Different ways of seeing

The mysterious force
of the cloister

02 January 2021

The feat of Rosvita of Gandersheim, abbess and court writer

When I was in eighth grade, in Palermo, in a liberty style building on the border between a petit-bourgeois area and where the underclass dwelled, I had a classmate who wanted to become a cloistered nun. It was the end of the Seventies; the world outside the classroom frightened us and attracted us at the same time. There was terrorism, there was heroin, but feminism was flourishing; in fact, there was a cultural break-up that indicated a crisis, the prelude to a change. Boys and girls, each in their own way, were rushing to the square, to outside, to the future. Everyone except her. Most of my comrades watched her from afar, excluded her from the discussion, which she was not interested in anyway. At times, they forgot all about her. In fact, so did I. I was running about, always in a rush, always debating, or reading, books, newspapers, labels, everything that fell in front of my eyes; interpreting, questioning: how could I reconcile her excessive harmonious immobility?

It was at that time that I discovered in my father’s library a little grey and worn book published by BUR, with Rosvita, Tutto il teatro [Rosvita, Collected Works for Theater], written on the cover. Italianized in this way: without “w” or “h”, without any connotating element, not even Rosvita “of Gandersheim”, as if everyone should know who Rosvita was. When I held the booklet in my hand and discovered that she was a nun, a young abbess who wrote in Latin before the year 1000, I was profoundly fascinated. I loved Sappho, Vittoria Colonna, Gaspara Stampa randomly, I was looking for my female genealogy, even before I thought of myself as a woman. Therefore, I welcomed Rosvita of Gandersheim. I was thrilled by the legend that circulated - it circulated in distant centuries, certainly not in mine - that her theater was written to be performed in a convent. I imagined young nuns in soft clothes who, in a stone hall, disguised themselves as ancient classical potentates intent on forcing fragile young girls, who, however, like in a Warner Bros cartoon, always won out by defeating the powerful. I imagined the nuns to be all young girls, even Rosvita, in a place removed from brutality, gushing with frozen fountains in winter, a place of peace, of voices and ringing laughter. I imagined them leaning out over the world from the porches of their cloister like cherubs from heaven, complicit, curious, not harboring anger. Perhaps the same thing fascinated me in the panorama of my companion, Elisabetta, and the cloister, the protective care, and the eternal brooding, which seemed to me the most mysterious of balconies.

I often brought books to school, to read them under my desk, I also brought Rosvita’s theater book, which was so small it could fit into one of my pockets. I would lift my head from the book and look at Elisabetta. Sometimes she had the effect of provocatively magnetizing my gaze. She wore a crown of light-colored blond and reddish curls, on a wide and flat milk-colored face, two small dark eyes which  looking ironically to who knows where beyond me when I approached her. The fact that she imagined herself becoming a cloistered nun was something that made me feel uneasy. As if by chance, I would run into her at recess to ask her how she could think of turning her head away from a desperate world full of pain and need, I would provoke her; you just want to cultivate your own little garden, you do not care about anything, I would say.

The quiet Elisabetta, who wore pink salmon outfits, and moved about slowly carrying an exasperating calmness. Impervious to my pitfalls, she explained the power of prayer to me, tried to give me a glimpse of another way, a cure for the world by other means, stretched her pale lips into a sweet smile that always had amusement and a slight sense of superiority in it. The violence that seemed to me to be the intolerable figure of the day, violence between men and women, those who had money and those who had none, those who were above and those who were below, who knows if she knew about it. When I was with her, I felt that the yearning for life of all of us, of all boys and girls, the yearning for bodies and thoughts, even the yearning for justice, were not everything, they did not exhaust reality. In her words, I sensed the fascination of another possibility of being in the world, removed from the fury, but no less risky for that. Perhaps my reading of the nun of Gandersheim work had something to do with this other possibility.  After all, in the only image I have seen of her, even Rosvita brandished a subtle amused smile.

