Das Nibelungenlied - medieval society and modern usage

Consider ways in which the Nibelungenlied reflects concerns for the society in which it was first composed and show how it was exploited to address more recent concerns of German society

Essay, 2011

14 Pages, Grade: B+


Consider ways in which the Nibelungenlied reflects concerns for the society in which it was first composed, and with reference to one or more aspects of its reception in the modern era, show how it was exploited to address more recent concerns of German society.

The Nibelungenlied from the 12th to the 20th century(2011/12)

Due Date: 09/01/2012

Spanning across centuries, Das Nibelungenlied provides a great insight into the distinctive ethos of medieval German society as well as the codes and beliefs which govern its behaviour. This essay will tentatively explore the values, motivations and concerns of courtly individuals. The social concerns can be emphatically divided into the following areas: loyalty, honor, hierarchal structures, gender roles, materialism, and courtly conduct. This will then lead to the second part of the essay which will explore how the values the epic embodies have been rejuvenated and appropriated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in order to grapple with more modern concerns such as the First World War and Germany’s identity crisis.

Loyalty presents itself to be an integral part of the courtly conscience. Rüdiger is caught in an excruciating conflict between his loyalty as a vassal and his bond of friendship to the Burgundians. In a society where friendship reveals itself to be deceptive and political[1] Rüdiger’s connection to the Burgundians is of a more wholesome, genuine nature. Ehrismann argues, “Der Markgraf hat sich den Nibelungen eng verbunden. Die Bande sind von kaum zu definierender Qualitaet, anzusiedeln in der Zone zwischen Brauchtum und Recht"[2] . The exceptional relationship develops through gift giving, the Margravine gives Hagen a shield which is of strong emotional value, and Rüdiger corroborates explicitly to Giselher that he couldn’t have imagined a nobler husband for his daughter. Both examples signify the intimate and affectionate friendship established in a society usually dominated purely by bonds of vassalage. However, Classen asserts that social and political constraints will destroy even the strongest of friendships in feudal society[3]. Despite Rüdiger’s attempts at arbitration, Kriemhild reminds Rüdiger of their negotiation before her marriage to Etzel,

“Ich man’ iuch der genâden, und ir mir habt gesworn,

do ir mír zuo Etzeln rietet, ritter ûz erkorn,

daz ir mir woldet dienen an unser eines tôt“.[4]

Thus, we see Kriemhild reminding Rüdiger of his feudal oath, which essentially (and traditionally) takes precedence over all other duties, at the same time it includes self destruction or tôt, if necessary[5]. Nibelungentreue or loyalty is of highest consequence and ranked higher than all other bonds. Thus Rüdiger can either eliminate his friendship to the Burgundians, or break his oath. As any decision he makes appears to be an injury to both triuwe and êre, he feebly attempts to renounce his position, “her kǘnec, ne némt hin widere, al daz ich von iu hân” (2157. 2-3) However, a feudal oath is presented as something unyielding, and as Rüdiger himself later reasons, disloyalty to the King would result in a serious loss of honor. Marten Brandt argues that Ruediger's ultimate decision to submit to Etzel's and Kriemhild's request, reflects the importance of social prestige and public recognition in courtly society[6], this is articulated through Rüdiger’s logic,

“Swelhez ich nu lâze unt daz ándér began,

Sô hân ich bœslîche und evil ǘbele getân:

Laze aber ich si beide, mich schiltet elliu diet“ (2154. 1-3)

Rather than risk dishonour in the eyes of everyone by renouncing loyalty, Rüdiger chooses death in the fulfilment of his promise. After Rüdiger’s death, Volker drags his body before the King and Queen, the bloody consequences of loyalty become visual and corporeal. Hence we see the complexity of loyalty in courtly society; fidelity among kings and vassals is something impenetrable, and ranked higher than all other bonds, and even renounces a man’s claim to his own life itself.

