Exploring Identity’s Third Space; or What Happens When a Medieval Hero Wears a Disguise in European Bridal-Quest Epics

By Janina Dillig, University of Bamberg

Storytelling often resorts to narrative patterns. This is especially true for narratives with an oral tradition, which we encounter frequently in medieval literature. Usually, the use of narrative patterns in medieval literature is understood as a byproduct of the process of memorization, but narrative patterns may also be understood as elements of ritualization in the art of storytelling. This ritualisation then allows the inclusion of subversive elements in the narrative, such as the use of a disguise by a medieval hero.

One important narrative pattern in medieval literature is the so-called ‘bridal quest schema’ (here I use schema in the sense of a stereotypical plot structure, which characterises a group of texts, Schulz 2015: 184), which revolve around a single ruler in need of an heir. His advisors tell him about a bride far across the sea, and the ruler (or a proxy) has to woo the bride in what are often very dangerous circumstances.

The bridal-quest schema is based on an important ritualised conflict management technique (Eming 2017): the ritualisation of the exogamous marriage. A medieval kingdom without an heir is vulnerable and unstable, a problem only the perfect bride for the ruler can solve. To underline the high status of the future heir, his mother needs to be not only of high status but also from abroad, so as to guarantee the churches requirement of exogamy.

In Middle High German literature, for instance, a wide range of texts uses the bridal-quest schema. Examples of texts that work under bridal-quest schema are the lesser known Salman und Morolf (c. 1190), which revolves around the biblical king Solomon (Books of Chronicles: 1 Chronicles 28–29, 2 Chronicles 1–9), and more widely known Middle High German epics the Nibelungenlied and the European Tristan stories, which, as Hugo Kuhn has showed in his work (Kuhn 1973), use the narrative pattern of the bridal-quest. While in each of these texts the bridal-quest schema appears in different contexts and has a different function within the narrative, certain fixed narrative elements prevail each one. These narrative elements can be understood as ritualised elements. Examples of ritualised narrative elements of the bridal-quest schema are the council scene, the imperative of a sea crossing, and the use of a disguise by the hero.

Disguises in medieval texts are especially interesting because they stand in contrast to everything we know about society in the Middle Ages and the place of the individual in medieval society. As historians have shown, medieval individuals find inclusion in society though familial, amicable, and stately parameters. Public representation of these parameters ensures societal stability (Althoff 2003). An important part of this communication of status and inclusion is the outside representation of one’s body. Disguising one’s body though using a mask implies a temporary renunciation of inclusion into society.

In the bridal-quest schema, disguises are elemental because they allow the hero to cross into the realm of the bride. This border-crossing constitutes the actual ‘sujet’ of the plot, in the sense of the term given to it by Jurij Lotmann (Lotmann 1973: 357). The ritualisation of the disguises become obvious either when they are disturbingly extreme, like with the disguise of Morolf in Salman und Morolf achieved through the use of the skin of the Jew Berman, or when the disguise is somewhat incoherent. One example of such an incoherent disguise can be found in the Tristrant (c. 1170) by Eilhart von Oberg, where Tristrant, trying to woo Ysalde for his king, disguises himself as a merchant but carries a harp and a sword with him which are both identity signs of the hero Tristrant but not of a merchant.

Morolf kills and then skins the Jew Berman, to use his skin as his disguise (Codex Frankfurt a. M., Universitätsbibl., Ms. germ. qu. 13, f. 21v (1479):

However, a closer look at the disguises of heroes in the bridal-quest schema shows that the use of a disguise is not only motivated by the necessity of the plotline. The use of disguises also allows for a narrative discourse on identity that is part of the schema itself. An example of this can be found in Tristan (c. 1210) by Gottfried von Straßburg. This German text is especially known as Wagner’s source and is a German classic. Here, Tristan kills a dragon to woo Isolde but is not instantly recognised as the hero. Instead, a steward claims to be the one who killed the dragon, while Tristan lies unconscious and is (at first) unrecognized as Tristan – because he is known under his disguise as merchant Tantris.

Because of that, Tristan has to prove himself publicly as the dragon slayer. This he does by representing the dragon’s tongue as evidence for his heroic deed but also by a two-way restoration of Tristan’s identity after the taking off of his disguise. The first restoration is non-public, though it still reinforces Tristan as a hero, not only in the eyes of Isolde but also in the eyes of the readers. Isolde sees Tristan’s body in the bath and immediately identifies it as a royal body, which, according to medieval standards, should belong to a royal person: ‘Surely so fine and true a person / Should be born to wealth and honour?’ (G v. 10027-10029).

Tristan in Bath (Codex Brüssel, Königl. Bibl., ms. 14697, f. 268v (1455-1460):

Then, she looks at Tristan’s sword and recognizes the nock as the nock made by Tristan killing her uncle. Therefore, she is able to demask Tantris as Tristan. This affirmation of the identity of the hero is then repeated in the narrative of Gottfried by staging the prove of Tristan’s identity in an elaborate way in front of the whole Irish court. Especially the entrance of Tristan is interesting here, because its description spans over nearly 100 verses where he is described as marvellously blessed / with every quality possessed / by a chivalrous man (G v. 10027-10029). As such, Tristan’s identity is restored with the aid of ritualistic elements in the narrative, which makes the uncertainty of his disguise void.

This is but one example where disguises in Middle High German romances lead to a need to reinforce the identity of the hero. What this shows is that disguises do have an influence on identity. In my book on ‘Identity and Masks’, I argue that this influence is possible because disguises do not only allow for a crossing of borders but also open a third, hybrid space for the hero, to use Homi K. Bhabha’s term (Bhabha 1997: 127). This space opens up a new room in which the hero acts. However, this hybrid room also may destabilise identity, especially when the disguise is used in iteration. This can especially be seen thorough Tristan’s disguises in the last part of the Tristan story, where he needs to disguise himself whenever he wants to visit his lover Isolde who is at the time married to another.

This post draws on my dissertation Identität und Maske. Die Aneignung des Anderen in Bearbeitungen des Tristanstoffes im 12. und 13. Jahrhundert, which was published by Reichert in 2019.


Althoff, Gerd, Inszenierte Herrschaft: Geschichtsschreibung und politisches Handeln im Mittelalter. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgeselshaft, 2003).

Bhabha, Homi K., ‘Verortungen der Kultur’, Hybride Kulturen: Beitrage zur anglo amerikanischen Multikulturalismusdebatte, eds. Elisabeth Bronfen, Benjamin Marius, and Therese Steffen (Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 1997), pp. 123–148.

Dillig, Janina, Identität und Maske: Die Aneignung des Anderen in Bearbeitungen des Tristanstoffes im 12. und 13. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019).

Eming, Jutta, ‘Ritualisierte Konfliktbewältigung bei Eilhart und Gottfried: Der Mordanschlag auf Brangäne und das Gottesurteil’, Zeitschrift für Literatur und Linguistik 144 (2017), 9–29.

Kuhn, Hugo, Tristan, Nibelungenlied, Artusstruktur (Munich: Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1973).

Lotmann, Jurij, Die Struktur des künstlerischen Textes, trans. Rainer Grübel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973).

Schulz, Armin, Erzähltheorie in mediävistischer Perspektive (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2015).

https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/TristanPartVI.php#anchor_Toc2574730 (G v. 10027-10029, trans.).

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