Hrotsvitha and Hildegard Deliver Women into Light

septem_2001In Karen Christina Lang’s Essay, “Images of Women in Early Buddhism and Christian Gnosticism,” she explores myths on the fall of humanity from texts written in the 3rd Century B.C.E. These myths associate women’s fertility with the Earth’s abundance and, according to Lang, this correlation is what gives rise to the idea that the feminine, as analogous to the earth, contains all that is lacking enlightenment, including “darkness, corporality and impurity” (Lang 103). Consequently, in early Buddhist and Gnostic faiths, the path to enlightenment requires denying the body’s appetite for earthly fruits, both material and sexual, in order to achieve the state of “maleness” associated with meditative trance (Lang 99). Earthly and corporeal filth is to be renounced by both genders, although these characteristics are typically referred to as embodied by the feminine, thus allowing for the spiritual attainment of each sex (Lang 103). The lasting effects of this philosophy are evident in the lives and writings of Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, the first recorded female playwright from the 10th Century, and Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th Century Abbess. Through the writings of their time, Hrotsvitha and Hildegard address the literal perception of this symbolic philosophy as described by Lang, and through discourse with their respective audiences they are able to challenge humanity’s gender-specific interpretation of spirituality.

In prefacing her plays, Hrotsvitha acknowledges the perceived inferiority of her womanhood in terms that challenge the validity of the applied negative connotation. Specifically in “Epistle of the Same to Certain Scholars,” a preface to her plays offering gratitude for her acceptance into a male dominated realm of writing, Hrotsvitha says, “To think that you … 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 … admitting that I possess some little knowledge of those arts the subtleties of which exceed the grasp of my woman’s mind.” (Hrotsvitha, Epistle) To claim her work as hers alone would lead to rejection on the basis that she is a woman. In an effort to circumvent the gender barrier, Hrotsvitha lends credibility to her craft by renouncing any personal credit for the talent she possesses. She instead attributes her meager knowledge and skill to a gift from the highest power, that of God, placing her accomplishments in the only light her audience could accept. The claim that God endowed this woman with scholarly ability had the power to persuade her male audience into accepting her favorably, as proven by the existence of her texts today.

Hrotsvitha expounds on this recognition of externally obtained knowledge by crediting learned men from whom she borrowed thoughts and ideas. She explains:

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 more honored since it is generally believed that a woman’s intelligence is slower. (Hrotsvitha, Epistle)

Here she describes her work as difficult, having “been at pains” to create her book. This difficulty is to be expected of one who is not superior in intellect. By equating her writing to weaving, an accepted women’s craft, Hrotsvitha claims to collect bits of knowledge from noble thinkers, since her own acuity is believed inferior. This humble presentation hails the brilliance of scholars who have inspired her, quieting the objections of less humble intellectual men. While humility is believed to please God, Hrotsvitha strategically manipulates her expression of humility to please her masculine scholarly audience as well.

Hrotsvitha may present her work humbly, yet she illustrates a confidence in her literary goal to redefine women in her own terms. This is evident when she proclaims:

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. (Hrotsvitha, Preface)

Here, her aggressive language draws attention to use of “I, the strong voice” and her lack of hesitation when imitating Terrence. “My poor talent” reads as a mere afterthought, perhaps to appease those who take offense to her confidence. Demonstrating her awareness of popular literature, Hrotsvitha specifically assumes the writing style of Terrence knowing that her message will be better circulated if it mimics the form to which readers are already predisposed. While abandoning his amoral plots, she shifts her content to celebrate women’s strength in their devotion to God, addressing topics of unlawful love and passion, only to illustrate “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” (Hrotsvitha, Preface). This celebration of women shines with Hrotsvitha’s originality yet, having defined her work as a gift from God, faith is required to allow for consideration of the new literary perspective.

