Medieval literature, Nibelungenlied

The ‘post-truth’ Nibelungenlied

The phrase, ‘we live in a post-truth society’ has become so well-worn over the past year that perhaps, when we hear it, we no longer think through its implications. But powerful figures having a loose relationship with the truth is hardly a new phenomenon. This blog post isn’t meant to develop a theory of post-truth society in the Nibelungenlied – indeed the title is rather flippant – but is simply intended to give an illustration of the Nibelungenlied as a world in which truth has little currency, which can at times seem remarkably contemporary. [1]

Earlier this month, I went to a fascinating paper given by Christiane Witthöft: ‘Wahres Wissen oder Schein der Wahrheit? Zur Suche nach ‘Wahrheitsquellen’ in der mittelalterlichen Literatur’ (True knowledge, or appearance of knowledge? On the search for ‘truth sources’ in medieval literature). Professor Witthöft focused on the Nibelungenlied and Heinrich von Türlin’s Diu Crone. I’d like to use one of the episodes she points to in the Nibelungenlied as a starting point: Gunther’s denial of Hagen’s guilt after the murder of Siegfried.[2]

Previously on the ‘Nibelungenlied’…

The legendary Siegfried is promised the hand of the beautiful Kriemhild, on the condition that he helps her brother, Gunther, to win the hand of Brunhild, the Queen of Iceland. Siegfried agrees, despite the fact that this involves an elaborate conspiracy to deceive Brunhild. Over the following decade, the complexities of this deceit begin to unravel, culminating in Brunhild’s public humiliation at Kriemhild’s hands. Hagen, Gunther’s vassal swears to avenge the slight, and schemes with Gunther to murder Siegfried. Hagen convinces Kriemhild to reveal to him the one vulnerable spot in Siegfried’s invincible skin, assuring her that this will help him to protect Siegfried. Soon afterwards, while out hunting, Hagen stabs Siegfried in the back, and lays his corpse at Kriemhild’s door.

The death of Siegfried (publicity still for Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen I, 1924). Source: Wikipedia.

Kriemhild works out pretty quickly that

ez hat geraten prvennhilt | daz ez hat hagen getan

Brunhild advised it, and Hagen did it

and she has good old medieval proof:

daz ist ein michel wunder | vil dicke ez noch geschiht
swa man den mortmeilen | bi dem toten siht
so blvtent im di wunden | als ovch da geschach
davon man di schvlde | da ce hagene gesach
di wunden vlvzzen sere | alsam si taten e

It is a great wonder, and still happens often, that when the murderer is seen near the corpse, its wounds bleed. That happened here too, and everyone saw that the guilt was Hagen’s; the wounds bled heavily, as they did before.

But what use is proven truth, when it doesn’t follow the party line? Gunther steps in:

do sprach der kvenich gvnther | ich wilz ivch wizzen lan
in slvgen schachaere | hagen hat es niht getan

Then King Gunther said, ‘I want you all to know that robbers attacked him. Hagen didn’t do it.’

And despite Kriemhild’s protests, the matter is closed. The court essentially goes back to business as usual, although Hagen’s guilt was demonstrated before an audience. The words of a powerful man are able to control the narrative, vindicating his close friend, and blaming a useful scapegoat on the edge of society. Through his statement, Gunther creates an official reality which is distinct from what has actually happened. But Kriemhild’s personal rage and grief cannot be controlled by this official line, and they will manifest themselves – years later – in a catastrophic revenge.

Gunther’s brazen lie, though, is only the latest untruth in a society, or at least a hierarchy, based on deceit. In the bridal quest for example, Brunhild is doubly deceived, both regarding Siegfried and Gunther’s relative status, and Gunther’s physical strength.

