Saturday, April 18, 2015

“Dread Customs”: Inversion and Enforcement of Gender Roles in the Nibelungenlied, Part One

Written down in approximately 1200 CE by an anonymous poet, most likely in the south-eastern German region, the Nibelungenlied’s appearance as a text stands temporally halfway between the composition of early Christian writings and the publication of scholarly work of our own times. In this article, I posit a close reading of three key scenes – the defeat of Prünhilt on the competition field, the defeat of Gunther in the bedroom, and the defeat of Prünhilt in the bedroom – in light of texts from both ends of the chronological range: early Church written sources on the one hand, and modern scholarly works such as Peter Brown’s The Body and Society and Kate Cooper’s The Virgin and the Bride on the other.

First letter of a Nibelungenlied manuscript (early 13thC)

I am not trying to argue any direct influence of early Christian texts on medieval German poetry; I am using concepts derived from recent scholarship on the source texts as lenses through which to read these three scenes and examine ways in which analyses of early Christian thinking on virginity, the body, gender, marriage and sexuality can provide new ways of reading the Nibelungenlied. Instead of solely approaching the poem from this side of modernity, I am also attempting to approach it from the other side – from early Christian thinking. I am primarily using the conceptual frameworks of Brown and Cooper as guides to reading this poem – to discover if their way of approaching and interpreting texts can be applied to these scenes.

In the introduction to The Body and Society, Peter Brown writes:
The study of gender has led us to examine exhaustively the manner in which rival protagonists on the brightly lit stage of late Roman society used the themes of sexuality, marriage, and gender to construct their own identities and to highlight (often by means of garish contrasts) the identities of their opponents.
Gunther (Theodor Loos) in Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)

All three of the Nibelungenlied scenes are constructed around sexuality and marriage; the first is a wooing ritual, the second is a failed attempt at consummation, and the third is an act of sexual subjugation. Throughout, Gunther’s identity as a masculine ruler of men is constructed via “garish contrasts” of gender with Prünhilt. In order to assert and solidify Gunther’s masculinity, the poet first paradoxically presents him in highly feminized terms while painting Prünhilt in an overtly and overly masculine manner. It is by overcoming and subjugating Prünhilt – and by stripping her of her masculine attributes, both figuratively and literally – that Gunther’s own masculinity is established. The role of Sivrit as the third party that accomplishes this masculinizing will be discussed in detail below.

The impetus for the action is Gunther’s (initially somewhat abstract) desire for a wife. In her discussion of “cross-gender intrigue” in the story of Ismenodora in Plutarch’s Erōtikos, Cooper writes:
This mix-up provides a parodic introduction to the thesis that the pursuit of private desires endangers the fulfillment of social contracts. Yet, while Ismenodora’s passion furnishes the comic impetus of the dialogue, Plutarch is not so much concerned with female desire as with male desire: with passion as a corridor through which objects of desire exert power over men.
In the Nibelungenlied, Gunther’s desire comes into direct conflict with the implacable unwillingness of Prünhilt. Her absence of desire powers his lust as she becomes an objecting object. She is only important to Gunther for what political benefit (warriors, treasure, land) she can bring him; her value is in her ability to confirm and raise his status as king. Although her overwhelming strength and single-mindedness suggest great agency, it should be noted that what she is fundamentally doing is repeatedly saying no to Gunther’s advances. Rather than acting to further her own agenda as a character, she is portrayed only as acting to negate the action Gunther attempts to accomplish. The Nibelungenlied poet “is not so much concerned with female desire”; Prünhilt is an external Other who is only considered by the poet for the desires she raises in the male character. However, Gunther’s “pursuit of private desires endangers the fulfillment of social contracts.” As discussed below, his insistence on wooing Prünhilt places in jeopardy the status and honor of his men, in addition to his own.

