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Continental Business

Michel Aaij

Auburn University Montgomery

The Heroic Age 2010

Discussed in this review:

  • Eric Vanneufville (2008). Heliand: L’Évangile de la mer du Nord. Turnhout: Brepols. ISBN 978–2–503–52866–3.
  • Gesine Mierke (2008). Memoria als Kulturtransfer: Der altsächsische Heliand zwischen Späntike und Frühmittelalter. Köln: Böhlau. ISBN 978–3–412–20090–9.
  • Clemens Burchhardt, ed. (2007). Heliand: Die Verdener altsächsische Evangelium-Dichtung von 830 übertragen ins 21. Jahrhundert. Verden: Ernst Helbig. ISBN 978–3000211843.
  • Willem van der Meiden (2008). Christus tussen IJssel en Elbe: Inculturatiemotieven in de Heliand. Heerenveen: Protestantse Pers. ISBN 9789085250258.

§1.  The Heliand continues to be a popular and sometimes contentious text. Lovers of the old Germanic days saw in it a Germanization of Christianity, and regarded the text as an heroic epic in which Christ leads a comitatus of loyal followers to the point where he is not very Christlike anymore—a slightly more Christianized Beowulf. Modern religious critics have argued that the Christianity of the Heliand, while “inculturated” with the values and expressions of the Germanic world of the eighth and ninth centuries, remains very orthodox. Outside of Germany and the Netherlands, and outside of scholarly circles, the poem does not attract that much attention—two books by G. Ronald Murphy, of the late 1980searly 1990s, and James Cathey’s 2002 text and commentary are still the most recent book-length publications in English on the poem, and it has not made its way onto American syllabuses.

§2.  In the poem’s modern history, religious and nationalistic perspectives played immensely important roles in the forming of interpretation. In the nineteenth century, the wave of German nationalism led many German scholars to argue that the Heliand represented a purer form of Christianity and contained an essential statement on the German national spirit. This reading was followed, in the late-nineteenth-century debate over ultramontanism, by interpretations from confessional scholars that it presented a Christianity as yet untainted by the Roman church of the Counter Reformation. Even before the Nazis came to power other German scholars heralded the Germanic warrior spirit of the poem, seeing its Christianity as the kind of veneer signaled by contemporary critics of Beowulf as well, who saw in the Anglo-Saxon epic a “true” representation of the Germanic past hijacked by monks.

§3.  On the European continent, the poem’s continued popularity is confirmed by two German, one French, and two Dutch books. From Germany comes a translation (of sorts—see below) in a hefty tome, in hardback, with full-color photographs, as well as an academic study of the poem. From France comes a new French translation of the poem, with an ambitious introduction. From the Netherlands come a new translation and an accompanying study of the function of the poem in the conversion era.

§4.  Clemens Burchhardt, a provost in Verden, produced a substantial book containing the text in Old Saxon and in German translation, surrounded by a number of brief essays. From the beginning Burchardt’s dual interest is obvious. First, he wants to establish that Verden is indeed the birthplace of the Heliand; second, he argues that the so-called Verden massacre is highly exaggerated and that the Heliand, contrary to the claims Burchhardt heard in school (before the Second World War), is not a text symbolizing the slaughter of Germania but rather a glorious proof of God’s active involvement with the world. Burchhardt attempts a redemption of Verden, which is known as much as an old Saxon settlement as it is for the Sachsenhain, a Nazi-era monument remembering the alleged 4,500 victims of Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons. Rather than an alleged slaughter place, according to Burchhardt, Verden should be seen as central in the development of a Christian Germany. These arguments lead up to Burchhardt’s exaltation of the poem as a pure expression of an orthodox Christianity, in which he professes his belief.

§5.  Scholarly readers of Burchhardt’s book will be quickly disappointed. In the first pages, he admits knowing very little Old Saxon, and in some cases it is clear that his scholarship does not extend far enough—when he states, for instance, that all the sources known to him suggest 830 as the date of theHeliand‘s composition (10), when there is no such agreement in scholarly circles, and just as little agreement on the geographical provenance (equally split, it seems, between Mainz, Fulda, Verden, and Corvey). The firmness of the date and the place claimed by Burchhardt have an interesting result: he can give a name and a face to the author, whom he identifies as Heligand, bishop of Verden in the 830s, and to whom a monument was dedicated in 2005 on the author’s initiative. Burchhardt even identifies the author’s home, on a model of the Verden cathedral and surroundings (18).

