Legends about Theoderic the Great
In legends about Theoderic the Great that spread after his death, the Gothic king Theoderic became known as Dietrich von Bern, a king ruling from Verona (Bern) who was forced into exile with the Huns. The differences between the known life of Theoderic and the picture of Dietrich in the surviving legends are usually attributed to a long-standing oral tradition that continued into the sixteenth century. The majority of legendary material about Dietrich/Theoderic comes from high and late medieval Germany and is composed in Middle High German or Early New High German. Another important source for legends about Dietrich is the Old Norse Thidrekssaga, which was written using German sources. In addition to the legends detailing events that may reflect the historical Theoderic's life in some fashion, many of the legends tell of Dietrich's battles against dwarfs, dragons, giants, and other mythical beings, as well as other heroes such as Siegfried. Dietrich also appears as a supporting character in other heroic poems such as the Nibelungenlied, and is frequently referenced and alluded to throughout medieval German literature.
Poems about Dietrich were extremely popular among the medieval German nobility and, later, the late medieval and early modern bourgeoisie, but were frequently targets of criticism by persons writing on behalf of the church. Though some continued to be printed in the seventeenth century, most of the legends were slowly forgotten after 1600. They became objects of academic study by the end of the sixteenth century, and were revived somewhat in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, resulting in some stories about Dietrich being popular in South Tyrol, where many of the legends take place.
- 1 Development of an oral tradition about Theoderic the Great
- 2 Appearance in Early Germanic Literature
- 3 Middle High German Dietrich Poems
- 4 Heldenbücher
- 5 Scandinavian works
- 6 Reception
- 7 Notes
- 8 Translations
- 9 Modern Retellings
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Development of an oral tradition about Theoderic the Great
Although the lives of Dietrich von Bern and Theoderic the Great have many important differences, it was never questioned throughout the entire Middle Ages that the two were the same figure. Modern scholarship therefore generally accepts this identification and has focused on ways to explain the main differences between Theoderic and Dietrich.
The most striking difference is that, whereas Theoderic the Great conquerred Italy as an invader, Dietrich von Bern is portrayed as exiled from his rightful kingdom in Italy. Victor Millet suggests that this difference in particular shows that heroic tradition has a fundamental discontinuity with the historical events that inspire it. In effect, Theoderic's conquest has been transformed according to a literary scheme consisting of exile, then return, a story which has a relatively consistent set of recurring motifs throughout world literature. The story told in the heroic tradition is nevertheless meant to convey a particular understanding of the historical event, namely: that Dietrich/Theoderic was in the right when he conquered Italy. To some extent, the development of the "exile-saga" of Theoderic can be traced in early medieval chronicles, where Theoderic is said to "reconquer" Italy and other information known from the later saga and not history is reported. Dietrich's exile and repeated failed attempts to reconquer his rightful kingdom, as reported in the later historical poems, may also be a reflection of the destruction of the Theoderic's Gothic kingdom by the Byzantine Empire under Justinian I. This is particularly true for the figure of Witege and his betrayal at Ravenna, as told in Die Rabenschlacht. Millet notes, furthermore, that Dietrich is portrayed as without any heirs and that his closest relatives and supporters die in every attempt to reclaim Italy: this too could be a way to explain the short duration of Ostrogothic rule in Italy.
A particularly noticeable difference between Theoderic and Dietrich is that, in the stories about Dietrich recorded from the High Middle Ages, Dietrich/Theoderic (454-526) is a contemporary of Etzel (Attila the Hun, died 453) and his uncle is semi-legendary Gothic king Ermenrich (Ermanaric, died 370s). Their co-existence in the world of heroic legend is a process known as synchronization (Synchronisierung) that is common in many oral traditions. In the case of Dietrich, its development can even be traced, to some extent: Dietrich is already associated with an exile among the Huns in the Old High German Hildebrandslied (before 900), and possibly with Etzel/Attila, depending on how one interprets the mentioned huneo druhtin (Hunnish lord),. It nevertheless still retains Theoderic's historical opponent Odoacer, seemingly showing that Odoacer was the original opponent. It is also possible that the author of the Hildebrandslied altered the report in the oral saga by replacing the unhistorical Emenrich with the historical Odoacer. In the Annals of Quedlinburg (1008), Odoacer and Dietrich have both become relatives of Ermenrich; at roughly the same time, Dietrich appears together with Witege, a hero originally associated with Ermanaric, in the Old English Waldere fragment. It is possible that Ermenrich/Ermanaric was drawn into the story due to his historical enmity with the Huns, who destroyed his kingdom. He was famous for killing his relatives, moreover, and so his attempts to kill his kinsman Dietrich make sense in the logic of the oral tradition. By the 1000s, almost all figures of Germanic legend had been connected together in a heroic age, uniting the sagas of Etzel/Attila, Dietrich/Theoderic/Ermenrich/Ermanaric, Wayland the Smith, and the Nibelungen.
