Reading the Nibelungen Women: Signs of their Times in the Thirteenth Century

Helena Ord

Helena Ord1
1Department of Comparative Literature, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA


This paper offers a gendered analysis of the Nibelungenlied, focusing on its unconventionally prominent and bloodthirsty female characters, Kriemhild and Brünhild. Although the male protagonists of the text, namely Siegfried, Hagen, and Gunther, were most frequently studied and promoted as embodiments of German nationalism in past centuries, I argue that Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s portrayals reveal striking information about the Nibelungenlied’s historical influences and about the anonymous author’s contemporaneous political climate. I suggest that the Nibelungenlied’s female protagonists, who pose serious challenges to the patriarchal court structure through their power-conscious and action-driven natures, exhibit a clear political dimension, as indicated by the fact that their possible historical influences, including Attila the Hun’s wife Hildico and Queens Brunhilda and Fredegund from the Merovingian Dynasty, were notorious for causing political trouble for their male counterparts. Within the context of the early thirteenth century, I postulate that Kriemhild and Brünhild could also be metaphorical representations of the concurrent conflict between the Papacy and the Empire, as the Nibelungenlied’s patron, Wolfger of Erla, was the Bishop of Passau and a diplomatic intermediary between the Pope and the King, advocating for peace. Therefore, this study aims to provide a deeper awareness of the Nibelungenlied’s female protagonists, who, despite remaining underexplored for centuries, are momentous political signs of their times.

What—before 1871—may be considered “German”? Although this question remains highly problematic, the Nibelungenlied, a Middle High German epic from the early thirteenth century, was often considered the principal text for exploring the origins of German literature and identity from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. According to Werner Hoffmann, this text, which is loosely based on contemporary Old Norse myths such as the Edda and the Völsunga saga, “is not only the first but also the most significant heroic epic of Middle High German literature,” which is indicated by its substantial “legacy of more than thirty [surviving] manuscripts,” and, perhaps most importantly, by its status as Germany’s national epic for approximately 200 years.[1]

In over 250 years of research devoted to the Nibelungenlied, the portrayal of its male protagonists, who were often viewed as “German” heroes, is not a particularly new area of study. In recent decades, this interpretation has also been criticized as a willful misreading of the text for the purposes of political propaganda in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, in contrast to Siegfried, Hagen, and Gunther, who have been studied to the point of exhaustion, whether and/or how the text’s female protagonists, Kriemhild and Brünhild, may also be interpreted as political symbols remains a largely underexplored subject. When looking past the male protagonists’ well-known characterizations, what and how do Kriemhild and Brünhild, who are prominent, action-driven characters, contribute to the Nibelungenlied? What could their multi-faceted depictions reveal about their concurrent political climates? In the following study, I will address these questions by examining both female protagonists in relation to the historical and political influences of the Nibelungenlied. Although I initially expected Kriemhild and Brünhild to play a minimal role in conveying the political conditions of their patriarchal society, my findings, which are presented below, suggest otherwise: Readings of the women of the Nibelungenlied reveal that they are not only politicized figures, but that they also provide significant insights into the anonymous author’s contemporaneous political climate.


Kriemhild and Brünhild are heavily involved in the tragic unfolding of the Nibelungenlied, which culminates in severe heartbreak and bloodshed. Whereas Kriemhild is killed for avenging her husband Siegfried, who is stealthily murdered upon her brother Gunther’s request, Brünhild, the independent queen of Iceland, is deceived by Gunther with Siegfried’s help, causing her to unwillingly become the former’s wife and yield to male dominance. Despite the fact that Kriemhild and Brünhild undergo opposite transformations, in which Kriemhild transitions from a gentle wife to a revenge-driven character, while Brünhild, who is initially described as terrifying due to her immense physical strength, becomes powerless in the face of patriarchal power, my textual analysis revealed that their character descriptions are remarkably similar: Both encapsulate characteristics that are viewed favorably, such as their beauty, and attributes that threaten a society that is controlled entirely by men, such as their status-awareness and desire to assert themselves against each other and their male counterparts. Therefore, both women are presented as two-sided, wavering between “naiveté and power consciousness.”[2] However, their drastically different fates represent two possible responses to male power, in which submitting to men’s control is portrayed as the better option, since Brünhild survives, whereas Kriemhild is murdered. Consequently, the female protagonists of the Nibelungenlied have to be analyzed together in order to deduce the text’s explicit message about subduing the power of women, who represent both a motivation and a danger to the male-dominated court structure with their erotic physical attributes, status-consciousness, and determination to affirm their own worth. Thus, although Brünhild’s and Kriemhild’s portrayals draw attention to their authoritative traits, the overarching message appears misogynistic from a modern perspective, as it suggests that passivity, as opposed to assertiveness, is necessary for women in order to survive in a patriarchal society. In the remainder of this study, I will discuss the validity and potential reasons for depicting power in the hands of women as dangerous by exploring the Nibelungenlied’s historical roots, and by determining whether Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s unusually prevalent and bloodthirsty representations could be justified by and reflective of the poet’s contemporaneous political climate.

Figure 1: Tournament scene from the Nibelungenlied, Hundeshagenscher Codex, ca. 1440, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany.