Brunhild will only marry the man who can defeat her in a series of physical tests – a supposedly impossible challenge, because she is famous for her superhuman strength. Gunther himself is not up to the task, but – at Hagen’s suggestion – he sees an opportunity in Siegfried. Siegfried, for his part, is easily swayed by the promise of marrying Kriemhild in exchange for his help. The plan, in fact, then comes from Siegfried, who suggests:

so svlt ir helde maere | wan einer rede iehn
gvnther si min herre | vnt ich si sin man

‘You warriors should all have one story: Gunther is my lord, and I am his vassal.’

But Brunhild and her maidens make an accurate assessment of the group – Siegfried is visually identified as the most powerful, and therefore the most likely to have come to court Brunhild. But Siegfried repeats his lie to Brunhild, and his words are sufficient to overrule the evidence of her eyes.

So Gunther finds himself facing Brunhild’s superhuman strength. But Siegfried owns a Tarnkappe, which renders him invisible, and grants him superhuman strength, and as Gunther stands there, fearing for his life, an invisible Siegfried creeps up to him and says:

nv hab dv di gebaere | div werch wil ich began

‘Now you do the actions; I will begin the work’

That is to say, Gunther is to mime physical participation, but the work will actually be carried out by the invisible Siegfried. Gunther has thus misrepresented both his physical and political power, and his marriage is based on this fundamental deception.

Everything that follows in the text can be seen to turn on this. Siegfried is rewarded with Kriemhild’s hand, but his dishonesty immediately begins to catch up with him when Brunhild queries her new husband’s decision to marry off his sister to a vassal. Unsatisfied with Gunther’s assurances, she refuses to consummate the marriage. So Siegfried once again dons the Tarnkappe, and subdues her for Gunther (for the modern reader, a particularly unpleasant episode, which merits its own discussion), taking her ring and belt as souvenirs. He later gives these to Kriemhild.

Ten years later, Brunhild has Siegfried and Kriemhild invited to a festival, hoping to get to the bottom of their unequal status, and is drawn into an argument with Kriemhild, which culminates in Kriemhild accusing Brunhild of having lost her virginity to Siegfried, and not her husband Gunther, brandishing her ring and belt as proof. From there, it is one short conspiracy to Siegfried’s murder.

It’s certainly a legitimate – and common – analysis to link Siegfried’s murder, and its emotion-driven consequences (Kriemhild’s wiping out of the Burgundians in pursuit of revenge) to the disregard for truth upon which these two key marriages are founded. But this post is just a quick look at the thorny question of truth in the Nibelungenlied, and it isn’t intended to delve into the myriad reasons for the final catastrophe – a culture of dishonesty is just one possibility. What I’m really interested in here is the timeless relevance of the distortion of truth. I have only picked two, relatively early, examples of the manipulation of truth in the Nibelungenlied, and have not touched on, for example, Kriemhild’s (potentially) insincere reconciliation with her brothers; her dishonest motives for her second marriage; or Hagen’s attempt to prove the water spirits’ prophetic truth false – amongst many other possibilities. But what we see in both of my chosen examples are powerful men using deception to make society conform to their own desires. To create their own reality.

Maybe it’s a cheat to use the Nibelungenlied to make this point. It is, after all, only one version of a collection of myths. This page, under ‘Bearbeitungen’, shows the other best-known medieval versions of the narrative, which vary significantly from the Middle High German text. The whole thing is a collection of ‘alternative facts’, in a rather literal sense, and we’re clued into that when we are introduced to Siegfried in the second aventiure as a sheltered courtly prince –

vil selten ane hvote | man riten lie daz kint

the youth was never allowed to ride out alone

– only to hear from Hagen in the next aventiure that Siegfried is a great hero who has, amongst other things, slain a dragon and bathed in its blood. These two realities sit uneasily alongside one another, both necessary, but never entirely coherent as part of a single narrative. But the examples explored above show a deliberate manipulation which has nothing to do with the inconsistency of the fictional world in which the characters operate.

