King Rother

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King Rother or König Rother [ˈkøːnɪk ˈʁoːtɐ] is the earliest Spielmannsdichtung known to historians.[1][2][3] It has many of the qualities of a fairy tale. Only one complete manuscript exists from the twelfth century (Heidelberg Cpg 390). The tale was popular into the fourteenth century.[4] The name Rother may have a connection to a king of the Lombards, Rothari.[5] There is a possibility, however, the name Rother may have come from the Norman king, Roger II of Sicily.[6]

The epic story is notable for its combination of Byzantine and Germanic story elements. The poem has between 5200 and 5300 lines of verse and is from the period of Middle High German literature of adventure novels. The epic tale is written in a mixture of Low and High German. It seems to be for a Bavarian audience and was perhaps written by a Bavarian priest. The reason for this is because the writer mentions two noble Bavarian families, the Tengelingen and the Diessen.[6]

The medieval German romance tale was popular among wandering minstrels of central Europe and was written in popular verse style. Some historians believe King Rother was written by an unknown educated cleric Rhenish poet probably between 1140 and 1170.[5][6] Others suggest it was a Bavarian priest (c.1150); few believe any longer that it was a minstrel.[2] The author refers to "books" as his source indicating there was a written source already, however he could have just used this to authenticate his writings.[4]

The epic[edit]

Reenactor minstrel at Plaça d'Europa - Manresa, Barcelona (Spain)

The epic recounts King Rother's adventurous quest to the Middle East for a bride. The King on the advice of his nobles is concerned about the royal succession. He acts on their advice to seek the hand of the beautiful daughter of King Constantine of Constantinople. The problem with this however, is that all previous suitors lost their lives in the process.[6]

King Rother plays it safe and sends twelve envoys to King Constantine for his daughter's hand in marriage. He sent twelve counts escorted by twelve knights in shiny armor with much treasure. They made an excellent impression, especially on the Queen. However when King Rother's trusted count announces their purpose King Constantine refuses the hand of the royal princess. Not only that, he captures all of King Rother's men and throws them in jail. He also takes all the treasure.[5][6]

A year passes and King Rother is concerned about his men and treasure. He doesn't dare approach King Constantine with an army because surely he would then kill his men. Instead he comes up with a ruse and disguises himself as "Dietrich", a refugee who claims that he has been forced out of King Rother's land. Dietrich (King Rother) is generous with gifts and eventually obtains an army of five thousand men. The Queen of Constantinople is especially impressed with Dietrich. She gives her opinion to her husband King Constantine that King Rother must be a powerful king if he threw out a man of such qualities off his land. She felt that the royal princess should have been given to Rother.[5][6]

The princess's curiosity got the best of her and she arranged a secret rendezdous with Dietrich. Dietrich then reveals to her he is really King Rother and desires her hand in marriage. They then planned secretly among themselves to get Rother's messengers released from jail. Dietrich promises on his life to King Constantine that the men will not leave the city. After the men are released Dietrich reveals to everyone that he is really King Rother by playing a certain melody on his harp.[5][6]

Then news comes that the evil King Ymelot is coming to attack King Constantine. Dietrich offers to help the king and the two armies camp on the outskirts of the city. At night Dietrich sneaks into the camp of the enemy and captures King Ymelot. He is turned over to King Constantine as a prisoner at his camp. There is much rejoicing of the defeat of the enemy. In the turmoil and excitement King Rother quickly returns to Constantinople and announces that King Constantine has been killed.[5][6]

The ladies of Constantinople asks King Rother for help. He has them brought to his ship. In the process of embarking however, he only actually takes the royal princess on board. He leaves a message to the Queen his true identity and that the story of King Constantine's demise was only a ruse to get the princess. King Rother sails off with the princess. The Queen is quite happy at the outcome, however her husband King Constantine is furious. To make matters worse for King Constantine it turns out King Ymelot escapes from the prison.[7]

King Rother returns to his country of Bari and finds the need to take inventory of his lands. He travels to the north part of his country to start the inventory. While he is gone an unscrupulous minstrel sent by King Constantine arrives in Bari. He uses a ploy and tricks the royal princess onto his ship and takes her back to Constantinople. When King Rother returns from his inventory he is enraged. He gathers together 30,000 men and sails off to Constantinople.[7]

Once King Rother arrives near the city he hides in the woods with his men. The king and a few of his men secretly enter the city disguised as pilgrims. There they learn that the evil King Ymelot has not only captured King Constantine, but his daughter as well. The princess is to be married off to King Ymelot's son that evening. King Rother and his "pilgrim" men sneak into the banquet hall and hide under the table where the princess is. King Rother secretly slips her a silver ring. She is so excited about this that she gives it away to everyone that King Rother must be nearby. Since the jig was up, King Rother reveals himself at the mercy of God. King Rother is given a choice of how he would like to be executed. He persuades King Ymelot that he wishes to die in the woods (where his army is hidden out!).[7]

King Rother insists that all 30 of the evil kings be present at his execution. They agree to this great opportunity to see him murdered. Meanwhile back at the city the five thousand men that Dietrich ("King Rother") helped previously armed themselves to free him. While the hanging gallows were being constructed these men attacked and freed King Rother and his two companions. The companions were two giants, Asprian and Witold, that King Rother brought with him. King Rother then blew his horn which was a signal. Then all his army hidden in the woods came out and they, along with King Rother's special giants, slaughtered the evil kings.[7]

The city of Constantinople and King Constantine are spared the onslaught. King Constantine brings out his princess and the other ladies of the city to meet King Rother. The Queen accused her husband of arrogance and gives the princess back to King Rother. The king then returns with his new bride to Bari, where she gives birth to a son, Pipin. Pipin later becomes the father to Charlemagne.[7]


  1. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia: "könˈĭk rōtˈər, earliest heroic minstrel epic from the precourtly period of Middle High German literature."
  2. ^ a b Luscombe, p. 682 The earliest, and one of the most successful, is König Rother...
  3. ^ Famous First Facts International Edition (2000), ISBN 0-8242-0958-3, item 3442 The first minstrel tale known to historians was King Rother, a medieval German romance dating from circa 1160 that was popular among wandering minstrels of central Europe.
  4. ^ a b Gibbs, p. 106
  5. ^ a b c d e f The Encyclopædia Britannica 1910, p. 376
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Gibbs, p. 107
  7. ^ a b c d e Gibbs, p. 108


  • Lichtenstein, Robert, King Rother, University of North Carolina Press (1962)
  • The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, Columbia University Press (2004), article King Rother
  • Gibbs, Marion Elizabeth et al., Medieval German Literature, Routledge (2000), ISBN 0-415-92896-6
  • Luscombe, David, The New Cambridge Medieval History, Cambridge University Press (2004), ISBN 0-521-41410-5
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • This article incorporates text from Outlines of the History of German Literature By John George Robertson, published by Blackwood (1911), a publication now in the public domain.
  • This article incorporates text from The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, At the University press (1910), a publication now in the public domain.