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Dietrich von Bern and “Historical” Narrative in the German Middle Ages:  An Investigation of Strategies for Establishing Credibility in Four Poems of the Middle High German Dietrichepik

Jonathan Martin

Senior Honors Thesis Submitted for German and MEMS, Michigan University, 2010

Who was Dietrich von Bern? If one were to ask a German-speaker from the Middle Ages, one might receive two different answers. The majority of German-speakers would probably say that Dietrich von Bern was an exile from his kingdom of Verona (Bern). He had been driven away by his uncle Ermenrich and lived in exile at the court of Etzel (Attila), King of the Huns, for thirty years before eventually reconquering his country. In addition to this story, which I will refer to as the exile-saga (in German, Fluchtsage), they would have said things about Dietrich which seem to us today to belong to a world of fantasy, namely that Dietrich went on numerous adventures wherein he fought dwarves, giants, and dragons. A few, especially clerics, might have then supplied a different picture, saying that Dietrich von Bern was an Ostrogothic king and Arian heretic who was born after Attila‟s and Ermenrich‟s (Ermanaric) deaths and who invaded Italy at the behest of the Byzantine emperor Zenon in order to drive the usurping barbarian Odoacer from Rome. There he ruled for thirty years before engaging in a persecution of Catholics and dying a sudden death at the hands of a vengeful God. One would receive, in short, two images of Dietrich, images which are not compatible. How is one to reconcile them?
It is important to recognize that these two ideas of Dietrich von Bern derive from different sources of transmission. The story which clerics might tell is based on Latin chronicles about the Ostrogothic king Theoderic the Great, who ruled in Italy from 493 until his death in 526, and was indeed born around the time of Attila‟s death and long after the fourth century Gothic King Ermanaric.1 The majority response derives from a series of popular narratives transmitted to us today in a group of epic poems collectively known as the Dietrichepik. All in all, eleven extant poems are devoted to Dietrich‟s exploits, making him the most popular hero of the German Middle Ages. Those that deal with the exile-saga are called the historical Dietrichepik (historische Dietrichepik), referring to their more obviously historical nature from a contemporary standpoint: they emphasize battles, armies, kingship, and campaigns. The second group of Dietrich-narratives, those which contain such things as his exploits fighting dragons, giants, dwarves, and other heroes, are referred to as the aventiure-like Dietrichepik (aventiurehafte Dietrichepik). This label derives from the Middle High German word aventiure, meaning both a strange or wondrous event or series of events and the narration or reporting of that event or series of events. It emphasizes the supposed similarity of these poems to Arthurian romance.

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(via MIG Studies)