In the Guardian last month, John Gray argued that post-truth society dates not from 2016, but from the Iraq War, pointing to Blair’s statement, ‘I only know what I believe.’ The characters in the Nibelungenlied are asked to believe in a world based on deliberate deception, created to serve the interests of other people, which ultimately ends up serving the interests of no one.

[1] For a free online dictionary definition, see Macmillan
[2] The idea for this blog post came from a conversation with my husband on the way back, about the parallels between this statement from Gunther and contemporary discourse.

Karl Bartsch’s edition of the Nibelunglied (used for this post, because my own copy is in England)
English summary of the Nibelungenlied

Churches, Images, Visits

Aachen Cathedral (and associated thoughts)

Two weeks ago I moved to Berlin with my husband. We are planning to be here until August, while I work on a project part-funded by the DAAD, during which time I will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Großbritannien-Zentrum, part of the Humboldt University. We decided to drive from Oxford to Berlin, stopping in Aachen, and ticking off a medievalist bucket list item: Aachen Cathedral. Not all of the photographs in this post are mine, but their attributions should be clear.

Our hotel was over a mile from the town centre and we decided to take advantage of a relatively warm (for April in northern Europe) evening by walking in. This had the added advantage of not having to take our bike rack off the car, or get the car out of the hotel’s Tiefgarage. About halfway there, as we stopped at a traffic light, we realised that a Santiago ‘Pilgerweg’ scallop shell had been stuck onto the lamp-post. Clearly a sign.

Camino scallop shell (photo: Mary Boyle)

After walking all the way around the cathedral in an attempt to locate the door, we managed to get inside with only five minutes to spare before closing. Five minutes to drink in one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen.

Time and space come together in the Aachener Dom. Charlemagne began to build the Palatine Chapel in the 790s, but the intervening 12+ centuries have more than had their say. The church was targeted by Vikings in the ninth century and restored in the tenth. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw Gothic additions, most spectacularly the quire. The Hungarian chapel was added in the eighteenth century, and in 1802, with the foundation of the Diocese of Aachen, the ancient church became a cathedral. This first Diocese of Aachen lasted a mere nineteen years, but was re-founded in 1930, when the church became a cathedral once more. The twentieth century also saw the Domwache: volunteers who, rather than seeking shelter during air raids, instead stayed in the cathedral, putting out fires as they started. And in 1978, Aachen Cathedral became Germany’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The twenty-first century has already made a contribution, as the cathedral has recently undergone intensive restoration work.

Outside you can see the melding of different architectural styles – most obviously in the form of the nineteenth-century tower perched on top. My mind immediately jumped back to the year I spent living in Trier, where successive generations, from the Romans onwards, made their mark on its cathedral on top of – or next to – those who had come before. The thirteenth-century Gothic Liebfrauenkirche was built adjoining the cathedral, on Roman foundations, but was closed for refurbishment for my entire time in the town.

Charlemagne is thought to have modelled the eight-sided Palatine Chapel (all that remains of his palace) on San Vitale in Ravenna, which he had visited several times, but he was consciously drawing on an architectural tradition of which San Vitale was itself a part: Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was thought to have been octagonal in shape. Templar churches were often built on this pattern and medieval pilgrims, following the example of the Templars, referred to the octagonal Dome of the Rock as the Temple of Solomon. Pilgrims provided various reports as to what was supposed to be inside, although on the whole they did not attempt to gain entry, as Christians and Jews were barred. A notable exception (or so he claims) was the fifteenth-century German pilgrim Arnold von Harff, who gleefully recounted a night-time excursion to the ‘templum Salomonis’ disguised as a Mamluk. [1]

Aachen Cathedral (all photos mine):

San Vitale (all photos mine):

Templar churches: Temple Church, London (top) and Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal (bottom). All photos mine (apologies for the quality; they were taken on a Nokia in 2007):

Five minutes in Aachen Cathedral was, of course, only enough to whet my appetite, and I don’t think that I can really tick it off my bucket list as yet. So, an excuse to go back to Aachen – and I’d better get back to Trier as well, and finally see the inside of the Liebfrauenkirche.

