In The Nibelungenlied, a medieval German epic steeped in the history of the fifth and sixth centuries, female characters are relatively few, yet they are responsible for the driving events in the story. Kriemhild and Brunhild—a Burgundian princess and warrior-queen of Iceland, respectively—are the central women. However, the two are decidedly ambivalent women, in that both are highly desirable to men, yet each challenges expectations for proper feminine behavior in medieval Germany. At first, Kriemhild appears to be an idealized princess, especially compared to the somewhat masculine Brunhild. Yet, by the end, she dominates Brunhild and nearly all the men in the story, becoming not only unfeminine but monstrous. With this portrayal, the poet suggests that women who assert themselves apart from the power of men must either be tamed or destroyed.
In the first part of the story, Kriemhild, who lives in quiet seclusion, is lauded as the epitome of womanhood. She is “the adornment of her sex” and “made for love’s caresses.” Even now, Kriemhild’s desirability has an undercurrent of danger, as the poet warns that her beauty would later “[cause] many knights to lose their lives.” Yet, for now, “none [is] her enemy.” Kriemhild’s loveliness is rumored far and wide. In fact, Siegfried, a prince in the Netherlands, hears about the maiden long before he ever sees her, and he desires her so much that he threatens war against Burgundy. In accordance with courtly values, and in contrast to what Kriemhild will become later, Kriemhild’s love has an elevating influence on Siegfried’s character, showing that she is a proper lady by medieval standards. Other well-mannered knights are glad to have Siegfried in their company, “for he aspired to a noble love”—suggesting that Kriemhild has a civilizing influence on the wild warrior.
In the middle of the story, Brunhild appears as a relic from Germany’s semi-mythical past, hailing from Iceland, a distant (and recently pagan) land. In contrast to the elevated and somewhat colorless Kriemhild, Brunhild is an ambivalent figure—exotically attractive, yet besting men at their own games. Not only is Brunhild surpassingly beautiful, she is renowned for her strength and athleticism. To gain her love, warriors must compete against her in several sports, and any man who fails forfeits his head—a courting procession that lacks Kriemhild’s apparent refinement and femininity. When King Gunther of Burgundy sails to Iceland to try to win Brunhild’s hand, the heroic and accomplished Siegfried offers his help in exchange for receiving Kriemhild as his wife—creating the expectation that he will subdue the “wild” woman in exchange for the retiring, ladylike Kriemhild.
Brunhild is so formidable that Siegfried can only defeat her through supernatural means, slipping into his magic cloak so that he can invisibly complete the contests on Gunther’s behalf. Gunther’s vassal, Hagen, is so alarmed by Brunhild’s prowess that he tells his lord, “The woman whose love you desire is a rib of the Devil himself!” Hagen’s criticisms align unfeminine women—especially those with the capacity to best men—with pure evil, suggesting that Brunhild is the devil’s creation in the way that Eve, formed from Adam’s rib, is God’s. Even after she is defeated and duly married to Gunther, the threat posed by Brunhild’s strength still looms. Far from being “made for love’s caresses,” like her Burgundian counterpart, Brunhild emasculates her new husband. On their wedding night, she overpowers him, ties him up, and hangs him from a nail on the wall. Gunther’s humiliation contrasts with Siegfried’s tender, contented wedding night with Kriemhild. Gunther unhappily confides in Siegfried that, if such behavior is permitted, “the whole sex will grow uppish with their husbands for ever after.” So, Siegfried (again in concealment) wrestles Brunhild in Gunther’s chamber that night, subduing her so that Gunther can “[take] his pleasure with her as was his due.” Afterward, Brunhild’s “vast strength fled so that now she was no stronger than any other woman.” She has been rendered ordinary, submissive, and dependent on the strength of men.
Soon, Brunhild fades from the action—becoming secluded and nonthreatening like the maiden Kriemhild—as Kriemhild, contrary to expectations, gains the upper hand over her and even assumes Brunhild’s ambivalent status as a formidable, “wild” woman who must ultimately be destroyed. When the two queens quarrel bitterly over Siegfried’s status and the rumor that Siegfried slept with Brunhild, Hagen murders Siegfried, ostensibly to protect Brunhild’s honor. Kriemhild is bent on revenge for the rest of the story, further descending into a threatening version of womanhood. In Hungary, when Kriemhild greets the visiting Burgundians with threats and demands, the exiled Lord Dietrich calls her a “she-devil,” echoing the earlier characterization of Brunhild. She later exposes her young son to the mounting violence between the Huns and Burgundians, an act that is seen as particularly dreadful for a woman and mother; she then tries to end the standoff by setting the hall on fire, in “monstrous vengeance.” Thus, by the end of the book, Kriemhild has not only displaced Brunhild as a threatening female, but has surpassed her into “monstrous” behavior. Her final vengeance over Hagen isn’t allowed to stand in its own right, as Hildebrand immediately kills her for the act—and, by extension, for subverting the expectation that she be feminine, weak, and dependent. Brunhild, meanwhile, survives in Burgundy—ironically, the woman earlier seen as threatening now lives a passive and quiet life, aloof from the business of men.