According to Bert Nagel, the problematic nature of the Nibelungenlied, as evidenced by Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s ambiguous portrayals, can be traced back to the fact that the text has both historical and mythological origins, which were often transmitted orally.[3] However, even the Nibelungenlied’s fictional roots, which hail from Old Norse myths, are loosely based on factual events that have been reshaped in both the aforementioned myths and in the Nibelungenlied to offer a didactic representation of human nature.[4] Therefore, although the Nibelungenlied’s events are fictionalized, the text should be viewed as an adaptation that is historical in origin. Joachim Heinzle supports this statement, asserting that while the text’s treatment of historical events constitutes its nature, the poet retells and tweaks the facts.[5] This adaptive feature of the text should not be viewed as a “de-historicization,” but, rather, as a way of making “historical events comprehensible” to a contemporary audience.[6]

What, however, are the historical origins of the Nibelungenlied? The specifics and even the overarching historical framework of the text are heavily disputed among scholars, but the battle of King Gundahar and the Burgundians against the Huns in 436 or 437 CE is generally identified as the Nibelungenlied’s most recognizable plot cornerstone.[7] The text’s incorporation of this historical event is easily identifiable, as both the Burgundians under King Gunther and the Huns under King Etzel are explicitly mentioned and engage in battle at the end of the Nibelungenlied, resulting in the demise of the former. In addition, the names of four Burgundian kings—Gibica, Gundomaris, Gislaharius, and Gundaharius—appear remarkably similar to the characters Gibeche, Gernot, Giselher, and Gunther in the Nibelungenlied, thereby indicating that these figures are, to some extent, derived from this historical framework.[8]

In order to analyze Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s   historical origins, two other prominent but clashing theories prove more useful: the marriage of Attila the Hun to the Germanic Hildico and the former’s sudden death in 453 CE, and the conflict between Queen Brunhilda of Austrasia and Fredegund of Neustrasia in the late sixth century CE.[9] It is noteworthy that these occurrences are unrelated historical events, but are all identified as possible historical influences for the Nibelungenlied’s content. Although one can merely speculate about why the poet intertwined these particular, unconnected historical characters and occurrences,—or about whether this was even his intention in the first place—it remains a striking dilemma for which scholars continuously attempt to provide explanations. For instance, Nagel responds to part of this query by arguing that Etzel, who is Kriemhild’s  second husband and is described as ruler of the Huns, is based on the historical figure Attila because the latter was the most famous leader of the Huns and, therefore, functions as a generalized, recognizable “symbol of Hunnish power” in the battle against the Burgundians, despite the fact that he did not actually fight.[10] While this claim is plausible, the Nibelungenlied’s unassociated figures and facts extend beyond mere oversimplifications. Instead, it appears especially significant that the power-conscious, politically charged elements of Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s characters, though fictionalized, still have realistic roots in the aforementioned historical figures and events. This observation will be the focus of the following, in which Kriemhild and Brünhild are discussed in relation to their potential historical model(s).

Kriemhild in relation to Etzel

Before analyzing the possible historical origins of Kriemhild’s character, her relationship to her second husband Etzel provides a necessary insight into her portrayal. Many scholars, including Nagel, claim that the figure of Etzel is originally based on Attila the Hun, as, according to David MacRitchie, “Attila, Etzel, Ethel—all these are recognizable as so many different forms of one [Old English] word,” and “Ethel-hun” was even a common personal name in the fifth century.[11] However, the fact that both Attila and Etzel are the leaders of the Huns is the only conspicuous similarity between these figures. Whereas Attila, who was the leader of the Huns between 434 and 453 CE, is known as one of the most terrifying rivals and territorial conquerors in the Western and Eastern Roman Empires to this day, Etzel “is portrayed as a noble character,” who, in comparison to his wife Kriemhild, also seems weak and oblivious.[12] For example, whereas Kriemhild “gedâhte ir finde” [(thought about) her enemies] upon inviting the Burgundians to Etzel’s court, the poet describes the latter as “der künic rîche, getriuwe was sîn muot” [the mighty king…his heart was honest and open].[13] The inclusion of the phrase “his heart was honest and open” indicates that Etzel is unaware and, perhaps, too trusting, which leads to his inability to recognize his wife’s revenge scheme until it is too late. Similarly, Etzel does not partake in the battle against the Burgundians and helplessly watches Gunther’s and Kriemhild’s deaths without intervening, as merely observing “was im leide genuoc” [he deeply regretted].[14] Therefore, despite his wealth and theoretical power as king in a patriarchal society, Etzel is passive in comparison to Kriemhild. This contrast does not correspond to Attila’s proactivity and ruthless fighting tactics in defeating other tribes. Instead, Etzel represents “friendly Attila,” or, in other words, a “tolerant” and “generous” ruler who courteously welcomes the Burgundians and grants his wife’s wishes without questioning them.[15] By contrast, Kriemhild’s revenge motive and actions at the end of the Nibelungenlied render her a frightening, bloodthirsty character. It seems therefore, that the historical model of Etzel’s character is humanized, whereas Kriemhild is deliberately labeled a “vâlendinne” [fiend from Hell] that, in many ways, serves as a better depiction of Attila than Etzel at the end of the text.[16]

Due to the modification of Attila into a friendly ruler, Etzel, scholars have argued that the historical influence of Attila’s death in 453 CE is reworked into the murder of Kriemhild at the end of the Nibelungenlied.[17] This contrast arises from the text’s plot, in which, as suggested by Heinzle, the Burgundians’ downfall is “reduced to the personal revenge of one woman against her relatives.”[18] As a result, the narrative “requires a role and perspectival shift”: In order to portray Kriemhild as a true “vâlendinne,” the leader of the Huns, i.e. the Attila-inspired Etzel, must stand “in striking contrast” to Kriemhild by exhibiting “benevolent” and “endearing” characteristics.[19] It seems, therefore, that Kriemhild is willfully demonized in the Nibelungenlied; in order to present her as responsible for the downfall of the Burgundians, Etzel needs to be transformed into a noble and generous leader of the Huns, a perception that does not remotely correspond to Attila’s frightful legacy.

