The Northern Way

Song and Legend From the Middle Ages


Page 1

There are three classical periods in German literature. (1)

1. The Old High German Period, culminating about 600 A.D. The chief development of this period is the epic legend and poetry. As this literature remained largely unwritten, it is all lost except one fragment, The Song of Hildebrand.

2. The Middle High German Period, culminating about 1200 A.D. This was in Germany, as elsewhere in Europe, a time of abundant literary activity. It is the period of the renaissance of the heroic legends of the first period, and their remaking into developed epic poetry; of the writing of romances of chivalry and of antiquity; of the development of the lyric poetry of the Minnesingers; of the growth of popular fables and tales and of the drama. In short, all the forms of literary production known to the Middle Ages flourished in Germany in this period.

3. The Modern Classical Period, culminating about 1800 in the work of Goethe, Schiller, and the many poets and scholars surrounding them.


The fragment of the Song of Hildebrand is the sole surviving portion of the heroic literature of the first period. The story runs that "Hildebrand had fought in his youth in Italy, married there, and left a three-year son, when he was driven by Odoacer to Attila, king of the Huns. After years, in which the son grew up to manhood, Hildebrand re-entered Italy as a great chief in the army of Theodoric. His son, Hadubrand was then a chief combatant in Odoacer's army." They challenge each other to combat, and though the fragment ends before the fight is over, it is thought from other references that Hildebrand is victor.


I have heard tell, they called each other forth,

Hildebrand, Hadubrand, among the hosts.

Son, father, made them ready for the strife.

Donned their war shirts, and girded on their swords

Over ringed mail, rode, heroes, to the fight.

Hildebrand, Herbrand's son, the elder man

And wiser, spake, well skilled in questionings

Asked in few words, who among all the folk

His father was, "or of what stock thou be?

Tell, and I'll give a mail of triple web:

Child in this realm, I knew its families."

Hadubrand spoke, Hildebrand's son: "The old

And wise among our folk tell me my father

Was Hildebrand, my name is Hadubrand.

My father went to the east to fly the hate

Of Otaker, with Dietrich and his bands.

A slender bride abiding in the lands

He left in bower, with an ungrown child,

And weapons masterless. Eastward he went

When sorrow came to Deitrich, friendless man,

My kinsman Otaker became his foe.

Most famed of warriors, since Dietrich fell,

Foremost in every field, he loved the fight,

Praised by the bold, I doubt not he is dead."

"Lord God of men," spake Hildebrand, "from heaven

Stay strife between two men so near in blood!"

Then twisted from his arm the bracelet ring

That once the King of Huns had given him,

"I give it you in token of my love."

Spake Hadubrand, the son of Hildebrand,

"At the spear's point I take of you such gifts,

Point against point. No comrade thou, old Hun,

With sly, enticing words wouldst win me near:

My answer to thee is with cast of spear.

Thou'rt old. This cunning out of age is bred.

Over the Midland Sea came foes who said,

Hildebrand, son of Herbrand, he is dead."

Hildebrand, son of Herbrand, spake again:

"Thine arms show that in this land thou couldst not gain

A liberal leader or a royal friend.

Now well away. Great God, fate's evil end!

For sixty years, exile in stranger lands,

Summer and winter with spear-darting bands,

Never once leg bound within city wall,

I come back by my own son's hand to fall,

Hewn by his sword, or be his murderer,----

But if thy strength hold, thou canst readily

Win of the brave his arms, spoil of the slain,

When thine by right." Said Hildebrand, "Now, worst

Of Ostrogoths be he who holds me back!

My head is for the fray.

Judge comrades who look on, which of us wins

The fame, best throws the dart, and earns the spoil."

The ashen spears then sped, struck in the shields

With their keen points, and down on the white shields

The heavy axes rang with sounding blows,

Shattering their rims, the flesh behind stood firm...........

-----Tr. by Morley

In the second, or Middle High German Period, the heroic legends of early times were revived and formed the subject matter of many epic and semi-epic poems. These legends have been classified into six several cycles of romances: (2)

1. The Frankish cycle contains the stories of Siegfried, the Sigurd of the Scandinavian tradition.

2. The Burgundian cycle contains King Gunther.

3. The Ostrogoth cycle contains Dietrich, Theodoric, and Hildebrand.

4. The Hungarian cycle, to which belongs Attila or Etzel, and Rudiger.

5. The Lombard cycle, to which belongs King Rother, King Otnit, and Wolfdietrich.

6. The North Saxon cycle, to which belongs the tale of Gudrun


1. See Scherer's "History of German Literature." Vol. I., page 16.  (back)

2. Cf. Morley's "English Writers." Vol. III., pp. 153-4.  (back)

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