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Incest disguised: Ottonian influence at Gandersheim and Hrotsvit's Abraham.

"Unde ego Clamor Validus Gandeshemensis non recusavi illum imitari dictando dum alii colunt legendo quo eodem dictationis genere quo turpia lascivarum incesta feminarum recitabantur laudabilis sacrarum castimonia virginum iuxta mei facultatem ingenioli celebraraetur."

(Therefore I, the strong voice of Gandersheim, have not refused to imitate him in writing / whom others laud in reading, / so that in that selfsame form of composition in which the shameless acts of lascivious women were phrased / the laudable chastity of sacred virgins may be praised / within the limits of my little talent.) (1)

I. The Social Context

To date, translators of the prologue to Hrotsvit of Gandersheim's plays have paraphrased incesta feminarum in the passage cited above using metaphorical equivalents like "shameless act" to eschew a literal reading of incesta as "incest." (2) I would like to suggest that a conception of incest more nuanced than either of these alternatives (metaphorical or literal) prevailed in tenth-century Northern Europe--one that will allow us to reconsider Hrotsvit's Fall and Redemption of Mary (a.k.a. Abraham) as a play that grows out of the politics of incest at the Ottonian court and Gandersheim. Of specific importance is the expansion of the definition of literal incest to spiritual or theo-political incest. Early medieval canon law on incest initially followed Roman civil law in determining acceptable proximity between family members who wished to marry. During the first half of the ninth century, however, "both the number of forbidden degrees (of relation) was increased--from four to seven--and the method of calculating degrees was changed." (3) The result was an exponential increase in marriage contracts that would have been viable under earlier definitions of incest but that were prohibited under the new canon law restrictions. Within a generation, Constance Bouchard observes, "a flood of marriages" that would have been permitted were prohibited by the Church on grounds of consanguinity. (4) Carolingian reforms followed by later monastic and papal reforms reveal increasing ecclesiastical fear of incestuous relationships between the ninth through eleventh centuries, as do the corresponding popular legends and hagiographic literature from that period--legends like "Charlemagne's Sin" and the Vitae of Saint Wiborda of Gaul. (5) Incest prohibitions in the Middle Ages were at their most draconian between the tenth and twelfth centuries, with a ban on sexual intercourse not only between consanguineous relatives to the seventh degree but also between persons linked by compaternity or spiritual affinity to the fourth degree. (6) Not coincidentally, this period also saw a flourishing in Northern Europe of the founding of women's religious houses, with Hrotsvit's Gandersheim among the forty-eight founded in Saxony alone between the ninth and tenth centuries. (7)

Historians agree that the Saxon nobility established female religious communities during this period to create safe havens for unmarried girls threatened by a host of social ills including nonconsensual sexual relations with family members. (8) That these houses also provided Ottonian nobility with a strategic vehicle for nuptial control to consolidate their dynastic ambitions--what Daniel Kline describes as opportunities to forestall "political alliances through sequestration of their daughters" (9)--is beyond the shadow of doubt. However, as Bouchard emphasizes in her study of consanguinity and noble marriages in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Church's expanded definition of incest during this period meant that nobility not only in England and France, but in Germany as well, were regularly in danger of making endogamous unions which the Church could reject as incestuous. (10) The nobility of Northern Europe had simply become too closely related to intermarry. Kings might secure princesses "in the purple" from Byzantium and Russia for princely sons in need of Church-approved exogamous marriages--sons who had been identified as likely heirs to their fathers' dynasties. (11) However, noble fathers were less likely to go to such lengths for their promising daughters. Although French and English kings "initially sought kings' daughters for their sons, they readily married their daughters to men of less exalted ancestry"--a problematic practice because it often established alliances with lower nobility that could empower those at the fringes of the elite to rebel against the ruling dynasty. (12)

The Ottonian nobility entertained a dramatically different solution to the incest-glutted marriage market of its day--one less risky in terms of the realpolitik of dynastic alliance. Already invested in a spectrum of behaviors that contributed to their creation of the appearance of "sacral kingship," (13) families of the Ottonian kings assured their dynastic consolidation through the practice of founding religious houses for women. Karl Leyser argues that one of the most charismatic gestures of sacral kingship was the investment of family capital--both material wealth and, quite literally, family members--in religious foundations. The political load of these investments for both male and female children from the family was apparent from the earliest years of Ottonian dynastic consolidation. In his Life of Archbishop Brun of Cologne, Ruotger (monastic biographer and contemporary of Hrotsvit) describes how Otto I's brother Brun was sent as a four-year-old to Utrecht to be brought up by Baldrich, bishop of Utrecht during a period of intensive Viking aggression. Brun's presence in Utrecht was intended to bolster the morale of clerics responsible for rebuilding the ecclesiastical see in Utrecht being undermined by Viking raiders. The gift of the child served as a symbolic gesture of solidarity between the royal house and the religious foundation it supported.

