Composed ca. 1230-1250
Earliest extant manuscript 1504-1516
With the Middle High German ‘heroic’ epic poem Kudrun we face a curious situation. Having been composed around 1220-1250, it has survived in only one early sixteenth-century manuscript, the Ambraser Heldenbuch. However, modern scholarship has fully acknowledged Kudrun since the rediscovery of this manuscript in 1817 as a major contribution to this genre, even though the outcome seems also to entail a
considerable criticism of the ideals of heroism and of heroic society. The poem has been edited and translated into modern German and English, and there is scholarly consensus that it represents an intriguing, complex, highly composite text (montage?) which combines numerous narrative elements and transforms them into a ‘modern’ response to the concept of heroism.
The heroic dimension is enriched with pre-courtly (Spielmannsepos) and courtly (romance) elements; there are Christian references, but the atmosphere of the ancient Nordic pagan culture seems to dominate after all; heroic features characterize almost all segments, but the poem concludes by pursuing the ideals of cooperation, peace, love, and marriage.
In clear contrast to virtually all other German medieval epic poems, Kudrun is structured by the evolution of events from one generation to the next with the topic of ‘bridal-quest’ dominating the narrative. Catastrophe finally strikes in the fourth generation, affecting both the original family (King Hetel) and the Norman dynasty. The initial pattern established is that the young woman’s violent abduction provokes her father’s furious response, which leads to bitter fighting, but then also to a standstill, which subsequently makes possible peaceful negotiations and hence marriage. After the bridal-quest by Herwic of northern Germany has been settled constructively, however, the title-giving protagonist, Kudrun, is abducted another time, now by Hartmut of Normandy, which then triggers a brutal clash concluding with the death of her father and many of his men.
Contrary to the traditional expectations, due to the massive slaughter Kudrun’s mother Hilde has to wait fourteen years to amass a new army, which, under the leadership of Kudrun’s brother Ortwin and her legitimate fiancé Herwic, eventually succeeds in liberating the protagonist and killing Hartmut’s parents, Ludwig and Gerlint. Kudrun had adamantly refused to submit to Hartmut’s wishes and thus had to suffer for all those years almost as a slave to the royal family, who forced her to do their laundry in an attempt to break her will. The hatred between Gerlint and Kudrun is painfully visible and casts a negative light on the former while making the latter stand out as a brave, independently minded heroine who would rather suffer humiliation at the hand of this vicious queen than forgo her own honor.
The battle to liberate Kudrun proves to be particularly bloody, especially because Ortwin and Herwic are supported by the hoary warrior Wate from Denmark, an ominous fighter very similar to Hagen in the Nibelungenlied. In the end, however, Kudrun manages to dissuade even Wate from further killing at Hartmut’s court and to convince her mother Hilde, though with great difficulties, to accept her alternative approach to end the blood-feud. Realizing that the old model of the bridal-quest is no longer working, she develops an innovative policy through which her former enemy Hartmut can be convinced to accept the new situation and to embrace the idea of marriage, albeit only with Kudrun’s trusted companion Hildburg, which harmoniously connects the formerly hostile families. Hartmut’s sister Ortrut subsequently marries Kudrun’s brother Ortwin, which creates a large family network as security against further animosities.
As much as Kudrun at first seems to idealize the notion of martial heroism, giving absolute preference to the male characters who treat women almost like chattel, in the end we observe a remarkable change in the political structure in which female rulers dominate the field. Hilde runs her country all by herself after the death of her husband Hetel (killed by Ludwig), and Gerhild is the de-factor ruler of Normandy. Kudrun gains so much influence and power that she can at the conclusion determine the outcome of the entire conflict and work as a ‘peace-weaver.’ Happiness and joy, love and mutual trust emerge as the new ideals, framed by the emotional treatment of marriage, which is no longer the outcome of violent abductions and military campaigns.
Kudrun also contains considerable criticism of kings who are not quite capable of fulfilling their roles. At the very beginning, King Sigebant, father of young Hagen, completely loses his control and composure when a griffin abducts his seven-year-old son as feed for its own young ones. His wife Ute must intervene for him, calm him down, and then assume the central role as host for their many guests during their court festival. For a while, of course, patriarchy subsequently returns; Hagen survives, grows up on an isolated island, and eventually rescues himself and three princesses whom he had encountered there, one of whom, Hilde of India, he later marries. The fight between Hagen and Hetel from Hegelingen who wants to marry his daughter ends undecidedly, and young Hilde then manages to prevent further slaughter and to convince her father to let her marry Hetel. Here again, female influence emerges as highly influential. King Ludwig of Normandy fights bravely and successfully against his opponent, King Hetel, whose daughter Kudrun he and his son Hartmut have abducted, but he soon proves to be ineffective and too passive as a ruler. Consequently, his wife Gerlint virtually replaces him, determining the political scene almost single-handedly.
The setting of the Kudrun is somewhere in northern and western Europe, with Sigeband being the king of Ireland and Ludwig ruling as king of Normandy. Sigeband marries Ute from Norway, and one of the three princesses whom Hagen encounters originates from Iserland (Iceland?). Wate and Hetel hail from Denmark; Hetel, Kudrun’s father, comes from Sealand (?), and there are other references to the coastal world of the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea as well. Kudrun has to do the laundry in the sea below Hartmut’s castle, which hence must have been a body of fresh water. Some scholars have thus suggested that Kudrun was originally created in northern Germany, particularly on the island of Rügen where legendary accounts of a princess washing laundry in the sea had already circulated, while others insist that the poem must have originated in Bavaria or Austria based on its language and literary features.
While we can be certain that almost all Middle High German heroic poems were composed by male poets, in the case of Kudrun there is at least the possibility that a woman created this verse narrative, one possible explanation as to why it did not enjoy any noticeable popularity during its time. It is imaginable that Kudrun was conceived as a direct but negative response to the Nibelungenlied, which would further explain its very little, perhaps non-existent reception in the thirteenth century. However, it was obviously still known in some form in the early sixteenth century and was thus preserved for posterity. It represents one of many literary gems not fully appreciated by contemporary audiences.
University of Arizona