by Dr. Nadine Hufnagel, University of Bamberg
During the Covid-19 pandemic, people all over the world shared moments of awkwardness caused by the necessity to avoid gestures of welcome like handshakes, hugs, or kisses. Quickly, alternative gestures in accordance with social distancing were adopted from other cultures or newly established, for instance the elbow bump or the footshake. This brought the social significance of every-day ‘rituals’ to attention. In the public, more so on the political stage, rituals of reception are even more important. Perhaps, the vivid discussions about Donald Trump’s peculiar handshaking or about the very long table used in the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron in February 2022 spring to mind.
Status and honour, which manifest in concrete interactions like rituals of reception, were essential aspects of medieval society. They determined possibilities of participation in decision-making processes, of expressing wishes, or of making demands (Althoff 2004: 180). It is not easy to answer the question what exactly constitutes a medieval ‘ritual of reception’. Yet, sources show that there was a set of conventionalised behaviour to welcome each other, which was still adaptable to a specific situation. These ritualised gestures of welcome seem to be especially important in the context of ruling, for they expressed hierarchy, confirmed social order, and produced honour. However, exactly because of their affirmative and legitimatising functions, rituals can also be very susceptible to conflict. Narrations can, therefore, use the depictions of rituals of reception to characterise situations as well as relationships (Dörrich 2002: 17-19, 54-63). Characters of medieval literature demonstrate their status, their relationship with others, and their acceptance of the social order via gruoz (Middle High German for greeting, regards, and respects). Through a differentiated system of gestures of welcome, they express friendship or enmity, as well as mutual rights, duties, and expectations. To explain the relevance of gruoz, introductions to medieval courtly culture in German Studies often refer to the Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs; see, for example, Bumke 2008: 299-301; Ehrismann 1995: 83-86). This Middle High German epic poem, which was written down around 1200, provides some intriguing examples of scenes of reception:
In the Nibelungenlied, the famous hero Siegfried of Xanten marries Kriemhild, princess of Burgundy. Yet, when Siegfried arrives at the Burgundian court in Worms for the first time, he does not profess his intent to woo Kriemhild. Despite of being received properly, Siegfried provokes by challenging Kriemhild’s brother King Gunther. Only after having defended Burgundy against a military threat, he is rewarded with a gruoz of his intended. To finally earn Kriemhild’s hand in marriage, he helps Gunther win Brünhild as his bride. The reception of the Burgundian party by Brünhild, which leads her to believe Siegfried to be socially inferior to Gunther, is a key scene of the epic poem’s dramaturgy. After many years – and the telling of several less important greeting rituals – Kriemhild and Brünhild fight about their status during a courtly feast. The dispute ultimately results in the murder of Siegfried by Hagen of Tronje, liegeman to Brünhild and Gunther, to restore the Burgundian honour. Later, Kriemhild marries Etzel, king of the Huns. The Nibelungenlied describes in detail how Etzel’s matchmaker, marcgrave Rüdiger of Pöchlarn, is received in Worms. On her way to her wedding, Kriemhild is welcomed by her uncle Pilgrim, bishop of Passau, by the marcgravian family of Pöchlarn, and by many of her future subjects along the travel route. During these scenes of reception, Kriemhild’s identity transforms from Burgundian widow to future queen of the Huns. At last, Etzel’s heroic guests, his family, his court, and the king himself ride west to meet her along the way, thus honouring her and thereby confirming her new status (for the honouring effect of meeting someone halfway; see Dörrich 2002: 58).
Years later, the still vengeful Kriemhild invites her brothers and Hagen. When the Burgundians, who are now also called Nibelungs, arrive at Etzel’s court, she fails to receive them accordingly. In the end, she provokes a fight which finally leads to the death of almost everybody, including herself.
Although the story contains a lot of material for the creation of spectacular images of romance and fighting, most of the coloured drawings in the sole fully illustrated manuscript of the text, the so-called fifteenth-century Codex Hundeshagen, focus on rather stereotypical situations of courtly ritual (Janz 1998: 417-421; Braun-Niehr 2012; Thali 2015: 249). Hence, the imagery reproduces a narrative strategy of the Nibelungenlied; for the textexpresses the characters’ social status and their relationships through rituals of welcome and farewell, and thus foreshadows conflict in some cases (Hufnagel 2020: 394). The most obvious example of the latter are the two images framing the tale of the Burgundians’ arrival at King Etzel’s court:
Image n° 26 in the Codex Hundeshagen shows a scene which is exclusively conveyed in the specific version of the Nibelungenlied transmitted in this manuscript (version b). When Kriemhild learns of her brothers’ arrival, she makes no effort to honour them by meeting them along the way. Instead, she tries to recruit Dietrich of Bern, a famous hero at Etzel’s court, for her plan of revenge. Dietrich refuses and sends his old master of arms, Hildebrand, to warn the Burgundian party.
