In 1994-98, when I was looking for a job as a history teacher and before I went into web development, I had the vague plan of doing a PhD thesis on the Thidrekssaga, a 13th century prose story about the great German hero Dietrich von Bern. In 1997 I wrote my only scholarly article, in Dutch, but otherwise that plan never went anywhere.
I kept coming back to the saga. This year (2020) I decided to do something. The summary of the saga I wrote twenty years ago is not well written and too short. I'm a better English writer now, and the saga deserves a better, longer summary.
So I set out to write a better saga summary and learn PHP and Old Norse in the process. Also, I decided to definitively solve the issue of footnotes on the web. (I’m not ready yet; hold your horses.)
On this page I give a quick introduction to the saga for those few who are interested in such matters.
I follow the German amateur scholar Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg, who claims that the Thidrekssaga contains an old series of place names in Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) and the Rhineland, and that the saga describes the life of 5th- or 6th-century kinglets that have nothing to do with Theodoric the Great, as is commonly assumed. I’ll introduce his theory below.
Here is the entire saga — or rather, the parts I summarised so far. Through the magic of PHP new summaries will appear as soon as they are ready.
If you’re new to the Thidrekssaga I advise you to start with the A first reading series, where I offer a selection of chapters with commentary that will help you make sense of the saga and read the better stories without being bogged down by harder to grasp parts.
The Thidrekssaga is a Old Norse prose saga that tells the tale of the great German hero Dietrich von Bern and his companions, as well as a host of other characters that have something to do with Dietrich or one of his heroes. It includes the saga of the Niflungen, who were killed in revenge for their murder of Siegfried. Hagen and Gunther, the two most important Niflungen, had been companions of Dietrich for a short time. Attila the Hun also has a prominent role in the saga: Dietrich lives at his court for a while, and the Niflungen die there.
The Thidrekssaga was written around 1250 in Bergen, Norway, as part of an attempt by king Haakon IV of Norway (ruled 1217-1263) to civilise his nobility and connect to the culture of the rest of Europe. The Karlamagnus saga retold several French chansons de geste about Charlemagne, and the Thidrekssaga did the same with old songs from Germany — as the saga itself indicates at various points
Scholars take these indications seriously. The Thidrekssaga's version of the Niflungensaga is quite different from the one found in the Old Norse Edda, and most stories do not appear in other Scandinavian texts at all. On the other hand, they do resemble highlights of Medieval German literature such as the Nibelungenlied, the Rosengarten, and the elder and younger Hildebrandslied.
Therefore scholars agree that the saga comes from the German, and not the Scandinavian, tradition, but whether that tradition was in the form of songs or written texts is an open question. Also, it is quite possible the writers of the Thidrekssaga collated several texts or poems that were originally separate.
The Thidrekssaga is very useful in the study of Medieval German literature because it sometimes reflects an older tradition than the more famous German poems, and thus allows scholars to reconstruct earlier versions and relations between poems. At the same time it is considered a secondary source at best, a convenient collection of facts about other texts, instead of a piece of writing with a purpose of its own.
To me, the next logical step would be to see the Thidrekssaga as being much closer to the original sources of the other poems, and thus more important to the genesis of these stories than is generally assumed. In partiular, scholars should consider the possibility that the Nibelungenlied’s geography is made up by its writer. Also, the possibility that the Thidrekssaga contains historical source material for some kinglets from the 5th century, as Heinz Ritter claims, should be researched.
Here is one example of how the Thidrekssaga helps make sense of weird passages in other poems, and why its source material is considered older.
When Grimhild has managed to get her brothers to king Attila's court where she hopes to have them killed, she has trouble starting the actual fight because Attila and Dietrich refuse to help her. She has to provoke the Niflungen into starting the fight.
According to the Nibelungenlied
What sets off the battle is the message of the death of the squires. Hagen proposes a toast to the dead “and so repay the King's wine, with the young lord of the Huns as the first.”
