Snow White and the Virgin Martyrs

Thesis progress: THE END IS IN SIGHT. So in the meantime, I am here to bring you something totally unrelated to it! Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim was a Benedictine nun at Gandersheim, a very posh convent in Germany, and a writer of plays that were probably never performed.

She would be this formidable lady here.

Her introduction to her plays begins:

One finds many catholics who prefer the vanity of pagan books to the utility of the holy scriptures, on account of the eloquence of their refined language.

It goes on to explain her motive: because the drama of the classical Roman writers is frankly more entertaining than the Christian moralising, she’s going to have a go at writing plays based on the stories of virgin martyrs, in the style of Terence (who was pretty fabulous as Latin writers go, and his works were standard reading in medieval European monasteries). It’s fairly clear from Hrosvitha’s introduction that she really likes a good romantic comedy–and comedy, in the medieval sense, is not the same as, say, a movie featuring Jennifer Aniston and an attractive man with a strong jaw. The play Dulcitius, for instance–which is the one I’m going to include scenes of below–is a comedy in that there are some slapstick moments, but it’s about virgin martyrs. They’re going to die in the end. ‘Comedy’ in this sense means that everyone gets the ending they need and deserve, which in this case is going to heaven and not marrying pagan princes. Because obviously that is a fate worse than death.

Her plays only survive in one manuscript, kept in Munich. It was recovered after the invention of the printing press, because it had been sent to a printer in Basel, and so is covered in ink, fingerprints, and printers’ marks. They were a lot less strict about who got to handle manuscripts in the sixteenth century.

The plot of Dulcitius is fairly standard martyr stuff–the girls refuse to marry because they want to remain Christian virgins, they defy the authorities and get the better of them for a while, but said authorities (in this case the emperor Diocletian, who was definitely known for persecuting early Christians) are usually powerful for a reason, and have them killed. In this case the girls have a certain kind of resemblance to the daughters of King Lear–the oldest is very dignified, the second follows where her sister goes, and the youngest is a force of nature. Their names are Agapis (‘love’ or ‘charity’), Chionia (from the greek for ‘white’–we can read it as ‘purity’ here but she’s basically called Snow White. I will leave it to folklore people to determine if there’s an actual connection) and Hirena (also from Greek, ‘peace’).

The play isn’t very long, so I can present it here in two parts. The first part features an argument between the emperor and a teenage girl, followed by the sleazy governor and his chorus of amused soldiers. One thing Hrosvithe’s very good at is dialogue–always useful if you’re writing a play–and so even though these were probably never actually performed, it’s clear she’s visualising the whole thing in her head. That said, there are no stage directions, though from the words, you can tell fairly well when someone’s been, oh, dragged offstage, for instance. Or cackling evilly.

ON THE TRANSLATION: This is actually a group effort; it’s what we’re working on in our local Latin reading group at the moment. But since it’s my blog, I automatically win where we disagreed on things! Also, it’s fairly close to literal, but I am taking the liberty of making things scan better in English. The actual Latin is assonantal prose, and it is excellent, but the translations can get very convoluted. So you’re not going to want to borrow these translations for exercises or anything. They’re just for fun. (And honestly I wouldn’t trust my translations for anything that gets actually marked anyway.) A few notes at the bottom.

Onward! To Dulcitius: or the Passion of the Holy Virgins Agape, Chionia, and Hirena.

‘I’m Hirena, and this is my “I will not take your bullshit even if you are the Emperor” face.’

I. Onstage are Diocletian: the emperor of Rome; the three sisters; the provincial governor Dulcitius; and a number of soldiers.

DIOCLETIAN: The splendour of your noble parentage and the serenity of your beauty requires that you be joined by the rite of marriage to the foremost men of the palace, to which our command will have consented–if you are willing to deny Christ and offer sacrifices to our gods.

AGAPIS: Be free from care, and let not the preparation for our marriages burden you. Neither to the denial of the name which must be confessed, nor to the corruption of our purity, will we by any means be compelled.

DIO: What is the meaning of this foolishness which inspires you?

AGAPIS: What sign of foolishness do you see in us?

DIO: A great and clear one.[1]

AGA: In what?