Kriemhild in relation to Hildico

While Etzel’s unrepresentative depiction of Attila highlights Kriemhild’s power-consciousness, the latter’s abnormal and unfavorable portrayal may also have historical roots. Although, as mentioned previously, Kriemhild’s belligerent nature at the end of the text corresponds more closely to that of Attila than Etzel’s, scholars often draw parallels between the Germanic Hildico, Attila’s last wife, and Kriemhild. This association is attributed to the similarity of the two names, as Hildico “may echo Kriemhild.”[20] Hildico married Attila in 453 CE, but he died during their wedding night. As summarized by Brian O. Murdoch, Priscus, a fifth century historian, proposes that Attila died from a hemorrhage, which was potentially triggered by reckless alcohol consumption.[21] However, Rolf Bräuer indicates that later chroniclers, such as Marcellinus Comes and Poeta Saxo, offer more ominous accounts, indicating that Hildico stabbed Attila because he killed her father.[22] Regardless of whether this version of the story is accurate or not, which can neither be proven nor disproven, the Nibelungenlied adapts Comes’ and Saxo’s portrayal of Hildico. Here, Kriemhild does not avenge the death of her father, but that of her husband Siegfried by killing her brother and the rest of the Burgundians. This fictional adaptation takes Hildico’s potential actions to an extreme degree, considering that Kriemhild is called a “vâlendinne” and is held responsible for the downfall of the Burgundians as a whole. The fact that she is killed may also serve as punishment for her deeds. Thus, although it cannot be proven with certainty that Hildico murdered Attila, it is notable that this part of Comes’ and Saxo’s historical accounts is transferred onto Kriemhild’s character, whose actions, though more severe, suggest an analogous ferocity. Consequently, parallels between Hildico and Kriemhild can be drawn, providing a possible historical justification for Kriemhild’s disparaging, murderous portrayal at the end of the Nibelungenlied.

Figure 2: Howard Pyle, “The Trial of Strength.” In Baldwin, James, The Story of Siegfried, ill. Howard Pyle. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899. 180.

Kriemhild and Brünhild in relation to Brunhilda and Fredegund

The historical events discussed above only relate to the Nibelungenlied’s presentation of Kriemhild, but not to that of Brünhild’s. Scholars often wonder if Brünhild truly has historical origins, as her “foreign” attributes, including her immense, almost supernatural strength, distinguish her from other characters..[23] Perhaps, Brünhild’s “foreignness” can be traced back to her depiction as a mystical Valkyrie and as a female warrior in mythological sources such as the Edda and the Völsunga saga; these theories account for a major part of Brünhild’s character description without drawing on historical events. However, even for Kriemhild, Hildico does not provide a wholly applicable historical influence, as the latter’s role as a murderer remains disputed and Kriemhild is contrasted with an unrepresentatively gracious portrayal of Attila. Although the potential influence of Hildico on Kriemhild is still plausible due to the similarity of their names, it appears that another historical period, the Merovingian Dynasty in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, could provide another, perhaps more fruitful insight into not only Kriemhild’s, but also Brünhild’s origins.

According to Nagel, an ongoing power struggle between Queen Brunhilda (543–613 CE), a Visigoth who married King Sigebert I of Austrasia, and Queen Fredegund (died 597), the wife of the king of Neustria, Chilperic I, preceded the murder of King Sigebert, for which Fredegund hired two assassins.[24] The names Sigebert, i.e. Siegfried, and Brunhilda, i.e. Brünhild, along with the fact that the quarrel between Brunhilda and Fredegund is comparable to that of Brünhild and Kriemhild, indicate that there are clear parallels between this piece of Merovingian history and the Nibelungenlied.[25] Erin Dailey states that Brunhilda and Fredegund were extraordinarily alike, as both women “enjoyed prominence in the Merovingian kingdoms as wives of a reigning king” and were, thus, remarkably power-conscious.[26] Furthermore, it is assumed that Fredegund died of natural causes, whereas Brunhilda was accused of regicide, tied to a horse, and dragged around until her limbs detached from the rest of her body.[27] Although it is important to note that the roles of Brunhilda and Fredegund are reversed in the Nibelungenlied, with Kriemhild representing Brunhilda and Fredegund serving as a model for Brünhild, their descriptions and opposing fates appear similar to those of Brünhild and Kriemhild. Both characters are aware of their status and attempt to assert themselves against their male counterparts, resulting in Brünhild’s eventual integration into the patriarchal society and Kriemhild’s brutal death. While there are clear parallels between the fictional characters of Kriemhild and Brünhild and their potential historical inspirations, Nagel draws attention to the fact that the entire Nibelungenlied cannot possibly have originated from the Merovingian Dynasty. He considers, for instance, the allusions to Attila the Hun and that Fredegund’s and Brunhilda’s roles and names are reversed.[28]

Figure 3: Otto von Leixner, “Br nhild and Chriemhild,” 1880, Leipzig.

Although these possible historical connections are unrelated with regard to time period, culture, and place, they follow a broad pattern: The women on whom Kriemhild and Brünhild may be based, namely Hildico or Fredegund and Brunhilda, are remembered as prominent historical figures for overstepping their boundaries as women and wreaking political havoc due to their unusually bloodthirsty, rebellious, and power-conscious natures and actions. Although it cannot be entirely certain whether any or all of these women influence the Nibelungenlied and its preceding mythology, their characteristics are detectable as conceivable historical roots in the politically motivated natures of Kriemhild and Brünhild.

