THE ELUSIVE NATURE OF GERMANIC HEROIC POETRY: A RHIZOMATIC MODEL
Among so many fascinating contributions coming from historians, the present paper may appear as an outlier, more to do with literature and philology than with history. And yet, to my mind, looking at the protean embodiments of the group of narratives usually grouped under the label ‘Germanic heroic poetry’ is as much a historical scholarly endeavour as, say, looking at the political circumstances surrounding Gregory of Tours as a Frankish bishop. Not only do both types of study need to look at texts that are ‘literary’ (even if in different ways), but of course, the adjective ‘historical’ itself can mean much more than a history of traceable events. Hence, I approach Germanic heroic poetry with an eye to the kind of history-writing envisaged by the representatives of the French school of historiography of the Annales. Out of the many forms in which they changed the way historians look at their discipline, object of inquiry and methodologies, I am most interested in their explorations into the apparently immaterial modes of history, the slow-changing conceptions of people such as mentalities, worldviews and implicit conceptualisations. History should not be preoccupied only with the study of events, or even with slowly evolving social and political phenomena, but also with mental structures (mentalités) which sometimes change very little over time (hence longue durée history), and which, moreover, are invisible to the very people who share them and who lead their private and collective lives according to them. For ‘events are ordered by culture’, and thus the immaterial and unquantifiable factors such as the imagination (l’imaginaire) – made up of collective representations/mentalities – are just as important in the making of history as the political and social aspects of existence. Of course, the two modes of history are always inextricably linked, especially in the Middle Ages, their separation being only a scholarly distinction meant to facilitate our understanding. Mentalities are instantiated in social phenomena and the political is sometimes the territory for the manifestation of an essentially symbolic and ‘imaginary’ order of things. In the present case, I am interested in what the evolution and various incarnations of a specific ‘Germanic heroic’ narrative – that of Siegfried and the dragon – can tell us about the mentalities and cultural codes of different textual communities to which, at different times and in different locations, it became relevant.