Very closely aligned with loyalty, the epic is also fascinating in its exploration of honor, and the lengths characters go to, to preserve or rejuvenate it. As Werner Mueller asserts, "honor has beclouded reason and has dissolved [men] to mere emotion, impassioned, hateful, and impetuous"[7]. Even Ruediger, the calmest of characters, becomes enraged and murderous when his courage is questioned by an allied man. Honor is presented as something integral to the status of courtly individuals. The necessity to rejuvenate Brünhild’s honor after Kriemhild’s public attack arguably legitimises Hagen’s motivations for Siegfried’s murder, as he is legally bound to restore Brünhild’s prestige,

“er lobt’ ir sâ zehant,

daz ez erarnen müese der Kriemhilde man,

oder er wolde nimmer dar umbe vrœlîch gestân.“ (864.2-3)

He rationalizes that her tears must be avenged, which appears to be the sole reason for his attack. The poet thereby reveals a society where political motives often outweigh moral conscience. It is often argued that the deceptive manner in which Hagen murders Siegfried does not lower his character; Francis Gentry asserts that the ancient concept of Blutrache was legitimate throughout the middle ages[8]. So a feudal audience would have accepted that Hagen is just fulfilling his duties as a vassal. However the poet does seem sceptical of this custom as he clearly orchestrates a negative attitude towards Hagen,

“daz hete ger â ten Hagene, der vil ungetriuwe man”. (911.4)

Such a great disloyalty should therefore never be perpetrated by any vassal. Gentry comments that while the matter is legally defensible, it is morally wrong.[9] The poet seems to attack the traditional customs to insist on a more humane approach.

This unwavering system of values stretches further to medieval hierarchal structures, which are explicitly reflected in Das Nibelungenlied. The poet seems intent on exploring the close conflict between the potency and fragility of such structure. Due to the force of expectation, Siegfried anticipates Brünhild's assumption that he has come to woo her, so with his order, “Gunther sî mîn herre, und ich sî sîn man” (432, 5) he puts a distinction of rank between them. To put his subordination into visual action, he makes a public display of helping Gunther onto his saddle,

"er habt' im dâ bî zoume daz zierlîche marc,

Gúot únde schœne, vil michel unde starc,

Unz der künic Gunther ín den sátel gesáz". (397.2-5)

Thus, we see Siegfried compensating for his superiority to Gunther through deception. Essentially, this scene illustrates how determining an individual's status in courtly society was. The simultaneous fragility of such structures is brought to light when Siegfried's marriage to Kriemhild causes the deception to unravel. Although historically a vassal entered into a symbiotic relationship with his Lord, Brünhild insists on Siegfried’s inferiority when she renders him an "Eigenholde". Brünhild’s rage is heightened when Kriemhild and her man sit opposite her at the feast,

“Prünhilt diu künegîn

gedâht,daz eigenholde niht rîcher kunde wesen“ (803. 2-3)

The seating protocol reveals how far hierarchal order descends in courtly society. Image is of equality thoroughly torments Brünhild. Her confusion and persistent concern ultimately leads to the destruction at the end. Here, the poet is intent on exploring the delicacy of courtly hierarchy, by showing that when it is disturbed, it leads to tremendous disorder.

The hierarchal structures are questioned in another sense through the ambiguous portrayal of Gunther in the epic. Gunther does not fulfil his role as a leader, Francis Gentry argues that the King does not adhere to proper legal formality during the quarrel of the queens as he doesn’t convene a court.[10] He fails to make the correct moral decisions which results in the betrayal of a loyal friend. Hagen’s role as decision maker shows the ascendance of a vassal above his own king, Hagen’s dominance is visually obvious,

“Der künic gevolgete übele Hagenen, sînem man“ (876.1)

Gunther’s failure to assert his superiority over Hagen places him in a feeble light. As King’s are an integral part of society, This could be approached as society’s concern for the failure of kings. The conflict between vassals and Kings was a major social concern at the time. The Poet is perhaps reflecting on the personal power struggles between King Frederick and his loyal prince Henry the Lion[11].