Based on the above findings, the notion that women are a dangerous force for the patriarchal world does not seem to spring entirely from the Nibelungenlied’s poet himself, but, rather, from the aforementioned historical women. This sheds light on Heinzle’s statement regarding the poet’s artistic interpretation of the Nibelungenlied: Its fictionalized elements, such as Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s characters, should not be viewed as a clear parting from historical roots, but as the poet’s way of assigning meaning to occurrences that are incomprehensible from a contemporaneous perspective.[29] Thus, the poet’s portrayal of historical women who were accused of crimes such as murder, regicide, and treason—which are actions that seem especially unacceptable in a male-dominated society—adds a concrete political and societal message to these figures’ behavior. It willfully contrasts the “vâlendinne” Kriemhild with a humanized, friendly version of Attila and subdues Brünhild to a passive, courtly life through male power. Furthermore, both women’s complex, two-sided characters could denote the poet’s attempt to contrast the attributes of an ideal, courtly lady of the Middle Ages with the rebellious, power- and revenge-seeking actions of Brünhild and Kriemhild, thereby indicating that these qualities co-exist in their characters. This contrast could provide an explanation for the actions of Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s historical influences: By presenting and generally commenting on women’s dangerously unpredictable natures, wavering between passivity and “devilish” behavior, the poet provides a universalized reason for the actions of historical women such as Hildico, Fredegund, and Brunhilda.

Although an analysis of Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s possible historical origins yields telling conclusions, indicating that the poet may be trying to attribute meaning to real women’s ruthless, traditionally masculine behavior, a historical reading of the Nibelungenlied is not fully reliable. If it were, there would be a clearer consensus regarding the text’s historical origins and meaning among scholars, which is far from the case. As a result, a rigidly conclusive connection between Kriemhild and Brünhild and their potential historical influences should not be established, but it is reasonable to identify a broad pattern: Just as all historical women that were discussed display bloodthirsty and assertive behavior that has political consequences (e.g. the ruler of the Huns’ and King Sigebert I’s deaths), Kriemhild and Brünhild are condemned for their attempts to gain political power in a patriarchal society. Thus, it appears that the political dimension of their characters, which is appropriated into a message about women’s role in the twelfth and thirtheenth century court structure, is partly based on historical figures. Nevertheless, a pressing question remains that a historical reading of the Nibelungenlied cannot answer: What could have inspired a poet to write down the text during this particular time period? In order to address this question, it is necessary to conduct another reading of the Nibelungenlied, focusing on the poet’s concurrent political environment.


In discussing the political climate of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, the questions of where and by whom the Nibelungenlied was commissioned and written naturally arise. Although there is no concrete proof that identifies the patron of the Nibelungenlied, scholars generally agree that Wolfger of Erla, who was the Bishop of Passau from 1191 to 1204, funded the text’s promotion.[30] This theory arises from the fact that one of the Nibelungenlied’s characters—“Pilgerin”—a Bishop Pilgrim of Passau, is portrayed in “favorable” terms in the text, which would allow the text’s patron “to bask in [the] reflected glory” of his sponsorship.[31] During his lifetime, Wolfger was a successful episcopal leader, but, surprisingly, scholars often suggest that his political and cultural undertakings were more influential than his religious endeavors.[32] Wolfger was a patron of many contemporary writers. For instance, he is best known for giving Walther von der Vogelweide money for a fur coat in 1203, and is also associated with authors such as Bligger von Steinach, Albrecht von Johansdorf, and Thomas of Circlaria or Zerclaere.[33] Furthermore, Wolfger was a notable diplomat, who was regularly in the service of both the Pope and the King, often negotiating between these two forces.[34] This ability, namely to “mediate and conciliate,” is mentioned on Wolfger’s gravestone in Aquileja, thereby accentuating its importance to his reputation.[35]

Wolfger has been infrequently considered the writer of the Nibelungenlied, but there exists little to no evidence to support this theory.[36] Instead, it is generally believed that the anonymous poet was a “cleric in the chancellery of the episcopal court in Passau,” since those with religious backgrounds were among the lucky few who were able to read and write in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century.[37] In addition, living in Wolfger’s service would have exposed the poet to the court structure and culture, which are continually referenced in the Nibelungenlied.[38] Considering that the Nibelungenlied’s “ambivalent norms, behavioral patterns, and social orders” make the epic appear “out of place” in the era of Arthurian romances, the commonness of the poet’s education and employment is surprising.39 Just like him, many contemporary writers and Minnesingers, such as the aforementioned Albrecht von Johansdorf, had a religious education and were in the service of Bishops or nobles, and in this case, even in the service of Wolfger himself.[39] From where, then, does the Nibelungenlied’s poet derive the motivation to rework a story that differs so drastically from those of his contemporaries? William C. McDonald speculates that the Nibelungenlied was meant to serve as a “reaction to the regnant Arthurian romances” since, as a “Passau episcopate,” Wolfger probably had “little use for knights of the Round Table…[and] wonted happy endings” and, thus, deliberately promoted an “anti-modern” poem.”[40] Although the representation of characters such as Brünhild could be considered “anti-modern,” as her immense physical strength derives from her mythological origins as a Valkyrie or female warrior, this explanation still seems somewhat inconclusive, considering that Wolfger was known to employ all kinds of entertainers, ranging from highborn Minnesingers to poor and uncultured actors and comedians.[41] Therefore, it seems unlikely that he had “little use” for the popular plot cornerstones of Arthurian romances. Instead, perhaps the Nibelungenlied’s abnormality among contemporary entertainment literature can be traced back to Wolfger’s involvement in his contemporaneous political and social climate.

