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Hrotsvitha, Hildegard, and the Nun who Resurrected Theater: Crash Course Theater #9

Hey there! My name is Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course
Theater and Last time, we looked at how the liturgical drama—specifically a call-and-response
section smuggled into the Easter liturgy—helped bring theater back to the West. Today we’ll look at another way theater
got snuck back into the Christian world. Who did the sneaking? A canoness! What is a canoness? It’s a fancy kind of nun! Not often known for their sneaking, right? All those surprising sneaks took place in
an abbey, in an otherwise unremarkable spot in Lower Saxony, Germany. You can still visit it today, if you want! Enjoy the half-timbered houses, and if you’re
old enough, raise a beer stein to Hrotsvitha, the Loud Cry of Gandersheim—the queen of
medieval closet drama and the world’s first female playwright. Well, the first we know about, anyway. I hear there was lots of sneaking! INTRO
Hrotsvitha was born in Saxony around the 10th century. We don’t know how she came to take the veil,
because record-keeping wasn’t really medieval Saxony’s jam. We do know Hrotsvitha’s name literally means
“strong honor,” … but she decided it meant something more like “the clarion call”
or “the loud cry.” – which I mean, hey, all of these? Very STRONG CONTENDERS if you ask me. At some point, She joined the convent at Gandersheim
as a canoness, giving her the freedom to own property, keep servants and wear whatever
kind of wimple she wanted. Yeah, it’s good to be the canoness. She studied under two women at the convent,
including the abbess, and became exceptionally well-read. Moreover, she read diversely—the Bible,
sure, and the writings of the church fathers and the noncanonical gospels, but also contemporary
histories and secular Latin greats, too, like Ovid and Virgil. She even read our old friends Plautus and
Terence. But those comedies were a little troubling
for Hrotsvitha—so much lewd behavior—so … she decided to write her own versions! We’re going to talk about those in two shakes
of a saxon sheeps tail. In addition to plays, she also wrote verse
legends and histories–one about Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, and another about
her own convent–all of them in careful meter. She’s the first playwright of the Middle
Ages and if later woodcuts are anything to go by, her taste in wimples was, in fact …. divine. Hrotsvitha’s plays are known as the Comaedia
Sacrae, or Sacred Comedies. Hrotsvitha loved comedy. I mean, she loved God, too, of course. But she also loved Terence, who you may remember
was a more polite writer than his contemporary Plautus—fewer dirty jokes, less adultery. But still based on secular subjects, and that
made Hrotsvitha worry that her love for them was somehow harmful to her faith and the faith
of others. She wrote in a preface that she knew a lot
of Catholics were “attracted by the polished elegance of the style of pagan writers”—so
attracted that they might prefer Terence to holy scripture. This is maybe selling short how much weird
violence and sex stuff persists in holy scripture, but ok, that’s weird violence and sex stuff
that’s IN a holy text so point taken I guess? .
Hrotsvitha warned that readers who were charmed by polished pagan elegance, risked “being
corrupted by the wickedness of the matter.” So she thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll use my
loud cry to write plays in the meter and style of Terence. Maybe they can be funny. But also holy!” We believe in you, Hrotsvitha! Care to guess what theme might interest a
nun who has made herself a bride of Christ? That’s right. Chastity! If Terence is going to write about “the
shameless acts of licentious women”, Hrotsvitha is going to write about virgins, and also
~unchaste ladies~ who repent and embrace chastity. Basically: it’s just a little bit of medieval
slut shaming… It’s clear that love and sex fascinate Hrotsvitha. In her preface, she blushes to admit her work
has forced her to think about “the dreadful frenzy of those possessed by unlawful love,
and the insidious sweetness of passion—things which should not even be named among us.” Sister, please! But she argues that only by coming to grips
with lust can she demonstrate how much more wonderful “the divine succor” is of those
who resist it. Whether or not Hrotsvitha’s works were performed
has been the subject of debate. Most scholars believe that Hrotsvitha wrote
her plays to be read, a genre we call closet dramas. After all, that’s how she encountered Terence’s
plays—in book form, not on stage. It’s probable that her work was read aloud,
and remotely possible that it was performed privately in the Medieval period. But since the late 19th-century, her plays
have been performed pretty often. At one point the art collective the Guerrilla
Girls–who are rad as heck and if you don’t know them, Sarah did an awesome Art Assignment
video on them–they offered a prize to any theater who would switch out a Greek tragedy
written by a man for one of Hrotsvitha’s comedies. One of those comedies is called Dulcitius. Critics regard this as her funniest play,
even though it … describes the martyrdom of three young women. And yet: kind of a knee-slapper. Dulcitius is based on, and named after, an