Born around 935 to a noble family, Rosvita is considered the first German writer, although she always wrote in Latin. It is hardly possible to imagine how difficult life was then. Her work was made known in 1501 by the German humanist Conrad Celtis. Some believe she entered the Gandersheim abbey in Lower Saxony as a child and that she studied there, others think she entered the convent as an adult after a life at court. The latter because from her the work it seems she observed the worldly she wrote about directly. It seems that she was also a regal court writer, and that she was familiar with the secular walls beyond where she lived, at least for a period of her life, and far from being protected by the world of power, violence, arranged marriages of nobles and kings. She wrote Gesta Oddonis Caesaris Augusti and Seven Legends. On the formation in the convent, we have her direct testimony: Rosvita wrote that she elaborated her Legends “first through the instructive teaching of the most cultured and kind teacher Rikkardis (...) then under the benevolent consideration of the member of the royal court, Gerberga”.

Before the year one thousand, there was a network of learned women scholars of the classics and teachers who passed the baton on to each other in the Gandersheim abbey, who acknowledged each other’s esteem and authority. From their teaching, Rosvita probably read Terence, Virgil, the Christian Latin authors, and Boethius. She was familiar with scholasticism. She wrote the six plays that I held in my hand collected in the BUR booklet in Latin: Ahbraham, Pfnutius, Calimachus, Dulcitius, Gallicanus, Sapientia. Her model was Terence, his theater was comedy, in every sense of the word, for it made people laugh and had a happy conclusion, even if that happy ending was often death. Rosvita’s six comedies talk of powerful people who want to force beautiful girls to do things they do not want to do, whether it is to have sex, to get married, to renounce their faith; or they tell stories of prostitutes who with the help of wise and holy men manage to leave the path of vice and become hermits.

Between the two types, I definitely preferred the former.  For example, I enjoyed the story of Dulcizio very much.  The story is about how the protagonist tries to rape three girls, but when Dulcizio enters by force, they disappear and instead of their bodies, the aggressor is seen clutching a set of pots. A worse attacker than Dulcizio will manage to kill them, but not force them to do something against their will. I was thrilled by Rosvita’s girls who gave up their lives without suffering and without even giving it too much weight, in order to escape violence, oppression and imposed marriages, and I liked to sail on that medieval grand guignol, imaginative torture that was happily thwarted because the broken bodies did not suffer (they almost laughed) and even death came gratefully and without weight. I was moved by the reversal, as I would always be moved later on by the small winning over the big, the weak winning over the strong, the helpless teaching the powerful that there is another force much greater than their power. I did not know how to name that force, but I have met it here and there in real life or in books.  For example, in the legend of Numa Pompilio who frees himself from Romulus’ bodyguard to present himself to the defenseless Roman people, or in Manzoni’s Adelchi, in Ermengarda, in the stories someone told me about Gandhi’s nonviolence, and even in her most bizarre version, in Rosvita, in her stage dialogues.

Rosvita’s legends and plays, which were republished in 2017 by Castelvecchi under the title Leggende e drammi sacri [Legends and sacred dramas] are easy to read.

by Carola Susani

The Abbey

Gandersheim Abbey is a suppressed house of secular canonesses. The Abbey was founded in 852 by Duke Liudolf of Saxony and his wife Oda, who, during a pilgrimage to Rome in 846, obtained permission from Pope Sergius II and received Saints Anastasius’ and Innocent’s relics, and who continue to be patrons of the abbey church. The “Free Imperial Secular Foundation of Gandersheim”, as it was known until its dissolution in 1810, was a community of unmarried daughters of the high nobility who led a pious life but did not take vows, hence the term “secular”.


The canonesses, known as Stiftsdamen, were allowed to own private property and, since they had not taken vows, could leave the abbey at any time. They were not far from the world, and they frequented the imperial court of the Ottonian sovereigns and of the Salish dynasty, who frequently resided in Gandersheim with their retinues. One of the sisters’ main tasks was to educate the daughters of the high nobility, but they were not obliged to become members of the abbey.

The author

Carola Susani writes for adults and children. She is editor of Nuovi Argomenti, leads reading and writing workshops and is part of the association Piccoli Maestri. In 1995 she published her first novel, Il libro di Teresa (Giunti).  Counted among her books Il licantropo (Feltrinelli 2002), Eravamo bambini abbastanza (Minimum Fax 2012), Terrapiena (Minimum Fax 2020). She is on the Editorial Board of Women Church World.