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The Plays of Roswitha: To Gerberg

To Gerberg

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 footprints of one who has gone before. Even so have 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 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.


Hrotsvitha, ca. 935-ca. 975. The Plays of Roswitha. Translated by Christopher St. John, with an introduction by Cardinal Gasquet and a critical preface by the translator.(London, Chatto & Windus, 1923)

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Paul Halsall, October 1999