hildyHildegard must also address the perceived deficiency of her gender, thus supplying additional evidence that Lang’s observations are, in fact, still a large part of women’s existence two centuries after Hrotsvitha. In order to capture the attention of Bernard of Clairvaux, soliciting his reassurance in the sharing of her visions, Hildegard anticipates the possibility of rejection on the grounds that she is a woman and constructs a methodical argument to avoid dismissal. She appeals to Bernard’s acceptance of God’s power “to raise up your soul so that you are not passive and indifferent to the words of this correspondent, as long as you seek all things from God, from man or woman” (Hildegard 5). In making the direct implication that to deny her an audience would be to deny God, she achieves the intended effect. Bernard does consider the content of her request, and replies favorably in return. Hildegard repeats the use of this device in her letter to Pope Eugenius III, seeking support of her book. She claims, “But many wise men of earthly inclination have rejected these things […] because they come from this poor female figure who was formed in the rib and not taught by philosophers.” Again, the intended effect is achieved as Pope Eugenius III grants his support.

Once Hildegard is granted the freedom to express her visions in the book Scivias, she ventures forth describing unconventional ideas as God reveals them to her. In Part I, Vision 4, Hildegard writes, “The soul reveals her capabilities according to the capabilities of the body, so that in childhood she brings forth simplicity, in youth strength, and in the fullness of age […] she brings forth her greatest strength in wisdom.” (Hildegard 6) This raises the question as to whether she intentionally assigns the soul a feminine identity, or if this is simply the result of Latin translation of feminine gendered word. Lang explains that the word pathav is used to “denote the earth is feminine in gender. The well known correlation between the fecundity or the earth and the fertility of women would suggest that this is no grammatical accident.” (Lang 96) To apply Lang’s assumption, it is possible that Hildegard’s feminine depiction of the soul is intentional, as the noun “tree” lacks gender within the same passage. Hildegard appears to use word gender deliberately and advantageously to reflect her meaning. The feminine soul possesses positive characteristics of simplicity, strength and wisdom. Understanding is attributed to masculine nature, a teacher in Hildegard’s description, guiding the soul by discerning between what is lovable and hateful. (Hildegard 6) Developing a new interpretation that enlists positive masculine and feminine powers, both working in conjunction toward enlightenment, Hildegard respectfully honors each sex in their journey to the Father.

This new interpretation is not without acknowledgement of the old. In her book, Scivias, Part II, Vision 1, Hildegard describes God’s message as it is revealed to her in a vision, “you are trampled by the male form because of Eve’s transgression, speak nevertheless of the fiery work of salvation which this most certain vision reveals to you!” (Hildegard 11) In the description of this vision from God, Eve’s fault in the fall has no further mention. “When the Father … created Adam, he entrusted him … with the gentle commandment of clear obedience … and he turned away and fell into a thick darkness from which he could not raise himself up.” (Hildegard 11) Offering a fresh interpretation of the myth surrounding the fall of humanity, it is Adam’s turn to shoulder responsibility for humanity’s transgression. Had Hildegard not been recognized as God?s prophet, this line of interpretation would not have been accepted. It is through her association with the Light that this additional interpretation can be accepted by the scholars of her day.

Hrotsvitha and Hildegard each identify with Lang’s description detailing early religious attitudes toward women. By acknowledging their gender specific short comings, it may appear that these women support the interpretation that women are inferior beings, but upon closer investigation it is obvious that while the writings of Hrotsvitha and Hildegard follow the protocol of the society in which they lived, their interpretations vary greatly from the traditional views of lesser value placed on women. Hrotsvitha depicts the sexual appetites of high ranking men in rebuttal to the traditional assignment of women as a pool for sexual desires. Hildegard refers to the feminine soul which, when balanced with masculine understanding, forms a connection to the heavenly realm. Hildegard also offers a new interpretation of the fall of humanity by focusing solely on Adam in the description of her vision. Revolutionary and groundbreaking in their thinking, these women challenge the negative associations Lang presents as they exist within early Buddhist and Gnostic beliefs.

Works Cited:
Lang, Karen Christina. “Images of Women in Early Buddhism and Christian Gnosticism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies. Vol. 2. (1982): pp. 94-105.

Hrotsvitha. Medieval Source Book. “Preface to the Plays of Roswitha.” ca. 935-ca. 975. London, Chatto & Windus. (1923) Translation: Christopher St. John. 15 Oct 2006.

Hildegard. Hildegard of Bingen Selected Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.