The Papacy, the Empire, and Wolfger of Erla

The Nibelungenlied dates back to the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century, and is assumed to have been written during Wolfger’s years as Bishop of Passau, between 1191 and 1204.[42] At this point in time, the feud between the Papacy and the Empire, which focused on which authority should hold supreme power, was in full force.[43] This conflict first emerged in the tenth century and was originally known as the Investiture Controversy, but continued to flare up throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. Wolfger’s time as Bishop of Passau began shortly after the death of Frederik Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of the German Empire from 1152 to 1190. As stated by Anat Koplowitz-Breier, Barbarossa’s death caused the feud between the Papacy and the Empire to become even more “conflict ridden (sic),” as the Empire was overwhelmed by the “bitter struggle between the Hohenstaufen, supporters of the Empire, and the Welfs, supporters of the Papacy.”[44] Although the conflict between the Papacy and the Empire is never explicitly mentioned in the Nibelungenlied, it still seems necessary to consider whether this momentous power struggle, which affected Wolfger’s role as an ecclesiastic and a mediator, could have influenced the text’s plotline.

It is safe to assume that the writer of the Nibelungenlied wanted to deliver a message that corresponded to the values and opinions of his patron, Wolfger. This raises the question of whom Wolfger supported in the conflict between the Papacy and the Empire. At first glance, this is not a difficult query, since it would appear reasonable that Wolfger, a religious figurehead, would support the Church. However, this answer is too clear-cut, especially considering the interdependence of the Church and the Empire: Although the Papacy was reliant on the Empire, as the Holy Roman Emperor was the sovereign power of the Church, the Empire also depended on the Church, as the Emperor could only be crowned by the Pope.[45] Wolfger serves as an ideal example of this intertwinement of religious and imperial power; Franz-Reiner Erkens contends that Wolfger’s favorable reputation arose from his diplomatic tactics.[46] It is argued that Wolfger was less concerned with “external expansion,” but, rather, with “internal consolidation,” which was defined by his ability to successfully “wield territorial policies” and maintain “excellent relations with the Staufian imperial family,” that were, at the same time, “fruitful for his church in Passau.”[47] Therefore, it seems that Wolfger, despite his devotion to religion, did not explicitly support either the Church or the Empire; instead, he was more interested in negotiating between the two forces to maintain peace. This is connoted by the fact that he served as the “representative of his Hohenstaufen king at the Curia,” but was also trusted and highly regarded by Pope Innocent III.[48] Wolfger’s mediating talent is confirmed by both the Magister Boncompagnus of Florence and Pope Innocent III, who respectively describe him as a “gracious…and outstanding benefactor” and as a “carrier of peace and harmony.”[49]

Figure 4: Alfred Rethel, How Gunther, Hagen, and Kriemhild were slain, 1840–41. In Die Nibelungen, Berlin: Verlag von Fritz Heyder, 1909.

At first glance, Wolfger’s support of both the Papacy and the Empire does not seem to be reflected in the Nibelungenlied, as religion is hardly referenced in the text. Nevertheless, it appears noteworthy that the few instances of religious allusions occur in the most memorable and crucial scenes of the text. For example, Brünhild is called a “tîvels wip” [(the devil’s woman)] due to her immense strength and battle equipment in her fight against Gunther, Kriemhild is referred to as a “vâlendinne” upon murdering her brother, and Brünhild and Kriemhild engage in a quarrel in front of a church, indirectly resulting in the Burgundians’ demise.[50] It appears significant that these scenes, namely the first defeat of Brünhild, her fight with Kriemhild, and the downfall of the Burgundians, are among the cornerstones of the Nibelungenlied’s plot and that all contain religious undertones. Beyond the religious implications, however, the text’s protagonists attempt to assert their power in secular ways: Gunther (or Siegfried) exerts his physical strength over Brünhild, Kriemhild verbally demeans Brünhild’s honor and reputation, and Kriemhild, after killing Gunther, is murdered by Hildebrandt. According to Koplowitz-Breier, this intersection of religion and courtly power struggles is intentional, and reflects “the poets’ feelings toward the Church at the apogee of its strength,” which is “threatening the welfare of the Empire.”[51] She identifies the Nibelungenlied’s male protagonists as political metaphors of the Empire, whereas Kriemhild and Brünhild are figurative representations of the Papacy’s excessive power. While Brünhild’s defeat suggests that “the Church might be reduced to its rightful place” if subdued “in time,” Kriemhild’s actions are associated with “the poet’s feeling toward the Church at the apogee of its strength,” which, if it continues, has a “devilish plan to ruin the Empire.”[52] This theory may sound promising, as Wolfger served the Hohenstaufen imperial family, who believed that the Papacy was amassing too much power.[53] Nevertheless, upon further investigation, Koplowitz-Breier’s argument contains flaws: Wolfger also maintained good relations with the Pope and was a powerful ecclesiastic himself. Therefore, it would seem hypocritical if Wolfger, as a bishop and later a patriarch, or if his poet, as a cleric, were to accuse the Church of being responsible for the conflict with the Empire, but Koplowitz-Breier’s analysis should not be dismissed completely. Considering Wolfger’s achievements as a diplomatic force between the Papacy and the Empire, perhaps Brünhild’s and Kriemhild’s metaphorical roles merely require refinement, which will be discussed below.