Additionally, Dietrich has a number of features that have been "mythologized" from Theoderic. In the early eleventh-century Waldere he is an enemy of giants, and in later Middle High German texts he also fights against dwarfs, and wild men. Even more notable is the fact that multiple texts record Dietrich breathing fire. It is possible that this tradition comes from ecclesiastical criticism of the Arian Theoderic, whose soul, Gregory the Great reports, was dropped into Mount Etna as punishment for his persecution of orthodox Christians. Another notable tradition, first reported in the world chronicle of Otto of Freising (1143-1146), is that Theoderic rode to hell on an infernal horse while still alive. He is attested as a ghostly rider appearing near the Moselle in the Chronica regia Coloniensia from before 1202, and as a spectral hunter of "nymphs" in the forest at night by the Veronese chronicler Giovanni Mansionario around 1320. Lusatian folklore in the nineteenth century may have identified Dietrich as the leader of the Wild Hunt. Other traditions record that Theoderic was the son of the devil. It is unclear whether these negative traditions are the invention of the Church or whether they are a demonization of an earlier apotheosis of the heretical Theoderic. None of the surviving heroic material demonizes Dietrich in this way, however, and presents a generally positive view of the hero. Many of the texts show a tendency to minimize or explain away traits such as Dietrich's fiery breath.
Another minor difference between Theoderic and Dietrich is that Theoderic's capital was at Ravenna, whereas Dietrich's is at Bern (Verona). This may suggest Longobardic influence, as Verona was the Longobardic capital for a time, while Ravenna was under the control of the Byzantines. The figure of Dietrich's tutor and mentor Hildebrand is also often thought to derive from Longobardic influence. Heinzle suggests that the exile-saga may have been first told among the Longobards, giving the end of the sixth century as the latest date at which the story may have formed, with the Longobardic conquest of Italy. Dietrich has been identified as "Dietrich von Bern" (Middle High German for Verona) or Theodericus Veronensis since at least the composition of the Annals of Quedlinburg.
The non-academic researcher Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg has proposed an alternative explanation to the differences between Dietrich and Theoderic: according to Ritter-Schaumburg, Dietrich von Bern was an otherwise unattested historical Frankish king who ruled in Bonn, which sometimes is Latinized as Verona. In doing so, Ritter-Schaumburg relies on the Old Swedish version of the Thidrekssaga, believing that it is a translation of a lost German chronicle, rather than a translation of the Old Norwegian Thidrekssaga as is generally held by scholars. The Old Swedish Thidrekssaga, which Ritter-Schaumburg calls the Svava, would be the only historical attestation of a series of persons who later became figures in Germanic heroic poetry; Dietrich would then later have been confused with Theoderic the Great. Ritter-Schaumburg's theory has been rejected by academic scholars, but has found some following among amateur saga-researchers. It receives no mention in the majority of introductions to either the Dietrich or Nibelungen material.
Appearance in Early Germanic Literature
Þjóðríkr the bold,
chief of sea-warriors,
ruled over the shores of the Hreiðsea.
Now he sits armed
on his Goth(ic horse),
his shield strapped,
the prince of the Mærings.
The mention of Theoderic (among other heroes and gods of Norse mythology) may have been inspired by a no longer extant statue of an unknown emperor assumed to be Theoderic sitting on his horse in Ravenna, which was moved in 801 A.D. to Aachen by Charlemagne. This statue was very famous and portrayed Theoderic with his shield hanging across his left shoulder, and his lance extended in his right hand: the German clerical poet Walahfrid wrote a poem (De imagine Tetrici) lampooning the statue, as Theoderic was not favorably regarded by the church. Alternatively, Otto Höfler has proposed that Theoderic on the horse may be connected in some way to traditions of Theoderic as the Wild Huntsman (see the Wunderer below); Joachim Heinzle rejects this interpretation.
Dietrich's earliest mention in Germany is the Hildebrandslied, recorded around 820. In this, Hadubrand recounts the story of his father Hildebrand's flight eastwards in the company of Dietrich, to escape the enmity of Odoacer (this character would later become his uncle Ermanaric). Hildebrand reveals that he has lived in exile for 30 years. Hildebrand has an arm ring given to him by the (unnamed) King of the Huns, and is taken to be an "old Hun" by Hadubrand. The obliqueness of the references to the Dietrich legend, which is just the background to Hildebrand's story, indicates an audience thoroughly familiar with the material. In this work Dietrich's enemy is the historically correct Odoacer (though in fact Theoderic the Great was never exiled by Odoacer), indicating that the figure of Ermanaric belongs to a later development of the legend.
In Anglo-Saxon England
Dietrich furthermore is mentioned in the Old English poems Waldere, Deor and Widsith. Deor marks the first mention to Dietrich's "thirty years" (probably his exile) and refers to him, like the Rök stone, as a Mæring. The Waldere makes mention of Dietrich's liberation from the captivity of giants by Witige (Widia), for which Dietrich rewarded Witige with a sword. This liberation forms the plot of the later fantastical poem Virginal and is mentioned in the historical poem Alpharts Tod. Widsith mentions him among a number of other Gothic heroes, including Witige, Heime, the Harlungen and Ermanaric, and in connection with a battle with Attila's Huns. However, the exact relationship between the figures is not explained.