There’s plenty of information available online about Aachen Cathedral, but the German and English Wikipedia articles are a good starting place, and the Route Charlemagne has various flyers full of information, including one on the cathedral, which I’ve used here, to which I’m linking in German and English. The website is also available in French and Dutch.

[1] Die Pilgerfahrt des Ritters Arnold von Harff, ed. by E. von Groote (Cologne: Heberle (Lempertz), 1860), p.178.

Images, Papers

Fortunatus: A German view of Italians in London

I promised a sequel to my last post, in which I looked at what the Libelle of Englyshe Polyce has to say about English attitudes to foreign merchants operating in the country in the late Middle Ages. This time, I’m looking at how those relationships feed into a non-English view of the situation by offering you an episode of the German proto-novel Fortunatus. I’m taking the opportunity to post this now, as term is about to start, and I don’t expect to have much time for blogging.

But first, an introduction. Fortunatus was first published in Augsburg (a centre of German vernacular printing) in 1509, and it draws upon various travel narratives which were circulating at the time, including John Mandeville and Bernhard von Breydenbach, whose book I’ve written about here. This reliance on older texts means that, for example, Fortunatus finds himself in what appears to be a pre-1453 Constantinople (i.e. before the Fall), visiting

Sant Sophia kirchen/ darinnen gar ain schöne kappel ist/ geweicht in der eer unser lieben frawen

[the Hagia Sophia, in which there is a lovely chapel dedicated to Our Lady]

The storyline, briefly, follows Fortunatus and his sons. While travelling through the woods, Fortunatus meets Lady Fortune, who gives him a purse full of money, which can never run out. He later supplements this by stealing a magic hat from the sultan in Alexandria – a hat which has the power to transport its wearer wherever he wishes. But Fortunatus begins his travels long before. Early in the narrative, he finds himself in London. There is a second London episode, involving Fortunatus’s son, Andalosia, but it’s only Fortunatus’s time London I want to talk about here. As Jurij Striedler has pointed out (quoted in the Reclam edition of Fortunatus), only this first episode has to be set in London. In the Andalosia episode, the location plays ‘so gut wie gar keine Rolle’: the action could take place anywhere.

Not so for the first London episode! As Striedler points out, the author seems to be pretty well informed about the city, and it’s portrayed as more than just a harbour and a commercial city. There’s a moment in which I’d like to think that the author is adding a bit of local colour: Fortunatus goes for a drink, and we read

Sy sprach zu ir magt / “gang bring ym ain pint bier”

[She said to her maid, “Go and bring a pint of beer”]

The word ‘pint’ is glossed as ‘Kanne’, and it does appear in Lexer as ein flüssigkeitsmass (a measurement of liquid), but there aren’t many references given.

But I think it’s important not to stretch Striedler’s latter point: London is primarily represented in the text as a centre of trade. The first thing we hear about it is that it’s the capital of England and,

da nun von allen orten der welt kauffleüt ligend und da iren gewerb tribent

[where merchants from all over the world carry out their business]

Although Fortunatus doesn’t specifically go to London to involve himself in the mercantile world, London as a centre of trade enables pretty much everything in this section of the narrative. The very first people he meets have been sent there for commercial purposes:

zwen jung die reich vätter in Cipern hetten / die sy ayff der Galee auch gen Lunden sandten und ynen vil kostliche kauffmannschatz bevolhen / sy waren auch vor nyemer auß gewesen und  wißten nut vil wie man sich regieren und halten solt in frembden landen / dann sovil sy von iren vätern gehört / in guote underweisung gegeben / hetten sy in gevolget

[two young men with rich fathers in Cyprus who had sent them to London on a galley, and entrusted them with a lot of valuable merchandise. They had never travelled abroad before and knew only what they had heard from their fathers about how to conduct themselves and behave in foreign countries. It was good advice, if only they had followed it]