The drawing includes Kriemhild. Thus, it underlines her absence in this scene of reception through visual representation behind castles’ walls. These walls feature no open door signaling welcome. In fact, they seem to have no entrance at all. Kriemhild makes no gestures of gruoz – quite the opposite (Janz 1998: 426). Two men who are not decisively identifiable due to the lack of individual features stand beside her (possibly Etzel and Dietrich (Hornung 1968: 72)?). However, Etzel does not yet know about his guests’ arrival. Besides, the figure wears no crown as would be fitting for a king receiving kings. More likely, the illustrator simply chose to place three figures on each side of Hildebrand. This way, the image conveys that, while the vengeful queen might not have won over Dietrich and Hildebrand, she is not isolated. She has men at her side ready to do her bidding.
Hildebrand, Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher appear to be engaged in conversation. The Burgundians’ status as kings is marked by their crowns. The horse and the dynamic of movement in Hildebrand’s figure convey that he has come to them (and not the other way round), thus honouring the three by meeting them along the way and accepting their high social status. The three kings honour Hildebrand, too, since they meet him standing, while socially inferior messengers are usually received sitting (see images n° 10, 11, and 22 of the same manuscript). Their relationship is further characterised by the kings’ gift to Hildebrand (cf. NL b: 1699/1729). The cloak serves as a kind of messenger’s fee and as a sign of their milte (Middle High German for lavishness, generosity, lordliness). Similar to the gruoz milte strict ritual rules follow demonstrating the superior social status of the giver (Ehrismann 1995: 99). In this case, the gift does not only state the Burgundians’ social superiority. It also evidences the kings’ acceptance of Hildebrand’s warning and establishes a bond between the Nibelungs and the Amelungen, i.e. Dietrich and his men. Later, the Amelungen do not intervene – at least not until their mutual friend Rüdiger is killed. And even after they have fought on different sides, it is Hildebrand who finally avenges Gunther and Hagen by slaying Kriemhild. The image foreshadows thus the conflict between Kriemhild and her brothers, as well as the Amelungens’ position throughout the imminent fight.
Image n° 27 shows Hagen and his brother in arms Volker refusing to greet Kriemhild adequately despite her royal status. The latter is represented by her crown, which is not just an iconographic symbol but an element of interaction. In contrast to the previous image, Kriemhild now appears formally as a ruler (Heinzle 2012: 152). In Volker’s case, this causes the impulse to honour the queen by standing up from the bench. However, since it is important not to take part in rituals expressing something someone does not agree with (Althoff 2004: 181), Hagen asks his friend not to pay Kriemhild his respects, even though to refuse a formal gruoz conveys enmity (Dörrich 2002: 55). He explains that they should not honour someone who clearly intents to harm them. To underline the threat posed by Kriemhild, the illustrator deviates slightly from the text by showing both parties in full armour – normally weapons should not be present during a gruoz (Dörrich 2002: 55-56).
Is it possible to think that what is not present in the imagery bears some significance? For one character is conspicuously scarce: King Etzel. While the text mentions that the Hunnic king, who is totally unaware of Kriemhild’s desire for revenge and the Burgundians exchange ain grůs so recht schone (i.e. an appropriate and friendly greeting; NL b: 11789/1819), there is no image which shows Etzel honouring his dear guests by standing up, placing them upon his own table, and sharing drinks with them. Thus, the imagery visually anticipates the dwindling agency of the mighty King Etzel and his failure to keep peace by being literally left out of the picture.
In conclusion, the imagery in the Codex Hundeshagen does not merely serve decorative or orientational purposes. Illustrations of rituals of reception or farewell, which are one of the most prominent motives, visualize the characters’ status as well as their relationships with each other. Moreover, the illustrations sometimes foreshadow emergent conflict. The highly typical situations of courtly ritual represented in the imagery also invite the audience to compare different scenes. Thus, the images visually emphasise information given in the text – even where details differ between text and illustration. Furthermore, image n° 26, which features an event of a unique textual insertion of the Nibelungenlied b, embeds this ‘new’ scene in the traditional story even more strongly. Yet, contrary to other versions of the Nibelungenlied originating later in the 15th century, the Codex Hundeshagen sticks mostly to the traditional wording but adds illustrations influencing the reception of the story. This is the reason why more recent scholarship considers it necessary to include imagery alongside the written text when defining versions of medieval texts (see Thali 2019; Hufnagel 2020).
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