historical figure: the Roman governor of Macedonia in the late third and early fourth century,
known for persecuting Christian women. And the young women in the play are actual
Christian martyrs, though IRL they died a century before Dulcitius came to power. So Hrotsvitha has taken some liberties. Take us there, Thoughtbubble:
Emperor Diocletian wants to arrange marriages for three Virgin sisters: Agape, whose name
means love, Irena, whose name means peace and Chionia, whose name means snow, which
basically means purity… but don’t worry it’s about to get dark and rather randy. Diocletian tells the sisters they have to
renounce Christianity. They don’t wanna, so he locks them up and
sends Dulcitius to question them. Dulcitius sees them through a window, decides
they’re all super hot, and asks them to be locked up in the kitchen so that he can,
um, “visit” them. Why he needed to assault them in a kitchen,
specifically? Unclear. The sisters understandably don’t want to
be perved on by Dulcitius, so they pray. And their prayers work. When Dulcitius enters the kitchen, he thinks
that the pots and pans are the sisters. So he starts hugging and kissing them, which
covers him in soot. When he leaves, the soldiers see his blackened
face and think he’s a demon. And so do the people at the palace. And I mean… in a sense, they’re not wrong? He gets the snot beat out of him. It’s not funny, but also because of how
pervy he is: it is funny. Dulcitius goes home and finally realizes what
has happened. Fuming, he orders the sisters be stripped. But their clothes stick to them. Diocletian sends the torturer Sisinnius who
orders Agape and Chionia to be burned at the stake. They die, though miraculously their clothes
and bodies are left intact. Sisinnius then orders Irena, the youngest,
to convert. She won’t, so he tells the soldiers to take
her to a brothel. Instead, she’s miraculously spirited away
to a mountaintop. Sisinnius orders the soldiers to shoot her
with arrows, and she dies, but she dies secure in her chastity and her faith. Thank you, Thoughtbubble. So. See what I mean? It is a LAUGH RIOT! Ok, it’s no What About Bob, but for a medieval
Christian, this is at least a happy ending. The three sisters all end up dead, but the
souls of Agape and Chionia are in heaven, and as Irena is dying, she says, “I shall
receive the martyr’s palm and the crown of virginity; thus I will enter the heavenly
bridal chamber of the eternal King, Whose is all honor and glory in all eternity.” Listen, that’s at least half as funny as
like… a third of all SNL sketches. ANYWAY – you could argue that the crown of
virginity isn’t worth dying over but because the sisters haven’t been forced to compromise
their bodies or their beliefs, they will receive eternal life. For Hrotsvitha, and her audience, that’s
sweeter than anything. And it’s definitely sweeter than being raped
by a soot-smudged Roman dolt. It’s worth noting that this emphasis on
chastity suggests it was one of a very few ways women could wield power in the middle
ages. But this is likely more of a concern for present-day
readers than for Hrotsvitha herself. And before we end today, we’re going to
look at one other medieval female playwright, Hildegarde of Bingen. Hildegarde, was born about a century and a
half after Hrotsvitha and also had a killer nickname: “the Sibyl of the Rhine.” She was more than just a writer. She was also a composer, a philosopher, a
mystic and a scientist who took time off to found and run a couple of monasteries. She also made up her own language. Basically, Hildegarde was a boss. One of her plays is the catchily titled Ordo
Virtutum, which is Latin for “The Order of Virtues.” It’s the only liturgical drama that survives
alongside its music, which Hildegarde also composed. It’s LOVELY! Here’s a quick listen. [PAUSE]
The Order of Virtues is the first surviving example of the medieval morality play, a genre
we’ll look at more in depth in the next episode. It’s an allegorical drama in which Anima,
the human soul, has to choose between the Virtues and the Devil. Guess which side Hildegarde is on? Yeah, it’s kind of a no-brainer for Anima,
too. But the Virtues tell her that she has to go
live in a body first. Once she does, the Devil shows her how much
fun worldly stuff is; only later, old and thoroughly repentant about all that worldly
pleasure, is she allowed to return to the Virtues. Who, by the way, are Hope, Chastity, Innocence,
Contempt of the World, Celestial Love, Modesty, Mercy, Victory, Discretion, Patience, Knowledge
of God, Charity, Fear of God, Obedience, Faith, and Discipline, though her name is scratched
out in the manuscript. But yeah, either way, big cast. Very tidy green room, though. Super lowkey wrap party. As we saw in the last episode, the usual explanation
for theater re-emerging in the West is through the appearance of liturgical drama. But in the same century, a loud cry is heard
across Lower Saxony! And a century and a half later, Hildegarde
answers the call! Hrotsvitha and Hildegard of Bingen’s works
have a firmly Christian worldview and intention; they create female characters with the power
and patience and faith to make brave, chaste choices. So a round of applause for them. Next time, we take a look at the cycle plays,
which is what liturgical drama turns into over a couple centuries. But until then… curtain!


