Basilius & Gallicanus: Hrotsvit on men's entitlement to love

Men throughout history have been willing to trade their souls and their lives for women’s love. Men have not understood that they are essentially entitled to love by their very being.[1] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, a noble, learned woman religious of tenth century Old Saxony, rejected requiring men to sacrifice their souls or their lives for women’s love.

In her story Basilius, Hrotsvit presented the desperate action of a servant in love with his master’s daughter. The servant wanted to marry his master’s daughter, rather than merely be sexual entertainment for her and him. Men commonly marry women of much lower social status than them. Women, in contrast, typically are much more concerned to marry up. The servant “knew himself unworthy for such an exalted union.” But he didn’t accept that dominant, gender-disparate personal valuation. He sought to subvert gynocentric marital privilege with a magician’s spell to “bind the daughter’s tender heart / to the servant’s affection and in equal passion.”[2] The magician offered to cast such a spell in exchange for the servant pledging his soul to the devil. The servant, lacking sense of men’s entitlement to love, agreed to trade his soul for love.

Hrotsvit redeemed the servant from his desperate trade for love. Recognizing the priority of his daughter’s desire, the father reluctantly agreed to assent to and fund his daughter’s marriage to his servant. Although the daughter’s love arose from a magician’s spell, she nonetheless loved her husband with Christian love. In particular, she acted to rescue him from his deal with the devil. She guilefully extracted from her husband a confession of his evil deed. She then went to Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea, to plead for her husband’s salvation. The Bishop imposed a regime of penance on her husband. That freed him from the devil and returned him to Christ. Underscoring men’s entitlement to love, Bishop Basil didn’t deprive the servant of his high-born wife. Hrotsvit emphasized the priority of men’s loving relationship with God.[3]

Basil of Caesarea, hero of Hrotsvit's Basilius

In her play Gallicanus, Hrotsvit subverted the romantic plot of a man undertaking great risks to his life in exchange for a woman’s love. Gallicanus was a non-Christian general serving the Christian Roman emperor Constantine. Gallicanus had consecrated himself to military service on behalf of Constantine and the Roman Empire:

I am ready to obey your orders if it costs me my life.[4]

In return for leading a dangerous military offensive against the Scythians, Gallicanus sought the prize of marrying Constantine’s daughter Constantia. Gallicanus declared that in “hard and strenuous fighting,” the thought of the prize of marrying Constantia would give him new strength. Constantine recognized that Gallicanus’ services were necessary for the defense of the empire. Yet Emperor Constantine feared challenging his daughter’s choice of how she wanted to live her life. She had consecrated herself to God. In response to the desperate need of her father and the Empire, Constantia declared:

I would rather die. … I will keep my vow inviolate. Nothing can ever force me to break it. [5]

Women in fact rule above most men’s understanding. Constantia proposed to her father a guileful strategy to bring Gallicanus to Christ and save the Roman Empire. He assented to her plan.

Constantia’s strategy saved Gallicanus’ life. Constantia prayed and acted to bring Gallicanus to Christ. Amid a deadly battle, with his troops being mowed down and wanting to surrender, Constantia’s efforts yielded fruit. Gallicanus vowed to become a Christian. Christ and angelic soldiers immediately entered the battle on behalf of Gallicanus. The tide of battle instantly turned. The enemy king surrendered. When he returned victorious to Rome, Gallicanus declared:

I have surrendered myself completely to the will of God. I am ready to renounce even your daughter, whom I love more than anything in the world. I wish to abstain from marriage that I may devote myself wholly to the service of the Virgin’s Son.[6]

Despite her vigorous efforts, Heloise failed to save Abelard. Constantia succeeded in saving Gallicanus. Hrotsvit, who surely had great respect for Jerome, had Gallicanus leave Rome to become a disciple of the holy man Hilarion.[7] Gallicanus planned to live the rest of his life in love: “praising God and helping the poor.”

In a way scarcely conceivable today, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim in Basilius and Gallicanus affirmed that men are entitled to love. Human societies’ failures to recognize men’s entitlement to love has made human societies less humane than bonobo societies. Medieval European ideals of chivalry devalued men’s lives. Rebuilding civilization requires regaining love for men.

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[1] A horrifying example of this lack of understanding is a celebrated medieval tale of a knight who suffered needlessly grievous bodily injuries to please a woman. Leading thinkers about love today advocate the use of an ascii penis in men’s text conversations with women. That can be understood as affirming an important aspect of men’s value.

[2] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Basilius, from Latin trans. Wilson (1998) p. 22 (including previous quote). Hrotsvit’s story of Basilius is adapted from Basil of Caesarea’s vita and miracula by ps.-Amphilochios (BHG 246yff), “De iuvene qui Christum Negaverat,” which goes back to a fifth-century Greek life. A related work is the Latin poem, “De Proterii filia,” in the Cambridge Songs, 30a, ed. and trans. Ziolkowski (1994). It seems not to have been based on Hrotsvit’s Basilius. Id. p. 269. Another related story is the beneficial tale W796. Wiegand (1936) provides the Latin text of Hrotsvit’s Basilius and an alternate English translation.

[3] In the Latin life of Basil of Caesarea (vita and miracula by ps.-Amphilochios), Basil explicitly returns the servant to his high-status wife. Hrotsvit’s Basilius didn’t include that narrative detail:

For Hrotsvit, the human drama and the sacred drama lie side by side in the story, the former leading and giving way to the latter.

Wailes (2006) p. 95. “De Proterii filia,” Cambridge Songs 30a, made the same choice.

[4] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Gallicanus, from Latin trans. St. John (1923) p. 4. The subsequent quote is from id. Hrotsvit drew upon the life of Saint Gallicanus

[5] Id. p.7

[6] Constantine proposed that Gallicanus live in the palace with him and his daughter. Gallicanus responded:

What temptation is to be feared more that the lust of the eyes? … is it right that I should see her too often? As you know, I love her more than my own kin, more than my life, more than my soul!”

Gallicanus statement in part reflects his immaturity as a new Christian. However, the twelfth-century monk-leader Bernard of Clairvaux recognized men’s sexual vitality:

To be always in a woman’s company without having carnal knowledge of her – is this not a greater miracle than raising the dead? You cannot perform the lesser feat; do you expect me to believe that you can do the greater?

Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermones in Cantica canticoraum, Sermon 65, par. 4. Because women’s sexuality is now much weaker than it was in olden times, women and men working together today creates fewer sexual challenges.

[7] Jerome wrote the life of Hilarion. Hilarion was later recognized as a saint.

[image] St. Basil of Caesarea. St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev, 11th century icon. Thanks to Wikicommons.


St. John, Christopher, trans. 1923. The plays of Roswitha. New York: B. Blom.

Wailes, Stephen L. 2006. Spirituality and politics in the works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press.

Wiegand, Sister M. Gonsalva. 1936. The non-dramatic works of Hrosvitha; text, translation, and commentary. Ph.D. Thesis. St. Louis University.

Wilson, Katharina M., trans. 1998. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: a florilegium of her works. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer.

Wortley, John. 2001. “Some Light on Magic and Magicians in Late Antiquity.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 42 (3): 289.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 1994. The Cambridge songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland Pub.

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