Indeed, the establishment and government of the most important women's foundations in Saxon Germany proved to be an elaborate extension of the investment of individual family members as political capital. It can only be described as a collaborative family venture--an endogamous rather than exogamous game of sacral politics played through the appointment of young, almost marriageable girls to roles of authority within these religious houses. The first four abbesses of Gandersheim were the daughters and granddaughters of its founders, Count Liudolf and his wife, Oda (who were founders, as well, of the Liudolfinger dynasty from which the Ottonian line of kings descended). (14) Mathilda, Otto I's daughter, became abbess of Quedlinburg when she was just eleven, while her cousin, Gerberga II (niece of Otto I and daughter of Henry, duke of Bavaria), joined Gandersheim at an equally early age. Mathilda's niece through Liudolf, duke of Swabia, also named Mathilda, served as abbess of Essen and took the veil at the same age as her aunt. The senior Mathilda's nieces Sophie and Adelheid (Otto II's daughters) were respectively veiled at twelve and seventeen. Sophie served as abbess of Quedlinburg, followed by Adelheid who served as abbess initially of Gandersheim and then Quedlinburg as well. Princess Adelheid's entry into Quedlinburg in 995 was, in fact, a response to Danish pirate raids of the lower Elbe and was understood by Thietmar of Merseburg (a monastic historian contemporary with Hrotsvit) as "the empress' tithe offering to God." (15) The desired outcomes of her presence at Quedlinburg were similar to those of her great uncle Brun's placement in Utrecht--"'pro patria' ... to ensure better times, continuity, stability and peace." (16) As Carol Edwards observes, "Instead of marrying their daughters to less than-royal suitors, the Ottonians placed them in royal convents.... Indeed, the only Ottonian daughter in five generations who married beneath the rank of king or duke was Matilda, Otto II's sister (978-1025), who married the Count Palantine Ezzo." (17) Peter Dronke similarly emphasizes that securing the independence of Ottonian female offspring in this manner allowed unmarried royal women both "power and intellectual scope" even as it provided them with a viable alternative to marrying princes outside the family "who might loom as rivals for the throne." (18)

In some instances, the motives behind female appointments to religious houses prove to be more complicated responses to the politics of dynastic alliance brought on by canonical expansion of the definition of incest. Otto I's placement of his niece Gerberga in Gandersheim in 940 may initially have been intended to prevent his rebellious brother Henry from marrying his daughter to a rival aristocratic house. (19) However, Otto's investment of Gerberga as the seventh abbess of Gandersheim in 947, after the rivalries between himself and her father had been settled, made her an ecclesiastic prince: "the head of a small kingdom with an army, courts of its own, [a] mint, and representation at the imperial assembly" as well as papal protection. (20) Indeed, noble parents could, through this practice of appointing marriageable daughters to these religious foundations, invest the foundations with their daughters' dowries. During Hrotsvit's lifetime, further royal grants for the abbess of Gandersheim to establish a market, the accompanying mint (silver was discovered in nearby Rammelsberg in 968), and "to dispose of the proceeds from these rights" (21) as they saw fit contributed to the increasing fiscal and political autonomy of Gandersheim. In addition to the foundation's renowned self-governance and unusual educational opportunities for women of all ages, the monastery literally lay near a crossroads of two major trade routes regularly used by Ottonian kings. As a result, Gandersheim functioned as a royal palace during visits from the king, "who had his own special rooms there" for both sacral and private worship, and offered its servitium regis to the king and his entourage. (22) Otto's appointment of Gerberga as abbess and her subsequent development of Gandersheim as a political power was part of a long tradition of similar "in the family" appointments and underscores the sustained Ottonian practice of pursuing precisely the kind of endogamous politics--consolidation of political power through intensified familial alliances--which the Church attempted to prohibit with regard to dynastic alliances through its extreme consanguinity circumscriptions.

In fact, a close look at Gandersheim's stewardship of its canonesses and nuns reveals that the foundation responded to the full spectrum of complex social outcomes of the papacy's legislation of incest. It provided a haven of learning for girls and young women who might be at risk for literal extramarital incestuous abuse. (23) It also served as a place of sequestration for marriageable daughters whose political capital might be guarded carefully in the ninth--and tenth-century incest-compromised climate of Ottonian dynastic consolidation. Most interestingly, however, through its sustained appointment of female cognati the foundation offered a model for endogamous political consolidation of power, one that afforded noble women an opportunity to exercise their political skills as rulers of a small fiefdom rather than consigning them to socially inferior marriages where their political capital might lead to factional rivalries that would leave them permanently separated from their families. (24) The outcomes of Gandersheim's endogamous political structure might even be described as "incest made good."

II. Hrotsvit's Play

The Ottonian political response to suffocating papal incest prohibitions allows us to understand Hrotsvit's opening preface to her dramas in a considerably different light. In the well-known passage where Hrotsvit identifies herself as the clamor validus, or strong voice, of Gandersheim, she also describes her Augustinian authorial program as a response to incest. She emphasizes that she will imitate Terence's forms of writing while infusing them with new content that will translate the "turpia lasciviarum incesta feminarum" (the defiling incest of lascivious women [translation mine]) into the"laudable chastity of sacred virgins." (25) Ulrike Wiethaus, who has most recently taken note of Hrotsvit's use of incesta, argues that Hrotsvit's source materials "determined to a certain degree the sexual conflicts that found their way into her writings" and that she "does not follow up on her promise [to write about incest]." (26) I would like to suggest just the opposite. In fact, through her reworking of the Vita Sanctae Marie Meretricis, Neptis Abrahae Eremitae, her hagiographic source for The Fall and Redemption of Mary, Hrotsvit insinuates that Abraham's incestuous spiritual relationship with his niece morphs into literal incest.

