Wolfdietrich is a German hero of romance. The tale of Wolfdietrich is connected with the Merovingian princes, Theodoric and Theodebert, son and grandson of Clovis; but in the Middle High German poems of Ortnit and Wolfdietrich in the Heldenbuch.
Wolfdietrich is the son of Hugdietrich, emperor of Constantinople. Repudiated and exposed by his father, the child was spared by the wolves of the forest, and was educated by the faithful Berchtung of Meran. The account of his parents and their wooing, however, differs in various texts. After the emperor's death, Wolfdietrich was driven from his inheritance by his brothers at the instigation of the traitor Sabene. Berchtung and his sixteen sons stood by Wolfdietrich. Six of these were slain and the other ten imprisoned. It was only after long exile in Lombardy at the court of King Ortnit that the hero returned to deliver the captives and regain his kingdom.
Wolfdietrich's exile and return suggested a parallel with the history of Dietrich von Bern, with whom he was often actually identified; and the Mentors of the two heroes, Hildebrand and Berchtung, are cast in the same mould. Presently features of the Wolfdietrich legend were transferred to the Dietrich cycle, and in the Anhang to the Heldenbuch it is stated in despite of all historical considerations that Wolfdietrich was the grandfather of the Veronese hero. Among the exploits of Wolfdietrich was the slaughter of the dragon which had slain Ortnit.
He thus took the place of Hardheri, one of the mythical Hartung brothers, the original hero of this feat. The myth attached itself to the family of Clovis, around which epic tradition rapidly gathered. Hugdietrich is generally considered to be the epic counterpart of Theodoric (Dietrich), eldest son of Clovis. The prefix was the barbarian equivalent of Frank, and was employed to distinguish him from Theodoric the Goth. After his father's death he divided the kingdom with his brothers. Wolfdietrich represents his son Theodebert (d. 548), whose succession was disputed by his uncles, but was secured by the loyalty of the Frankish nobles. But father and son are merged by a process of epic fusion in Wolfdietrich.
The rape of Sydrat, daughter of the heathen Walgunt of Salnecke, by Hugdietrich disguised as a woman, is typical of the tales of the wooing of heathen princesses made fashionable by the Crusades, and was probably extraneous to the original legend. It may, however, also be put on a semi-historical basis by adopting the suggestion of C. Voretzsch (Epische Studien I. Die Comp. des Huon von Bordeaux, Halle 1900), that Wolfdietrich is far more closely connected with Theodoric than Theodebert, and that Hugdietrich, therefore, stands for Clovis, the hero, in the Merovingian historians, of a well-known Brautfahrtsaga.
Ortnit and Wolfdietrich have been edited by Dr J. L. Edlen von Lindhausen (Tübingen, 1906). G. Sarrazin, in Zeitschr. für deutsche Phil. (1896), compared the legend of Wolfdietrich with the history of Gundovald, as given by Gregory of Tours in books VI and VII of his Hist. Francorum.