The social concerns for the courtly roles of women are also reflected throughout the epic. There is arguably a discrepancy between the poet’s courtly ideals of women, and how they were actually regarded at the court. A subtler reading of the epic demonstrates this. Courtly poets were intent on capturing an image of female perfection, for example when Kriemhild is introduced she is distinguished by her immeasurable beauty, an ideal harmony between her exterior attributes and her inner disposition[12], or "edel lîp" is evoked. However, it is peculiar that beyond the poet's literary parameters there was a strong belief in female imperfection in courtly society[13]. Kriemhild comes to a catastrophic failure when she reveals Siegfried's weak spot to Hagen, illustrating her naivety and betrayal of trust, a scenario which voices perhaps a more critical view of women. Furthermore, Bumke argues that the idea that noble lords adoringly looked up to the ladies reversed the true relationship between the sexes[14]. After the quarrel of the queens Siegfried asserts that women should be taught how to control their tongues,

“man sol sô vrouwen ziehen”, sprach Sîfrit der gegen,

daz si ǘppeclîche sprüche lâzen under wegen“

Verbiut ez dînem wîbe, der mînen tuon ich sam.

Ir grôzen ungefüege ich mich wærlîche scham“ (826)

Thus by publically ridiculing his wife with a patriarchal didacticism, we begin to see masculine assumptions about the medieval world seeping through. David J. Levin argues that according to the logic of the times, the punishment Siegfried dolls out is due to her because of her indulgence in ‘free speech’[15]. This preoccupation with female silence is also demonstrated when Siegfried enigmatically returns from Brünhild’s chamber, with the ring and gurtel representing her virginity. Kriemhild doesn’t question his motives, revealing the relationships underlining elements of female subversion. The courtly world’s obsession with female submission is epitomised by Kriemhild’s death. It was unheard of for a woman to equal a man in strength[16]. Murder is bound to female ascendency and Kriemhild arguably becomes more potent than her masculine counterparts. Her punishment is severe, she isn't just murdered, she is chopped into pieces. It would have been too controversial to promote Kriemild's murder in a society which insists on female submission.

This social admiration of female passivity is further revealed by the poet’s tendency to align medieval women with the private space; Kriemhild is pictured predominantly in her quarters, looking out at Siegfried,

“daz sach dicke sint

Kriemhild durch dui venster” (133.2/3.)

Thus, the courtly maiden is often seen in a passive state, as Hugo Bekker suggests, there is a view that women should occupy specific place[17]. Kriemhild is essentially locked up and guarded by her brothers, revealing a society concerned with exerting a peculiar mixture between protection and control over women. Subsequently, Courtly men are always pictured looking in, voyeuristically at women, for instance Gunther and his men gaze up at the maidens through the windows of Brünhild’s castle. The women are however, warned to step back, which suggests that men are arguably only ever granted conditional visual access. A great example of this is when Ortlib asks the king if the women can be brought out,


[1] Classen, Friendship, p. 429.

[2] Erismann, Epoche, Werk, Wirkung, p. 173.

[3] Classen, Friendship, P. 435

[4] Bartsch and Boor, Das Nibelungenlied, (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun. 2002), 2149, 1-3. All further references incorporated in text.

[5] Mueller, Nibelungenlied Today, 9.

[6] Brandt, Gesellschaftsthematik, 32.

[7] Mueller, Nibelungenlied Today, 13.

[8] Gentry, Hagen, 8.

[9] Gentry, Hagen, p. 9

[10] Gentry, Hagen, 9.

[11] Huffman, Medieval Diplomacy, 92.

[12] Schulz, Das Nibelungenlied, 21 .

[13] Bumke, Courtly Culture,

[14] Bumke, Courtly Culture, 334.

[15] Levin, Lang and the Nibelungen, 23

[16] Bumke, Courtly Culture, 334.

[17] Bekker, a literary analysis, 474.

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Das Nibelungenlied - medieval society and modern usage
Consider ways in which the Nibelungenlied reflects concerns for the society in which it was first composed and show how it was exploited to address more recent concerns of German society
King`s College London
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Leanne Harper (Author), 2011, Das Nibelungenlied - medieval society and modern usage, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/200828


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