Middle High German Dietrich Poems
Dietrich von Bern first appears in Middle High German heroic poetry in the Nibelungenlied. There he appears in the exile situation at Etzel's court that forms the basis for the historical Dietrich poems (see below). Dietrich also appears in the Nibelungenklage, a work closely related to the Nibelungenlied that describes the aftermath of that poem. In the Klage, Dietrich returns from exile to his kingdom of Italy; the poem also alludes to the events described in the later Rabenschlacht. Poems with Dietrich as the main character begin to enter writing afterwards, with the earliest attested being the fantastical poem the Eckenlied (c. 1230). The oral tradition continued alongside this written tradition, with influences from the oral tradition visible in the written texts, and with the oral tradition itself most likely altered in response to the written poems.
The Middle High German Dietrich poems are usually divided into two categories: historical poems and fantastical (or "fairy tale") poems. The former concern the story of Dietrich's fights against Ermenrich and exile at Etzel's court, whereas in the latter he battles against various mythological creatures. This latter group is often called "aventiurehaft" in German, referring to its similarity to courtly romance. While Edward Haymes and Susan Samples believe that the distinctions between the two types are not strict, Joachim Heinzle notes that the two groups are never transmitted together in the same manuscripts. The two types are joined together in the Old Norse Thidrekssaga, based on German sources, and to a lesser extent in the Heldenbuchprosa. Despite connections made between different Dietrich poems and to other heroic cycles such as the Nibelungenlied, Wolfdietrich, and Ortnit, the Dietrich poems never form a closed poetic cycle, with the relationships between the different poems being rather loose: there is no attempt to establish a concrete biography of Dietrich. Rather, the heroic tales and their characters seem to form a sort of "matter," similar to the Matter of Britain, Matter of France, and Matter of Rome, in which ever more new episodes can be invented using both new and existing characters in the situations characteristic of the tales and poems that already exist.
The historical Dietrich poems in Middle High German consist of Dietrichs Flucht, Die Rabenschlacht, and Alpharts Tod, with the fragmentary poem Dietrich und Wenezlan as a possible fourth. All involve Dietrich's exile at Etzel's court except Alpharts Tod, which takes place before Dietrich's expulsion, and all involve his battles against Ermenrich, except for Dietrich und Wenezlan, in which he fights against Wenezlan of Poland. All four postdate Dietrich's appearance in the Nibelungenlied. They are called historical because they concern war rather than adventure, and are seen as containing a warped version of Theoderic's life. Given the combination of elements also found in these texts with historical events in some chronicles, and the vehement denunciation of the saga by learned chroniclers, it is possible that these texts-or the oral tradition behind them-were themselves considered historical.
The majority of preserved narratives about Dietrich are fantastical in nature, involving battles against mythical beings and other heroes. They are generally regarded as containing newer material than the historical poems, though, as the Old English Waldere's references show, Dietrich was already associated with monsters at an early date. Many of the poems show a close connect to the Tyrol, and connections between them and Tyrolean folklore are often speculated upon, even in cases where the text itself clearly originated in a different German speaking area. Most of the poems seem to take place prior to Dietrich's exile, with Witige and Heime still members of Dietrich's entourage, though not all: the Eckenlied prominently features references to the events of Die Rabenschlacht as already having taken place.
Different exemplars of the fantastical poems often show a huge degree of variation from each other (Germ. Fassungsdivergenz), a trait not found in the historical poems. Most fantastical poems have at least two versions containing substantial differences in the narrative, including inserting or removing entire episodes or altering the motivation of characters, etc. The scholar Harald Haferland has proposed that the differences may come from a practice of reciting entire poems from memory, using set formula to fill in lines and occasionally adding or deleting episodes. Haferland nevertheless believes thattThe poems were likely composed as written texts, and thus periodically new versions were written down. Haferland relates this latter process to the psychological term confabulation, the invention of false memories to fill in stories.
The majority of the fantastical poems can be said to follow two basic narrative schemes, in some cases combining them: the liberation of a woman from a threatening legendary being, and the challenging of Dietrich to combat by some antagonist. The combinations of these schemes can at times lead to narrative breaks and inconsistencies in character motivation.
Almost all the poems about Dietrich are written in stanzas. Melodies for some of the stanzaic forms have survived, and they were probably meant to be sung. Several poems are written in rhyming couplets, however, a form more common for courtly romance or chronicles. These poems are Dietrichs Flucht, Dietrich und Wenezlan, most versions of Laurin, and some versions of the Wunderer.
Much of the poem Alphart's Tod is written in the same stanza as the Nibelungenlied: it consists of four so-called "Langzeilen." The first three "Langzeilen" consist of three metrical feet, a caesura, and an additional three metrical feet. The last line adds a fourth foot after the caesura. Several of the poems are written using a variant of this stanza, known as the "Hildebrandston" for its use in the Jüngeres Hildebrandslied. Unlike the Nibelungenlied-stanza, all four lines in the "Hildebrandston" are of the same length: three metrical feet, followed by a caesura, then three additional metrical feet. Both types of stanza rhyme in couplets. Some poems use a variant of the "Hildebrandston" known as the "Heunenweise" or "Hunnenweise" (the Hunnish melody), in which the words before caesuras also rhyme across lines, creating a rhyme scheme ababcdcd. The Rabenschlacht uses a unique stanza consisting of three "Langzeilen" with rhymes at the caesuras: in this form, the first line is equivalent to a line of the Hildebrandston, the second adds an additional foot after the caesura, and the third adds two or even three additional feet. In most editions, the caesuras are reinterpreted as line-endings, so that the stanza appears as six short lines.