Brünhild and Kriemhild: Rebelling against Traditional and Designated Roles

Although Brünhild initially represents “a woman outside the bounds of womanhood as circumscribed by medieval courtly tradition,” she is ultimately “reduced to [her] rightful place,” which, as a noble woman of the court, is a rather passive, powerless one.[54] As mentioned earlier, the poet appears to frown upon her fierce independence in the seventh âventiure, since she is described as a “tîvels wip” due to her immense physical strength, which has caused the deaths of numerous suitors. Whereas Koplowitz-Breier interprets the phrase “tîvels wip” as the poet’s attempt to highlight that “the Church…[is] in the same group as Satan,” it instead seems that this allusion merely signifies that Brünhild’s actions should be considered undesirable and abnormal in the devoutly Catholic and patriarchal world of the Middle Ages.[55] This incident, along with Brünhild’s unwillingness to sleep with Gunther during their wedding night, emphasizes Brünhild’s initial desire to assert her power within the bounds of the patriarchy that has subdued her, an action that is not viewed favorably by the poet, as indicated by her portrayal as Satan’s wife. Since Wolfger was in favor of mediation and consolidation of the Papacy and the Empire, it is possible to understand Brünhild as a metaphor for a potential outcome of either force acting independently of or trying to gain control over the other. The validity of this metaphor is underscored by the fact that the men—Gunther, Siegfried, and Hagen—devise a plan together to defeat Brünhild and thus, cooperate, whereas Brünhild independently rebels against her traditional role as a courtly woman. Although Brünhild’s power is ultimately subdued, her attempts to overstep the boundaries as a woman of the Middle Ages still cause trouble for the men of the court, who deceive and overthrow her due to her unwillingness to cooperate in the first place. Therefore, this representation of Brünhild could convey a hidden political message that corresponds to Wolfger’s actions as a peacekeeper between the Papacy and the Empire: Instead of trying to overthrow either power, which wreaks political havoc, both forces should remain in their designated, traditional roles and cooperate.

Whereas Brünhild is restrained by her male counterparts, Kriemhild—as mentioned earlier—undergoes the opposite transformation, as her revenge of Siegfried’s murder results in her death and the collective demise of the Burgundians. Although, from a modern psychological perspective, her desire to avenge Siegfried’s death, albeit gruesome, is understandable, the Nibelungenlied’s poet presents the situation as her fault, since Hagen refers to her as a “vâlendinne” and she is killed by Hildebrandt due to her bloodthirsty actions. According to Koplowitz-Breier, it is significant that “both Brünhild and Kriemhild are identified with Satan…when they exceed the limits or deviate from the norms [of courtly womanhood],” indicating that, as a result, “they become dangerous and are identified with the greatest evil of all.”[56] However, just as in Brünhild’s case, assuming that the association with Satan denotes Kriemhild as a metaphorical representation of the Church is fanciful, especially considering Catholicism’s pervasive, underlying influence on all areas of society and politics in the Middle Ages. Similarly, Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s quarrel about which of them is more powerful (through their husbands’ reputations or achievements) outside of a church, which ends with Kriemhild entering the church before Brünhild despite the latter’s theoretical superiority, could be interpreted as equating Kriemhild with the power of the Church. On the other hand, the scene’s setting of the church also could have been chosen because the majority of people in the Middle Ages attended Mass, thereby maximizing the extent of Brünhild’s humiliation. Nevertheless, although neither Brünhild’s nor Kriemhild’s role should be reduced to a metaphorical representation of the Church’s dangerously growing power, the fact that the poet chooses to include religious undertones in precisely these crucial textual passages appears significant, considering the ongoing political feud between the Papacy and the Empire. Just as Brünhild, Kriemhild tries to assert her power independently; she does not explicitly mention her plan to deceive her relatives to anyone. For example, as mentioned above, her husband Etzel is entirely ignorant of her plans before the arrival of the Burgundians. Again, the portrayal of Kriemhild’s behavior could be viewed as a concealed political warning, indicating that trying to overthrow another power—such as either the Papacy or the Empire—instead of peacefully mediating or compromising, causes violent political drama that, if not stopped in time, can even result in the demise of an entire force. The poet does not seem to view this outcome as favorable, considering that Kriemhild is compared to Satan and the last line of the story refers to the Burgundians’ (or, in other words, the Nibelungs’) “nôt,” or doom, thereby accentuating that the ending should be viewed as tragic.[57] Thus, the concealed political message about Kriemhild’s actions could promote the value of Wolfger’s role as a “carrier of peace and harmony” in his relations with the Papacy and the Empire, as he gained the trust and respect of both the Pope and the King by mediating between them in a non-violent manner.[58] Most likely, this additional layer of the text’s significance remains concealed because the poet was not in the position to make explicitly authoritative, political statements in front of an audience.[59]

Although it is possible to identify Brünhild and Kriemhild as metaphorical depictions of the power struggle between the Papacy and the Empire in the Middle Ages, which was well underway during the composition of the Nibelungenlied and Wolfger’s time as the Bishop of Passau, the question of why women convey the nature of this political conflict remains. Perhaps, an answer to this question is provided by a consideration of men’s and women’s traditional and expected roles in the medieval court structure, as portrayed in Arthurian romances. Whereas men were supposed to exhibit attributes such as physical and political power and bravery in battle, women were expected to remain passive, tolerate injustices, and support their husbands and male relatives unconditionally.[60] The fact that men were meant to assume a dominant role in society makes it difficult to determine the line between overstepped boundaries and brave, dangerous behavior for the sake of recognition, as both generally involve physical fighting, exerting control over women, etc. By contrast, it is significantly easier to identify when and how a courtly woman of the Middle Ages steps out of her designated position, as she merely needs to engage in any sort of behavior that is not defined by passivity and absolute tolerance, such as independent thinking, verbosity, and partaking in physical fighting. Therefore, having female characters represent the potential outcomes of amassing excessive power provides a more extreme and clearly discernible metaphor of political danger and abnormality.

