A woman in a book of heroes: Kriemhild in text and image in the sixteenth century

Helena Ord is a Master’s student in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford University. This week, she offers us a glimpse into the relationship between text and image in early modern German printing, focusing on the Frankfurt Heldenbuch from 1560. In this first instalment, Helena introduces us to the puzzling figure of Kriemhild…

The Nibelungenlied, a Middle High German epic from the early thirteenth century, is arguably the most disputed text in medieval German literature. This statement is rooted in the fact that the epic culminates in an appalling bloodbath, but offers no definitive moral to justify its tragic ending. The significance of Kriemhild, an ambiguous female protagonist that transitions from a compliant wife to a dominant, murderous character, remains one of the biggest points of dispute, due to her exceptionally ruthless portrayal for a courtly woman.

An illustrated page from the Rosengarten zu Worms (1418) held in Heidelberg. Kriemhild and her lady-in-waiting reward the victors with a kiss and a wreath.

In fact, her prominent involvement in the text’s catastrophic occurrences already appears to have shocked and perplexed medieval audiences: other texts that took up the story of the Nibelungenlied, such as the thirteenth-century texts Nibelungenklage and Rosengarten zu Worms, attempt to offer more conclusive explanations of Kriemhild’s intended role and demeanour. However, whereas the Nibelungenklage depicts her in a positive light, absolving her of blame, the Rosengarten perpetuates and reinforces the Nibelungenlied’s unflattering depiction of Kriemhild as a “vâlendinne” [she-devil]. In this story, Kriemhild challenges the renowned hero Dietrich von Bern and his men to engage in swordfights against her fiancé Siegfried and her relatives in Worms, which results in the bloody defeat of the latter group. Their demise is explicitly blamed on Kriemhild’s haughtiness.

This negative portrayal reassesses the cause of Siegfried’s death and the downfall of the Burgundians in the Nibelungenlied, and ascribes the blame to Kriemhild, foregrounding a consistent and overtly moralistic reading of her character that the source material lacks. Therefore, the Rosengarten offers a direct and clarifying response to the Nibelungenlied’s ambiguous portrayal of Kriemhild, and it is recognised as a part of the text’s reception history in modern scholarship.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Rosengarten was documented in twenty-one manuscripts – so not only was it a popular story, it clearly also had a prominent function as a reception story. There are four recognised renditions of the Rosengarten – manuscripts that are rather drily referred to as A, DP, F, and C. Version A, which is written in vulgate and appears in six manuscripts, is particularly concerned with presenting Kriemhild in a negative light. Her centrality to the Burgundians’ downfall is not only enforced by her textual rendering as an “ungetriuwe meit,” [devious maiden] who is punished for her “übermuot,” [haughtiness], but is also highlighted by the Rosengarten’s accompanying illustrations, which depict her direct interactions with the competing knights. Follow the link to look at a digitisation of a manuscript of the Rosengarten that is held at the University of Heidelberg.

However, while the Nibelungenlied’s literary significance progressively dwindled, Version A of the Rosengarten continued to attract the attention of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century readers, as indicated by its enduring presence in early modern prints. These illustrated works, published together and entitled Heldenbücher, contained the medieval German narratives of Ortnit, Wolfdietrich, Laurin, and the Rosengarten, whose widespread and prolonged popularity is underscored by the fact that the collection was printed six times by presses in Straßburg, Augsburg, Hagenau, and Frankfurt am Main between 1479 and 1590. Oxford’s collections include four prints from 1491, 1509 (also held in the Austrian National Library), and 1560, as well as the work’s final print from 1590, which is available online.

The Rosengarten offers a direct response to the Nibelungenlied, but the latter faded into literary history in the second half of the fifteenth century. So how was this reinterpretation understood in early modern prints? The answer to this question is not elucidated by the text and woodcut illustrations of the Rosengarten in the Heldenbuch’s first four prints. These were produced in different locations between 1479 and 1545, but primarily fall back on the format used in earlier manuscripts and, consequently, do not undergo notable semantic developments. However, the fifth print, which was manufactured in Frankfurt am Main in 1560, denotes a clear ‘break with tradition’, because it contains a new introduction and – most notably – departs from the conventional image sequence of its precursors. I took a closer look at this print, two copies of which are in Oxford’s Bodleian and Taylorian libraries, and its portrayal of Kriemhild in the text-image relationships of the Rosengarten and that is what I’ll be writing about in the next instalment of this blog…!

Helena Ord, University of Oxford

Psst!…Check out our previous post, by Dr Mary Boyle, which introduced the Nibelungenlied a year ago!

Further reading:

Karl Bartsch and Helmut de Boor (eds.), Siegfried Grosse (trans.), Das Nibelungenlied (Stuttgart: Reclaim, 2002, repr. 2006).

Cyril Edwards (trans.), The Nibelungenlied: The Lay of the Nibelungs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)


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