Four of the fantastical poems, the Eckenlied, Virginal, the Sigenot, and Goldemar are written in a complex rhyming stanza known as the "Berner Ton." Originally, the stanza mixed "Langzeilen" with shorter lines of four feet known from Minnesang stanzas, but over time it came to be interpreted as 13 short lines. Victor Millet sees the "Berner Ton" as a way for these poems to distance themselves from tradition: the stanza is extremely complex and artistic rather than simple or archaic.Nevertheless, early modern melodies for the "Berner Ton" have survived, so that it was probably sung in the traditional manner of German heroic poetry. As the Goldemar alone among all the Dietrich poems names an author thought to be genuine, Albrecht von Kemenaten, earlier scholarship believed him to be the author of all four poems; this is no longer thought to be the case.
Further information on the metrical forms of the stanzaic poems, including examples, can be found on the pages for the individual poems.
Historical Dietrich poems
In Dietrichs Flucht (Dietrich's flight), also called Das Buch von Bern (the book of Verona), Dietrich is forced into exile by his wicked uncle Ermenrich. Dietrich goes into exile at Etzel's court. There he receives Etzel's support for three further campaigns. In each one, he defeats Ermenrich, yet is nevertheless unable to retake his kingdom.
In Die Rabenschlacht (the battle of Ravenna), Dietrich begins a new campaign to reconquer Italy, bringing his young brother Diether and the young sons of Etzel with him. Dietrich conquers Verona, where he leaves Etzel's sons and his brother, who nonetheless sneak out of the city. Dietrich's forces fight a massive battle at Ravenna, defeating Ermenrich, who escapes. At the same time, however, the young warriors encounter the Witege. They fight him and are slain. Dietrich, after the battle, chases Witege, who rather than fighting Dietrich rides into the sea, where he is saved by a sea-spirit named Wachilt. Dietrich is forced to leave Italy once again for exile.
In Alpharts Tod (the death of Alphart), Alphart, a young hero in Dietrich's army fighting the Battle of Ravenna, goes out to fight alone against Witege and Heime, who had deserted to Ermenrich, and he falls, not in fair battle, but by the treachery of Witege, whose life he had spared.
Dietrich und Wenezlan
In Dietrich und Wenezlan (Dietrich and Wenezlan), Dietrich is challenged to combat while at Etzel's court by Wenezlan, King of Poland, to single combat between two armies. The poem is a fragment and ends without a conclusion.
The Eckenlied (the song of Ecke) tells the story of the giant Ecke, who sets off to find and fight Dietrich to test his mettle. Dietrich is forced to kill Ecke after they fight, and then must deal with Ecke's giant family, particularly Ecke's brother Fasolt, as they seek revenge.
Goldemar tells the story of how Dietrich saved a princess from the dwarf king Goldemar. The poem is a fragment. It is the only Dietrich poem with an author accepted as genuine, Albrecht von Kemenaten, and is seen as an anti-heroic epic.
The Laurin, also called der kleine Rosengarten (the small rose garden) was one of the most popular poems about Dietrich and is attested in numerous manuscripts and printed versions. The poem tells the story of Dietrich's encounter with the dwarf Laurin and the dwarf's magical rose garden, followed by a treacherous invitation to the dwarf's mountain and the subsequent defeat of Laurin.
Der Rosengarten zu Worms
Der Rosengarten zu Worms, also called der große Rosengarten to differentiate it from Laurin, tells the story of a challenge, given to Dietrich by Kriemhilt, to fight her fiancé Siegfried in a rose garden. The poem was very popular, and is notable for its metaliterary aspects commenting German heroic poetry and the Nibelungenlied in particular.
The Sigenot was one of the most popular stories about Dietrich. It tells the story of a young Dietrich's fight with and capture by the giant Sigenot. He is freed by Hildebrand, who kills the giant with the help of the dwarf Eggerich.
The Virginal, also called Dietrichs erste Ausfahrt (Dietrich's first quest) or Dietrich und seine Gesellen (Dietrich and his companions) tells the story of how a young Dietrich saved the dwarf queen Virginal from the invading heathen canibal Orkise. Some versions also include his capture by giants and an episode in which he saves a man who is being swallowed by a dragon.
The Wunderer (Middle High German for monster), also called Etzels Hofhaltung (the courtly feast of Etzel) tells the story of a young Dietrich's encounter with the titular Wunderer, a monstrous man who is hunting a woman, while staying at Etzel's court.
Ortnit and Wolfdietrich
The two heroic epics Ortnit and Wolfdietrich, preserved in several widely varying versions, do not feature Dietrich von Bern directly but are strongly associated with the Dietrich cycle, and most versions share the strophic form of the Hildebrandston. These two poems, along with Laurin and Rosengarten, form the core of the Strassburg Heldenbuch and the later printed Heldenbücher, and are the first of the ten Dietrich poems in the Dresden Heldenbuch. In the Ambraser Heldenbuch they close the collection of heroic epics, which starts with Dietrichs Flucht and the Rabenschlacht.
