Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.26

Walter Berschin (ed.), Hrosvit: Opera Omnia (Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana).   Munich and Leipzig:  W.G. Saur Verlag , 2001.  Pp. xxxiv + 334.  ISBN 3-598-71912-4.  

Reviewed by Carmela Vircillo Franklin, Columbia University (
Word count: 1524 words

Walter Berschin's superb edition of the collected works of Hrosvit is more than a worthy replacement of the previous Teubner issue of the German nun's opera omnia, which were edited by the legendary medieval philologist Karl Strecker in 1930, replacing in its turn Strecker's own 1906 edition.

The works are presented here as Hrosvit herself arranged them, in three books and with an elaborate sequence of prefaces. The "Liber primus" consists of the Legendae, that is, Hrosvit's eight poetic adaptations of well-known hagiographical compositions. It opens with the author's rhetorical prose preface to her entire corpus, centered on the often-discussed ironic defense of her "feminea fragilitas." The book is then divided into two parts, each beginning with a verse preface to Abbess Gerberga and including five and three legends respectively; the whole is then completed by an epilogue.

The "Liber secundus" includes the best-known of Hrosvit's works, the Dramata. This book also begins with the author's preface, which is followed then by the "Epistola eiusdem ad quosdam sapientes," a more elaborate apologia than the one prefixed to the first book. Following Terence's model, Hrosvit divided her theatrical compositions into two groups of five and two respectively. Berschin, as Strecker before him, consigns the summaries of the Book of Revelation attached to this book ("Iohannes sive Tituli in Libro Apocalypsis") to an appendix since it is still not clear whether they were written by Hrosvit or whether they were added in the principal manuscript transmitting her work, which will be discussed below. It seems to me that these "tituli" deserve scholarly attention. They should be examined within the tradition of the so-called "capitula lectionum," short summaries of biblical verses that are found in many bibles already in the early Middle Ages. Little work has been done on Hrosvit and the Bible, and it is good to remember that her self-appellation as the "Clamor Validus Gandeshemensis" in the first preface to this second book echoes Heb. 5.7.

The "Liber Tertius" encompasses her two historical poems. The Gesta Ottonis is prefaced again elaborately by three prologues, one to Gerberga, one to Otto I, and a third one to Otto II. The Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis on the other hand is preserved plain and unadorned.

The editor's introduction in this new edition has been much expanded. It now consists of thirty-three pages, in contrast to the six of Strecker's first edition, augmented by another six in the edition of 1930. Written in Latin and hence condemned to unjust neglect by the general reader, Berschin's introduction gives first a brief survey of the life of the nun of Gandesheim. Berschin emphasizes that we know little about her, all of it culled from internal references in her own prefaces. He argues for a birth around 935, and for the concentration of her writing activity to the few years from 962 to not much after 968. She thus appeared "like a shining comet" to illuminate "her dark century." Such a compressed writing career, and at such a young age, would be indeed extraordinary. However, we cannot assume that the works that have survived and attributed to her are indeed all that Hrotsvit wrote. Clearly, these were of particular value, and their careful arrangement speaks to that. Furthermore, they are of one piece--they are poetic, secular (in a very broad sense), historical. She may have written other pieces that have not survived. Furthermore, Hrotsvit speaks of the leaders of Ganderheim as women of noble birth and also great learning. While the image of the brilliant but short-lived comet is a sentimental and attractive one, it is possible to speculate that these learned women who taught Hrotsvit could also have been writers.

The principal standard by which this new critical edition of the works of Hrotsvit should be evaluated is of course the "correctness" of the text, that is, a text that seeks to reproduce as closely as possible what the author actually wrote, and the editor's discussion and justification for his critical choices. Much of Berschin's introduction is devoted to this latter task. Bershin's excellent discussion of the transmission of Hrosvit's works is clear and succinct. The stemma codicum on p. xix summarizes his conclusions.

