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The Nibelungenlied: History

This is the second post in a series on the Middle High German epic The Nibelungenlied. The first is here.

Theoderic the Great

One of the fun facts about the Nibelung story cycle is that many of the main characters seem to be inspired by real people, great heroes of yore. Here’s a list for your reading pleasure, in chronological order of history (lifted partly from Cyril Edwards):

  • Jormunrek (third husband of Gudrun/Kriemhilde — following Atli/Etzel, not in the Nibelungenlied) = Ermanaric (OE Eormenric), a Gothic ruler in Scythia who, when his land was invaded by a joint force of Alans and Huns, committed suicide in the 370s.
  • Gunther = Gundaharius, a Burgundian ruler killed c. 436 in battle against the Roman general Aetius within the Rhineland territory of the Burgundians whose capital was centred at Borbetomagus, aka Worms, which is Gunther’s capital in the Nibelungenlied.
  • Bloedelin = Bleda, older brother of Attila who murdered him c. 445.
  • Etzel/Atli = Attila the Hun, the ruler of a Hunnish Empire that stretched throughout what is now Germany from somewhere to its East, and who famously invaded both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire at different occasions; he died c. 453.
  • Dietrich of Bern = Theoderic the Great, who lived 454-526; he ruled Italy (and a growing powerbase nearby) as king from Ravenna from 488, although he was officially a vassal (for lack of a better, less mediaeval word springing to mind) of the Eastern Emperor.
  • Brunhilde = Brunhild, a Visigothic queen, who was married to the Frankish Merovingian King Sigebert I of Austrasia; involved in various palace intrigues, she was tortured to death in 613.

But what about Siegfried/Sigurd? This is a question of much speculation, as the introduction to Byock’s translation of The Saga of the Volsungs makes clear. There are many ‘heroes’ of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages whose names begin with the ‘Sig-’ prefix. Is any of them our man? Are all of them our man? Is he a complete fiction? Maybe the real hero was the Sigimund of Beowulf, the son of Waels (thus a Waelsing – Volsung?), who slew the dragon and was the most famous person on earth. So maybe the dragon part is true?

As for the actual events of the poems and sagas, they are fiction. The historical persons lived in too varying moments of history to have been able to have done what the stories say. One could possibly wonder if the Norse Gudrun (that version’s Kriemhilde) is inspired by the rumour that Attila was slain in his bed by his young wife (Ildiko/Hildico), but that is all speculation. Instead of finding history in these stories, we see the power of oral storytelling – and apparently the Nibelungenlied is ‘textbook’ oral poetry when compared with Lord and Parry’s work that opened our eyes to the oral nature of Homer.

In the oral culture that sustained this story until its unknown poet of the 1200s in Germany and its similarly unknown recorder (or, I guess, Snorri Sturluson) in the 1200s in Iceland, persons grow together, brief episodes extend, a half-memory becomes a full story, a man of renown becomes a legend. Attila becomes Etzel (Atli in Norse), still a Hun, still a king. He is remembered for his power and ability to command so many men. In the Norse, he is also remembered as being a wolf, hungry and greedy and scheming. In the Nibelungenlied he is remembered as a man of great power, a pagan who can commend the respect even of the Christians around him.

These are residual memories of the impact Attila had on western and central Europe during his brief reign at the head of empire. It is a process we see also in the Roland and Charlemagne of history and their heroic counterparts in romance and epic. I have no doubt that the same is the case with whatever people may have inspired Arthur and Achilles.

My final thought on the Nibelungenlied and history is the fact that these people are all basically Late Antique. Brunhilda dies in 613. Most of them are far earlier, going back to the late 300s, but most are fifth-century figures – and the fifth century is my playing ground, after all. We have characters here who encountered Aetius, who for a time was second only to the emperor, if not more powerful. And Attila even met my dear Leo on one occasion. Late Antiquity, when the western Roman Empire is dismembered and scattered (disiecti membra imperii), is where the later kingdoms and peoples of the Middle Ages, of northern Europe, look back to see themselves emerging and find their greatest heroes.*

That is a thought of note.

*Not subscribing that this is actually what was going on, but that the nascent nation-states of Late Mediaeval and Early Modern Europe – and sometimes their contemporary successors – looked back to this era and saw themselves being born in it.