The basis for the association is the identification of Wolfdietrich as the grandfather of Dietrich. This connection is attested as early as 1230 in the closing strophe of Ortnit A,, is perpetuated by the inclusion of truncated versions of Ortnit and Wolfdietrich in Dietrichs Flucht among the stories of Dietrich's ancestors, and is repeated in the Heldenbuch-Prose of the 15th and 16th centuries, where Ortnit and Wolfdietrich are placed at the beginning of the Dietrich cycle. Scholars have sometimes supposed that Wolfdietrich tells the story of legends about Dietrich that somehow became disassociated from him. In the Old Norse Thidreksaga, Thidrek (Dietrich) plays Wolfdietrich's role as the avenger of Hertnid (Ortnit), which may suggest that the two heroes were once identical.
A further link is Dietrich's golden suit of impenetrable armour. This was originally received by Ortnit from his natural father, the dwarf Alberich. Ortnit is killed by a dragon who, being unable to kill him through his armour, sucks him out of it. When Wolfdietrich later avenges Ortnit by killing the dragon, he takes possession of the abandoned armour, and after his death it remains in the monastery to which he retired. In the Eckenlied we are told that the monastery later sold it to Queen Seburg for 50,000 marks, and she in turn gives it to Ecke. When Dietrich later defeats the giant, the armour finally passes into Dietrich's possession.
Biterolf und Dietleib
Biterolf and Dietleib is a heroic epic transmitted in the Ambraser Heldenbuch. It is closely related to the Rosengarten zu Worms. It tells the story of the heroes King Biterolf of Toledo and his son Dietleib, relatives of Walter of Aquitaine. The two heroes live at Etzel's court and receive Styria as a reward for their successful defense of Etzel's kingdom. In the second half of the work, there is a battle against the Burdundian heroes Gunther, Gernot, and Hagen at Worms, in which Dietleib avenges an earlier attempt by Hagen to prevent him from crossing the Rhine. Like the Rosengarten, Dietrich is featured fighting Siegfried, but he plays no larger role in the epic.
The Jüngeres Hildebrandslied ("Younger Lay of Hildebrand") is a fifteenth-century heroic ballad, much like Ermenrichs Tod. Dietrich plays only a small role in this poem; it is an independent version of the same story found in the Old High German Hildebrandslied, but with a happy ending.
Ermenrichs Tod ("The Death of Ermenrich") is a garbled Middle Low German heroic ballad that relates a version of the death of Ermenrich that is similar in some ways to that portrayed in the story of Jonakr's sons and Svanhild, but at the hands of Dietrich and his men.
The Heldenbücher ("Books of Heroes", singular Heldenbuch) are collections of mainly heroic poems, in which those of the Dietrich cycle form a major constituent. In particular, the printed Heldenbücher, dating from the late 15th to the late 16th centuries, demonstrate the continuing appeal of the Dietrich tales, particularly the fantastical poems. Generally, the printed Heldenbücher show a tendency to reduce the texts of the poems they collect in length: none of the longest Dietrich poems (Dietrichs Flucht, Die Rabenschlacht, Virginal V10) made the transition into print. Other longer Dietrich poems, such as the Sigenot and the Eckenlied, were printed independently, and remained popular even longer than the Heldenbuch—the last printing of Sigenot was in 1661!
Although not a Heldenbuch in the sense described above—the term originally included any collection of older literature—the Emperor Maximilian I was responsible for the creation of one of the most expensive and historically important manuscripts containing heroic poetry, the Ambraser Heldenbuch.
According to the Heldenbuch-Prosa, a prose preface to the manuscript Heldenbuch of Diebolt von Hanowe from 1480 and found in most printed versions, Dietrich is the grandson of Wolfdietrich and son of Dietmar. During her pregnancy, Dietrich's mother was visited by the demon Machmet (i.e. Mohammed imagined as a Muslim god), who prophecies that Dietrich will be the strongest spirit who ever lived and will breathe fire when angry. The devil (Machmet?) then builds Verona/Bern in three days. Ermenrich, here imagined as Dietrich's brother, rapes his marshal Sibiche's wife, whereupon Sibiche decides to advise Ermenrich to his own destruction. Thus he advises Ermenrich to hang his own nephews. Their ward, Eckehart of Breisach, informs Dietrich, and Dietrich declares war on Ermenrich. Ermenrich, however, captures Dietrich's best men, and to ransom them, Dietrich goes into exile. He ends up at Etzel's court, who gives Dietrich a large army that reconquers Verona. However, once Dietrich had fought at the rose garden against Siegfried, slaying him. This causes Kriemhild, who after Etzel's wife Herche's death, marries the Hun, to invite all the heroes of the world to a feast where she causes them to kill each other. Dietrich kills Kriemhild in revenge. Later there is a massive battle at Verona, in which all the remaining heroes except Dietrich are killed. At this a dwarf appears to Dietrich and, telling him that "his kingdom is no longer of this world," causes him to disappear. And no one knows what has happened to him.