§6.  The main content of the book is a text and translation of the Heliand, but unfortunately I can be brief. The text comes from the online archives Bibliotheca Augustana1 and Project Gutenberg.2 The translation is a revision of translations made by Karl Simrock (1856) and Felix Genzmer (before 1959), and syntactically and lexically follows the Old Saxon verse quite literally, giving rise to the kind of awkward translation some of us produced in our first Beowulf seminar. The text and translation are followed by a few pages of notes. This again is followed by translations of the sections fromGenesis from Vatican Excerpt V3 and the Anglo-Saxon Genesis B, which according to Sievers in 1875 were of Old Saxon origin. Thus, the book’s main content, somewhat disappointingly, adds nothing new, and I wonder whether this wouldn’t lessen the interest of German book-buyers in procuring a copy of this expensive book.

§7.  Of greater interest are brief essays by Konrad Algermissen (1889–1964) and Johannes Rathofer (1925–1998), essays written for other purposes; both these eminent scholars died long before the book came to press. Both essays are concerned with the “Germanness” of the Heliand, especially in its reception history in Germany. Especially Rathofer argues strongly against the idea that the Heliand is a “Germanization” of Christianity, a thesis formed in the midst of the nationalist nineteenth century and reiterated until after the Second World War. Algermissen (the essay is a selection from his 1934 book Germanentum und Christentum) states explicitly that the Christianity presented in the poem is orthodox. Both essays establish in no uncertain terms that any reading and interpretation of the poem still has to come to terms with Germany’s past.

§8.  Gesine Mierke’s Memoria als Kulturtransfer is a doctoral dissertation—as German as it gets, heavily footnoted and very academic in tone and content. Of all the books under review here, this is probably the most useful one for academic libraries. It presents a useful overview of modern scholarship of the poem, and Mierke outlines two approaches to the poem taken by recent scholars: Klaus Gantert suggests that the poet was a learned churchman, a Carolingian Renaissance man presumably, who in the interest of a missionary strategy based on accommodation translates, as it were, the orthodox Christian story into an Old Saxon account using the traditional Germanic literary elements (in agreement with Murphy, for example). On the other hand, scholars such as Harald Haferland argue it is rather the other way around: a Saxon singer composes the poem, aided by a member of the clergy to ensure orthodoxy. Mierke signals another problem scholars have struggled with: if the Heliand was to be used in missionary activities, how are we to envision this, given that the poem, in a “not-yet established vernacular,” attempts to describe the thematically difficult matter of Christ’s life (17).

§9.  Mierke spends almost thirty pages on the manuscripts of the poem, in a well-written and useful chapter that also includes detailed discussion of the aforementioned Vatican excerpt V, which contains three sections from an Old Saxon translation of Genesis (translated in Burchhardt, see above) and a section from the Heliand. She devotes a section to the so-called Praefatio as well, a later Latin text appended to the poem as a preface. The Praefatio comes to us in a 1562 book but is now generally accepted as dating to the ninth century; its dedication to Ludouuicus piisimus Augustus has been read as referring to either Louis the Pious or Louis the German, and thus is of great interest to scholars interested in fixing a firm date for the poem. Mierke here stays uncommited, though later she places the text in Louis the German’s reign (89).

§10.  The third chapter of the book consists of extensive description and analysis of the politics of ninth-century East Francia, and this is a useful and well-organized chapter, which carefully outlines the various events and tensions of the era, especially in relation to the idea of ordo, in the continuation of Charlemagne’s politics of rex et sacerdos. Mierke plots the career of Rabanus Maurus (stopping short of claiming him as the author of the Praefatio), and discusses the concept of theFürstenspiegel—Mierke situates the poem among the nobility, rather than in the middle of a somewhat undefined popular audience. The lengthy chapter (over a hundred pages) is called “Karolingische Translatio imperii et studii: Die Institutionalisierung von ordodisciplina und humilasin altsächsischen Heliand,” but one has to wait for sixty pages to read the first direct discussion of (some terms from) the poem, and a few more to get a clear thesis: the poem’s terminology, according to Mierke, should not be seen as the poet’s adaptation to a Saxon audience for the purpose of conversion, but rather indicates the oral expression of those belonging to the elite, the nobility, who in a monastic setting can recount a life of Christ structured by the organizing principles of ordo,disciplina, and humilitas; the Heliand enables them to memorize the gospel in the vernacular. TheHeliand, in this reading, is not for conversion but for confirmation.

