Plays of Roswitha (1923)/The Prefaces of Roswitha

The Plays of Roswitha  (1923)  by Hrotsvitha, translated by Christabel Gertrude Marshall
The Prefaces of Roswitha



There are many Catholics, and we cannot entirely acquit ourselves of the charge, who, attracted by the polished elegance of the style of pagan writers, prefer their works to the holy scriptures. There are others who, although they are deeply attached to the sacred writings and have no liking for most pagan productions, make an exception in favour of the works of Terence, and, fascinated by the charm of the manner, risk being corrupted by the wickedness of the matter. Wherefore I, the strong voice of Gandersheim, have not hesitated to imitate in my writings a poet whose works are so widely read, my object being to glorify, within the limits of my poor talent, the laudable chastity of Christian virgins in that self-same form of composition which has been used to describe the shameless acts of licentious women. One thing has all the same embarrassed me and often brought a blush to my cheek. It is that I have been compelled through the nature of this work to apply my mind and my pen to depicting the dreadful frenzy of those possessed by unlawful love, and the insidious sweetness of passion—things which should not even be named among us. Yet if from modesty I had refrained from treating these subjects I should not have been able to attain my object—to glorify the innocent to the best of my ability. For the more seductive the blandishments of lovers the more wonderful the divine succour and the greater the merit of those who resist, especially when it is fragile woman who is victorious and strong man who is routed with confusion.

I have no doubt that many will say that my poor work is much inferior to that of the author whom I have taken as my model, that it is on a much humbler scale, and indeed altogether different.

Well, I do not deny this. None can justly accuse me of wishing to place myself on a level with those who by the sublimity of their genius have so far outstripped me. No, I am not so arrogant as to compare myself even with the least among the scholars of the ancient world. I strive only, although my power is not equal to my desire, to use what talent I have for the glory of Him Who gave it me. Nor is my self-love so great that I would, to avoid criticism, abstain from proclaiming wherever possible the virtue of Christ working in His saints. If this pious devotion gives satisfaction I shall rejoice; it it does not, either on account of my own worthlessness or of the faults of my unpolished style, I shall still be glad that I made the effort.

In the humbler works of my salad days I gathered up my poor researches in heroic strophes, but here I have sifted them into a series of dramatic scenes and avoided through omission the pernicious voluptuousness of pagan writers.


To you, learned and virtuous men, who do not envy the success of others, but on the contrary rejoice in it as becomes the truly great, Hrotswitha, poor humble sinner, sends wishes for your health in this life and your joy in eternity.

I cannot praise you enough for your humility, or pay an adequate tribute to your kindness and affection. To think that you, who have been nurtured in the most profound philosophical studies and have attained knowledge in perfection, should have deigned to approve the humble work of an obscure woman! You have, however, not praised me but the Giver of the grace which works in me, by sending me your paternal congratulations and admitting that I possess some little knowledge of those arts the subtleties of which exceed the grasp of my woman's mind. Until I showed my work to you I had not dared to let anyone see it except my intimate companions. I came near abandoning this form of writing altogether, for if there were few to whom I could submit my compositions at all there were fewer still who could point out what needed correction and encourage me to go on. But now, reassured by your verdict (is it not said that the testimony of three witnesses is "equivalent to the truth"?), I feel that I have enough confidence to apply myself to writing, if God grants me the power, and that I need not fear the criticism of the learned whoever they may be. Still, I am torn by conflicting feelings. I rejoice from the depths of my soul that the God through Whose grace alone I am what I am should be praised in me, but I am afraid of being thought greater than I am. I know that it is as wrong to deny a divine gift as to pretend falsely that we have received it. So I will not deny that through the grace of the Creator I have acquired some knowledge of the arts. He has given me the ability to learn—I am a teachable creature—yet of myself I should know nothing. He has given me a perspicacious mind, but one that lies fallow and idle when it is not cultivated. That my natural gifts might not be made void by negligence I have been at pains, whenever I have been able to pick up some threads and scraps torn from the old mantle of philosophy, to weave them into the stuff of my own book, in the hope that my lowly ignorant effort may gain more acceptance through the introduction of something of a nobler strain, and that the Creator of genius may be the more honoured since it is generally believed that a woman's intelligence is slower. Such has been my motive in writing, the sole reason for the sweat and fatigue which my labours have cost me. At least I do not pretend to have knowledge where I am ignorant. On the contrary, my best claim to indulgence is that I know how much I do not know.

Impelled by your kindly interest and your express wish I come, bowing low like a reed, to submit this little work to your judgment. I wrote it indeed with that idea in my mind, although doubt as to its merits has made me withhold it until now. I hope you will revise it with the same careful attention that you would give to a work of your own, and that when you have succeeded in bringing it up to the proper standard you will return it to me, that I may learn what are its worst faults.


(The Life Story of the Blessed Virgin, The Fall and Conversion of Theophilus, The Martyrdom of Saint Agnes, Poems concerning the First Cenobites at Gandersheim, The Acts of Otho I, etc., etc.)