We already have a sense that London is not safe for non-locals. Fortunatus then goes to the mercantile hub of Lombard Street to find a job – small details like this bear out the author’s knowledge of London – and he is taken on by a wealthy Florentine merchant, Jeronimus Roberti. But things soon go wrong. Another Florentine in London, a wicked young man named Andrean is asked by Jeronimus to secure the release of an imprisoned nobleman. He takes the nobleman back to Jeronimus’s house, and murders him, hoping to steal his jewels. He then tells everyone in the house that the nobleman had tried to kill him, and that he had acted in self-defence; stuffs his body down Jeronimus’s privy; and escapes to Alexandria, where – for good measure – he renounces Christianity.

Disposing of the body. 1509 Augsburg woodcut, as reproduced in 2007 Reclam edition.

Fortunatus is not in London when Andrean commits murder, and disposes of the corpse, and the reason is historically plausible.

Als sich nun die sach verloffen hett / do was Fortunatus nit tzu Lunden Sonder er was in seines herren dienst in ain statt gefarenn genant Sanduwick / da er seim herren guot in ain schif geladen het

[When these things were happening, Fortunatus was not in London, but had travelled on his master’s business to a town called Sandwich, where he was loading his master’s goods onto a ship]

As Caroline Barron explains, Florentine and Genoese merchant ships did dock in Sandwich, but Venetian ones didn’t.

The story of the murder, of course, comes out. Roberti and his entire household are condemned to death and taken to the new gallows which are:

zwüschen der statt und Vestminster / [where there] ist gar ain schöner pallast. ist darinne des künigs radthauß / und ain grosse schöne kirchen

[between the town and Westminster [where there] is a really beautiful palace, and inside is the king’s council chamber and a large and beautiful church]

Being led to the gallows. 1509 Augsburg woodcut, as reproduced in the 2007 Reclam edition.

Fortunatus is spared at the last minute. Ascending the gallows, Roberti’s cook, who:

was ain Englischer der schray mit lauter stym / das es maniglich höret / das Fortunatus nit umb die ding wißt

[was an Englishman, cried out loudly so that many people heard him, that Fortunatus didn’t know anything about it]

Now there is an argument that, in London, the chances are that it would be an English person who saves him, but the author didn’t have to emphasise Fortunatus’s saviour’s nationality. Indeed, by emphasising his nationality, we realise how few English people Fortunatus engages with in his time in England – we’re thinking about a really insular merchant community (no pun intended). And this is probably Fortunatus’s only positive interaction with an Englishman. After discussion with the judge, Fortunatus is saved from the gallows

so er auch nit ain Florentin / und unschuldig was

[since he was not a Florentine, and was innocent]

Both reasons seem to be of equal weight! He is nonetheless advised to leave the country because the (female) mob will kill him:

nu mach dich bald auß dem land / wann die frauwen der gassen werden dich zu tod schlagen

[Now get out of the land quickly, or the women in the alleys will beat you to death]

This is given weight by the king granting permission to sack Jeronimus’s house, and the reactions of the other Italians in London to this officially-sanctioned looting:

Do die andern Florentiner und Lambarder horten wie man also sackman gemacht het / do forchten sy sich übel / ires leibs und ires guots

[When the other Florentines and Lombards heard about the plundering, they were afraid for their lives and goods]

London would presumably have been well-known to Fortunatus’s German audience as a trading centre largely because of the presence of the Hanseatic League in the Steelyard – they had been in London since 1282. Relations between the League and England were complex, and particularly bad during 1470-74, in the Anglo-Hanseatic War. This ended with the Treaty of Utrecht (1474), which granted the League possession of the Steelyard. In 1493, though, a mob broke into the Steelyard and set fire to some of its buildings. This aspect of London’s trade, though, is entirely left out of the text – at least explicitly. What we do see, though, is something of a witch-hunt of people associated with a certain place: a Florentine household is implicated in a murder; every member of the household is executed; and the other Florentines and Lombards in London become afraid because the king’s men are plundering Jeronimus’s property.