§11.  While the first half of the book is mainly historical and general, the rest of the book argues, using many examples from the poem, that the Heliand participates in the process of translating late-classical cultural knowledge to the middle ages, and attempts to show the poem’s reliance on classical rhetorical models and tropes. In the chapter “Memoria” Mierke brings together a number of strands developed in the book. The Heliand builds on a classical tradition of memory as a means of cultural transference of knowledge, now set in a Christian framework in which the memory of the life of Christ and the selection of a number of liturgically important scenes are structuring elements that allow for a meaningful reading of history. Memory also entails the continued process of the Carolingian translatii imperii et studii, a program initially started to organize and unify the Frankish empire, and now continued among the clergy and nobility in the Saxon lands with the goal to unify Frankish and Saxon populations. In this historical process, the Heliand memorializes as well as criticizes the violent submission of Saxons under Charlemagne and, later, such violent temporary reversals signaled by the Stellinga uprising of the 840s; the poem’s intent here is to subsume history under the aegis of Christ and his earthly representatives—an intent rendered practical in the reiteration of his life, aided and enabled by the memoria and ruminatio of textual production and reading/reciting of the Heliand. Mierke’s book is not for the faint-hearted; following the tradition of German scholarship it is massive and inclusive, and its argument takes a long time to develop. At the same time, it is a very legible book, with a good bibliography (but no index)—at least in comparison to many other German dissertations I’ve looked at—and deserves attention from the serious scholar of the poem and the history of the period.

§12.  From Eric Vanneufville comes a French translation of the poem. Published by Brepols, this is a scholarly looking tome, though it quickly becomes evident that the book, with a relatively short introduction and two-page bibliography, is somewhat lacking in comprehensiveness. However, that a French scholar would translate the poem is surely an indication of the Heliand‘s continued widespread interest outside of Germany, and his reading of the poem is decidedly different from the current Dutch and German interpretations.

§13.  Vanneufville treats the Heliand as a historical allegory in which Christ becomes a Germanic overlord—a very common reading, of course, but Vanneufville goes further, when he claims that the poem has a tragic note (12) announcing the end of the Germanic era, a tragedy at odds with the hopeful message of the gospel, stressed so often by some of the German scholars mentioned above. This allegorical treatment, however, often goes awry quickly: if the loyal servants of Christ (such as the good thief on the cross) become worthy of their Germanic overlord (Vanneufville constantly stresses the Germanness of the tribal loyalty to a warlord, a value he sees everywhere in the text as overriding all other concerns), and if the text stresses (in my opinion, Vanneufville reads this correctly) proper submission to a Christ who is also an image of a Frankish ruler (Charlemagne, Louis the Pious), then the Germanic overlord has all-too easily become a Frankish ruler. Moreover, if one of the main functions of the poem is to enlist the average recent German convert to Christianity in line with Frankish rule, then why would the same text, according to Vanneufville (and with him, Michel Rouche, who introduces the book) so tragically and so pointedly remind that audience constantly of the sufferings inflicted by a violent Christian mission?

§14.  These reminders of suffering are easily indicated by Vanneufville. For instance, when Christ describes the horrors of Judgment Day, “il est difficile ici de ne pas y voir une condamnation de la conquête carolingienne militaire des pays saxons, par les armes, du grand nombre de morts qu’elle a causés” (“it is difficult not to see here a condemnation of the Carolingian military conquest of the Saxon lands, with arms, of the large number of deaths it caused,” 9). One could see that there, of course, but why would one? I mean, why would one encourage an audience of grudgingly converted tribes that the wars that converted them are a sign of the end of times, and why remind them so often?

§15.  One problem here is audience. According to Vanneufville, linguistic and historical evidence places the Heliand in the early ninth century in the Frisian area; the text, he suggests (though there isn’t much explicit discussion of this topic), was devised to convince a Frisian audience, by which he presumably means the Frisian folc (whatever that may be), that Christ was a stronger magician than Wodan and that submission to the Franks is a divine injunction. Hence, I surmise, Vanneufville’s emphasis on Christ’s magic. He refers to Murphy, for instance, who in 1992 argued that many references in the poem to Christ’s activities should be seen as leaning on a Germanic discourse of magic (Murphy 1992, 205–20), but I don’t believe Murphy wished to argue that Christ was a magician. For Vanneufville, such a characterization places the Heliand in a much more popular context than most modern scholars allow; in effect, the more or less monastic and noble audience envisioned by for instance Mierke would not even be likely in the geographical area of Frisia, since it lacked the religious infrastructure of church and monastery. I find myself in agreement with Mierke and many others, and think that Vanneufville on the one hand overestimates the “Frisianness” of the Heliandand on the other underestimates the theological sophistication of the poem.