This story has its weird moments. Why does Grimhild bring in young Ortlieb? What does the remark mean that she could not start the fight in any other way? Why did the teacher deserve such pitiful wages? Why even insert these events when the death of the squires is enough to set off the battle?
The Thidrekssaga has an answer. Here
The accepted theory about these two snippets is about as follows: Everyone knew that the fight broke out after Hagen killed the boy and his teacher, so the Nibelungenlied could not leave it out. On the other hand, the writer felt that Grimhild sacrificing her own son went too far, and the unprovoked killing of Ortlieb would make Hagen even more sinister. Thus he left out Grimhild’s demand that the boy hit Hagen, even though that meant the remark about the teacher did not make sense any more.
This proves that the Thidrekssaga contains an older version of the story where all the tiny details make sense. It also shows why the Thidrekssaga is such a help for the study of other German poems.
The Thidrekssaga is from about 1250, and the Nibelungenlied from about 1200. Still, it is clear that these stories were not invented around that time; they were a lot older. They come from the time of the Wandering of the Nations and the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, and were transmitted orally until they began to be written down in the late 12th and early 13h century.
In fact, these stories, so scholars say, are about famous men from the 5th century whose deeds were remembered by the Germans. Dietrich von Bern is traditionally identified as Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, who ruled over Italy 489-526. The Niflungen are traditionally identified as the Burgundians who were destroyed by Huns in 436. Attila the Hun is traditionally identified as Attila the Hun.
The problem is that these people did not live at the same time. Theodoric was born nineteen years afther the Burgundians died, and two years after Attila’s death. The traditional explanation is that the stories about Attila, Theodoric, and the Burgundians changed considerably over the years before they were written down as the sagas and poems we know.
These identifications are very old. The Quedlinburger Annalen
Frutolf of Michelsberg, writing around 1100, considers the chronological problem at length
In the year 801 Charlemagne had an equestrian statue that he thought depicted Theodoric shipped from Ravenna to his palace at Aachen
Therefore, for now the Quedlinburger Annalen form the earliest attestation of the identification of Dietrich as Theodoric (and Attila as Attila). I know of no historical source that considers the possibility that the Niflungen were Burgundians.
In the 1980s German amateur scholar Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg published his research about the Thidrekssaga and claimed the saga is a fairly accurate record of 5th- or 6th-century princes in the Rhineland. His main argument was the place names in the Thidrekssaga. Especially those that occur close to Dietrich and the Niflungen can be identified fairly easily in the Rhineland as long as you relinquish the idea that the saga is set in Italy.
Rome, for instance, the residence of Dietrich's evil uncle Ermenrik, is not the Italian Rome but Trier. Trier had been a Roman imperial capital in the 4th century and was therefore known as Roma Secunda. Bern is not Verona in Italy, but Bonn on the Rhine, which is also called Verona on medieval city seals. And so on.
If Ritter is right, Dietrich von Bern is not Theodoric the Great, the Niflungen are not the Burgundians, and (confusingly) Attila the Hun is not Attila the Hun. They were otherwise unknown kinglets around the Rhineland who never made it into a Latin source.
I tend to believe Ritter was on to something, and my plan was to study his theories and figure out if he was right. I am a specialist on the history of the Later Roman Empire, the period the saga is generally believed to have taken place in, both by the adherents of the old theory and by Ritter's supporters. 5th century chronicles don’t scare me, so that helps a little.
The Dietrich von Bern Forum (German) is the association of pro-Ritter amateur researchers. The quality of individual articles varies considerably, but despite that this is the place to be for further information about Ritter's ideas and their consequences.
The reception of Ritter’s theories was ... let’s call it chilly. Ancient Germanists did not take him seriously at all, and while they could have attempted to disprove Ritter's ideas they did not choose to do so. Today, academia still assumes Dietrich von Bern is Theoderic the Great and so on.