The attempts to connect the heroic age with divine order and to remove Dietrich's demonic qualities are probably meant to deflect ecclesiastical criticism of heroic poetry. For instance, the author clearly attempts to hide negative characteristics of Dietrich, as with the Machmet-prophesy, which probably rests on the idea of Dietrich as the son of the devil (as claimed by some in the church) and changing Dietrich's ride to hell into a positive event – the dwarf quotes John 18,36 when he takes Dietrich away.
The Poetic Edda
Dietrich, as Thiodrek (Þjódrekr), appears as an exile at the court of Atli (the Norse equivalent of Etzel) in two songs recorded in the so-called Poetic Edda. The most notable of these is Guðrúnarkviða III, in which Gudrun—the Old Norse equivalent of the German Krimehilt—is accused of adultery with Thiodrek by one of Atli's concubines, Herkja. Gudrun must perform an ordeal of hot water, in which she clears her name. After this, Herkja is killed. In Guðrúnarkviða II, Thiodrek and Gudrun recount the misfortunes that have befallen them. Thiodrek's presence in both songs is usually interpreted as coming from the influence of German traditions about Dietrich. Herkja's name is an exact linguistic equivalent of the name of Etzel's first wife in the German Dietrich and Nibelungen cycle, Helche. The poems also include the figure of Gudrun's mother, Grimhild, whose name is the linguistic equivalent of the German Kriemhilt and who takes on the latter's more villainous role. Most likely these two poems only date to the thirteenth century.
The Scandinavian Þiðreks saga (also Þiðrekssaga, Thidreksaga, Thidrekssaga, Niflunga saga or Vilkina saga) is a thirteenth-century Old Norse chivalric saga about Dietrich von Bern. The earliest manuscript dates from the late 13th century. It contains many narratives found in the known poems about Dietrich, but also supplements them with other narratives and provides many additional details. The text is either a translation of a lost Low German prose narrative of Dietrich's life, or a compilation by a Norwegian author of German material. It is not clear how much of the source material might have been orally transmitted and how much the author may have had access to written poems. The preface of the text itself says that it was written according to "tales of German men" and "old German poetry", possibly transmitted by Hanseatic merchants in Bergen.
At the center of the Thidrekssaga is a complete life of Dietrich. In addition to the life of Dietrich, various other heroes' lives are recounted as well in various parts of the story, including Attila, Wayland the Smith, Sigurd, the Nibelungen, and Walter of Aquitaine. The section recounting Dietrich's avenging of Hertnit seems to have resulted from a confusion between Dietrich and the similarly named Wolfdietrich.
Most of the action of the saga has been relocated to Northern Germany, with Attila's capital at Susat (Soest in Westphalia) and the battle described in Die Rabenschlacht taking place at the mouth of the Rhine.
Numerous ballads about Dietrich are attested in Scandinavia, primarily in Denmark, but also in Sweden and the Faroes. These texts seem to derive primarily from the Thidrekssaga, but there are signs of the use of German texts, such as the Laurin, which was translated into Danish, probably in the 1400s.
One of the most notable of the Danish ballads is Kong Diderik og hans Kæmper (King Dietrich and his Warriors, DgF 7) which is attested from the 16th century onwards, and is one of the most common ballads to be recorded in Danish songbooks. This is actually most often found in both Danish and Swedish sources as two separate ballads with different refrains; the two ballads tell stories that closely, but not exactly, mirror episodes in the Didrik Saga where Didrik and his warriors travel to Bertanea / Birtingsland to fight against a King Ysung / Isingen. The first ballad, known in Swedish as Widrik Werlandssons Kamp med Högben Rese (Widrik Werlandsson's Fight with the Long-legged Troll, SMB 211, TSB E 119), tells of the journey to Birtingsland, and a fight with a troll in a forest on the way. The second, known in Swedish as Tolv Starka Kämpar (Twelve Strong Warriors, SMB 198, TSB E 10) tells of a series of duels between the youngest of Didrik's warriors and the formidable Sivard (Sigurd).
The Danish ballad Kong Diderik og Løven (King Didrik and the Lion, DgF 9, TSB E 158) for most of its narrative closely follows an episode from near the end of the Didrik Saga, telling how Didrik intervenes in a fight between a lion and a dragon. This was also one of the most common ballads to be recorded in Danish songbooks; it is not preserved in Swedish sources.
Another Danish ballad, Kong Diderik i Birtingsland (King Dietrich in Birtingsland, DgF 8, TSB E 7), is related to Kong Diderik og hans Kæmper, but it follows the Didrik Saga less closely.