§16.  Finally, many Heliand scholars wish to identify the author, and so does Vanneufville: he arrives at the conclusion that the legendary eighth-century Frisian bard Bernlef should be considered as a serious candidate. It’s an interesting possibility, of course, but speaking against it is the necessary early dating of the poem; for Vanneufville, the closer to 822 the better, but many consider the poem to be more recent than that, and he does not present much evidence to support his thesis. Vanneufville is not the first to propose Bernlef, and he won’t be the last—the Dutch translator of the poem, Jaap van Vredendaal, also toyed with the idea, but stays on higher ground, stating that it is an interesting possibility but can never be proven (2006).

§17.  The translation follows the original relatively faithfully, in short prose paragraphs. This isn’t the place for a detailed investigation of, for instance, how Vanneufville translates Germanic into Romance. I do note, for instance, that he translates “burg” as “site fortifié” or “site fort”—poetically awkward, but linguistically accurate, for reasons already explained by Murphy (1992, xiv); possibly Vanneufville’s occasional “site fort” is an echo of Murphy’s “hill-fort.” An English translation is much easier here, of course; see, for instance, the “Rome-burg” of Mariana Scott’s translation, originally published 1966 (Scott 1979, 3). Unfortunately, the book as a whole is marred by less than perfect copy-editing. I found the occasional grammatical slip in the translation, and many little (type-setting?) errors: in the four footnotes on p. 18 are at least three typographical errors. Footnotes refer inconsistently to each other, and bibliographical citations are incomplete and inconsistent (compare 18 n. 7 and 21 n. 11): I expected different from Brepols. On the whole, the translation aims to maintain the tone of the original—which produces a relatively faithful if not very readable text.

§18.  From the Netherlands come two recent, connected books for a general audience. The new Dutch translation of the poem is now in its second printing: Jaap van Vredendaal’s Heliand: Een Christusgedicht uit de vroege middeleeuwen (Amsterdam: SUN) was first published in 2006, reprinted in 2007, and has received positive reviews in the Netherlands.4 One of the contributors to the book is Willem van der Meiden, author of Christus tussen IJssel en Elbe (in turn, Vredendaal wrote the first chapter for van der Meiden’s book, on the poem’s language). Both publications are indicative of a measure of popular Dutch interest in the poem. Neither is directly for an academic audience—Vredendaal’s translation does not include the original language, and van der Meiden’s book has a popular tone (sometimes slipping into unwarranted colloquialism) and lacks, unfortunately, much apparatus—though both books would well serve an educational purpose in the Dutch universities where, I am told, Old Frisian is no longer being spoken in the hallways.

§19.  Vredendaal’s translation is praiseworthy. He handles the syntax deftly and achieves a consistently readable, vernacular tone, that manages at the same time to convey the exalted and occasionally epic style of the original. Compared to the French translation of Vanneufville and the German patchwork, if I may say so, of Burchhardt, it is very enjoyable. In its approach and execution, it strikes me as very similar to Murphy’s 1992 translation, also a very readable and teachable text. Honestly, the more I read it, the more I like it—it is one of those rare translations that preserves authenticity while not sounding dated. Simply put, it sounds really good.

§20.  Much of van der Meiden’s book serves as a very competent and interesting introduction of the text to a contemporary, non-academic audience. Aspects of Germanic culture and civilization are explained, useful comparisons are drawn between how missionary work was performed in the ninth and the nineteenth century (with a reference to Dutch colonialism and the mission in Southern Africa), and textual aspects are highlighted with reference to and extensive citation from Vredendaal’s translation.

