Entstehung Nibelungenlied

About the authorship of the Nibelungenlied

Conny, with your new novel you address the big question of the authorship of the Nibelungenlied. What is the current state of knowledge in research?

Medievalists view the twelfth century as a transitional phase in literary history: oral narrative traditions transition into writing, and there are many mixed forms. Otfried Ehrismann assumes that The Nibelungenlied , like many other books of the High Middle Ages, was designed for reading and public lecture. The Nibelungenlied also draws on old, oral stories - on the one hand about Siegfried and on the other about the fall of the Burgundians. The Nibelungenlied represents the beginning of literary writing, but is strongly influenced by orality. It is unclear when and by whom the original text, which unfortunately has not survived, was written down. Joachim Heinzle briefly summarizes the state of research: He writes that there was most likely a kind of 'Nibelungen workshop' at the Passau bishop's court, in which the basic text and the various versions were created in a short time.

Roman Nibelungenlied

What world does Hilde come from, who becomes the Nibelung poet in your novel, and what drive does she have to write the heroic epic?

In the twelfth century, the opportunities for women to take control of their own lives and determine their path in life are quite limited. Nevertheless, Hilde, who belongs to the lower nobility and whose family is impoverished, manages to successfully defend herself when her parents demand that she marry the wealthy Willibald. However, it is more of a coincidence that she learns to read and write, studies at the cathedral school in Worms disguised as a man and is then asked by Henry the Lion to write a heroic chronicle about the Wendish Crusade. It is also fate that she later writes the first and second parts of the Nibelungenlied. Hilde wants to win the literary competition at the Passau bishop's court and thus save the Niedernburg monastery, which has become impoverished because of her; That's why she puts the heroic epic on parchment. But she is not an author in the current sense. She writes the first part for the terminally ill poet Lorenz. After his death, all the nuns of the Niedernburg Abbey take part in the second part, as does the Jewish Zarah, who found protection from persecution in the monastery. The black nun Nilu, who comes from Africa, illustrates the book, and after a big argument between Hilde and the paralyzed nun Herrad, Hilde loses interest in the project and Herrad writes the lawsuit. Two-thirds of the Nibelungenlied was written down by Hilde, and she also contributed creatively, but the book is not the work of a single writer: Hilde helped shape the material, but did not invent it.

How did you actually come across the topic of authorship of the Nibelungenlied?

When I intensively researched The Nibelungenlied in 2020 to put together a course for our German studies department at the University of Calgary, I came across an article published in 1980 by Berta Lösel-Wieland-Engelmann that had received little attention from German scholars. Her thesis that a nun in the Passau Benedictine abbey of Niedernburg could have written The Nibelungenlied couldn't let me go, and I had to imagine the adventurous life of the woman who could have written this extraordinary book, which became the most important work of high medieval German-language literature and whose later 'disastrous history' was to connect it with German nationalism, war and Nazi propaganda. The result is my historical novel The Nibelung Poet .

Is Hilde an isolated case in the High Middle Ages, or was there a poetic tradition among the educated women of the time?

There were certainly highly educated women in the Middle Ages - mostly at the royal courts and in monasteries. Some of these women also wrote, and especially in abbeys, women were able to work together and create works together. Hildegard von Bingen is certainly one of the most famous authors (and researchers and composers) of the High Middle Ages. Women were also involved in book art - in the production of artistic miniatures, for example. However, there are still many gaps in the research. It seems as if there was no separate poetic tradition that would have enabled various women to write and perform their secular works.

Medieval novel

What we are also missing today is autobiographical or biographical testimonies - not only from women, but also from men. We know very little even about the greats of their time. There is no historical evidence at all about Wolfram von Eschenbach because, as Joachim Bumke explains, court epic poets often did not belong to the high nobility, and accordingly their names do not appear in chronicles or other historical writings. But even when there are documents confirming when and where a poet was born or died, the person's life is often obscure. How did people feel and think in the Middle Ages? This is precisely the question that concerns me, and in my Nibelungen Poet I answer it creatively but in a historically and literary-scientific way.

Is it Hilde's intention to make the heroic epic accessible to the public? Or is it a coincidence that she becomes famous?

Hilde wants to keep her promises: she promised her dying friend Adelheit that she would save the monastery from ruin, and she assured the seriously ill poet Lorenz that she would put his work on parchment so that he would become famous. Beyond that, Hilde has no poetic ambitions. The fact that she repeatedly comes into conflict with Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa and - because of her willfulness - becomes known as 'Wild Hilde' is purely coincidental. She doesn't see herself as a great artist or author. She is rather dissatisfied with herself, sees herself as fallible and always doubts whether she is acting correctly. But her restlessness, her sense of justice, her humor and her unusual life experiences make her, I believe, a protagonist and narrator with whom many readers can identify.

The interview was conducted by Christian Leeck. Machine translated from German.
Wuppertal, September 2023

Link to the book
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.