In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Nibelungenlied

  • Introduction
  • Editions
  • Online Resources
  • Translations
  • Bibliographies
  • Philological Considerations Specific to the Nibelungenlied
  • Other Philological Considerations: Source and “Oral-Written” Studies and Prosody/Metrics
  • Introductions/Overviews
  • Essay Collections
  • Reception

Medieval Studies The Nibelungenlied
Francis G. Gentry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0246


The long-line strophic work the Nibelungenlied was compiled about or shortly after the year 1200, and it stands out metrically as well as in terms of content in the decades of the so-called classical period of Middle High German literature (c. 1180–1240), which was otherwise dominated by courtly-style epics (Arthurian and others) and courtly love songs. Of course, courtly influence is not totally absent from the Nibelungenlied. There was probably no one single poet, but rather a series of poets and compilers, and since anonymity is in the nature of the heroic genre itself, it is not unusual that the poet or poets remain unidentified. What is interesting, however, is that, in view of the apparent “popularity” of the work, the poet is not identified by contemporaries either—or if he is, then not as the poet of the Nibelungenlied. Given the present state of available information, this is a problem that will remain unsolved, as will the exact place of the first written composition—a possibility would be at the court of Wolfger von Erla during his tenure as bishop of Passau (1191–1204). Originally based upon older oral traditions, the myth of Siegfried and the story of the destruction of the Burgundians at the court of the Huns, dating back to the time of the migration of nations in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, today the Nibelungenlied is known only in the versions that have come down to us in thirty-seven manuscripts and manuscript fragments dating from the 13th to the 16th century (see Manuscripts and Editions), by which time, however, it had fallen almost totally into oblivion. The modern interest in the epic was rekindled in 1755 when manuscript (or Codex) C was rediscovered in Hohenems castle in Vorarlberg (Austria). Since then, interest in the Nibelungenlied, both as a medieval work and as an inspirational source for nationalistic propaganda as well as modern adaptations of the Nibelungen material (also in film) has continued well into the 21st century. In 2009 the Nibelungenlied was placed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.


As noted in the Introduction, the work exists in thirty-seven complete and partial manuscripts, stemming primarily from the southern German area, and dating from the first half of the 13th century to the beginning of the 16th. The three major manuscripts are: A (Hohenems-Münchener manuscript, in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek [Munich] Cgm 34), last quarter of the 13th century; B (St. Gallen Handschrift, in the monastery library of St. Gall, Cod. Sang. 857), around the middle of the 13th century; and C (Hohenems-Laßbergische/Donaueschinger manuscript, now in the Badische Landesbibliothek [Karlsruhe] Cod. Donaueschingen 63), second quarter of the 13th century. To these can be added D, a complete manuscript from the 15th century. In turn, the manuscripts can be divided into two major groups, the -not group (represented by the complete manuscripts A and B) and the -liet group (represented by the complete manuscript C), so named because of the last lines in each group; for example, AB has “daz ist der Nibelunge not” (that is the downfall of the Nibelungs), while C has “daz ist der Nibelunge liet” (that is the lay of the Nibelungs). Contained in each complete manuscript is another work, Diu Klage (The Lament), which portrays the aftermath of the great battles and loss of life depicted in the Nibelungenlied, but which will not be dealt with in this bibliography. The D manuscript is a “mixed” manuscript in that it, although complete, contains sections from both the -not and the -liet groups. The signatures of the manuscripts were assigned by the Classical philologist Karl Lachmann, who became the “father” of German philology. It was he who labeled the Leithandschriften (primary manuscripts) A, B, and C, from which follows the subsequent manuscript labeling (upper case letters for complete manuscripts and lower case ones for fragments). Further, his edition of A (see Editions), although long repudiated, is a milestone in the development of textual criticism as a method of Germanic philology, which was then in its infancy. Three of the eleven complete manuscripts (A, B, C) date back to the 13th century, each of which passes on another revision of the text. Manuscript A, the shortest and least cohesive of the three major manuscripts, was assumed by Lachmann to be the oldest. Manuscript B, however, is actually some decades older than A. The oldest manuscript, C, represents a revised and expanded version of the text. These three manuscripts from the 1st century after the genesis of the written poem are not only the earliest, but at the same time the most important manuscripts for the constitution of the text.

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