Kriemhild in Text-Image Constructions of the 1560 Heldenbuch

Helena continues her analysis of the puzzling presentation of Kriemhild in the early modern print reception of stories based on the Nibelungenlied. Here she explains some of the economical uses of woodcut images in early modern printing and what this meant for the relationship between text and image in printed books.

Introducing the 1560 Heldenbuch

Weigand Han (1526/29-1562) and Sigmund Feyerabend (1528-1590) were among the most eminent publishers in Frankfurt during the sixteenth century and collaborated in overseeing the fifth print of the Heldenbuch in Frankfurt am Main in 1560. The title page proclaims that the print is “auffs new corrigiert und gebessert” [newly edited and improved] and is “mit schönen Figuren geziert,” [decorated with beautiful figures].

So the 1560 Heldenbuch really highlights its textual and iconographic features as a selling point and it is these features which distinguish it from the Heldenbuch’s prior versions. In comparison to the 1545 version’s 42 woodcuts for the Rosengarten, Han and Feyerabend reduce their print by over twenty folios by including 28 woodcuts in the Rosengarten. Furthermore, they don’t follow the image progression of previous Heldenbücher.

The majority of the 1560 version’s woodcuts are attributed to the artist Hans Brosamer (1495-1554), who was employed by both Weigand Han and his father-in-law and predecessor, Hans Gülfferich. However, although Brosamer’s woodcuts did not illustrate earlier Heldenbücher, they were not new to Frankfurt’s sixteenth-century printing scene: to minimise production costs, the fifth print of the 1560 Heldenbuch reuses 157 woodcuts from six Volksbücher (in English these are sometimes called chapbooks or incunables, although there is no really adequate direct translation of the term), which were previously illustrated by Brosamer and were manufactured in Gülfferich’s and Han’s printing press. The reduced number of illustrations and their reuse from other prints was a commonplace printing tactic in the early modern period, which favoured mass production and enabled printing presses to adapt illustrations to a variety of prints and maximise their production output with minimal effort and complexity.

The (Re)Use of Illustrations in Early Modern Printing

When I was looking at these texts in Oxford’s libraries, I was interested in how the economical printing approach to the Heldenbuch’s woodcuts affects its text-image conceptions – I particularly wanted to find out how this practice of reuse affected the relationship between Kriemhild’s portrayal in the text of the Rosengarten on the one hand and her pictorial portrayal on the other.

On the title page of the 1560 version of the Rosengarten, Kriemhild’s substantial impact on the demise of her male relatives is blamed on her authoritative position as the keeper of Worms’ rose garden. The direct connection between Kriemhild’s influential role and the plot’s trajectory, stressed from the onset of the story, is additionally enforced by the following text and its accompanying woodcuts, which spotlight the extent of Kriemhild’s power over her male counterparts. For example, after welcoming Dietrich von Bern and his men to Worms, Kriemhild declares that the winner of each chivalric contest will be rewarded with a kiss and a wreath of roses from her garden. Her absolute control over the contest and its prizes is reinforced by the following woodcut:

Heldenbuch 1560
Woodcut from the 1560 print of Rosengarten zu Worms in the Heldenbuch. Qq, fol. 1v.

Taken from a print of an early proto-novel and Volksbuch called Fortunatus (1549), this woodcut by Brosamer depicts a queen (whom we are meant to interpret as Kriemhild) reaching out and touching a nobleman’s arm, who, in this case, may be interpreted as Dietrich. In this illustration, Kriemhild sports a crown on her head to symbolise her hierarchical superiority, which sets her apart from her plainly robed maid on the left of the woodcut. Kriemhild is also represented as powerful in her exchanges with her male counterparts, since she establishes direct contact with Dietrich by touching his arm and is unescorted. Therefore, although this woodcut fails to expose Kriemhild’s domineering nature as a dishonourable attribute, as previously suggested by the phrase “ungetriuwe meit” [devious maiden], its portrayal of Kriemhild nevertheless draws attention to her initiating role in the chivalric battle of the Rosengarten.