As a play that grows out of the incest politics of the Gandersheim foundation, then, The Fall and Redemption of Mary collocates the literal threat of incest with abuse of theo-political power grounded in corrupt incestuous desire. We see this in the confusion of consanguineous and compaternal relationships between Abraham and his child niece, Mary, who, after the death of her parents, shares Abraham's monastic cell. Critics writing about the play have regularly described its holy hermit as an exemplary spiritual guide, father figure, and benevolent uncle who risks a long journey to reclaim his fallen niece. Disguised as a lover, Abraham seeks Mary out in the brothel she retreats to after losing her virginity. Hrotsvit affords her readers a preview of this part of Abraham's narrative function in the drama. We know of his disguise "sub specie amoris" (27) from her brief introductory plot synopsis to the play. Yet in this plot overview, Hrotsvit remains strangely silent about agency in her description of Mary's initial loss of virginity: "corrupta virginitate seculum repetiit" (her virginity having been corrupted, she returned to the world [translation mine]). (28) Who exactly has corrupted Mary's virginity?

This rhetorical gap in the opening plot summary--a kind of advance deixis--subtly points to a section of the play not in Hrotsvit's source that we should reconsider: the scene between Abraham and his cohermit Effrem (29) in which we hear from Abraham that Mary has lost her virginity to a lover disguised as a monk. In this scene, Abraham's explanation is itself a dramatic performance intended to disguise the role he has played in Mary's fall. The literal disguise Abraham chooses to effect his repossession of Mary from the brothel--that of a lover--reveals the erotic impetus that underlies his initial enclosure of the child Mary in his own monastic cell. Ultimately, we should consider how the play dramatizes the counterpoise at Gandersheim between the prevention of literal incest in its stewardship of young women and the foundation's endorsement of its endogamous theo-political structure.

III. Expolition: A More Subversive Reading of Abraham's Desire

In the introduction to her recent florilegium edition of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim's works, Katharina Wilson describes the thematic correspondences between Hrotsvit's legends and dramas as "instances of amplification or expolition, that is, the recapturing of the subject from different angles." (30) She argues that "the exact balance of the recurrences between male and female protagonists serves the additional purpose of definition, of the schematization of an ideal applicable to both sexes.... In the legends men lapse; in the dramas women do." (31) I'd like briefly to explore her conclusion that only the women lapse in Hrotsvit's dramas. As I mentioned earlier, critics writing about The Fall and Redemption of Mary have regularly described its holy hermit as a spiritual guide and benevolent father figure who risks a long journey to return his fallen niece to a more spiritual life. (32) In his discussion of Abraham as "good shepherd," Sandro Sticca even goes so far as to underscore the "distinctive sanctifying instrumentality of the Abraham-Christ typological allegory" in this play. (33)

Abraham does indeed make the journey to reclaim his wayward niece when she falls into sexuality as she comes of age. However, we should pay attention to Hrotsvit's use of disguise to signal her departure from the established representation of Abraham as holy hermit. In introducing Abraham's disguise initially as that of a lover, Hrotsvit diverges from her source for this play, the Vita Sanctae Marie. The Vita Sanctae Marie explains in detail Abraham's arrangements to dress up as a soldier. Hrotsvit's opening recalibration of Abraham's disguise from soldier to lover, in contrast, introduces into the dramatic narrative a traditional hagiographic motif: "the ruinous accusations of incest and scandalous behavior" that serve as trials of sanctity for candidates for sainthood. (The tenth--and eleventh-century Wiborda vitae, with their collocation of incest accusations and the saint's resulting choice of anchoritic immurement, come most strikingly to mind.) (34) Hrotsvit must have been aware of the contemporary clergy's "fulmina[tions] against the wickedness of incest." (35) She was, in addition, writing for a religious and courtly audience familiar with contemporary scandals involving illicit sexual relations among clerics and even between clerics and members of the court. (36) We might, indeed, consider Hrotsvit's dramatic use of Abraham's "lover disguise" as a subversive use of expolition--a rhetorical slight of hand aimed at encouraging her readers to consider a more unorthodox reading of Abraham's behavior than her source allows.

As Elizabeth Archibald emphasizes in her recent study Incest and the Medieval Imagination, contemporary discussions of incest regularly begin with the fairly reductive claim that "the incest taboo is universal." (37) In fact, practices vary across time and across cultures. We tend to conceive of incest oedipally in the contemporary Western world as consanguineous sexual relations between persons related in a vertical (or almost vertical) line--parents and their children, grandparents and their grandchildren; even first cousins. For the Middle Ages this fairly straightforward definition of incest is made problematic by biblical accounts of incest that go unpunished (most prominently, Lot's incest with his daughters in Genesis 19 and the omission in the Leviticus incest taboos of daughters and nieces). (38) Augustine tries to address the resulting ambivalent attitudes toward incest. In The City of God (15.16) he endorses exogamy over endogamy, distinguishing between biblical marriages that are acceptable compellente necessitate because kinship among available marriage partners was too immediate to escape incest and what he proposes as the contemporary goal of extending "the net of socialis dilectio (social affection) by marrying outside the immediate kin-group." (39) Nevertheless, as Archibald emphasizes, "In the Middle Ages, the prohibitions relating to marriage and also intercourse with relatives were extended to a degree unprecedented in any other society; the family was defined so broadly as to include not only biological and social relationships but also spiritual ones." (40) The breadth of what can be construed as incest in the early medieval period derives from Roman legal definitions of incestum, which include offences relating to pollution and sexual incontinence in a variety of guises, including having intercourse with a vestal virgin--"a usage which was continued in the Middle Ages when incest was used to mean intercourse with nuns or clerics as well as relatives." (41)