Brunhild (Prünhilt) in a 1961 Nibelungenlied
illustration by Edy Legrand

Prünhilt is introduced as queen of far-away Iceland, and her physicality is immediately foregrounded: “There was a queen who resided across the sea, whose like no one knew of anywhere. She was exceedingly beautiful and great in physical strength.” There is no mention of her virtue (as in the poem’s portrait of Gunther’s sister Kriemhilt) or wisdom (as in the Icelandic Völsunga saga’s portrayal of Brynhildr, the Old Norse equivalent of Prünhilt); her characterization is solely of the body. In order to win her in marriage, a suitor is required to best her in physical combat:
She shot the shaft with bold knights – love was the prize. She threw the stone far, and then leapt a great distance after it. Whoever desired her love had to win three games without fail against that well-born lady. If he failed any of them, he would lose his head. The damsel had won at such games countless times.
Prünhilt’s physical defense of her own virginity is at least partially explained by the absence of her father. After the contest, when Gunther’s companion Dancwart gives away much of her wealth, Prünhilt rebukes him: “I want to keep my wealth for a while yet. Moreover, I trust I’m well capable myself of squandering what my father bequeathed me.” Writing of unmarried Christian women of the fourth century who wished to become consecrated virgins, Brown writes that
the majority of such young women were the daughters of widows. They had acted as they did after their father had died, at a time when male control over the women of the family had been withdrawn.
He notes elsewhere that “Basil’s own mother, Emmelia, had wished to remain a virgin, but was forced to marry when her father died.” In the absence of a father, Prünhilt is left to defend both her virginity and her inheritance herself. The fatherless women of late antiquity described by Brown sometimes sought protection for their virginity from the Church; in a Germanic setting, Prünhilt adapts the masculine heroic stance of northern culture to protect own virginity. While Gunther and Sivrit are both clearly provided with parents in the Nibelungenlied, Prünhilt’s only mentioned living relative is her mother’s brother, who is left to manage Prünhilt’s lands when she departs for Worms. The relationship between a young man and his maternal uncle is “the closest of male family relationships in the Germanic heroic world,” so the nature of Prünhilt’s one living relation is one small textual element (among many obvious ones) that emphasizes her masculinity. The idea of the loser of a contest losing his head, of course, echoes the stakes of Germanic contests from the Edda to the Wartburgkrieg – contests that are, inevitably, between male characters. Taken together, these details begin to create a characterization of Prünhilt as a female with masculine traits.

Like the knightly sports that occur throughout the Nibelungenlied, the wooing contest is purely a test of physical strength and prowess. Given the commonplace of sport in the poem, Sivrit’s warning that Gunther should avoid the Icelandic contest seems odd:
“I advise against that,” said Sivrit then. “Indeed the queen has such dread customs that anyone who seeks her love will pay a high price.”
He repeats the same phrase shortly thereafter:
“No matter how great an army we were to take with us,” Sivrit replied, “the queen holds to such dread customs that they would, nevertheless, have to die, so haughty is she.”
"Gunther's Bride-Journey to Iceland" by Ivo Puhanny (c1910)

The disturbing nature of the “dread customs” (vreislîche site) is not due to their fatal nature – as mentioned, the fatal contest is a Germanic commonplace – but to the fact that a woman is taking the role of male aggressor, that she is unnaturally “haughty” (übermuot, “overbold”), and that her physical strength is greater than that of any man. Discussing the implications of “a searching gender-based analysis of late Roman modes of identity and authority,” Cooper writes:
The introduction of the figure of the virgin, the daughter who refused to pass from her initial role within one household to that of the wife in another, offered a new model of moral authenticity, one that classical society would have rejected as opening the way symbolically for other antisocial actions but one that, after a struggle, late Roman society accepted with enthusiasm.
It is Prünhilt’s refusal to pass from the role of virgin to that of wife that is at issue here. Her haughtiness and supernatural strength are poetic amplifications of her core characterization as the resolute virgin whose actions will, as the poem progresses, be posited as having societal implications. As will be made explicit in Sivrit’s exclamations during his bedroom struggle with Prünhilt, it is these implications that cause his disquiet. In the world of the Nibelungenlied, Prünhilt does not project “moral authenticity” but a threat to established gender relations.

