The position of women in the medieval German state in the 13th century is a complex one when viewed through an historical lens that looks at gender and sex (using feminist theory) to understand this past era. What are the factors that shaped gender dynamics, as trends from the end of the Roman period to the time when the epic the Niebelungenlied was composed? Who was its audience? What ideology or contradictory impulses does it contain? As Halsall (2004) contends, noting feminist scholarship in this area, Julia Smith has argued that writing a more gendered history of the period from around 300 to 800 involves abandoning empire-wide grand narratives in favor of a point of view . . . that is domestic and . . .often fragmented. (Halsall: 17) The Niebelungenlied, with a date of composition around the beginning of the 13th century, can be found today in English translation in both verse and prose forms. This paper, working from an English prose translation of the epic, will focus on the role(s) of women in early medieval German culture.
[...] Nonetheless, the centrality of these exchanges in structuring society and the means by which they demanded the gendering of all subjects cannot be denied.” (Halsall: 32) A key problem that Siegfried faces is that in invisibly aiding Gunther in the seduction of Brunhild, he casts aspersions on Gunther's ability to proclaim himself a true warrior king in full masculine splendor, and secondly, Brunhild questions, as Salmon (1976) asserts, Gunther's reasoning in enabling an outsider to marry his sister. Thus, this shows defiance on the part of Brunhild, similar to the defiance that will characterize the portrayal of Kriemhilt within the epic. [...]
[...] depended heavily on the image of the patronus, the master controlling not only his family but also his estates, tenants, and clients.” (Halsall: 23) One can argue that Gunther's dilemma with regard to Siegfried's acknowledgement of his dominance or not, could stem from the late Roman world view and its ensuing fragmentation; the way that ideas central to or opposed to late Roman power structures are found in Indo-European epics, generally, with gender and feudal political discussion a key area of symbolic representation of great political changes occurring. [...]
[...] Secondly, the ideas that women in power can be dangerous to men, which is a theme found much later in Shakespeare's Macbeth (which is a play set in a medieval time period) through their ambitions, when they are in league with warrior-kings, and must be put in their place in the end via tragic punishment, could be a literary means of exploring social context in the struggle between men and women, and their private/public roles in feudal Germany or in later Renaissance England. [...]
[...] (Pafenberg, 1995; Poor, 2001) The struggles of women for autonomy and power antagonistic to the codes reveal conflicting visions of gender in the 13th century, and the centuries leading up to the time the epic was composed in its 13th century form. There is a rise in court culture as well as the emergence of low vernacular in German society, which gives more room to female agency and readership, especially in relation to mystical texts. (Myer, 2007; Poor, 2001) These emergent social changes are juxtaposed to the warrior tradition in High German culture, such as is found in the Niebelungenlied, which can be described as a mythic-Christian retelling of variant epics from the Roman period forward. [...]
[...] In the dominant and the emergent cultures, both, “Elite masculinity was bound up with violent sport—hunting—which could be incorporated into both models: the civilized man mastering nature on the one hand, association with the prowess of the beast of prey on the other.” (Halsall: 23) Is Siegfried, the outsider (the barbarian) in the context of the German feudal aristocracy, killed in a hunt for numerous symbolic, perhaps competing reasons? From late Roman times, the hunt is not only equated with masculinity, but in the case of Siegfried, is also a marker of his outsider status; the European notion of the male, more symbolically allied with hunting than the Roman. [...]
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