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“Dread Customs”

Inversion and Enforcement of Gender Roles in the Niebelungenlied (Part 1)

By Karl E. H. Seigfried

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.

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.

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