Hroswitha (résumé)

A Résumé of: The Verse Life of St Gengulph

Passio Sancti Gongolfi Martyris by Hroswitha of Gandersheim

Hroswitha of Gandersheim presents an aged emperor Otto the Great with her Gesta Oddonis, under the eyes of Abbess Gerberga (1501 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer)

The author praises God, the creator of all things, and asks that as he brought man to perfection by breathing into him a rational spirit, so he might inspire her too with sufficient ability to proclaim in verse the deeds of St Gengulph.

The Saint’s Birth and Early Years

Gengulph was born in Burgundy in the days of Pepin. His family was noble, but his personal qualities were such that he was even thought to have been of royal descent. He was baptized shortly after his birth, and was taught the Christian faith at his mother’s knee.
Whilst still a youth, he found favour with King Pepin who summoned him to the royal court and made him a royal governor. This elevation did not make him arrogant, because he looked to a heavenly reward rather than to worldly honours.
On inheriting his father’s estate he became a liberal benefactor of those in need.
He was an energetic and accomplished hunter  –  though the author cautiously allows that this detail might be a fable.
Gengulphus, as an able soldier, served Pepin in a military capacity, and was invariably victorious.

His Purchase of a Fountain
After a successful expedition in the king’s service, in which he had succeeded in subduing a rebellious people, Gengulph was returning home with his men. His route led him beside an attractive piece of ground, full of plants, and watered by an excellent spring. Gengulph, captivated by the charm of the spring, halted and sent for the owner.
Gengulph then addressed the owner kindly, and asked if he would be prepared to sell the spring for a handsome sum of pure silver. The peasant was delighted at this offer and addressed Gengulph with expressions of loyalty and obedience. Gengulph then gave the man one hundred pieces of silver and resumed his journey.

Gengulph’s Men Criticise Him
Gengulph’s followers began to criticise him surreptitiously for his folly. One of the company, however, reveals this carping to Gengulph himself, whereupon he spoke sharply to his men and defended himself. He proposed, in order to quell their doubts, that some reliable member of their company should return to the place where the spring was purchased, and bring back a report. If the spring continued as before, then their carping would be justified.
One man undertook to make difficult journey back. When he arrived at the spot he found that the ground was dry and that he could not readily find the spring. He even lay down to lick the dry ground in an attempt to find a drop of water there. Finally he understood the truth of Gengulph’s transaction.
He returned to the company and as he began his account he noticed a conspicuous cloud in the form of a white robe, sailing just above Gengulph’s head. He explained to his companions the truth about the disappearance of the spring, and urged them to place their trust in Gengulph. Reconciled, they continue their journey.

Gengulph and his Followers Dine
Gengulph himself, when he arrived, thrust his staff into the ground and entered his home without delay. Here the servants had prepared a magnificent meal for the hungry company. But before they eat Gengulph with his own hand served food to a number of poor people. The Franks then ate and drank until overcome by sleep. Gengulph, however, did not sleep, but spent the night in a vigil of prayer.

The Miracle of the Spring
At dawn some young soldiers appeared, bringing Gengulph’s shoes, and knocked for admittance. Gengulph, for a while, pretended to be asleep, so as to conceal the fact that he had been engaged in a watch of prayer. When the soldiers were let in Gengulph ordered some water to be brought. No water, however, was available, and Gengulph immediately sent one of the young soldiers to fetch the staff which he had left in the ground outside.
Immediately the little cloud which had been noticed before burst in a great torrent, and planted a permanent spring of water where Gengulph’s staff had been pulled out of the ground. One of the company took a cup of the water to Gengulph, and offered a speech in which he attributed the wonder to Gengulph’s holiness. Gengulph, however, retorted that any praise should be offered to Christ, not to him.
After washing himself in the water, Gengulph himself made an act of thanksgiving to God, in which he asked that the waters might be endued with healing properties. This prayer was immediately answered, and the miraculous spring immediately drew crowds of pilgrims from near and far, and many miracles of healing took place there.