Figure 5: The Dead are Tossed Outside of the Hall. Hundeshagenscher Codex, ca. 1440, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany


What, then, does the above investigation of the Nibelungenlied suggest? Is it possible to formulate a conclusive, overarching statement about Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s roles? According to Jan-Dirk Müller, an analysis of the Nibelungenlied is only plausible when critics recognize that a coherent interpretation is “historically limited” because it forces textual elements that are “unintelligible and contradictory” to modern readers’ “view of the world and society…into some kind of [false] harmonious whole.”[61] Thus, it is only imaginable for “a reading [to elucidate] meaningful linkages…on the epic’s different levels and thematic subjects” while keeping in mind that “these attempts [cannot] lead to an interpretation that is closed and conclusive, that integrates everything that is disparate.”[62] This understanding of the Nibelungenlied is useful in approaching the text’s potential historical and concurrent political climates. From a modern perspective, both readings have limitations; whereas the Nibelungenlied’s possible historical origins appear unconnected or based on ambiguous and/or varying records, religion, albeit at crucial plot moments, is mentioned infrequently, thereby serving as a questionably important symbol for the conflict between the Papacy and the Empire. However, while these elements may be considered limitations or incongruences by modern readers, they trace “a foreign concept of the world, of commonplaces that are now strange, of another way of forming coherence.”[63] With this radical break between medieval and modern perceptions in mind, forming a definitive interpretation of the significance of Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s characters is inconceivable. On the other hand “a reading without any involvement on the part of the reader” is also “impossible.”[64] Consequently, constructing an observable pattern that is based on a modern perspective, but that does not forcedly ignore “gaps and contradictions,” is fruitful.

In examining Kriemhild’s and Brünhild’s historical origins and the poet’s contemporaneous political environment, both female protagonists are predominantly politicized. Although their two-sided nature is emphasized, embodying both the characteristics of an ideal lady of the court and those of a ruthless, power-conscious male ruler, they undergo opposite transformations, which result in Brünhild’s forced adjustment to a passive, courtly life, and Kriemhild’s death. Beyond an explicit message about the designated role and treatment of courtly women, it is noteworthy that both characters’ possible historical influences are women whose power-conscious and revenge-driven actions, i.e. murder or regicide, caused political chaos. Therefore, it appears that the poet could be trying to make sense of historical events in which women who overstepped their hierarchical boundaries instigated political unrest, and provide a warning to his audience by highlighting the consequences of Brünhild’s and Kriemhild’s consciousness of their actual and potential power within the framework of the court. Nevertheless, this does not answer the question of why the poet felt that it was necessary to present women in such a radical light at the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. A possible explanation lies in a contemporaneous political reading of Brünhild and Kriemhild, who can be understood as metaphors for the power struggle between the Papacy and the Empire, which was well underway during the patron of the Nibelungenlied’s time as Bishop of Passau. This patron, Wolfger of Erla, often served as a mediator between the Pope and the King and attempted to maintain peace, thus making the motivation for comparing Brünhild’s and Kriemhild’s independent, rebellious, and revenge-driven natures to Satan more easily comprehensible from Wolfger’s personal standpoint. Although any modern interpretation of the Nibelungenlied will always be inconsistent and limiting, it is significant that both readings of the text, a historical and contemporary one, highlight the female protagonists’ political dimension. This dimension, which presents women as a literal and metaphorical danger to political and societal harmony, could be a piece in the puzzle of why the Nibelungenlied seems so “out-of-place” among other medieval literature, in which courtly women are generally presented as submissive to their male counterparts. Considering the divide between the medieval and modern perspective, more definitive conclusions should not be reached. However, the general pattern of Brünhild and Kriemhild as politicized figures in more than one reading of the text is easily discernible in the Nibelungenlied’s historical and contemporaneous influences.

Received: January 3, 2017
Revised: February 23, 2017
Accepted: March 24, 2017
Published: April 10, 2017


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———. “Hildico.” Gentry, McConnell, Müller, and Wunderlich, The Nibelungen Tradition 88.