Throughout the first half of the poem, Kriemhilt is portrayed as Prünhilt’s antithesis – the quiet and subservient maiden opposed to the willful virgin – as in her scene with Gunther and Sivrit before they depart for Iceland:
The damsel replied: “My dearest brother, I’ll show you most willingly that I’m at your disposal and will give you all the help I can. If anyone were to refuse you, that would grieve Kriemhilt. You must not ask me anxiously, noble knight, but must proudly give me your commands. I am ready and willing to do whatever I can to please you,” said the charming maiden.
Prünhilt vs Kriemhilt by Carl Otto Czeschka (1908)

Prünhilt’s behavior is in extreme contrast to that of Gunther’s quiet sister. While Kriemhilt is the epitome of socially mandated proper feminine behavior, Prünhilt is a threatening figure of “dread customs.” While Kriemhilt is welcoming and deferential, Prünhilt is oppositional and demanding. While Kriemhilt stays inside to do needlework with her ladies-in-waiting, Prünhilt struts outside to engage in knightly sport with the men.

Discussing the powerful gaze that Perpetua turns on her tormentors in the text of her Passion, Shaw writes:
Her ability to stare directly back into the faces of her persecutors, not with the elusive demeanour of a proper matrona, broke with the normative body language in a way that signaled an aggressiveness that was not one of conventional femininity.
Prünhilt’s speeches to Gunther and his men and her aggressive body language during the contest demonstrate a break with “conventional femininity” similar to that of Perpetua. As Perpetua’s transgression of gender norms is amplified by comparison with the ideal of the “proper matrona,” Prünhilt’s transgression of gender norms is highlighted and exaggerated through the poet’s implicit comparison of her behavior with that of the thoroughly conventional Kriemhilt.

From the moment Gunther, Sivrit, Hagen and Dancwart arrive in Iceland, they are effeminized by Prünhilt’s overwhelming masculinity. The men must give up their swords and armor at the gates of Prünhilt’s castle:
Then Sivrit told [Hagen] the truth of the matter: “In this castle the custom is, I tell you, that no strangers are to bear weapons here. Now let them be taken away – it would be as well.” Hagen, Gunther’s vassal, agreed to this most unwillingly.
As part of Prünhilt’s “dread customs” (here man pfliget, “one is accustomed to”), the men are left both physically vulnerable and emasculated; the phallic symbolism of the swords is made increasingly explicit as the text progresses. The virgin, in being overly “haughty” in her militant protection of her virginity against threats, has begun a process of forcing the men into a threatened feminine state. Hagen later underscores the relationship between taking of the swords and Prünhilt’s haughtiness:
“We could easily leave this land unimprisoned,” then said [Dancwart’s] brother Hagen, “if we had the armour we are sorely in need of and our fine swords – then this mighty lady’s pride would easily be tamed.”
Hagen in no way means that the four men would fight their way out of the situation; the immensity of Prünhilt’s army precludes any such notion. Rather, the reference seems to be Gunther’s sword-less impotence; he is quite simply incapable of imposing his desires upon “this mighty lady’s pride” (der starken vrouwen übermuot).

Brünnhilde (Prünhilt) & Hagen by Arthur Rackham (1911)

Prünhilt’s speech to Sivrit makes clear that all four men will die if Gunther loses the contest (“if he proves master in them, then I’ll be his wife – but if I win, it will cost all of you your lives”), and her answer to Hagen’s challenge suggests that there is something additionally at stake in the outcome:
“[Gunther] will have to throw the stone and leap after it, and shoot the javelin in competition with me. Do not be in too much of a hurry! You may well lose your honour and your lives here! Think long and hard on this,” said the lovely lady.
Prünhilt asserts her masculinity while simultaneously diminishing that of the men. Her admonishment not to hurry (niht sîn ze gâch) tauntingly suggests the men are getting hysterical (with the original connotations of the word); they do actually become increasingly nervous as the events progress. The disjunction between the commanding tone of the words and their ascription to a “lovely lady” (mînneliche wîp) underscores the inversion of gender roles Prünhilt embodies. It is this inversion that attaches “dread” to “custom” when Prünhilt suggests that loss of honor (êre) will accompany loss of life. Shortly before the contest begins, Dancwart laments, “I regret from my heart this wooing expedition. We were always renowned as warriors. What a way to lose our lives if women are now to be our ruin in these lands!” It is the potential loss of honor in being physically bested by a woman that most worries Gunther and his men as the action progresses, and it is this worry that prompts Gunther to accept Sivit’s offer of supernatural aid.