Within such an expansive paradigm, adultery could as easily be considered incest, as could a spiritual mentorship compromised by carnal desire. In fact, Justinian, during the sixth century, was the first emperor to provide a specifically Christian rationale for incest law. In his Codex (published in 529), Justinian prohibits marriage between godparent and godchild on the grounds that the baptismal sponsor should demonstrate paternal affection for the child--that the most appropriate relationship is "a spiritual bond brokered by God." (42) His prohibition follows a discussion of doubts of earlier jurists as to whether it was permissible to marry an emancipated alumna (foster daughter), lustinian argues that anyone who has been raised in Ioco filiae (in the place of a daughter) is ineligible as a wife, adding as well the prohibition against marrying a goddaughter. Clearly, Abraham's relationship with his niece Mary falls well within the realm of associations Justinian considers potentially incestuous, both carnal and spiritual. He has not only been identified by Mary's parents as the godfather for this child, but he also becomes, within the confines of his religious community, her spiritual father. In fact, Abraham's spiritual relationship exaggerates the possibility of incest by collocating boundaries defined by consanguinity with spiritual boundaries.

IV. "Ubi monita collegae ejus Ephraem?"--What has become of the counsel of his friend, Effrem? (43)

Originally titled Abraham by its earliest editors, Hrotsvit's complete incipit title for this play reads: Lapsus et conversio Marie, neptis habrahe heremicole--The Fall and Repentance of Mary, the Niece of the Hermit Abraham (my emphasis). Hrotsvit opens her description of the play by pointing to the consanguinity between the two protagonists and proceeds to emphasize and expand on the filiation between uncle and niece in the first three scenes of the play. Not surprisingly, these are the scenes in which Hrotsvit departs most fully from her source. True to her claim to recast her Christian material in Terentian rhetorical form, Hrotsvit handles the third-person narrative information offered in the Vita Sanctae Marie entirely in dramatic dialogue between Abraham and Effrem, a character who is mentioned only peripherally in the Vita Sanctae Marie. (44) Her restructuring of the narrative voice and her expansion of Effrem's role in the drama provide us with an entirely different frame for discussions of Mary's fall. In place of the narrator's observations about the "untold riches" that constitute Mary's material wealth, we have Effrem's and Abraham's etymology lesson about Mary's name. In comparing her to the stella maris, Effrem clearly imagines her as a type of the Blessed Virgin. However, her name anticipates a different Mary as well--the Magdalen who in her fall and repentance serves as the type for the journey Abraham's Mary will ultimately undergo. (45) Hrotsvit uses this ambiguity to great dramatic effect, leaving the audience to wonder what brought about Mary's fall and how her return to grace will take place.

The most startling departure is Hrotsvit's substitution of Abraham's confession to Effrem of his "discovery" of Mary's disappearance for Mary's extended soliloquy in the Vita Sanctae Marie acknowledging her failure and self-contamination. In her soliloquy in the Vita Sanctae Marie, Mary explicitly takes full responsibility for her sinful behavior, confirming her personal weakness and sinfulness in the face of her seducer. In her dramatic rendering of this narrative, however, Hrotsvit elides Mary's confession, leaving her audience instead with an ambivalent portrait of Abraham and Effrem who come across as co-conspirators obsessed with controlling Mary's body and procuring her inviolability, regardless of the cost to Mary. At the outset of the play, in seeking the advice of his fellow hermit Effrem in the first scene, Abraham describes his deep affection for a not-quite-eight-year-old Mary and identifies her as the source of his cares. In the same breath he underscores his intimate relationship with his niece and his fear of the potential sullying of her body--that "ne immensa eius serenitas pulchritudinis / alicuius obfuscetur sorde coinquinationis" (the immense radiance of her beauty should wane / and be dimmed by some pollution's stain). (46) He admits that after bequeathing her wealth to the poor, he began to raise the orphaned girl in his own cell. She has become "mihi cura" (47) a care to him, he confesses to Effrem, with a pun on "cura" that suggests Mary is both his disease and his cure. Effrem, who has been listening attentively, inquiring about the girl's age, commenting on her immaturity, marvelling at her purity ("Laudabile"), enthusiastically endorses Abraham's desire that Mary be "Christo desponsari" (espoused to Christ) to preserve her virginity and prevent the "sorde" (pollution) that Abraham fears will befall her as she comes of age. (48)

Here Hrotsvit lays the foundation for the play's semiotics of containment--its exploration of various spatial, dramatic, and rhetorical strategies for enclosing and containing Mary. The details of this scene--the emotional and spatial proximity Abraham describes; the almost voyeuristic interest on Effrem's part in Mary's virginal integrity; Abraham's economic dispossession of the underage Mary counterbalanced by his negotiations with Effrem about their future spiritual investment of her; the unprecedented anchoritic immurement of an eight-year old child (49)--stand in stark contrast to the kinds of freedom canonesses at Gandersheim would have expected for the women in their foundation, young to old. However, the intent to monitor, even control the uses of Mary's virginity would have been all too familiar to Hrotsvit, both from her studies and from the praxis at Gandersheim. Abraham, in particular, violates the vows of self-containment that are essential to his calling as a hermit. He literally breaches the sanctity of his cell by raising Mary there. Subsequently, the tenor of Abraham's and Effrem's conversation reveals a fundamental distrust and fear of female sexuality, with its implicit understanding of womankind's essential and unavoidable vulnerability to being sexually compromised. (50) Their conversation serves as the metaphorical extension of Abraham's initial breach of the sanctity of his cell. In this, the two hermits echo the tone of early vitae of Northern European male eremitic and monastic saints. Abraham's and Effrem's mutual obsession with preserving Mary's sexuality intimates their shared sensual interest in the young girl. The dramatic action the play foregrounds as its central example of violation and translation of spiritual into erotic appetite is not Mary's fall but Abraham's and Effrem's lascivious behavior.

