her husband has signed himself over to the Devil’s power. Repeating what she has been told to her husband upon his return home, the young man swears the whole thing is a lie.
‘In that case,’ his wife says, ‘come with me to Church tomorrow morning and celebrate the Holy Mass with me.’
Unable to attend Mass, having signed his soul to the Devil, the young man admits the terrible truth. His wife then visits Bishop Basil of Caesarea, begging him to rescue her and her husband from the Devil’s clutches. Basil sends for the young man and asks him if is willing to repent. The young man says that he yearns for his salvation but despairs of mercy since he has signed his soul away of his own free will. Basil confines the young man in a cell. After three days the Bishop returns to ask the sinner how he is managing. The young man says that he is getting on very badly, for he is being beaten and torn continuously by dark spirits. The Bishop arranges for the young man to be fed. A few days later, the Bishop again asks the young man how he is doing.
‘Much better,’ the prisoner replies.
Basil refreshes his guest some more. Eventually, after 40 days, the Bishop finds the young man feeling glad. Basil wonders at this happy change. After placing the young man in his chambers, the Bishop directs his congregation to pray for the lost sheep to be rejoined to the flock. The next day when the Bishop leads the young man to the Church, a demon leaps out from somewhere and tries to snatch him away but Basil orders the demon to depart. The Devil himself is extremely angry about the course of events. Considering himself cheated of his lawful prize, the Enemy of Humanity refers to the written agreement signed by the young man. The Bishop insists, however, that Christ is an equitable judge.