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[1]  Werner Hoffmann, “Nibelungenlied.” The Nibelungen Tradition: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Francis G. Gentry, Winder McConnell, Ulrich Müller, and Werner Wunderlich. (New York: Routledge, 2002), 22–32.
[2]  Otfrid Ehrismann, “ze stücken was gehouwen dô daz edele wîp”: The Reception of Kriemhild.” A Companion to the Nibelungenlied, ed. Winder McConnell. (Columbia: Camden House, 1998), 23.
[3]  Bert Nagel, Das Nibelungenlied; Stoff, Form, Ethos. (Frankfurt am Main: Hirschgraben-Verlag, 1965), 9.
[4]  Ibid, 9, 14.
[5]  Joachim Heinzle, Das Nibelungenlied: eine Einführung. (Munich: Artemis Verlag, 1987), 24.
[6]  Ibid, 25–26.
[7]  Nagel, Das Nibelungenlied; Stoff, Form, Ethos, 18.
[8]  Heinzle, Das Nibelungenlied: eine Einführung, 20–21.
[9]  Nagel, Das Nibelungenlied; Stoff, Form, Ethos, 18, 24.
[10]  Ibid, 19.
[11]  David MacRitchie, Ancient and Modern Britons: A Retrospect. Vol 2. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1884), 437.
[12]  Britta Simon and James H. Spohrer, “Etzel.” The Nibelungen Tradition, 67–68.
[13]Das Nibelungenlied. Ed. Ursula Schulze. Trans. Siegfried Grosse. (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun. GmbH & Co., 2011,) 1387.4, 1400.4; Das Nibelungenlied. Trans. Burton Raffel. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), 1399.1, 1402.1. Citations of the Nibelungenlied indicate the stanza, followed by the line number. The Middle High German text is cited before Burton Raffel’s English translation. Hereafter, quotes of the text will be cited as follows: NL [German] stanza.line #; [English] stanza.line #.
[14]  NL 2371.4; 2373.4.
[15]  Nagel, Das Nibelungenlied; Stoff, Form, Ethos, 20.
[16]  NL 2368.4; 2371.4.
[17]  Nagel, Das Nibelungenlied; Stoff, Form, Ethos, 21–22.
[18]  Heinzle, Das Nibelungenlied: eine Einführung, 24.
[19]  Nagel, Das Nibelungenlied; Stoff, Form, Ethos, 21–22.
[20]  Brian O. Murdoch, “Hildico.” The Nibelungen Tradition, 88.
[21]  Ibid, “Attila.” The Nibelungen Tradition, 54.
[22]  Rolf Bräuer, “Klassische deutsche Heldenepik.” Geschichte der deutschen Literatur von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Vol. 2. By Rolf Bräuer et al. (Berlin: Volk und Wissen Volkseigener Verlag, 1990), 389.
[23]  Nagel, Das Nibelungenlied; Stoff, Form, Ethos, 23.
[24]  Ibid, 24.
[25]  Ibid; Mario Bauch, Wer waren die Nibelungen wirklich? (Berlin: Rhombos-Verlag, 2006), 262.
[26]  Erin T Dailey, Queens, Consorts, Concubines: Gregory of Tours and the Women of the Merovingian Elite. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015), 119.
[27]  Ibid.
[28]  Nagel, Das Nibelungenlied; Stoff, Form, Ethos, 25–26.
[29]  Heinzle, Das Nibelungenlied: eine Einführung, 25–26.
[30]  William C McDonald, “Literary Patronage of the Nibelungenlied.” Nibelungen Tradition, 204.
[31]  Ibid, 205.
[32]  “Wolfger von Erla, Bischof von Passau.” Dictionary of German Biography. Vol. 10. Ed. Walther Killy and Rudolph Vierhaus. (Munich: K.G. Saur Verlag, 2006), 607.
[33]  William C. McDonald, “Literary Patronage of the Nibelungenlied.” Nibelungen Tradition, 205.
[34]  Franz-Reiner Erkens, “Territorialpolitisches Wirken und landesherrliches Regiment Wolfgers von Erla als Bischof von Passau (1191–1204).” Wolfger von Erla : Bischof von Passau (11911204) und Patriarch von Aquileja (12041218) als Kirchenfürst und Literaturmäzen. Ed. Egon Boshof and Fritz Peter Knapp. (Heidelberg : C. Winter, 1994), 43.
[35]  Ibid, 44.
[36]  William C. McDonald, “Literary Patronage of the Nibelungenlied.” Nibelungen Tradition, 205.
[37]  Ibid.
[38]  Ibid.
[39]  Jan-Dirk Müller, Rules for the Endgame: The World of the Nibelungenlied. Trans. William T. Whobrey. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 377.
[40]  William C. McDonald, “Literary Patronage of the Nibelungenlied.” Nibelungen Tradition, 205.
[41]  Ibid.
[42]  Heinzle, Das Nibelungenlied: eine Einführung, 53.
[43]  During Wolfger’s time as Bishop of Passau, the Church was represented by Pope Innocent III and the Empire by King Henry VI and, starting in 1197, by Philip of Swabia and Otto IV’s fight for the throne. For more information, see Chapters 3–6 of John C. Moore’s book, Pope Innocent 3rd: 1160/61–1261: To Root Up and to Plant, which is cited in the References.
[44]  Anat Koplowitz-Breier, “Politics and the Representation of Women in the Nibelungenlied.” Revista de                     Filología Alemana. Vol. 15. (Madrid: Servicio de Publicaciones, Universidad Complutense, 2007), 10.
[45]  Theodor Frantz. Der grosse Kampf zwischen Kaisertum und Papsttum zur Zeit des Hohenstaufen Friedrich II. (Berlin: C.A. Schwetschke und Sohn, 1903), 3.
[46]  Franz-Reiner Erkens. “Territorialpolitisches Wirken,” 43–44.
[47]  Ibid, 66–67.
[48]  Koplowitz-Breier, “Politics and the Representation of Women,” 10; John C. Moore, Pope Innocent 3rd: 1160/61–1261: To Root Up and to Plant. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003), 182.
[49]  Franz-Reiner Erkens, “Territorialpolitisches Wirken,” 44.
[50]  NL 436.3–4; 438.3–4.
[51]  Koplowitz-Breier, “Politics and the Representation of Women,” 19.
[52]  Ibid, 18, 19.
[53]  Ibid, 10.
[54]  Ibid, 18.
[55]  Ibid.
[56]  Ibid, 19.
[57]  NL 2376.4.
[58]  Franz-Reiner Erkens, “Territorialpolitisches Wirken,” 44.
[59]  Koplowitz-Breier, “Politics and the Representation of Women,” 24.
[60]  Berta Lösel-Wieland-Engelmann, “Die wichtigsten Verdachtsmomente für eine weibliche Verfasserschaft des Nibelungenliedes.” Feminismus, Inspektion der Herrenkultur: Ein Handbuch.” Ed. Luise F. Pusch. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983), 155.
[61]  Jan-Dirk Müller, Rules for the Endgame: The World of the Nibelungenlied. Trans. William T. Whobrey. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 8–9, 11.
[62]  Ibid, 11.
[63]  Ibid.
[64]  Ibid.

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