In scene two we actually see Mary in corpore as the object of their verbal deliberations, with both Abraham and Effrem establishing their own idioms for possession. Hrotsvit carefully marks Mary's entrance with Abraham's rhetorical possession ofher:"O adoptiva filia / o pars anime Maria / cede meis paternis moitionibus" (Oh my adopted daughter, oh part of my soul, Mary heed my fatherly admonitions). (51) Through a subtle verbal shift, Abraham attempts to displace and redefine their consanguineous relation as compaternal. He translates their uncle-niece relationship into that of spiritual father and spiritual daughter who are engaged in what he describes as a kind of ensouled intercourse. Abraham's resulting fervor to redesign Mary's eremitic accommodations--from living quarters he shares with his "adoptive daughter" to "ideo faciam illi exiguam absque introitu cellulam meis mansiunculis contiguam" (a little cell, narrow of entrance and adjacent to my own dwelling) (52)--captures the paradox of his desire to possess Mary, to control access to her without literally polluting her.

In a similar vein, Effrem's extended exegesis of Mary's name in this scene literally maps the virginal identity he projects for her. As Sandro Sticca has argued, Hrotsvit depicts Effrem as drawing heavily on traditional patristic understandings of the stella marls complex for his erudite instruction of Mary in the significance of her name. (53) However, Mary's blunt, innocent deference when asked if she understands the discussion--"I, such a little thing and made of clay" (54)--recalls the ironic performance of the diminutive self that Hrostvit, as clamor validus of Gandersheim, engages in her preface to the dramas. It recasts the entire exchange between Mary and Effrem as potentially ironic. Read in this light, Mary brings to mind Hrotsvit's other defiant children, Spes, Fides, and Caritas. (55) Hrotsvit sets up a telling correspondence between their martyrdom and Mary's joint coercion by her spiritual mentors. Effrem's lecture dramatizes the enveloping, self-sanctioning quality of the monastic culture within which Mary is to be nurtured. The culminating bridegroom imagery that Effrem uses to celebrate virginity--though intended by Effrem to underscore Abraham's efforts to redefine his corporeal desire for Mary as spiritual--is highly erotic and actually suggests how easily the lines may be blurred within relationships involving spiritual mentorship. Effrem anticipates that Mary, as a type of the Blessed Virgin and bride of Christ, will achieve her greatest delight in the arms "filii virginis / in lucifluo thalamo sui genitricis" (of the Virgin's Son, and [will be] embraced by Him in the luminous wedding chamber of His mother). (56) The bridal relationship Effrem posits between Christ and Mary anticipates later allegorical readings of Christ's mystical union with humankind as a kind of incest. (57) The relationship Effrem imagines is, for medieval Christian culture, the iconic instance of the collapse of borders between the consanguineous and the compaternal, between carnal and spiritual desire. It underscores the difficulty with which Abraham and Effrem attempt to disguise their desire for Mary as exclusively spiritual.

These first two scenes from Mary's childhood subtly suggest that some form of incestuous desire motivates Abraham's and Effrem's efforts to control Mary's virginity. And they cast Abraham's narrative of the mature Mary's lapsed grace in scene 3 in an entirely different mold. Although we are later allowed a view of her as prostitute, we do not actually see Mary's initial fall into sin in this play. In contrast to Mary's first-person lamentation of her self-destruction in the Vita Sanctae Marie, in Hrotsvit's play we hear Abraham's distraught narration to Effrem of her fall from purity. Abraham's revelation of Mary's deception to Effrem in scene 3 plays as a dark, not quite comic self-confession of Abraham's inadequacies as Mary's spiritual guide and mentor. (58)

Abraham stumbles through an initial attempt to explain that Mary has perished "miserabiliter / deinde evasit latenter" (in great wretchedness; then she stole away, secretly). (59) He describes her disappearance as "evasit" with its connotations of both "escape" and "evasion." In combination with his inability initially to articulate the agent of her wretchedness, Abraham's narration of her disappearance is unsettling at best. When Abraham is at a loss for words to explain what moved Mary to leave, Effrem draws on a patristic trope that dates back to Jerome, (60) immediately inserting the appropriate explanation: that "Quibus insidiis circumvenit eam fraus antiqui serpentis" (the guile of the ancient serpent beset her). (61) Abraham corroborates Effrem's suggestion with a very brief narrative of a deceiver who,"per illicitum cuiusdam simulatoris affectum / qui monachico adveniens habitu simulate eam visitacione frequentabat" (disguised as a monk, often came to see her / under the pretense of instructive visits) and ultimately lured her"adeo ut per fenestram ad patrandum facinus exiliret" (to jump from her window to perform that awful deed). (62) The play offers another striking departure from its source text here. The Vita Sanctae Marie provides an extended description of Mary's relations with her fenestral lover, including her choice to climb out the window of her anchoritic cell to have sex with the young man after he importunes her "ita ut unius anni circulus volveretur, donec cogitationem ejus verborum suorum mollitiae enervaret" (and for the full circle of a year, he softened her thoughts by his words). (63) In contrast, Abraham's terse and somewhat evasive initial response to Effrem's inquiry, compounded by his compressed version of this part of the narrative, has the quality of self-deception. Hrotsvit's Abraham goes into more expansive detail when he describes how Mary beats her breasts, lacerates her face and hands, tears her clothes, and wails in lamentation: "ipsa infelix se corruptam sensit" (the wretched girl, so beguiled, / found herself lapsed and defiled). (64) Although the graphic details can readily be explained as drawing on traditional iconographic representations of acedia, Abraham's description is, nevertheless, troubling--an extension of his initial self-deception.