Medieval and early modern reception
The popularity of stories about Dietrich in Germany is already attested in the Annals of Quedlinburg, which closes its account of Theoderic's life by saying that this is Thideric de Berne, de quo cantabant rustici olim (Dietrich von Bern, of whom the peasants once sung). Despite the statement here and in later reports about the popularity of the heroic tradition that it was peasants that sang of Dietrich, it is clear that the nobility was also deeply involved in the transmission of Dietrich's legend. This can be shown as early as 1064, when Meinhard of Bamberg wrote a letter complaining, perhaps in jest, that bishop Gunther of Bamberg preferred to study the deeds of the Amelung (that is, Dietrich) and Attila rather than Saint Augustine or Gregory the Great. The chronicler Dietrich von Deutz, writing around 1163, instead reports that Dietrich, Etzel, and Ermenrich are the kings of the Goths whose deeds orbe toto declamantur (are sung of by the whole world). High medieval courtly literature includes frequent allusions to Dietrich and the stories surrounding him by authors such as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Heinrich von Veldeke, and Eilhart von Oberg. By the end of the thirteenth century, vernacular chronicles, romances, and topical poems of praise often make comparisons of the ferocity of noble warriors with Dietrich and his men. The quality of the surviving late medieval manuscripts and the choice to decorate castle rooms with scenes from the poems all point to a noble audience, even though there are also reports of the poems being read or sung at town fairs and in taverns. Froben Christoph von Zimmern reports in the Zimmern Chronicle (c. 1552) that his uncle Gottfried Werner von Zimmern, who decorated his castle Wildenstein with frescoes from the poem Sigenot, actually composed poems about Dietrich himself: "under der zech macht er reimen von dem Berner und den risen" (while drinking he made rhymes about the Berner (Dietrich) and the giants). The Emperor Maximilian I's interest in heroic poetry about Dietrich is well documented. Not only was he responsible for the Ambraser Heldenbuch, he also decorated his planned grave monument with a large statue of Dietrich/Theoderic, next to other figures such as King Arthur.
Although the nobility maintained its interest in heroic poetry into the sixteenth century, it is also clear that the growing urban bourgeoisie of the late middle ages formed a growing part of the audience for the Dietrich poems, likely in imitation of the nobility. Heroic ballads such as Ermenrichs Tod, meanwhile, lost much of their noble associations and were popular in all societal classes. Beginning in the fourteenth century, many of the Dietrich poems were also used as sources for carnival plays with an obviously bourgeois audience. In the sixteenth century, the public for the poems seems to have become primarily bourgeois, and printed Heldenbücher rather than the oral tradition become the primary point of reference for the poems. The poems that had not been printed were no longer read and were forgotten. Among the inhabitants of Tyrol, we know from an inventory held of all books in 1569 to weed out heretical material that printings of Sigenot, the Eckenlied, and Laurin, but not of the more expensive Heldenbuch, were relatively common among the burgeois of that area, in some cases being the only book a person owned. The Sigenot continued to be printed in the seventeenth century, the Jüngeres Hildebrandslied into the eighteenth, however, most of the printings of materials about Dietrich had ceased by 1600. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklorists were unable to find any living oral songs about Dietrich or other heroes in Germany as they could in some other countries, meaning that the oral tradition must have died before this point.
Despite, or because of, its popularity among many sectors of society, including members of the church, the Dietrich poems were frequent targets of criticism, something already visible in Meinhard's letter mentioned above. Beginning with Frutolf of Michelsberg's Würzburg Chronicle (eleventh century), writers of chronicles began to notice and object to the chronology of Dietrich/Theoderic being a contemporary of Ermanaric and Attila. The anonymous author of the German Kaiserchronik (c.1150) vehemently attacks this chronological impossibility as a lie. His insistence is perhaps a reflection of the popularity of these stories among his target audience. Eventually, even the fantastical poems would come under attack: the Alsatian chronicler Jakob Twinger von Königshofen in his Strasbourg Chronicle (c. 1400) would refer to the events of these poems as lies as well, without mentioning the historical poems. He also attacks the laity's positive opinion about the heretical Theoderic. Preachers and the didactically inclined also frequently attack the laity's attachment to Dietrich: Bertold of Regensburg, in a sermon from around 1250, attacks heretics for being illiterate and able only to memorize in the manner that one memorizes a rumorem de Ditrico (unverified story about Dietrich). Hugo von Trimberg, meanwhile, in his didactic poem Der Renner (c. 1300) accuses some women of crying more for Dietrich and Ecke than for Christ's wounds, while a fifteenth-century work complains that the laypeople think more about Dietrich von Bern than their own salvation. In the sixteenth century, despite continued criticism, there is evidence that preachers, including Martin Luther, frequently used stories about Dietrich von Bern as a way to catch their audience's interest, a not uncontroversial practice. Writers from Heinrich Wittenwiler to the German translator of Friedrich Dedekind's Grobianus associated the poems with uncouth peasants, whether or not they actually formed part of the poems' audiences.