It is through commercial London that the plot is moved on: by his trip to Lombard Street, a centre of international, mercantile London, where Fortunatus becomes involved with the Florentine merchant community. And it is the reality of how international trade worked in London that takes him to Sandwich – and means that he is ultimately freed from implication in the murder. After the miscarriage of justice which culminates in the execution of Jeronimus Roberti, Fortunatus is absolved of guilt essentially because he isn’t a Florentine. In Fortunatus, the bad treatment of foreign merchants trading in London is precipitated by Andrean’s murder of the nobleman, but – as we’ve seen – in the late Middle Ages, there was significant English resentment towards foreigners trading in London. The fact that Andrean is also a Florentine emphasises that, in many ways, the merchant community is being understood as a separate society within London, but the reactions of the other Italians show a familiar fear of the scapegoating of an entire group. Ralph Flenley writes that Italian merchants were the largest group of foreign merchants in England in the period, and the target of the most hostility. G.A. Holmes, in an article on Florentine merchants in England wrote: ‘One of the conspicuous features of the Lancastrian period was English hatred of the foreign merchant’. He refers to an Italian poem of the time by Frescobaldi, warning merchants travelling to England that they should wear dark clothes and keep away from men of the court.

If we think back to my previous post, which thought about foreign merchants in England from the English perspective, perhaps this episode in Fortunatus is not that surprising, and the fears of the Italian merchants who were not directly implicated in the murder committed by Andrean look perfectly reasonable. It seems that an English reputation for mistreating foreigners, and Italians in particular, had sunk into the popular imagination by the time that Fortunatus was written.

Fortunatus ed. by Hans-Gert Roloff (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2007)
Caroline M. Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages : Government and People, 1200-1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Ralph Flenley, “London and Foreign Merchants in the Reign of Henry VI,” English Historical Review, 25 (1910), 644-55.
M.S. Giuseppi, ‘Alien Merchants in England in the Fifteenth Century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 9 (1895), pp. 75-98.
A. Holmes, ‘Florentine Merchants in England, 1346-1436’, The Economic History Review, 13 (1960), 193-208.

If you don’t read German, you might be interested in Michael Haldane’s translation of Fortunatus, where you can also see all of the woodcuts.

Guest Post, Images, Outreach

The Nibelungenlied, or Making a Medievalist

Every year, the Oxford German Network runs a series of reading groups for local secondary schools. Yesterday I led the first of the sessions – in at the deep end with some Middle High German in the form of the Nibelungenlied. The groups will continue for the next three weeks. Kafka is up next. In preparation for my session, I wrote a guest post for the OGN’s blog, which you can find by following the link below:

Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit
von heleden lobebæren, von grôzer arebeit,
von fröuden, hôchgezîten, von weinen und von klagen,
von küender recken strîten muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen

Source: The Nibelungenlied, or Making a Medievalist

(Siegfried’s murder, as shown in Manuscript K (1480-1490))

Articles, Guest Post, Images

Shakespeare in German Translation

I have recently written a guest blog post for the Taylor Institution in Oxford, which is currently playing host to an exhibition on Shakespeare in translation. Have a look at their introduction to what I have to say, and then head on over to their blog to read the rest!

The Taylor Institution’s ‘Shakespeare in Translation’ exhibition illustrates the broad linguistic scope of Shakespeare reception across Europe. His plays have a particularly long history of adaptation and translation in German. This post explores some of the milestones in that history, from anonymous reinterpretation while Shakespeare was still writing, all the way to Brecht’s radio plays in the twentieth century, via the authoritative Schlegel-Tieck edition of the early nineteenth century.