Hrotsvit uses the reflexive verb once again to present Mary as the victim of an agent-less crime--"se corruptam sensit" And Mary's subsequent self-defilement (which Abraham narrates in such vivid detail) takes place, as Abraham himself tells us, after her sexual lapse and disappearance. Attentive audience members might wonder how Abraham can narrate a scene to which, chronologically speaking, he cannot possibly have been privy. Effrem even muses when he catches the discrepancy: "Mirum qui fieri posset ! ut te ignorante evaderet" (I wonder how it could have happened that, unnoticed by you, she got away). (65)

Abraham avoids responding by introducing a parallel narrative--that of a pair of dreams "qua si mens non fuisset laeva / mihi praefigurabatur eius ruina" (which, if my mind had not been careless, would have foretold me of her perdition). (66) His first dream is a vision of a foul-smelling dragon that rushes at Abraham as he stands in the entrance of his cell, seizes a little white dove nearby, devours it and vanishes. As Effrem observes with dry irony, it is "evidens visio" (a vision with clear meaning). (67) In engineering Effrem's silent refusal to interpret this first dream for Abraham, Hrotsvit opens the possibility that Abraham is the seducer. (68) Hrotsvit makes even more ambiguous the identity of Mary's seducer through her handling of Abraham's subsequent dream. In the Vita Sanctae Marie, Abraham has no second vision. Rather, he is literally visited by the "snake" that enters his cell, places its head under Abraham's feet submissively, and dies. Abraham is able to retrieve the dove, alive and well, from the belly of the beast. (69) For her drama, Hrotsvit translates this visit into a second dream to show Abraham remembering how he had crushed the dragon in his dream, only to see the white dove, unhurt, darting away on its own. The second dream no longer functions as a prediction of Abraham's salvific heroism (as in the Vita Sanctae Marie). Instead, it reintroduces Abraham's anxieties about controlling Mary. Whereas two years pass in the Vita Sanctae Mariebefore Abraham decides to go in search of Mary, in Hrotsvit's play Effrem and Abraham immediately develop a plan of rescue that involves disguise and includes Effrem's encouragement to Abraham to follow through on the plan "si arcioris frenas observantie aliquantisper laxabis" (even if it means that you will have to relax the strict rules of our monastic practice). (70)

Hrotsvit's careful unveiling of the self-deception Abraham performs in these three opening scenes may reconfigure our reading of his choice of disguise later in the play. That Abraham masquerades as a lover (not, as in the source, as a soldier) who is in active pursuit of kisses--"Accede Maria et da mihi osculum" (Come Mary and give me a kiss) (71)--in order to redeem her from the brothel signals the various levels of disguise at play in The Fall and Redemption of Mary. Hrotsvit achieves her claim from the "Preface" to the dramas that she will imitate Terence's style in order to revise the substance of his representations of"turpia lasciviarum incesta feminarum" (the defiling incest of lascivious women). (72) By demonstrating how male incestuous desire can present itself in disguise, Hrotsvit has managed quite literally in this play to revise Terentian content without eschewing the style. After all, Abraham's redemption of Mary actually reveals itself to be a disguised incest narrative that calls into question the generic protocol of the "fallen woman drama." Certainly Mary falls, but Hrotsvit asks us to reconsider whether her sin is actually "original" essential to her nature as Woman and redeemable only by her spiritual father, or whether, in fact, it results from Abraham's confusion of his consanguineous and compaternal roles.

Whether Abraham is actually Mary's seducer is a moot point. That his desire (and Effrem's as well) to possess her corrupts his role as her spiritual advisor is not. Unable to translate his incestuous desire for Mary into a spiritual alliance, Abraham returns her to her cell to endure even more severe penance than before. (73) It is worth noting here that the Vita Sanctae Marie closes in a manner quite different from that of Hrotsvit's play. The narrator explains that God rewards Mary for her steadfast penance after three years by blessing her with the gift of healing and describes how the lives of Abraham and Mary have influenced and sustained his own commitment to penance. Hrotsvit, however, once again elides the focus on Mary, substituting instead Effrem's and Abraham's discussion of the details of Mary's penance, specifically Effrem's affirmation and praise of the justice achieved through the penance Abraham imposes on Mary: "Aequum est ut inique sordes delectationis eliminentur acerbitate cstigationis" (It is only right / that the filth of her sinful delight / be purged by the bitter severity of her plight). (74) The play's final scene divests Mary in rhetorical terms of agency and voice, her narrative presented once again only as Abraham and Effrem shape it. The scene's focus on her anchoritic immurement, physical defilement, and enforced asceticism--penance directed, as Abraham emphasizes, "iuxta meum velle" (entirely according to my will) (75)--casts a shadow over Abraham's and Effrem's closing celebration of their literal containment of sin.