The central manuscript is Clm 14485 (= M), the only witness containing the entire corpus of Hrotsvit's works, except for the Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis. This however, Berschin argues, was also included originally in this codex, which is now defective at the end. Given the extraordinary care expended on the physical arrangement of the works in this manuscript, with their elaborate system of prefaces, it is probable that the codex was prepared at Gandesheim. Bernhard Bischoff, who studied the Munich manuscript intending to prepare a facsimile edition, argued that its four or five scribes were nuns, working perhaps during Hrotsvit's own time. It is thus possible, but "neque probatum neque probandum," to paraphrase Berschin (p. xiii), that Hrotsvit herself supervised its copying.

Berschin shows that the Munich codex perhaps already by 985 had been removed to St. Emmeran, in the eastern part of Germany, where Slavic alphabets were added. In 1493 the German humanist Conrad Celtis saw the manuscript, and was able to borrow it for many years, thanks to his friendship with Erasmus Dawn, a humanist and monk of St Emmeran. The codex was copied by several German humanists and was then used for the editio princeps of Hrotsvit's works, which appeared in Nurenberg in 1501 with two woodcuts by Albert Dürer. In typical humanistic fashion, however, Celtis entered his corrections on the manuscript itself before giving it to the printers, who, furthermore, unbound it and divided it up into parts to expedite their work; they also stained it and in general damaged it.

The text of the Monacensis clearly contained copysts' errors that invited corrections over the years. There are in addition various strata of further alterations and grammatical markings, such as accents for pronunciation and notes tying a noun to its modifier in the genitive, suggesting that the codex may have been used as a schoolbook. One of the principal achievements of Berschin's edition is to have sorted through these various layers of corrections and to have identified in particular those due to Celtis (which Strecker had not done). All are carefully marked in the apparatus criticus.

Another important witness is a manuscript discovered at Cologne in 1923 (Historisches Archiv W * 101, fols. 1r-16v; = C), a twelfth century schoolbook containing four of the dramas. It does not derive from M. It was the discovery of this manuscript that led Strecker to issue a new edition in 1930. Strecker considered this manuscript a witness of a first edition of Hrotsvit's works. Berschin, however, convincingly argues against this hypothesis since C in some cases preserves a more apt word: it is difficult to assume that in the second redaction Hrotsvit would have made a change. Hence, despite its distance from the common apograph, C remains important for Berschin's edition because it is independent of M.

Finally, Berschin differs from Strecker also in his use of a fragment from the second half of the eleventh century, discovered at the University of Klagenfurt (Perg. Hs. 44; =k) in 1925. It preserves about 200 lines of the Maria and a few scattered lines of Sapientia. While Strecker did not avail himself of this fragment, Berschin shows that it was copied directly from M and preserves many of M's original readings which have been obliterated by M's layers of corrections. Berschin's detailed familiarity with the manuscripts leads him, I believe correctly, to be more cautious in emending the text. (See, for examples, ll. 63 and 150 of the legend, where k's readings are crucial).

Not only is Berschin's new edition more accurate and sophisticated from a scientific point of view, but it is also much easier to read and more pleasant to use. These are important considerations for the works of an author who is frequently found in college and university reading lists, in a variety of departments and disciplines, as apparently was also the case in the Middle Ages according to the markings in their manuscripts. This new edition is much larger than the old both in size and number of pages, which total roughly 50 more than the one of 1930. It has also been much more attractively printed. Berschin wisely eliminated Strecker's complicated punctuation symbols, an attempt to duplicate the punctuation marks of the principal manuscript. Those who have put up with the cramped page and blurry typeface of the earlier Teubner will be grateful to hold this attractive, airy new edition in their hands, and to be able to read the text with ease and clarity. The volume concludes helpfully with an "Index nominum."

The differences between Berschin's and Strecker's text will not be of great interest to the general reader of Hrotsvit. But the more detailed intelligence of the apparatus criticus provides a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction for editors and critics of texts. The introductory discussion of the manuscripts and their evaluation would make an excellent Latin assignment on the transmission and critical edition of texts for graduate students in classical or medieval fields.

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