I’m not saying they’re wrong; maybe it was Ritter who completely missed the mark. What is striking, though, is the fact that nobody has even taken the trouble to formally gather arguments in favour of the traditional identifications. When I started my research back in 1994 I fully expected to find a 19th-century German book that explained in great detail why Dietrich was Theodoric, the Niflungen were the Burgundians, and so on. To my surprise, I did not find anything. I had to piece together the arguments myself.
When I started my research in 1994, Aad Quak, then teaching Ancient German studies and Old Norse at Amsterdam university, told me he didn’t believe a word of what Ritter was saying, but invited me to try and prove it — and then helped me considerably in getting to know the Icelandic and German sagas and their problems. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
Still, maybe something is changing. Although the English Wikipedia page mentions Ritter only briefly and rather disparagingly, the German one takes him much more seriously, and discusses his theory alongside other theories. This is a welcome change, and something that occurred only over the past few years.
There are seven manuscripts of the Thidrekssaga: the 13th-century parchment Membrame (abbreviated Mb.), generally considered the oldest and best one, the 17th-century paper Icelandic A, B, D, and E manuscripts, which differ slightly from the Membrame but are clearly descended from it, and two manuscripts of the 15th-century Old Swedish Svava (sometimes abbreviated Sv.), which is a much shorter summary of (most likely) the Membrame. Ritter feels that the Svava is older and more important than the Membrame, but it is generally assumed he’s wrong here, and I concur. Two other old parchment manuscripts were lost in 1728 in a great fire in Kopenhagen.
The normalised Old Norse text of the saga by Guðni Jónsson can be found here. It is mostly based on the Membrame, but chapters 1-20 are missing from that manuscript, and A and B are used there.
That text, just like this site, uses the chapter numbering of the Membrame manuscript, the de-facto standard of referring to the saga. In this system there are 441 chapters, most of them not too long, and modern translators and retellers tend to group them in sections, where each sections tells one well-rounded story.
I do the same, though I am using my own sectioning system which differs slightly from all others. Here is a list of sections that are at least partly summarised:
My Old Norse is lousy. Therefore I mostly use the German translation of Von der Hagen (1815), republished and annotated by Ritter (1989). Die Thidrekssaga, oder Dietrich von Bern und die Niflungen, übersetzt durch Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen. Mit neuen geographischen Anmerkungen versehen von Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg. Otto Reichl Verlag, St.-Goar, 1989. I started comparing Von der Hagen with the source text, and I found the Von der Hagen and Jónsson versions re occasionally different. One more thing to worry about ...
There is an English translation, The Saga of Thidrek of Bern. Trans. by Edward R. Haymes. Garland Library of Medieval Literature 56, Ser. B. New York: Garland, 1988, but I never found a copy, and now it’s $500 on Amazon. Never mind.
Once the summary is done I need to re-read Ritter and add notes about his topographical identifications and other ideas.
Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg, Die Nibelungen zogen nordwärts, Herbig, München-Berlin, 1981
Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg, Dietrich von Bern - König zu Bonn, Herbig, München-Berlin, 1982
Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg, Sigfrid ohne Tarnkappe, Herbig, München - Berlin, 1983
Then I need to re-read the work of R.C. Boer, an Amsterdam professor from aroind 1900 who did considerable research into the internal structure of the saga (and whose work, because he taught in Amsterdam, was present in the library when I did my original research all those years ago). I also need to add notes about his ideas.
I am fairly certain Boer is on to something, but I need to be able to see exactly which chapters he ascribes to which redactor or interpolator. Some PHP magic, and an exhaustive data file, is likely required.
R.C. Boer, Die Sagen von Ermanarich und Dietrich von Bern, Halle, 1910, digital version.
R.C. Boer, Über die Handschriften und Redactionen der Thidrekssaga, in: Arkiv för nordisk filologi VII, 1890, p. 205 ff., digital version (download PDF).
R.C. Boer, Thidrekssaga und Niflungasaga, in: Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie XXV, p. 433 ff.; can’t find digital version. I found it and downloaded it from archive.org. That site is doing a great job, but it should note the years or numbers of periodicals in the search results.