§21.  The “inculturation” of the title takes up the main part of the book. Van der Meiden discusses the many ways in which the Heliand‘s author sought to connect the text and message of the gospel to a Germanic audience (as yet undefined). The ancestry and status of the Christ, as well as that of the other main characters in the text, is translated into that of a nobleman. Christ is described as a noble and powerful character and his acts agree with this status. Especially his self-awareness of his fate, his autarky as van der Meiden terms it, is hailed since it allows for an explanation of his accepting his fate. Van der Meiden discusses how the landscape and culture are adapted to ninth-century Northwestern Europe and how the wihti, the Germanic “evil spirits,” are connected to Satan in an attempt at syncretism. In chapter 6 he focuses on baptism as a theological principle in the poem, and proposes that this is to be seen in the light of an attempt at a more profound conversion than that dictated by the sword or the ruler. In that same chapter he defines an audience: in his view, these are the members of the ruling classes and the clergy, who have committed to the new faith but possibly lack sufficient in-depth explanation of its central tenets (73). This explanation comes in the form of theHeliand, and while this is not an original thought, it bears repeating that the poem can hardly have been composed solely for either a monastic audience or a purely “popular” (that is, illiterate and untrained) audience. Chapter 8 is my personal favorite: van der Meiden sketches, in narrative form, what a performance of the poem may have looked like, defines the audiences as young noblemen familiar with the insides of a monastery, and describes how and with what hope and expectations they may be sent on their way to live and preach the new message. He also notes, usefully, in the next chapter that there remains an alterity between the old and the new ways in the treatment of the leader, the drohtin Christ—”acculturation has its limits” (114).

§22.  The publication of these two Dutch books is praiseworthy. I wish that they had been more comprehensive and had included more material for the scholar of the poem, but a good translation of and a well-written introduction or companion to the poem are better than nothing—and better than a patchwork or awkward translation and ambitious but finally not well-founded theories about it. After all, the market for such books remains small, and van Vredendaal and van der Meiden are to be applauded for their efforts to enlarge that market—if I were employed in the Netherlands, I would find their publication a great excuse to start teaching the poem right away, in literature, history, and religion classes. Noteworthy is also that van der Meiden’s book is published by a formerly socialist press, and van Vredendaal’s book is published by a Protestant press. As in recent scholarship on St. Boniface, non-Catholics are taking a new and much more objective look at pre-Protestant history, an interesting and beneficial process.

§23.  The interest in the Heliand in Northwestern Europe is heartening. To derive a compendium of scholarly positions on the poem is impossible on the basis of the books reviewed, though many of Mierke’s well-researched statements are worthwhile—we are dealing with a poem written probably in the 840s, in the surroundings of Mainz and under the probable influence of Rabanus Maurus. What the poem’s intended audience was is not clear-cut, but given the theological sophistication and given the propagation of an orthodox Christianity which allows for a remembrance of violence but subsumes it in a process of acculturation, aided by liturgical reiteration, we are to seek such an audience among the literate clergy and the possibly literate nobility. Germanic poetics are employed to reinforce both the cultural and the liturgical relevance of the message, but it is unlikely that the Heliand would have been primarily a conversion text, “preached” to the masses. Mierke agrees with van der Meiden here, though he presents the same subject matter in a more vernacular tone—apparently the Heliand still manages to draw different readers and readerships.


1.   http://www.hs-augsburg.de/~harsch/germanica/Chronologie/09Jh/Heliand/hel_intr.html [Back]

2. There are various texts found searching for “Project Gutenberg” and “Heliand,” but the Gutenberg site itself (www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page) does not seem to have the text.  [Back]

3.   Excerpt V, Codex Vaticanus Pal. Lat. 1447.  [Back]

4.   See, for instance, Mijderwijk 2007.  [Back]

Works Cited

Cathey, James E. 2002. Heliand: text and commentary. Morgantown: U of West Virginia P.  [Back]

Mijderwijk, Leon. 2007. Review of Heliand: een Christusgedicht uit de vroege middeleeuwen.Historiënhttp://www.historien.nl/?p=2809.  [Back]

Murphy, G. Ronald. 1989. The Saxon savior: the Germanic transformation of the Gospel in the ninth-century Heliand. New York: Oxford UP.  [Back]

———. 1992. The Heliand: the Saxon Gospel, a translation and commentary. New York: Oxford UP.  [Back]

Scott, Mariana. 1979. The Heliand, translated from the Old Saxon. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P.  [Back]

van Vredendaal, Jaap. 2006. Bernlef mogelijk auteur Heliand. Friesch Dagblad 9 December 2006.http://www.frieschdagblad.nl/index.asp?artid=31755.  [Back]

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