I. Biterolf und Dietleib
The mid-twelfth century anonymous German epic Biterolf und Dietleib divides the European continent into two hostile spheres: a southeastern sphere centered around the east European, "Hunnish" court of Etzel, and a northwestern sphere dominated by the Rhenish court at Worms. The text's representation of a pan-European war has generated considerable interpretive speculation among medieval Germanists. Is it a purely literary construction, or is it meant to reflect or refract contemporary geographic/political constellations, an east/west European divide? Representative of the former view, Michael Curschmann disregards any connection with actual history, considering the text "Dichtung uber Heldendichtung" in which the division of Europe develops a construction immanent to the epic tradition, a "Rivalitat der Sagenkreise" and "klare Polaritat nordwestlicher und sudostlicher Sagenwelten" that first appears in the Nibelungenlied, and is to be considered derivative thereof. (1) Fritz Peter Knapp, representing a more historically inclined group of scholars, interprets the poetic geopolitics of Biterolf as reflecting "eine gewisse Distanz zu traditionellen Machtzentren des Reichs und eine Ausrichtung auf Suden und Osten," which "einer politisch-okonomischen Neuorientierung der adligen Machthaber in den Landern Steiermark und Osterreich Ausdruck verleihen soll." (2)
Both camps have neglected certain geographical, cultural, and narrative aspects which shed light on the text's relationship with both the Nibelungenlied and its wider cultural-historical context. Biterolf not only tells the story of the famous Nibelungenlied in reverse--instead of the Burgundian court at Worms going off to the Land of the Huns for the final, decisive battle, here the court of Attila (or Etzel, as his is known in the German vernacular epics) journeys en masse to a confrontation with Gunther's court along the banks of the Rhine--the later epic also "civilizes" the grim heroic military ethos of its source-model: instead of total annihilation of both parties, as in the Nibelungenlied, the Huns and Burgundians decide to settle their differences with chivalric tournaments, leading ultimately to reconciliation, a big celebration, and mutual survival. (3) Yet the phenomenon of "chivalrication" (Verritterlichung) has, in recent years, been interpreted almost exclusively in terms of literary genre, (4) as if it would point to nothing more than the expected inroads of fashionable, French-influenced romance discourse a la Wolfram von Eschenbach or Gottfried von Strabburg into the grim martial absolutism of the older heroic literary tradition. While there is no doubt some truth in this, nonetheless I think the Biterolf-poet had other, culturally more concrete things in mind than bringing his heroic tale up to the fashionable literary standard of the day. Namely, he places chivalric combat within a discourse of "gentilic" difference more pronounced and sophisticated than anything found in contemporary romances. (5) This move has important implications for our understanding of representations of national consciousness and ethnicity in medieval German literature that looks to the continental east.
The Biterolf-poet constructs an ethno-cultural divide within his representation of pan-European military civilization. None of the eastern European warriors in the text--Huns, Bohemians, Poles, Prussians, Vlachs and Cumans--know how to turnieren, that is, to fight with the lance on horseback in "proper" chivalric fashion. As the two opposing sides, working out the terms of the battle, decide upon a pre-emptive, recreational tournament, Rudiger, Etzel's Bavarian vassal and envoy to the Rhine, tells the Burgundian king:
"... welt jr tuornierens phlegen?
sy wundert, daz vnns auf den wegen
mit streite in disen lannden
noch nyomant hat bestannden.
nu wolden die von Hunen lanndt
daz man jn rette daz bekannt,
was geturnieret weare. …