Article Title

Incest Disguised: Ottonian Influence at Gandersheim and Hrotsvit's Abraham


Incest prohibitions in the Middle Ages were at their most draconian between the tenth and twelfth centuries. Not coincidentally, this period also saw a flourishing in Northern Europe of the founding of women’s convents. Gandersheim, one of the most prominent foundations, was renowned for the self-governance and educational opportunities it provided women. Regardless of the opportunities Gandersheim afforded noble women from the Ottonian court, it had something of a double-identity with respect to its protection of women from incest: a haven for women while also providing the Ottonian court with a strategy for nuptial control to consolidate its dynastic ambitions. The control the Ottonian court exercised over which marriages could be legally contracted exploits the expansive reach of tenth-century incest law and flouts the culture’s endorsement of exogamy over endogamy.

Hrotsvit of Gandersheim’s Abraham grows out of the incest politics of the Gandersheim foundation. The play explores the functions of incest specifically through the consanguineous and compaternal relationship between Abraham and his niece, Mary, who shares his cell in the monastery. Critics writing about the play have regularly described its holy hermit as a spiritual guide, father figure, the benevolent uncle who risks a long journey to reclaim his fallen niece. This article argues, instead, that Abraham’s explanation of Mary’s fall into sin is itself a dramatic performance intended to disguise the role he plays in Mary’s fall. The play dramatizes the tensions between prevention of and controlled promulgation of incest that characterize the Ottonian court’s influence on Gandersheim’s stewardship of young women.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.