So Kriemhild’s instigating function in the Rosengarten is apparent in text and image, but her portrayal in the text as a thoroughly negative character does not translate to the pictorial dimension of the print. This is most evident in one of the Rosengarten’s final scenes, in which Kriemhild is punished for her arrogance when one of Dietrich’s knights, who overpowered 52 Burgundians, disfigures Kriemhild’s face with his bristly beard. While the text clearly states that Kriemhild’s “ubermut” [haughtiness] should be blamed for inflicting unnecessary pain on so many men and for causing her relatives’ demise, to which the title page already alludes, there is no woodcut to confirm and/or reinforce this final and decidedly unforgiving interpretation of her character. Instead, Kriemhild’s punishment is solely conveyed through the text; this stands in stark contrast to the previous prints of the Heldenbücher, as they provide illustrations to underscore Kriemhild’s chastisement (such as the one below):

Heldenbuch 1509
Woodcut of Kriemhild’s punishment in the 1509 print of Rosengarten zu Worms in the Heldenbuch. H, fol. 2r.


The Perception of Medieval Literature in the Early Modern Period

Han and Feyerabend’s deviation from earlier representations of Kriemhild’s fate may be attributed to their reuse of woodcuts from other, unrelated projects, which presumably did not contain illustrations that related to the Rosengarten’s concluding subject matter. Nevertheless, considering that Kriemhild’s punishment is the most significant scene of the Rosengarten, as it explicitly summarises the moral of the story, it is striking that Han and Feyerabend did not follow in their predecessor’s footsteps by providing an illustration to accompany the text. Choosing to omit a visual supplement for Kriemhild’s humiliation, which would have foregrounded her uncomplimentary character portrayal, may not only result from Han and Feyerabend’s economical approach to their print of the Heldenbuch, but could also shed light on their lack of awareness of the Rosengarten’s original purpose, namely to serve as a response to the Nibelungenlied’s conception of Kriemhild. This notion is supported by the fact that the Nibelungenlied was no longer a known epic in the sixteenth century, which suggests that Han and Feyerabend may not have understood the Rosengarten’s fundamental implications and, thus, were not concerned with underpinning Kriemhild’s loss of reputation in both text and image.


The Rosengarten’s disconnect between text and illustrations is most likely a binary consequence of certain transformations in early modern printing and literary awareness: firstly, the lower number of woodcuts and their loose relation to the text exposes the declining interpretative and increasing commercial significance of illustrations in sixteenth-century prints, which is indicated by the title’s emphasis on the work’s ‘new’ and ‘beautiful’ artwork; secondly, while the illustrations point towards Kriemhild’s authority, their failure to convey her unfavourable textual portrayal accentuates the lack of awareness in the text’s sixteenth-century audience of the Rosengarten’s original purpose, namely to clarify and enforce her negative rendering in the Nibelungenlied. As a result, the text-image conceptions of Frankfurt’s Heldenbuch from 1560 not only elucidate the developing characteristics of early modern printing, but also shed light on the transformed function and understanding of the Rosengarten in the latter half of the sixteenth century, which continued to exist without its literary source material.

Another possible interpretation of this development in the presentation of the Rosengarten in the 1560 Heldenbuch concerns changes in the contemporary interpretation of the work: the diminished visual attention that is devoted to Kriemhild and her punishment may be understood as an intentional shift in focus from her character to the masculine valour demonstrated by Dietrich, a well-known Germanic hero, and his men – much like the nationalistic interpretations of the Nibelungenlied in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which chose to place an absolute emphasis on German heroism. This reading of the Rosengarten, which would also explain Kriemhild’s decreased visual prominence, is connoted by the prints’ collective title: Heldenbuch, or Book of Heroes.

Helena Ord, University of Oxford