First impressions about The Nibelungenlied’s women are not to be trusted. By the end of the book, mannish Brunhild is a weakened, silent Burgundian queen, while sweet, pliant Kriemhild presides over a vengeful bloodbath in a faraway pagan court and is ultimately killed for it. The poet views women as laudable when they are safely submitted to men; once a woman starts to actively manipulate men, however, there is no telling what other norms will be horrifyingly inverted.
Idealized and Deviant Womanhood ThemeTracker
Idealized and Deviant Womanhood Quotes in The Nibelungenlied
Kriemhild dreamt she reared a falcon, strong, handsome and wild, but that two eagles rent it while she perforce looked on, the most grievous thing that could ever befall her. She told her dream to her mother Uote, who could give the good maiden no better reading than this: “The falcon you are rearing is a noble man who, unless God preserve him, will soon be taken from you.”
“Why do you talk to me of a man, dear Mother? I intend to stay free of a warrior’s love all my life. I mean to keep my beauty till I die, and never be made wretched by the love of any man. […] There are many examples of women who have paid for happiness with sorrow in the end. I shall avoid both, and so I shall come to no harm.”
In the days that followed, Siegfried was a most welcome guest among the Burgundians, and, believe me, he was honoured by them for his manly courage a thousand times more than I can tell you, so that none could see him and harbour any grudge against him. […] And whenever gay knights were passing the time with the ladies and displaying their good breeding, people were glad to see him, for he aspired to a noble love. Whatever the company undertook, Siegfried was ready to join in. Meanwhile he cherished a lovely girl in his heart and was cherished in return by this same young lady whom he had never seen but who in her own intimate circle nevertheless often spoke kindly of him.
And now Brunhild had arrived, armed as though about to contend for all the kingdoms in the world and wearing many tiny bars of gold over her silk, against which her lovely face shone radiantly. […] The man whom she would favour would have to be a very brave one: for this shield which the girl was to carry was (so we are told) a good three spans thick beneath the boss; it was resplendent with steel and with gold, and even with the help of three others her chamberlain could scarce raise it. “What now, King Gunther?” stalwart Hagen of Troneck asked fiercely, on seeing the shield brought out. “We are done for - the woman whose love you desire is a rib of the Devil himself!”
Siegfried left the maiden lying there and stepped aside as through to remove his clothes and, without the noble Queen’s noticing it, he drew a golden ring from her finger and then took her girdle, a splendid orphrey. I do not know whether it was his pride which made him do it. Later he gave them to his wife, and well did he rue it!
And now Gunther and the lovely girl lay together, and he took his pleasure with her as was his due, so that she had to resign her maiden shame and anger. But from his intimacy she grew somewhat pale, for at love’s coming her vast
strength fled so that now she was no stronger than anyother woman. Gunther had his delight of her lovely body, and had she renewed her resistance what good could it have done her? His loving had reduced her to this.
And now how very tenderly and amorously Brunhild lay beside him till the bright dawn!
Now learn of a deed of overweening pride and grisly vengeance. Hagen ordered the corpse of Siegfried of Nibelungland to be carried in secret to Kriemhild’s apartment and set down on the threshold, so that she should find him there before daybreak when she went out to matins, an office she never overslept.
They pealed the bells as usual at the minster, and lovely Kriemhild waked her many maids and asked for a light and her attire. A chamberlain answered - and came upon Siegfried’s body. […] Before she had ascertained that it was her husband she was already thinking of Hagen’s question how he might shelter Siegfried, and now she rued it with a vengeance! From the moment she
learned of Siegfried’s death she was the sworn enemy of her own happiness.
“Alas,” cried lady Kriemhild, “why will my brother and Hagen not let their shields be placed in safety? Someone must have warned them! If I knew who it was he would surely die!”
“It was I that warned the illustrious kings of Burgundy and their vassal, fearless Hagen,” replied King Dietrich angrily. “Now come on, you she-devil, you must not let me go unpunished!”
Leaving Bloedelin resolved on battle, the Queen went to table with King Etzel and his men. She had laid a deadly plot against their guests.
Kriemhild’s old grief was embedded deep in her heart. Since there was no beginning the fighting in any other way, she had Etzel’s son carried to the board. (How could a woman ever do a more dreadful thing in pursuance of her
revenge?) Four of Etzel’s followers went immediately and returned bearing the young Prince Ortlieb to the King’s table, where Hagen, too, was seated, owing to whose murderous hate the boy must needs soon die.
“You have repaid me in base coin,” she said, “but Siegfried’s sword I shall have and hold! My fair lover was wearing it when last I saw him, through whom I suffered mortal sorrow at your hands.” She drew it from its sheath -he was powerless to prevent it - and bent her thoughts to robbing him of life. She raised it in both hands - and struck off his head! King Etzel saw this, and great was the grief it gave him.