Scholarly reception of the Dietrich poems, in the form of the Heldenbuch began as early as the sixteenth century. The Baroque poets and scholars Martin Opitz and Melchior Goldast made use of the Heldenbuch as a convenient source of Middle High German expressions and vocabulary in their editions of medieval texts. Another notable example is the Lutheran theologian and historian Cyriacus von Spangenberg. In his Mansfeldische Chronik (1572), he explained that songs had about Dietrich/Theoderic had been composed for real historical occasions, so that they might not be forgotten, but clothed in allegory. He based this opinion on the report of Tacitus in Germania that the ancient Germans only recorded their history in songs. In Spangenberg's interpretation, dwarf king Laurin's cloak of invisibility, for instance, becomes a symbol for Laurin's secrecy and sneakiness. In his Adels Spiegel (printed 1591-1594), Cyriacus interprets the stories about Dietrich as examples for ideal noble behavior, and continues his allegorical interpretations, stating that the dragons and giants represent tyrants, robbers, etc., while the dwarfs represent the peasantry and bourgeoisie, etc. This tradition of interpretation would continue into the eighteenth century, when Gotthold Ephraim Lessing interprets the poems of the Heldenbuch in a very similar fashion, and as late as 1795 Johann Friedrich Schütze argued that the poems were allegories for medieval historical events.
The medieval poems about Dietrich never attained the same status as the Nibelungenlied among nineteenth-century enthusiasts for the German past, despite repeated attempts to reanimate the material through reworkings and retellings. The most ambitious of these was by Karl Simrock, the translator of the Nibelungenlied, who sought to write a new German epic, composed in the "Nibelungenstanza", based on the Thidrekssaga and select poems of the Dietrich cyclce. He called his project the Amelungenlied (song of the Amelungs). Despite a warm reception among connoisseurs, the poem was never popular. The poem remains unpopular and unknown today, at least partially due to its strong nationalistic tone.
Of all the Dietrich poems, the Laurin was most frequently rewritten and reimagined during the nineteenth-century, and it is the poem with the greatest currency today. The reworkings, which included longer poems and pieces for the theater, frequently connected Laurin to elements of other Dietrich poems, especially the Virginal. This led to the Laurin, together with the reimagined Virginal, attaining something of the status of folktales in Tyrol and South Tyrol. Writing in the preface to their 1963 retelling of several stories about Dietrich, Ruth Sawyer and Emmy Mollès claim:
- "Today the stories of Dietrich and King Laurin are the favorites of the boys and girls of the Austrian Tirol; and the grandmothers like best to tell them. Many a shepherd or farmer on the foothills will tell you they have seen King Laurin on a summer day, gamboling with their sheep or goats; or a farmer will say he has come to help him gather in his grain at harvest time. Many say they have seen Dietrich, mounted on his black, clad in full armor, his shield bearing the famous device of a Red Lion. Sometimes a radiant figure on a white stallion rides at his side. So Dietrich still lives among the mountain people."
Much of the credit for the continued interest in Dietrich and Laurin in Tyrol can be given to the journalist and saga-researcher Karl Felix Wolff. In 1907, the city of Bozen (Bolzano) in South Tyrol erected a Laurin fountain, depicting Dietrich wrestling Laurin to the ground. It can be seen there to this day. A heavily altered version of the story of Laurin and Dietrich even found its way onto film in 2016, with the release of the children's film König Laurin.
- Lienert 2008, p. 3.
- Heinzle 1999, pp. 4-5.
- Millet 2008, p. 33.
- Heinzle 1999, p. 6.
- Millet 2008, pp. 33-34.
- Kragl 2007, pp. 70-71.
- Millet 2008, p. 36-37.
- Heinzle 1999, p. 5.
- Haubrichs 2004, p. 525.
- Millet 2008, pp. 34-35.
- Haubrichs 2004, p. 521.
- Haubrichs 2004, p. 517.
- Haubrichs 2004, pp. 521-526.
- Heinzle 1999, p. 17.
- Heinzle 1999, p. 33.
- Heinzle 1999, p. 8.
- Lienert 2008, pp. 89-90.
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- Grimm 1867, p. 41.
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- Frederick Norman, "Hildebrand and Hadubrand", in Three Essays on the 'Hildebrandslied' , London 1973, p. 47.
- Ritter-Schaumburg; Heinz (1981). Die Nibelungen zogen nordwärts. Munich: Herbig. ISBN 3442113474. Ritter-Schaumburg; Heinz (1982). Dietrich von Bern. König zu Bonn. Munich: Herbig. ISBN 3776612274.
- See the following negative reviews: Kratz, Henry (1983). "Review: Die Nibelungen zogen nordwärts by Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg". The German Quarterly. 56 (4): 636–638.; Müller, Gernot (1983). "Allerneueste Nibelungische Ketzereien: Zu Heinz Ritter-Schaumburgs Die Nibelungen zogen nordwärts,München 1981". Studia neophilologica. 57 (1): 105–116.; Hoffmann, Werner (1993). "Siegfried 1993. Bemerkungen und Überlegungen zur Forschungsliteratur zu Siegfried im Nibelungenlied aus den Jahren 1978 bis 1992". Mediävistik. 6: 121–151. Here 125-128.
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- See Paulus Bernardus Wessels, "Dietrichepik und Südtiroler Erzählsubstrat," in Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 85 (1966), 345-369
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- Millet 2008, pp. 357-358.
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- Heinzle 1999, pp. 84-85.
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- Miklautsch 2005, pp. 63, 69–70.
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- Heinzle 199, p. 46.
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- Heinzle, Einführung, 46-47
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- von der Hagen, Friedrich (1989) . Die Thidrekssaga. Sankt-Goar: Otto Reichl.
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