Surely Hrotsvit encourages her viewers to compare reductive with productive uses of incest--to see the stark contrast between Mary's immurement and the walls of Gandersheim, a vibrant civitas dei, with a healthy theo-political body, produced by the Ottonian court's successful recalibration of the politics of dynastic alliance as endogamous spiritual alliance. Yet through her exploration of incestuous desire, Hrotsvit also underscores how anxiety about sexual pollution and concomitant enforced containment corrupts Abraham's compaternal relationship with Mary. In this play, Hrotsvit offers a subtle piece of political advice to the Ottonian rulers who have found a way to translate endogamy into productive enclosure: enclosure without autonomy would simply be entombment. Through her dramatic reworking of the character Abraham, Hrotsvit provides a cautionary critique for her audience about the dangers of disguising incestuous desires as spiritual concern and alerts them to the potential for spiritual corruption in pursuit of endogamous politics.

Colorado College


(1) Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Hrotsvit: Opera Omnia, ed. Walter Berschin (Muenchen: K. G. Saur, 2001), 132 (my emphases); hereafter cited as Berschin. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, The Fall and Repentance of Mary (Abraham) in Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: A Florilegium of Her Works, trans. Katharina Wilson (Cambridge: Brewer, 1998), 41; hereafter cited as Wilson.

(2) Wilson, 41.

(3) Constance Bouchard, "Consanguinity and Noble Marriages in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries," Speculum 56 (1981): 270-71.

(4) Ibid., 269.

(5) Jane Tibbetts Schulenberg, Forgetful of their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 5001100 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998), passim. Schulenberg points to the popularity of narratives like the legend of Charlemagne's "secret sin" and the eleventh-century vita of Saint Wiborda which included a substantive defense against claims of incest in her famously intimate relationship of with her brother Hitto. The tenth-century life of St. Giles (d. 721/725) tells us that Charlemagne was too ashamed to name his sin to his confessor, the abbot St. Giles. While St. Giles was saying mass, an angel appeared to him with a scroll naming Charlemagne's sin--incest with his sister. The divine missive indicated that Charlemagne could be forgiven this sin with the intercession of St. Giles "as long as the king did penance and did not commit this sin in the future" (504). Wiborda and Hitto of St. Gaul were tenth-century religious luminaries who collaborated on a number of religious endeavors. Both the tenth- and eleventh-century vitae of Wiborda describe the closeness of this brother-sister relationship as well as the scandalous accusations it raised, with the eleventh-century life by Hepidannus, a monk of St. Gall, emphasizing the resulting trial Wiborda successfully underwent to defend herself from accusations of incest. Her subsequent choice to immure herself serves as an interesting example of the collocation of incest and anchoritic immurement contemporary with Hrotsvit of Gandersheim's dramatic reworking of the Lapsus et Converso Marie (Vita Sanctae Marie).

(6) Elizabeth Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 11.

(7) Suzanne Wemple, "Monastic Life of Women from the Merovingians to the Ottonians," in Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Rata Avis in Saxonia?, ed. Katharina Wilson (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Marc Publishing, 1987), 41.

(8) See Karl J. Leyser, Rule and Conflict in an Early Medieval Society: Ottonian Saxony (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), 64. See also Wemple, "Monastic Life of Women," 41.

(9) Daniel T. Kline, "Kids Say the Darndest Things: Irascible Children in Hrotsvit's." in Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Contexts, Identities, Affinities, and Performances, ed. Phyllis R. Brown, Linda McMillin, Katharina M. Wilson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 78.

(10) See Bouchard (273-79, passim) for a discussion of Hugh Capet's efforts, shortly after he became king, to secure a Byzantine bride for his son Robert. Unable to do so, he arranged a marriage for Robert first with Roalla-Susanna, daughter of King Berengar II of Italy, twice Robert's age, and "the only 'suitable' non-cousin then in western Europe" (276). Divorced within a few years, Robert pursued a marriage with Bertha of Burgundy in 996 only to have the marriage pronounced as anathema by ecclesiastical councils because it was incestuous. Bouchard notes that "even after he remarried," Robert repeatedly attempted "to rejoin Bertha" (276).

(11) Ibid., 273-78 passim.

(12) Ibid., 286.

(13) See Leyser, 77-107 passim. In the Ottonian coronation ode from the middle of the tenth century (the Mainz Pontifical of c.960), "the ruler appears as one who has shared the episcopal ministerium and also as the mediator between clergy and people" (Leyser, 77). This attention to a careful set of checks and balances between lay and religious powers characterizes the gestures of the Ottonian nobility from its earliest days. Attempts to ensure the appearance of the sacral power of the kingship have been well documented by historians: from Otto I's coronation in Rome, to Ottonian acquisition of powerful relics to the narratives of contemporary historians who "interpreted the historical process as a manifestation of divine justice" and its successful kings as "bearers of the divine will" (84-85). For further discussion, see also: John W. Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in Early Medieval Germany,, c. 936-1075 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Suzanne Wemple, Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500-900 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1981); The Empress Theophano: Byzantium and the West at the Turn of the First Millennium, ed. David Adelbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

(14) Wemple, "Monastic Life of Women," 43-44.

(15 Leyser, 90.

(16) Ibid., 89.

(17) Carolyn Edwards, "Dynastic Sanctity in Two Early Medieval Women's Lives" in Medieval Family Roles, ed. Cathy Jorgensen Itnyre (New York: Garland, 1996), 12-13. Edwards observes that Ezzo's marriage to this Matilda was "so extraordinary that a story sprang up to explain it in which Ezzo had beaten Otto at chess and asked for Matilda's hand as his reward" (13).

(18) Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua [d. 203] to Marguerite Porete [d. 1310] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 55.

(19) Ulrike Wiethaus, "Pulchrum Signum? Sexuality and the Politics of Religion in the Works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim between 963 and 973," in Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Contexts, Identities, Affinities, and Performances, 128.

(20) Wemple, "Monastic Life of Women" 42.

