The Authors


We have briefly stated these things as a tribute to that most holy martyr, the Lord Gengulphus, considering it disgraceful that the light of so good and great a man should remain concealed under the bushel of silence. [Vita I]

The Author of Vita I

Vita I is an anonymous work, and its author gives away little about his identity.  The very fact of the work’s composition and learning suggests that the author was probably a priest or a monk.  Beyond that we must look for such clues as are presented in the text itself.

Unlike Hroswitha the author of Vita I reveals specific local knowledge on several occasions.  He describes, for example, the characteristic open countryside of Champagne as if from personal knowledge.  Likewise he appears to be familiar with the forested tracts in the region of Varennes sur Amance.  When describing the miraculous arrival of the spring at Varennes, he makes the observation that this spring was free from the characteristic cloudiness which affected other springs in that locality.  We might therefore guess that the author lived in a place sufficiently near to Champagne and to Varennes for him to have some knowledge of those areas, yet whose audience was sufficiently ignorant of them to have need of his descriptions.

The author speaks twice about the Viking incursions which troubled the land throughout the C9th, and which continued until 911 when Charles the Simple ceded them territory around Rouen  –  the basis of the future Normandy.  Although he speaks of these raids as past events, he describes the loss of life, the fear, and the disruption so graphically as to suggest that he must have had, at the furthest remove, immediate personal contact with victims of those events.  The regret with which he twice mentions the loss of books during this troubled period strongly suggests that he was thinking about monastic libraries, and that he himself was probably a monk who wrote in the early decades of the C10th.

This string of guesses does not narrow our field very much, but it may be of significance that amongst the most prominent victims of Viking savagery were the monks of Noirmoutier, whose long wanderings up the Loire would eventually lead them to found, in the year 875, a new and permanent home at the abbey of St Philibert in the Burgundian town of Tournus – a place well away from Varennes or the borders of Champagne, but in an area of Burgundy where a continuing interest in St Gengulph is attested by two ancient dedications at St Gengoux de Scissé (noted in 801 – about 40 years after the Saint’s death and over 200 kilometers from his home) and at St Gengoux le National. These two locations are about 20 kilometers from each other.

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)

Hroswitha of Gandersheim
Also known as Hrosvit, Hrotsvit, and Hrotswitha

Hroswitha (ca 935 – post ca 975, likely ca 1000), unlike the author of Vita I, is a known and indeed celebrated figure.  The date and place of her birth are unknown, but from her membership of the Benedictine abbey of Gandersheim it can safely be deduced that she was from a noble background.

The abbey of St Mary in Gandersheim, in what is now Lower Saxony, was founded in 852 as a community of canonesses – that is to say, its members lived a communal life under a religious rule, but were not bound to the monastic life by permanent vows. Membership of this privileged foundation was restricted to women of noble birth. The abbey, situated in what was in the C10th one of the most prosperous and important towns in Saxony, enjoyed close links with the royal court and was at that period an influential centre of learning. The abbey also served as a school for daughters of the nobility and it is not unlikely that Hroswitha received her education here. During Hroswitha’s time the community was governed by the abbess Gerberga II, the niece of Otto I.

Gandersheim abbey church, dedicated to former popes St. Anastasius, St. Innocentius (father and son with relics in the church) and St John Baptist, founded as a Benedictine abbey (the community dedicated to St. Mary) by Liudolf of Saxony, progenitor of the Ottonian dynasty in 852 . The abbey existed up to 1810. Since 1568 the canonesses were Lutheran. During the 10th century the “first female German poet”, or “the first female artist using German language to create poetry” lived here as a canoness: Hroswitha of Gandersheim.

Hroswitha was a woman of considerable worldly knowledge and intellectual ability who came to be known, through the literary works that she produced at Gandersheim, as a significant Christian poet and a dramatist of great originality. She was a significant figure in the revival of art and learning known as the ‘Ottonian renaissance’, and it is clear from her writings that she had access to the highest levels of classical learning which were available to her age. Her works, written in Latin with the encouragement of abbess Gerberga, were divided by her into three parts:  a Book of Legends;  a Book of Drama;  and a history of Otto I entitled Gesta Ottonis.

The Passion of St Gengulph the Martyr is one of the eight religious stories narrated in dactylic hexameters which make up her Book of Legends. It is not known precisely when she wrote this work, but its composition can be placed shortly after the translation of the relics of St Gengulph from Varennes to Toul, which took place about the year 975.