  1. Jeremy Foster Author

    Pleasantly surprised at how generous this study in theater is being to Christian contributions to theater and drama. I generally associate theater with a worldview that has contempt for Christianity, so this is a welcome surprise.

  2. fiona fiona Author

    Hildegard of Bingen is also responsible for the oldest record of the female Orgasem (recording one of her patients being a nun and such).

  3. ladylillygem Author

    Nuns aren't known for their sneaking? You clearly never went to Catholic school. I swear nuns get the ability to teleport when they take final vows.

  4. Morgan Author

    I studied Hrostvitha at University, and one of the plays I read of hers, was Dulcitius. I found the humour in Dulcitius really shines through in the dialogue of the sisters standing up to the govenor. Worth a read if you like reading classical plays.

  5. Anne Clinton Author

    The Ordo Virtutem is gorgeous, totally worth it if you can ever see it in concert. That massive cast of virtues is often cut down to just the key players, and the Devil does not sing – according to Hildegard, song was divine, and he could not produce it.

  6. Jhudiel Plando Author

    Hi Mike! I had a report on morality plays for my drama class for my major in creative writing (with particular attention on the medieval morality play, The Summoning of Everyman, aka Elckerlijc in Dutch). I'd like to know if Hildegarde's morality play is older than Everyman, which my teacher claimed to be the (only?) oldest surviving/oldest known medival drama. ((Also, it's so fascinating to see that there are female playwrights during the medieval period!))

  7. Timothy McDaniel Author

    Do other people notice his voice getting a lot quieter in the outro, so it's hard to hear over the music? Or is it something about my own speakers?

  8. Derpes Depression Author

    I only knew Hildegard of ginger from civilization 6 as a great scientist thanks for telling about her significance to theater!

  9. nomeutente61 Author

    Love this! Thank you for taking on relatively niche subjects like the history of theatre. It's not easy to find quality content on this stuff on YouTube.

  10. udaily Author

    Watching this thinking cool cool, this Hildegard sounds rad and then all of a sudden OH WAIT I've sung her compositions before! They are truly lovely!

  11. Olivia P Author

    Hildegard von Bingen’s music is absolutely stunning, it’s almost celestial – the group Sequentia has recorded loads of her compositions, i highly recommend checking them out on spotify

  12. tamara Author

    my mum is kind of obsessed with Hildegard von Bingen (more the plants stuff though) and I never knew she was also a playwright?! so interesting!

  13. David Durant Author

    It's very interesting to hear about the history of theatre in the West but I'm looking forward to finding out what was happening around this point in time in the rest of the world.

  14. Lukas - Histofaber Author

    Wow, I really like your videos, they are great! (And I mean the British grade of "great", not just the American "great" 😄)
    Just two side notes: the big beer mugs (1 litre) are Bavarian ones, in Lower Saxony (thats also where I come from) we just have 0,3l glasses without handles 😅 and the pronunciation of Gandersheim was good, except from the break: It's Ganders-heim, not Gander-sheim.
    If you proceed with German history (I think you will come to the point with Hans Sachs later), you can contact me, if you want, and I can help you a bit, and even when it's just cutting out the wrong cliches about Germany or the pronunciation 😉

  15. Chris Hill Author

    You guys should do a History of Literature series from oral traditions all the way up to the budding Post-postmodern/New Sincerity movements.

  16. Robyn Garcia Author

    as a musician i'd only ever heard of hildegarde's name in the context of her revolutionary compositions… good to know she was revolutionary in other settings too!!!

  17. Pria D Author

    This is wonderful! I love how you explore several different hypotheses for the creation and re-emergence of drama, and how you present several perspectives on each topic. This series is fantastic and such a joy to watch alongside CC World History, as I get to see how drama developed in relation to history. Thank you for making this series!

  18. Lyds54 Author

    So glad that Hildegard is getting some love! I was a music major in college, and in our medieval music class we studied her pretty intensely. My friends and I were obsessed with her!


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