(21) Bernhardt, 152-53.

(22) Bernhardt points out that unlike Quedlinburg, "at Gandersheim the monastery itself appears to have functioned as the royal palace during visits from the king, who had his own special rooms there. As with so many churches with royal connections, the monastic church at Gandersheim had a western extension on the Westwerk, which contained a royal gallery overlooking the church nave from which the king participated in religious services. Moreover, a private royal chapel may have existed in the upper storey of the Westwerk where the king could hear mass alone, though it is possible that the chapter may have participated in the rites. Obviously, when the king stopped at Gandersheim the monastery provided his accommodation and his upkeep and offered several religious alternatives--for royal sacral representation or for private worship" (152-53).

(23) Kline, 78. One of its main purposes was to focus on "the education of the noble youth, especially daughters."

(24) For Otto I's complex relationships with factional relatives, see Leyser, 9-48 passim. Leyser describes the careful political checks and balances Otto exercised with regards to his Saxon enemies in a system not governed by primogeniture but with a family structure "where partibility and co-hereditas rule descent" (10). In such a system, there is no "commanding moment.... The death of [a son's] father might be hut one event in a chain of inheritances. Thus, the death of the mother, an aunt, a brother, nephew, uncle, or cousin might be as important for amassing a fortune as the death of a male parent. Conversely, the individual was rarely the only participant in the devolution of an inheritance. Under these conditions it is not difficult to see why dissension between cognati was, if anything, the rule and concord the exception among the wealthier families of the aristocracy in early medieval Germany and, in tenth-century Saxony, not least of all" (10). In part, his ambitions of dynastic consolidation and cultivation of the political narrative of sacral Christian kingship grew out of these factional rivalries.

(25) Berschin, 132; Wilson, 41.

(26) Wiethaus, 48; 60-61, n.41.

(27) Berschin, 195.

(28) Ibid., 195.

(29) Berschin, 199-204; Wilson, 69-72; see also "Vita Sanctae Marie Meretricis, Neptis Abrahae Eremitae," in Patrologia cursus completus [...] Series Latina, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne, 221 vols. (Paris: Migne, 1844-64), 73:653. Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Stories (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1987), 93-94.

(30) Wilson, 13.

(31) Ibid., 13-14.

(32) Ibid., 14.

(33) Sandro Sticca, Hrotswitha's Abraham and Exegetical Tradition (Torino: Baccola and Gili, 1971), 23.

(34) Schulenberg, 291.

(35) Bouchard, 271.

(36) Schulenberg, 296-96 passim; 343-48 passim.

(37) Archibald, 9.

(38) Ibid., 21.

(39) Ibid., 24.

(40) Ibid., 11.

(41) Ibid., 13.

(42) Ibid., 30.

(43) Vita Sanctae Marie, 654; Ward, 94. This remark, made by Mary in the Vita Sanctae Marie (see note 44), does not have a parallel in Hrotsvit's play. Indeed, it underscores the absence in the Vita of any extended discussion of the events at hand between Effrem and Abraham. Hrotsvit picks up on this rhetorical cue and offers a tantalizing dramatization of the conversation only alluded to in the Vita. See the argument that follows for further details.

(44) Mary mentions Effrem only briefly when, after her fall, she yearns for the counsel not only of Abraham but of his colleague Effrem.

(45) As Katharina Wilson observes, her name implies a wide spectrum of images (68, note to 1.5).

(46) Berschin, 196; Wilson, 71.

(47) Berschin, 196.

(48) Berschin, 198; Wilson, 71.

(49) Stephen L. Wailes,"Immurement and Religious Experience in the Stricker's 'Eingemauerte Fraud" in Beitrage zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 96 (1974): 83, and "Beyond Virginity: Flesh and Spirit in the Plays of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim" Speculum 76 (2001): 19.

(50) Schulenberg, 288.

(51) Berschin 197; Wilson 72.

(52) Berschin 199; Wilson 74.

(53) Sticca, 14-19.

(54) Wilson, 68; Berschin, 198 ("ut ego tantilla ex lutea materia confecta").

(55) For a splendid discussion of language and children in Sapientia, see Kline, 77-95 passim. (56) Berschin, 198; Wilson, 68-69.

(57) Archibald, 136-37.

(58) Berschin, 199-204; Wilson, 69-72.

(59) Berschin, 200; Wilson, 70.

(60) Sticca, 20.

(61) Berschin, 200; Wilson, 70.

(62) Ibid.

(63) "Vita Sanctae Marie Meretricis," 73: 653; Ward, 93.

(64) Ibid.

(65) Berschin, 201; Wilson, 70.

(66) Berschin, 201; Wilson, 70.

(67) Berschin, 202; Wilson, 71.

(68) Michael Zampelli, reflecting on his February 2000 production of Hrotsvit's plays at the University of Santa Clara, observes that this exchange staged "makes it difficult to leave aside the possibility that the seducer is indeed Abraham himself" (275), in "Playing with Hrotsvit: Adventures in Contemporary Performances," Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Contexts, Identities, Affinities, and Performances, 265-82.

(69) "Vita Sanctae Marie Meretricis," 73: 654; Ward, 94.

(70) Berschin 204; Wilson, 72.

(71) Berschin 208; my translation (this quote is not in Wilson's translation).

(72) Berschin, 132; my translation.

(73) Berschin, 216; Wilson, 79.

(74) Berschin, 216; Wilson, 79.

(75) Berschin, 216; my translation.
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Author:Evitt, Regula Meyer
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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