Sivrit counsels Gunther to be unafraid and says, “I will guard you well against her by my wiles.” He later uses the same word (“wiles,” liste/n) when describing how he will defeat Prünhilt in the bedroom scene. The narrator had earlier used the term to foreshadow the events of the contest, stating that Sivrit “set about the wooing of that most noble woman with great cunning [listen].” The mighty hero of Germanic legend is unable to physically defeat Prünhilt in a fair contest of strength, but must resort to indirect methods; charges of unmanly (Old Norse ergi) behavior are raised against Odin in the Eddas for similar underhandedness. Sivrit’s willingness to resort to trickery is paralleled by Gunther’s fear (angest); neither are manly qualities in the heroic ethos, and both are thrown into relief by the physical strength and coolness of Prünhilt.

The description of Prünhilt’s contest kit contrasts an outer masculinity and inner femininity:
She ordered good battle-gear to be prepared for her, a breastplate of red gold and a good shield’s rim. The maiden put on a silken shift beneath her armour, one never slashed by a sword in any battle, made of phellel-silk from Lybia – it was most fair. Brightly embroidered braids could be seen to shine from it.
On the outside, Prünhilt wears the very sort of armor protection she took from Gunther and his men. Beneath the manly exterior, she wears a “silken shift” (wâfenhemde, lit. “armour-shift”). That the feminine undergarment under the masculine outerwear represents the unviolated virginity she seeks to protect is made clear by the statement that it has never been “slashed” (versneit) by an opponent’s weapon (wâfen). As with the swords being taken from Gunther and his men, the symbolism is not particularly subtle.

Hanna Ralph as Brunhild (Prünhilt) in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)

While Prünhilt prepares for battle, Gunther’s group is “met with many taunts and threats” (in gelfe vil gedreut). In this context of effemination, the taunting is reminiscent of the flyting of Icelandic literature, in which the insulter asserts the cowardice, honor failing, taboo breaking and “receptive homosexuality” of his opponent. In a discussion of Roman attitudes of the second century, Brown writes:
No normal man might actually become a woman; but each man trembled forever on the brink of becoming “womanish.” . . . It was never enough to be male: a man had to strive to remain “virile.” He had to learn to exclude from his character and from the poise and temper of his body all telltale traces of “softness” that might betray in him, the half-formed state of a woman. The small-town notables of the second century watched each other with hard, clear eyes. They noted a man’s walk. They reacted to the rhythms of his speech. They listened attentively to the telltale resonance of his voice.
It is this judgmental male-on-male scrutiny to which Gunther is now subject; he is forced into a “soft” feminine role through comparison with Prünhilt’s overwhelming “hard” masculinity. Describing the thought of Ambrose, Brown writes that “[t]o surrender any boundary line was to court the ancient shame of the Roman male – it was to ‘become soft,’ to be ‘effeminated.’” By giving up his sword and agreeing to Prünhilt’s “dread” conditions, Gunther agrees to a passive role – in Icelandic accusatory terms of male homosexuality, he is a “soft cat.” Prünhilt, armored and (as will be discussed in Part Two) armed with a comically phallic weapon, plays the role of the penetrating “hard cat.”

To be continued in Part Two.


Stephen said...

Very interesting. Very much looking forward to Part II!

Michele Jurgensen said...

Great information to accompany our travel while in Worms and the nibelungenlied museum.

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