Today, a medieval nun writes some fancy
mathematics. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I have here a book of
Albrecht Dürer's prints. Sandwiched in among
saints, martyrs, and allegorical figures are two
drawings of people kneeling before kings to present
them books. In one, a man offers the comedies of
Hroswitha to Frederick the Wise of Saxony. In the
other, Hroswitha herself hands that same book to
Otto, first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Hroswitha was born to Saxon aristocracy in AD 932
-- 500 years before Dürer. She joined a
Benedictine cloister as a girl and spent the rest
of her 70 years there. She's best known for her
literary works -- comedies based on the legends of
saints. She wrote with the conviction that nuns
must stretch their minds to the glory of God; and
her works express the full range of tenth-century
scholarship. They reflect a sure knowledge of the
Latin and Greek classics in the original languages.
Hroswitha wrote her comedies with the life-giving
animation that the mystery and miracle plays made
popular in the High Middle Ages -- after her death.
But her writings had another remarkable dimension.
Hroswitha was also grounded in science and
mathematics. That understanding shines through her
For example, she tells about the three daughters of
Wisdom -- Faith, Hope, and Charity -- being asked
their ages. They answer in abstract terms,
expressing numbers in the mathematical language of
Boethius. Boethius was a sixth-century Roman
Christian scholar whose textbooks had shaped
Hroswitha also talked about perfect numbers. Those
are numbers that equal the sum of their factors.
Six, for example, can be divided by 1, 2, and 3.
But it also equals the sum of 1, 2, and 3. Perfect
numbers are very hard to identify -- just try to
find the next one after six. Hroswitha identified
Dürer made his etchings for a reissue of
Hroswitha's works on the 500th anniversary of her
death. By then scholarship among women had first
risen in the medieval renaissance -- then it had
fallen again into disrepair. It's ironic that, by
the time Hroswitha's works appeared in the new
medium of print, the intellectual liberation of
medieval women had been put back into hibernation.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Source material on Hroswitha is thin. The
Encyclopaedia Britannica includes a
brief account of her life. See also:
Smith, D.E., History of Mathematics,
Vol I. New York: Dover Pubs. Inc., p. 189 and
Osen, L.M., Women in Mathematics.
Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1974, pp. 34-35.
The first four perfect numbers quoted by Hroswitha
were VI, XXVIII, CCCCXCVI, and VIII millia CXXVIII
(6, 28, 446, and 8128.)
For more on Hroswitha, see the following Catholic
Encyclopedia site: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07504b.htm.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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