DIO: In this above all: that having abandoned the observance of our ancient religion, you follow the useless novelty of Christian superstition.

AGA: Rashly do you insult the office of Almighty God! Danger!

DIO: To whom?

AGA: To you, and the state that you govern.

DIO: She’s mad. Take her away!

CHIONIA: My sister is not mad, but she rightly criticises your foolishness.

DIO: This one raves even more objectionably. Let her, too, be dragged from the sight of my eyes and let the third be examined![2]

HIRENA: You will discover the third to be a rebel, one who struggles wholly against you!

DIO: Hirena, since you are less in age, become greater in dignity.

HIR: And how, pray tell?

DIO: Bow your neck to the gods[3], and be to your sisters an example of proper conduct, and the reason for their liberation.

HIR: Let them tremble before idols, who may wish to incur the wrath of the High Thunderer![4] I, at least, will not disgrace the head anointed with royal oils by falling at the feet of images.

DIO: The culture of the gods does not bring disgrace, but very great honour.

HIR: And what disgrace is more foul, what foulness more great, than to worship slaves like lords?

DIO: I am not persuading you to worship slaves, but masters, and the gods of the emperors!

HIR: Is he not a slave of someone, who is purchased from a craftsman in a market for money?

DIO: The insolence of this woman’s chattering must be removed by torture.

HIR: This we desire. This we embrace! That for the love of Christ we should be torn asunder by tortures![5]

DIO: These insolent women, who fight against our commands, shall be bound in chains. Let them be kept in the squalor of a prison cell, for examination by Governor Dulcitius.

Played by this man here….

II. Onstage: Dulcitius and his soldiers. All the soldiers are listed as speaking, like a Greek chorus, but one could do the trick just as well if you were performing it.

DULCITIUS: Soldiers! Bring forth those you are holding in the prison![6]

SOLDIERS: Behold, the ones you summoned.

DUL: Dear gods![7] What beautiful, what sexy, what remarkable young women!

SOL: Very ladylike.

DUL: I am ensnared by their beauty.

SOL: We believe you.

DUL: I am on fire to drag them into my love![8]

SOL: We do not believe you will succeed.

DUL: Why?

SOL: Because they are firm in their faith.

DUL: What if I flatter them with sweet words?

SOL: They will laugh at you.

DUL: What if I frighten them with torments?

SOL: They won’t care.

DUL: And what will happen then?

SOL: …think. Consider carefully.

DUL: Place them into custody in the inner room of the kitchen, in which entry hall the servants’ pots and pans are kept.

SOL: Why there, of all places?

DUL: So that I may see them often!

SOL: As you wish.

I can just see the soldiers rolling their eyes a lot during that scene. But things get worse for Dulcitius from here–join us again next week, when he goes a teeny bit crazy! And contemplate the necessity of knowing the medieval Latin word for ‘frying pan.’

Same bat time, same bat channel. All actual bats confined to the proverbial belfry.


[1] Let’s face it, from his point of view, they are being pretty ridiculous. This Christian thing is still pretty new and novel in ancient Rome, and pretty young rich girls should want to marry rich young men. He probably does think he’s actually being quite reasonable.

[2] The word here literally means ‘to take to pieces’, and also implies the kind of examining that you would do if you dissected someone to see how their insides work.

[3] He begins the line with the imperative ‘flecte,’ which is fairly rude. If you are an emperor talking to a stroppy teenager, you don’t feel the need to use the polite version.

[4] High Thunderer: Celsitonantis. She’s using a pagan term for the Christian god, our naughty nun Hrosvithe! But it sounds dramatic.

[5] You’ll find there is rather a lot of this sort of thing where martyrs and saints are involved. No wonder whole cults developed where people flogged themselves.

[6] Implied ‘the women’ by feminine termination.

[7] The Latin word is ‘papae’, which is a rather low-class exclamation of surprise. Someone suggested ‘cor blimey!’ which let’s face it, is funnier.

[8] Obviously, I hope, he means ‘to make them love me’. He’s surprisingly uninclined toward actual dragging.


2 Replies to “Snow White and the Virgin Martyrs”

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