I offer this little book, which has not much to recommend it in the way of beauty, although it has been compiled with a good deal of care, for the criticism of all those learned people who do not take pleasure in a writer's faults but are anxious to amend them. I am well aware that in my first works I made many mistakes not only in prosody but in literary composition, and there must be much to criticise in this book. By acknowledging my shortcomings beforehand I hope I am entitled to ready indulgence as well as to careful correction of my mistakes. To the objection that may be raised that I have borrowed parts of this work from authorities which some condemn as apocryphal, I would answer that I have erred through ignorance, not through presumption. When I started, timidly enough, on the work of composition I did not know that the authenticity of my material had been questioned. On discovering this to be the case I decided not to discard it, because it often happens that what is reputed false turns out to be true. In these circumstances I shall need as much assistance in defending this little work as in improving it. It must be remembered that when I began it I was far from possessing the necessary qualifications, being young both in years and learning. Up to the present I have not submitted the work to any experts much as I needed their advice, for fear that the roughness of the style would make them discourage me to such an extent that I might give up writing altogether. Unknown to all round me, I have toiled in secret, often destroying what seemed to me to be ill written, and rewriting it. I have tried to the best of my ability to improvise on phrases collected from sacred writings in the precincts of our convent at Gandersheim. I was trained first by our most learned and gentle novice-mistress Rikkarda and others. Later, I owed much to the kind favour and encouragement of a royal personage, Gerberga, under whose abbatial rule I am now living. She, though younger in years than I, was, as might be expected of the niece of an Emperor, far older in learning, and she had the kindness to make me familiar with the works of some of those authors in whose writings she had been instructed by learned men. Although prosody may seem a hard and difficult art for a woman to master, I, without any assistance but that given by the merciful grace of Heaven (in which I have trusted, rather than in my own strength), have attempted in this book to sing in dactyls. I was eager that the talent given me by Heaven should not grow rusty from neglect, and remain silent in my heart from apathy, but under the hammer of assiduous devotion should sound a chord of divine praise. If I have achieved nothing else, this alone should make my work of some value. Wherefore, reader, whosoever you may be, I beg you, if you think it right before God, to help me by not sparing censure of such pages as are poor and lack the skill of a master. If, on the contrary, you find some that stand the test of criticism, give the credit to God, ascribing all defects to my shortcomings. Do this in an indulgent rather than in a censorious spirit, for the critic forfeits the right to be severe when the writer acknowledges defects with humility.


Illustrious Abbess, venerated no less for uprightness and honesty than for the high distinction of a royal and noble race, Roswitha of Gandersheim, the last of the least of those fighting under your ladyship's rule, desires to give you all that a servant owes her mistress.

O my Lady, bright with the varied jewels of spiritual wisdom, your maternal kindness will not let you hesitate to read what, as you know, was written at your command! It was you who gave me the task of chronicling in verse the deeds of the Emperor, and you know that it was impossible to collect them together from hearsay. You can imagine the difficulties which my ignorance put in my way while I was toiling over this work. There were things of which I could not find any written record, nor could I elicit information by word of mouth which seemed sufficiently reliable. I was like a person in a strange land wandering without a guide through a forest where the path is concealed by dense snow. In vain he tries to follow the directions of those who have shown the way. He wanders from the path, now by chance strikes it again, until at last, penetrating the thickness of the wood, he reaches a place where he may take a long-desired rest, and sitting down there, does not proceed further until someone overtakes him, or he discovers the footprints of one who has gone before. Even so have I, obeying the command to undertake a complete chronicle of great deeds, gone on my way, trembling, hesitating, and vacillating, so great was the difficulty of finding a path in the forest of these royal achievements.

And now, worn out by the journey, I am holding my peace and resting in a suitable place. I do not propose to go further without better guidance. If I could be inspired by the eloquent words of learned folk (either already set down or to be set down in the future) I might perhaps find a means of glozing my uncouth workmanship. At present I am defenceless at every point, because I am not supported by any authority. I also fear I shall be accused of temerity in presuming to describe in my humble uncultured way matters which ought to be set forth with all the ceremony of great learning. Yet if my work is examined by those who know how to weigh things fairly, I shall be more easily pardoned on account of my sex and my inferior knowledge, especially as I did not undertake it of my own will but at your command. Why should I fear the judgment of others, since if there are mistakes I should fall only under your censure, and why should I not escape reproof seeing that I was anxious to keep silence? I should deserve blame if I sought to withhold my work. In any case I leave the decision to you and your friend, Archbishop William, to whom you have thought fit to show these unpolished lines.


I found all the material I have used in this book in various ancient works by authors of reputation, with the exception of the story of the martyrdom of St. Pelagius, which has been told here in verse. The details of this were supplied to me by an inhabitant of the town where the Saint was put to death. This truthful stranger assured me that he had not only seen Pelagius, whom he described as the most beautiful of men, face to face, but had been a witness of his end. If anything has crept into my other compositions, the accuracy of which can be challenged, it is not my fault, unless it be a fault to have reproduced the statements of unreliable authorities.