His Marriage and his Wife’s Adultery
Gengulph, greatly esteemed by his people, was urged to marry in case his dynasty should fail through lack of heirs. He duly chose for himself Ganea – a woman of noble rank, but whose wayward character readily led her to commit adultery with a servant who was a clerk of Gengulph’s household.
The news of this transgression was rapidly spread amongst the people, and eventually reached the ears of Gengulph himself who was torn between the conflicting desires to punish and to pardon her.

His Wife’s Adultery is Exposed
One day, as he was lingering by the fountain which he had miraculously transported, he was approached by his wife. He took this opportunity to mention the evil rumours which had reached him concerning her, and explained that he is reluctant to proceed against her publicly. Instead, he asked her to dip her right arm into the fountain and, if no punishment should befall her, there would be no need for further trial.
She confidently thrust her hand into the water, and immediately suffers a painful scalding. Having no hope of further forgiveness, she stood terrified, expecting summary justice to be executed upon her.
Gengulph, however, tempered his wrath, and merely commanded that the adulterous clerk should be banished. As for his wife, he nobly forgave her – but declined to restore her to his bed.

Gengulph’s Life is Plotted Against

After this Gengulph’s reputation amongst his people continued to grow. The devil on the other hand became more determined to do him harm, and stirred the clerk to bitter and active hatred. The clerk then sought out his evil mistress, and together they formed a plot to destroy Gengulph.

His Murder
One night Ganea indicated to the clerk that there was suitable opportunity to carry out the deed. The clerk then attacked Gengulph injuring his hip, and immediately fled taking Gengulph’s wife with him. Suddenly, however, his bowels gushed out and he was overthrown by the avenging hand of God.

The Death and Burial of Gengulph
Gengulph meanwhile made a holy death and was received into the company of the soldiers of Christ in heaven. He was mourned by all, and particularly by his own servants. Preparations were made for him to be buried magnificently at Toul, where his tomb immediately became an object of veneration for people seeking answers to prayers and cures for various infirmities, and many miracles are performed here through Gengulph’s intercession.

The Punishment of the Wife
A certain devout man, as he returned from a visit to Gengulph’s tomb, was surprised to encounter Gengulph’s wife. He upbraided her with harsh words, and proposed that she should wash away her guilt by making an act of repentance at the martyr’s tomb.
She dismissed his words angrily, and expressed her disbelieve in Gengulph’s miracles saying that if Gengulph could work wonders, then so could her arse. *
She immediately received a miraculous punishment, for ‘the part concerned’ emitted ‘a shameful and resounding fanfare’, and for the rest of her life this uncouth phenomenon was manifested every time that she tried to speak, making her a common laughing stock.

* Important Footnote: It is worth noting here that the translation of Sister Gonsolva of Hroswitha’s Vita of Gengulphus as part of her PhD dissertation in 1936 was itself a likely victim of (self – or a superior imposed?) censorship – once again, as occured in many ages following the Saint’s life. Even in modern times our Saint has had to suffer from the peculiar disadvantage that there are elements in the earliest versions of his biography which subsequent ages have found coarse or indelicate. The C20th witnessed such an incidence in a surprising circumstance – the occasion of the translation of Sister M. Gonsalva Wiegand OSF of Hroswitha’s Vita as part of her PhD dissertation. The translation of the text in question :

Non desint illius ut tumulo, 
Haut alias, quam mira mei  miracula dorsi
Proferat extrema denique particula
(nor do miracles occur at his grave any more than do wondrous manifestations take place about my person – Sister Gonsalva)

…is rather tame compared to a more recent translation (Paul Trenchard): And if he can pour forth miracles from his tomb then I can work great wonders with my arse.

Whilst some late C9th or early C10th texts were found too coarse or too indelicate to put to words which could publically be accepted in later centuries, it must be surprising to many that even in the 20th century his Vita suffered censorship in, of all places, an academic environment: a PhD dissertation presented to the Graduate School of St. Louis University, USA (a Jesuit institution) in 1936!